The Fishbowl

by Shrink Laureate

First published

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

Vinyl remembers the doll. It's unmistakably hers, right down to the peanut butter stain on the left foot. Except it's in Octavia's closet, and Octavia insists it's always been hers. Why do they have the same doll – and the same memory?


Thanks to Solstice Shimmer, BaeroRemedy, Oliver, Mitch H, Cursed Quill and Admiral Biscuit for editing, feedback, writing assistance, fact checking and extraordinary patience.

“I like that this story is bringing up topics now that are incredibly complicated from both a moral and existential standpoint. [...]

Ok, ok, tldr; I like this a lot, because it’s making me and others think about the possibilities.”

1. Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest

View Online

Vinyl Scratch rested her hand on the horizon. It felt rough to the touch, like terracotta. Looking through and beyond it, the landscape appeared to continue on in three dimensions, though much simpler than the real landscape on this side. Plants, dunes and even wildlife were repeated in regular patterns, as if the rolling hills around town were mass-produced.

She felt the warmth of the sun and a pleasant breeze. Glancing up at the sky, she wondered just how much of it was real. Where did reality end and illusion begin?

As a young girl, Vinyl Scratch had a doll. It was a ragged thing, with round stumps for hands and feet, and mismatched buttons for eyes, but Vinyl loved him anyway. She carried him everywhere, talked to him, played with him. She called him Smarty Pants.

Later, of course, she forgot about him and moved on with life.

Until a few years later, when visiting her friend’s house, she found a doll in the cupboard, tucked behind piles of music books and boxes of toys. It had round stumps for hands and feet, and mismatched buttons for eyes.

“Hey, Tavi. Why do you have my doll?”

Octavia poked her head round the door. “Hmm? Oh, you found Smarty Pants. I haven’t seen her in ages.”

Vinyl frowned. “Sure, but what’s he doing here? Last I saw he was in my attic.”

“What would my old doll be doing in your attic?”

She looked closer at it. The two eye buttons were different colours, the thread was pulling out of the left armpit, and there was a smudge of peanut butter grease on the right foot. It was exactly as she remembered it. “Tavi, this is totally my doll.”

“What are you talking about, Vinyl? I’ve had that doll since I was six.”

“And I’ve had Smarty Pants since I was four.”

“Are you...? Ugh. Why do you have to get so competitive over the weirdest things? Now come on, we have eight tubs of ice cream to get rid of before my mum gets home.”

Students would agree that the area around Canterlot High School was not the most exciting, but it was at least set in a pleasant environment. Green hills surrounded the valley, with the orchards of Sweet Apple Acres to the south, and the town was liberally sprinkled with parks.

The high school, too, had a generous allotment of sports fields and semi-wild environments, all to encourage its students into healthy outdoor activities. A motley fleet of motorcycles, four wheelers and other vehicles had been salvaged from neighbouring farms and scrapyards and dragged to the school motor shop. Those that could be repaired were raced, inevitably too fast, around an improvised motocross course.

There was just one place off limits to students: the beehives. For as long as anyone could remember, the bees at Canterlot High had been famously spiteful, and would lash out at any student or staff member foolish enough to get close without the full equipment.

On sunny days, the students would pour out of the cafeteria, trays in hand, and scatter across the grounds in little groups, finding places to eat.

Today, though, the sky was overcast and marred by showers. Rivulets dribbled down the statue out front, and a chilling wind blew through the scaffolding where until recently the school's front doors had been. Students crowded together in the cafeteria, carving out slices of territory.

Trixie preferred to eat alone, but that wasn’t easy in a room this busy. The best she could do was claim a corner of a table and hope to avoid too many questions and elbows.

A tray landed opposite hers.

“Yo, Trix. Can I ask you a question?”

Trixie looked up in surprise. What was Vinyl Scratch, of all people, doing talking to her now?

The canteen was just starting to get busy with students collecting lunch, chatting, playing the daily game of who sits with who. Vinyl slid her tray down and hopped onto the seat opposite Trixie’s, without waiting for a response.

“Certainly you may ask the Great and Pow—”

“Yeah yeah,” Vinyl cut in with a wave. “So, you had toys when you were little, right?”

She replied cautiously. “Of course I did.”

“Ever have any dolls?” asked Vinyl.

“Er, yes,” replied Trixie, unsure where this was going.

“Do you remember any of their names?”

“Um.” Trixie took a moment to think. “If Trixie remembers correctly, there was one called Smarty Pants, one called Philomena, one called Lemon…”

Rainbow Dash, walking past their table with a tray, cut in with, “No way, you too?”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie begs your pardon?”

“Eh, you can have it!” she called out, walking off. Rainbow Dash was intolerable sometimes. Trixie shook off her annoyance and turned her attention back to Vinyl’s odd interrogation.

Behind her big coloured glasses, Vinyl’s eyes were sharp. “Tell me about Smarty Pants.”

“Um. She was a ragged old doll, made of cloth. Full of dry beans, I think. She had buttons for eyes.”

“She? Not he?”

“Definitely a girl, yes,” Trixie replied, still confused.

“Did she have any distinguishing marks? Like, damage or something?”

Trixie looked sheepish. “She had a stain on one foot, from jelly or something. It wouldn’t go away.”

“Do you still have her?”

“Er, sorry, I think she may have been lost somewhere during the divorce.”

Vinyl leaned against the locker, watching students skip, run, slouch, march, and slither past. Her head bobbed to a wordless musical beat. Behind her coloured glasses, her eyes were sharp, focusing on each face that passed.

I need another lead.

I know that at least three of us had the same doll. I found him in Tavi’s cupboard, but that could be something we did years ago and both forgot about. Two is a coincidence.

But three is a trend. I picked Trixie to ask at random. Well, sort of – she was easy to approach on her own. I thought she might give me a better idea what sort of dolls people had. I didn’t expect her to have the exact same Smarty Pants as us.

He wasn’t ever a commercial model, at least not under that name. I checked. So what are the chances anyone else would have him as well?

She surveyed the foot traffic in the school hall: Big Macintosh, walking past carrying a box of supplies for the school kitchen while his little sister provided hindrance. Fleur de Lis and Minuette talking about foreign fashion. Fluttershy being told off by Mr Doodle for releasing some frogs that were due to be dissected in a biology class. Flash Sentry pleading with Rarity for something in which she was clearly not interested.

I can’t just go around asking random people. I’d quickly turn from ‘that chick with the cool shades’ into ‘that girl with the dolls’. Not as cool.

For the same reason I can’t put up a poster saying ‘Is this your doll? Call Vinyl Scratch!’ Or even if I made it anonymous, I’d get prank calls and people would find out eventually. And I’d probably end up having to give away my own Smarty Pants to somebody who’d lost theirs and believed I’d taken it.

I need another lead.

Three weeks after that, Vinyl was working till in the music shop when he walked in.

She didn’t recognise him until he came to the till to buy a depressingly mainstream smooth jazz compilation and a disk of Gregorian chant. Vinyl spied a fancy bottle of wine and a pack of condoms in his bag, making it clear what his priorities for the night were. He had a big embarrassed grin on his face as he fumbled for his wallet. Luckily, Vinyl’s shades disguised her eyes so he didn’t notice her attention.

But it was him. Her ragged old doll, Smarty Pants. Vinyl couldn’t explain why she was so sure. It wasn’t like he was made of cloth and beans, though he did manage to give that impression with the baggy coat, nor were his mismatched eyes made of buttons under those big round glasses he wore. But it was totally him, in every way.

“Mr S. Pants,” it said on the front of his credit card. Vinyl’s hands were shaking a little by the time she handed the card back with a receipt.

As he was leaving the shop, she cast an eye at the bottom of his trousers. He had a familiar stain on the right trouser leg, just above his shoe.

Vinyl kept a safe distance. She avoided any of the stupid things you might do to draw attention to yourself when following somebody, such as hiding behind things, disguising your face, or stopping when the person you’re following stops. She took her brightly coloured glasses off, though, since those tended to stand out.

Smarty Pants led her to Hollow Shades, one of the older parts of town, full of irregular buildings, pretty alleyways and strange shops that couldn’t possibly make any money.

He stopped at a small fountain in one of the old town's many picturesque little squares, all tiles and old bricks. This one also had boxes of flowers and an arched trellis with vines, making it a romantic place to meet. The sun was setting, bathing the square in lovely warm colours. Vinyl watched them through a brick archway, then slipped into a cosy little wedding shop and browsed the knick-knacks by the window, keeping an eye on Smarty Pants in case he left.

He looked nervous as he stood waiting, checking his watch with increasing regularity until his date turned up. It was a girl Vinyl didn’t recognise, with pink skin and green hair, wearing a Crystal Prep uniform. Vinyl was slightly surprised that the girl looked to be about her own age, clearly a few years younger than this version of Smarty Pants, and definitely too young for wine and condoms (to say nothing of Gregorian chant). She was ready to chalk it up as a mistake, but the sultry kiss the couple shared left little doubt.

“Are you having fun playing the spy?” asked a whisper in her ear.

Vinyl jumped back, almost falling into the woman who now stood behind her. She caught Vinyl and set her upright.

“I– I’m sorry, er, what?”

“Looks to me like you’ve taken quite an interest in Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest over there,” said the woman with a grin. She was tall and lean, with black skin, turquoise hair and strikingly big green eyes. She had a strangely deep voice, soothing like melted chocolate.

“Not at all. I was just…”

“Just thinking of buying a bow tie and cufflinks?” the shopkeeper asked sarcastically. “Well, the style might suit you, but I’d recommend something more flamboyant.”

Vinyl looked for the first time at the shelves she’d been browsing, realising she was caught. “Please don’t tell them,” she pleaded.

“Tell who?”

Vinyl indicated the couple who were now walking arm-in-arm down a twisty alleyway filled with charming little shops. “Them. I mean, you clearly know them...”

“I know everypony in this town,” said the black woman dismissively.

Every… pony? What does that mean?

“I know Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest. I know you, Vinyl Scratch. I know your friend Octavia. I know Lyra and Bon Bon and Pinkie Pie and Celestia and Luna. But why would I bother telling any of them anything? After all,” she said with a yawn, “they’re not even real.”

They're not even... what?

2. One Button

View Online

Shaken by her encounter with the strange shopkeeper, Vinyl hurried out into the empty square. Smarty Pants and the girl, Lemon Zest, had gone already, and she’d lost her chance to follow them. She quietly hoped they weren’t doing anything too reprehensible.

As she hurried away, she checked the sign over the door: ‘Chryssi’s Wedding Supplies,’ it said. She took note of where it was.

Vinyl stubbed her toe, banged her head on a beam, coughed from the dusty cobwebs. Her foot slipped one rung down the ladder, jarring her hip against the side of the hatch. In trying to steady herself, she almost grabbed hold of the hot light bulb. She had to admit, finding stuff in this attic was not going well.

“What are you doing up there, sweetie?” called her mother from the landing.

“Trying to find my old doll,” she replied. She lifted another hefty cardboard box to one side and opened the one underneath it. “Aha!” It had a bunch of her old clothes, drawings, toys, and two dolls. She pulled out familiar old Smarty Pants, complete with his mismatched eyes and the peanut butter stain. She smiled quietly at some of the memories. She put him down next to the hatch and turned to close the box. Then she caught sight of the other doll, nestled among the railway segments, colourful ponies, lost chess pieces and other remnants of her childhood.

She had brighter colours than Smarty, even under the dust: pink with green hair and golden eyes sewn out of felt. She was filled with something softer, a cushion-like material. She was wearing a dark purple and red tartan skirt, a matching shirt, and a pair of headphones.

Vinyl paused as some of the memories trickled back to her. Her uncle had given her this doll, and Vinyl had borrowed some of her uncle’s big headphones so she could put them on to try and look just like her. She remembered the doll’s name as well, or at least the name her uncle had given her: Lemon Zest.

“Yes, you’re right. Lemon Zest, that was her name,” said Trixie, frowning. “Um… how did you know? The Great and Powerful Trixie certainly never told anyone at this school about her dolls.”

Vinyl leant in across the desk conspiratorially. “Something weird is going on. Like, with our memory.”

“What do you mean?” Trixie looked unnerved.

Vinyl pulled a folded-up piece of paper from her pocket and slid it across the desk, keeping one hand over it. “Look, can you tell me how Smarty Pants ended up with odd eyes.”

“Oh, that’s easy. It was when we went on holiday when Trixie was little.”

“Where did you go?” asked Vinyl. To Horseshoe Bay, she thought.

“We went to Horseshoe Bay that year.” I brought Smarty Pants. I couldn’t bear to be parted from him. “Of course Trixie took Smarty Pants along. We were inseparable back then.”

“Where did he lose a button?” On the beach.

“I suppose it was foolish of Trixie, but I took her to the beach with me. That’s where one of her eyes must have got lost. My mother found a replacement button that was just like it, only a different colour.”

“Where’d she get it from?” Mom took a button from one of her own blouses.

“I think it came from a dress of hers. Or was it a shirt?”

Vinyl nodded, and slid the piece of paper across the table. “Now, can you read this?”

Trixie picked it up in both hands, unfolded it and turned it the right way up. “All right. ‘We went to Horseshoe Bay when I was a little girl.’” She frowned as she continued. “‘Smarty Pants lost an eye on the beach. I looked for a long time and couldn't find it.’” Her voice slowly filled with confusion. “‘Mom took a similar button from her own blouse and sewed it on.’ What is this? I... I don’t understand. I never told you any of this before… did I?”

“Nope. This is all mine.” She jabbed a finger at the paper. “My own memories of having a doll named Smarty Pants.”

Trixie just stared at her, growing confusion and worry on her face.

The bell rang, signalling class. Standing up, Vinyl said, “Come find me and Tavi at lunch tomorrow. I’ll show you.”

The long black car pulled up to the kerb, to Trixie's relief. She'd been sitting at the table by the window for nearly twenty minutes by that point, enduring the meaningful glares of the waiters with nothing but a glass of water in front of her.

Every time she came to Gustave’s Patisserie, it amazed her that they somehow managed to make sweets so dull. The food was fine – lovely, even – but the atmosphere took all the fun out of it. More than once her father had caught her shortly afterwards with her nose in a jar of peanut butter.

The car's back door opened and Dandy Lion stepped onto the pavement, pausing to give some unheard instruction to the pink-haired driver in the front. She shut the door behind her and turned; it took her only a moment to find her daughter at the window table.

Trixie stood up and embraced her mother as she entered.

“Hey there. Sorry I'm late.”

“That's okay. Thanks for making the time, Mom.”

“I've always got time for you, honey,” replied Dandy Lion, sitting down and waving at a waiter. She ordered a croissant and coffee; Trixie a slice of raspberry tart and some milk.

“Tell me,” she said, leaning forwards, “how's school now?”

“School’s fine,” replied Trixie. She briefly thought of Vinyl's strange questions, but showed nothing on her face. She was used to playing the perfect happy child when her mother asked.

“And how are my little Trixie's grades holding up?”

“Trixie's academic performance is beyond reproach,” she replied with mock pride. They shared a laugh, but it was cut short as Dandy Lion's phone rang. Ignoring a torrent of silent scorn from the waiters she pulled it out of her bag and answered it.

“Yes. Uh-huh. No, I already told them, seven percent is what it says in the contract. Don't let them change that, and don't let them add in extras or unexpected fees or anything. This is taxpayer money they're burning. Right, I'll leave it with you.”

Trixie waited patiently. Their order arrived, and she started in on her tart. It was sour, sweet and creamy in all the right places, but did little to cheer her up. Instead she watched Gustave through the window at the back of the shop as he conjured up more pastries, breads and sweet creations.

“I'm sorry about that, honey,” said her mother, putting the phone away. “It won't happen again.”

“It's okay, Trixie knows you're busy.” She smiled, a lingering anxious look in here eyes.

“Glow said you wanted to ask me something?”

“Oh. Do you have any of Trixie's old toys and things?”

Dandy nodded as she spread a little jam inside her croissant. “Of course I do, honey. There's a couple of big boxes of them, along with all your old clothes and books. Is there anything in particular you wanted?”

Trixie hesitated, but decided against revisiting that particular old memory. “Not really, I just wanted to check what's there.”

“Hmm. Why don't I have Glow bring them round some time?”

“That works. I'll let dad know to expect it.”

“Good.” She took a drink of coffee. “Now tell me about your friends. You are making—” Her phone rang again. She scowled, pulled it out, and her expression soured even more as she saw the name.

“I'm sorry, honey, I have to take this one.”

Trixie smiled. “It's fine.”

Trixie declined a lift home. It wasn't far to walk from Canterlot Mall, and she had some shopping to do first.

The walk took her through some of the nicer suburbs and past a park with a series of connected ponds with little waterfalls between them. She was more than half way home, bags in hand, when her phone buzzed.

Your mom's secretary just dumped a load of boxes on me. Know anything about it?

I had half a mind to send her away with them.

“That is why Trixie sent you an email about it,” she grousled to thin air before typing her reply.

it's the stuff Trixie told you to expect

It had arrived remarkably quickly. Trixie could only assume that Dandy Lion’s frighteningly efficient secretary had taken care of it.

Told me when?

Trixie's father denied being bad with technology, generally in the same breath as proving himself to be.

check yr email!

At least he generally responded to simple commands.

What E-mail?

Oh, there it is.

Trixie was tempted to throw her phone in the pond, but reluctantly conceded that it would be unfair to the ducks. And it was dark enough now, even with the street lights nearby, that she'd probably never find it again.

What do you want me to do with them?

She didn't particularly want her father nosing through her old stuff, and she didn't yet know what her mother – or, more likely, her mother's secretary – had chosen to send.

nothing. just wait fr Trixie

She wondered how much stuff there was. Glow was prone to overdoing things.

There's a bunch of your old clothes, colouring books, dolls. You really want this lot?

Of course, sometimes even simple instructions were beyond him. Couldn't he just leave her stuff alone?

just leave it!

The evening breeze was getting cooler. She hurried past the park and back onto the streets, hoping to get home before too much damage was done.

When are you getting back?

Since she was nearing the corner of their road, Trixie put her phone away, preferring to reply in person. Until the next message arrived.

Hello? Why aren't you replying?

Trixie stopped in sight of home to type out her reply.

because Trixie is literally ten steps from the front door!

Vinyl could barely listen in class all morning. Mr Doodle’s monotonous voice faded into a blur. She could hear a cello being played at the other end of the school – unless she imagined it.

At lunch, she grabbed her bag, hurried to the cafeteria and claimed a table. She forced herself to breathe calmly as she waited, focused on her persona. She was the cool one. She was unflappable.

By the time Octavia appeared she was back to her standard self and ready for this. “Hey, Tavi. You brought it like you said?”

“I did bring her with me, Vinyl, but I’m really not sure why you’d want to see her again. What’s gotten into you lately?”

“I’ll explain in a minute. I promise. You mind if Trixie joins us?” She waved at the light blue girl who was scanning the room.

“Oh, if she must,” muttered Octavia.

Trixie stomped up to them and put her lunch tray down next to Octavia, who still looked unhappy. “Vinyl Scratch, if this is all a joke or something then Trixie is going to be very annoyed,” she warned.

“No joke, I promise. I’m just going to ask Tavi the same question I asked you yesterday.”

“What question?” asked Octavia.

“Tell me how your doll ended up with mismatched eyes.”

Octavia sighed. “Very well. Um, let’s see.” She hesitated, gathering her thoughts. “We were on holiday. This was when I was… six? Seven? And I took Smarty Pants with me.”

“Where’d you go?” asked Vinyl. Trixie was about to say something, but Vinyl made a ‘shhh’ motion.

“Horseshoe Bay. They have beautiful white beaches there, and some fascinating ruins from classical times. Anyway, I think one of her eyes fell out on the beach somewhere. I was terribly upset about it. So later on, my mother replaced it with a button that was nearly a match.”

“Where’d she get the button from?”

“From her summer dress, I think. It was very sweet of her, and I loved the doll even more after that.”

Vinyl was nodding along seriously. Trixie just sat there through the story, her jaw falling open.

“What is it?” asked Octavia. “Did I say something wrong?”

Vinyl slid the written version over to her. “This is how I remember my Smarty Pants getting odd eyes.”

Octavia read the written version. “I'm sure I must have told you about this before. We’ve been friends for years.”

“So how come Trixie told me the same story yesterday?”

Octavia looked at Trixie, who nodded.

“What are you saying, Vinyl?” asked Octavia. “Are you saying that I’m lying? I’ll have you know those memories of my mother are very important to me. I always remembered how she took a button from her own clothes…”

“She kept looking at me and smiling as she sewed it on,” continued Vinyl.

Trixie quietly added, “And whenever I looked at that button, I remembered how much my mother loved me. For years. Even when she left dad and me.”

“No, Tavi,” Vinyl said, “I don’t think you’re lying. None of us are. Those memories are real, to each of us. But somehow we all have exactly the same memory of the same thing happening to the same doll.” She turned to Trixie. “Your email said you'd found him as well?” she asked. Trixie turned to look through her bag. Vinyl nodded to Octavia as well.

“Yes,” Trixie said, digging into her bag. “I finally found him in mom’s things. Though I don’t really see what you…” She trailed off as she put her Smarty Pants onto the table, and saw that Octavia and Vinyl had presented theirs as well. “Um…”

“The exact same doll. The same mismatched eyes, the same stitches and patches, polka dots and that peanut butter stain on the left foot.” They gingerly examined each other’s dolls, comparing peanut butter stains. “The only difference is that your Smarty Pants are girls.”

“Vinyl,” said Octavia quietly. “I… I’m scared. What does this mean? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. But I think I have a lead. Are you both free this afternoon?”

3. Unwelcome Answers

View Online

Chryssi opened the door to her shop with a little jingle of bells and poked her head out. “Well, come on in if you’re coming,” she called out to the empty square. “You’re not nearly as good at hiding out there as you think you are.”

The three girls emerged sheepishly from behind the fountain, through the arch and around the corner, and were waved into the shop.

“You’ll have to hang back, I have paying customers to see to,” she said as they filed in.

There were indeed a pair of customers comparing corsages, and being incredibly lovey-dovey as engaged couples often are. The bride-to-be was a yellowish tan with grey hair; her fiancé a much taller, bald man with skin a dark and light blue. “And don’t worry, I’ll talk to the bakers too and make sure they get the order just right,” the shopkeeper was saying in her silken voice.

They were being waited on by two shop attendants, siblings by the look of it, a boy and girl, both deep black with similarly striking blue eyes, spiky dark green hair and serious expressions. Chryssi’s children, maybe? They were running obediently back and forth across the shop, fetching fabric samples and templates, jewellery and candles, napkins and neckties.

Vinyl pulled Octavia behind a rack of tuxedos. “Hey, do those two look like Daring Do and Ahuizotl to you?”

Octavia poked her head round the corner to squint at the customers again, then turned back. “Not particularly. Really, Vinyl, your imagination is running away with you again. Daring Do is just a movie character, Ahuizotl even more so. And if they were real people, then surely they’d be mortal enemies, not lovers.”

“Yeah, I know. Still, it sort of looks like them.”

“Plus he’s not tall enough,” said Trixie, standing on tiptoe to look over a display. “Wasn’t he, like, eight foot tall in the films? With glowing eyes?”

“Sure, but that’s just special effects,” said Vinyl. “I’m sure he’s not like that in real life.”

“He’s not like anything in real life,” explained Octavia slowly, “because he is not real.”

Vinyl frowned. The way she said that – ‘not real’ – reminded her of what the shopkeeper had said about people she knew, including her own friends.

Octavia was looking away from her at some tastefully frilly formal shirts. Vinyl reached up a finger and gently prodded her in the shoulder. “Ow.” Her fingertip felt the rough fabric of her jacket, soft flesh and solid shoulder blade beneath. “Stop that.” Clearly, her friend was completely real. “Cut it out, Vinyl!”

The loving couple were leaving now, indulgent grins plastered on their faces, having apparently decided on just how big a fortune they were willing to spend on their wedding. Vinyl looked around the stack to see where the shopkeeper had gone.

“Looking for somepony?” she asked from right behind them. Vinyl and Octavia both jumped.

“Hi, Mrs er, Chryssi?”

“Chrysalis. And I'm not married, except ironically to my job.” She gestured to the wedding paraphernalia surrounding them.

“I…” She took a moment to gather herself. “I wanted to ask about what you said the other day,” said Vinyl quickly.

“About the bow tie? Trust me, a cravat is much more your style, paired with a period frilly shirt and long coat-tails. Stick to light colours, avoid black. You'd need the right hairstyle for it as well, possibly a wig.”

“About some people being… not real.”

The woman’s expression soured, then sharpened. She scrutinised them for a few seconds. “I’m actually impressed you remembered,” she said finally.

Vinyl frowned. “So what did you mean? What do you know about Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest?”

“Are you certain you want the answer to that, little girl?”

“Why wouldn’t we?”

Despite being outnumbered and surrounded, Chrysalis owned the space. She stepped forward, and the three girls flinched as she leant in to whisper, “Because little mice can scurry in and out of the cage, and never even know it’s there. But as soon as they see the bars, they’ll be trapped inside it forever.” She made a scurrying motion with her fingers to illustrate her point, followed by a blocking palm.

The girls exchanged glances. Cryptic fortune telling wasn't what they were there for. “Okay… Yes. Yes, we’re sure we want to know.”

“Alright then.” Chrysalis straightened up. “As I said, I know everyone in this turgid little backwater. I know when someone leaves, rare as that is, and I know when someone new turns up. Your little lovebirds both appeared three weeks ago.”

“At the same time? It didn't seem like they lived together. Where did they move from?” asked Vinyl. Octavia and Trixie looked confused. She’d never told them about following the lookalike Smarty Pants.

“Nowhere. They’re not guests, they’re locals. They appeared here.”

“I… don’t understand. Where did they come from?”

“There's no way to be certain, but my money would be on you, Miss Vinyl Scratch,” said Chrysalis pointing a finger at her. “If I’m right, you’ve been fixated on your childhood doll lately, haven’t you? Since, let me guess, a little more than three or four weeks ago?”

“Yeah, actually. Ever since I noticed Tavi had the same doll as me. But it’s more than that. We’ve got the same memories of that doll, of growing up with it. How can that be? And why does Trixie have them as well?” She thought of something else. “Wait. How did you know he was my doll?”

“He’s everybody’s doll. At least half the town got the same thing.”

“You’re saying lots of other people have the same Smarty Pants doll – and the same memories?” asked Octavia. “All over town?”

“Precisely. People needed childhood memories, and there weren’t many to go around, so a bunch of you locals got the same ones.”

“Somebody gave us all fake memories? Who would do that?” asked Trixie.

“There is no ‘who’. It’s just how this town works.”

“So…” Trixie interjected, “Trixie’s memories of her mother… you're saying they’re not real?”

Chrysalis rolled her eyes. “Discord’s armpits, you lot are slow. Yes, about half the town got that exact same memory. The other half got something insipid about swimming with dolphins. Both of them were real for somepony at some point, before they got spread out.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Surely people would notice! And if those memories are fake, what happened to our real memories?” protested Octavia.

“Nothing happened to them,” purred Chryssi. “You never had any to begin with.”

Vinyl was shaken, but kept her cool. She asked, “Why are you so sure of that? What do you think we are?”

Chryssi stepped forward, her hands raised and fingers outstretched, and all three girls flinched again. “You’re puppets,” she hissed. She mimed a puppetmaster’s action with her fingers. “You’re just make-believe little dolls, playthings of the gods, dreaming that you’re real people. You got plucked from somepony’s memory, filled in with left-over bits and pieces, and expected to act like you’re real people. And you don't even realise that you're all just as much prisoners as me.”

“And that’s what everyone else is to you?” asked Octavia, offended. “Just your puppets to play with?”

Chryssi looked disappointed. “You weren’t listening at all, were you? No, of course not, because you’re no different. Not a single original thought in that simulacrum of a head.” She flicked a finger idly at Octavia’s forehead.

Vinyl pressed, “How do you expect us to believe any of this? I’m clearly real. So are they.” She nudged Octavia’s shoulder.

Octavia shuffled back with an annoyed frown. “Seriously, everybody stop touching me today,” she muttered.

Chryssi walked to the main desk and scribbled something down. “Tell me, how many Pinkie Pies do you know?”

“Er, one? Barely. Pinkie Pie's one of the girls who was part of that whole mess at the formal a few weeks ago. Is there somebody else called Pinkie Pie?”

Handing a note to Vinyl, Chrysalis said, “Go here and see for yourself.”

“Why are you telling us this?” asked Vinyl suspiciously as she took the card.

“It doesn’t matter what I tell you,” said Chryssi with a resigned shrug. “I’d wager my left wing that none of you are going to remember this in a week.”

After the demon Sunset incident, Vinyl couldn't help checking. There were definitely no wings on the shopkeeper’s back.

“Why wouldn’t we?” asked Trixie.

“Because you creatures never do,” she said casually. “Not for long.”

The girls exchanged nervous glances. “That's enough. The Great and Powerful Trixie does not appreciate being called a creature!”

“You can’t talk like that to customers,” said Octavia.

“Customers, really? I don’t see any of you planning a wedding any time soon. There's barely a whiff of love in the three of you,” said Chryssi, examining her fingernails. Octavia bristled. “And yes, I can say whatever I like, because you won’t remember it anyway. Any facts that don't fit your dumb little story will just slide away, like blood off a duck’s spleen.”

“Ewww!” exclaimed Trixie, stepping quickly back.

“Run along now, children,” said Chryssi with a shoo-shoo motion. “A queen needs her beauty sleep.”

After flipping the ‘closed’ sign on the door, she nodded to one of the siblings. “Follow them. Discreetly. Make sure no harm comes to any of them. We're going to need them.”

“Yes, Lady Chrysalis,” said the brother. He was momentarily engulfed in green fire, emerging as a typical school student with no distinct characteristics other than pale skin and blue hair. He slipped out of the door, which Chrysalis locked behind him.

She sauntered to the back room, whistling a tune.

The sun was setting as they slouched back to the car. Vinyl looked at the note.

Sunday 11am
Sugarcube Corner
The Pinkie Pie Society

4. The Pinkie Pie Society

View Online

“Can you believe her gall?” Octavia was pacing around her bedroom while Vinyl reclined on the bed.

“Settle down, Tavi. It’s not like she was telling the truth, is it?”

Trixie was sitting glumly on the swivel chair, slowly nudging it round and round in a circle with her foot. “It makes sense, though, doesn’t it?”

“What? Of course it doesn’t make sense,” objected Octavia. “Make-believe people wandering around, conjured out of somebody’s imagination? That’s… so ridiculous it’s not even wrong. She’s just a grumpy old bint who doesn’t like anyone.”

“So why do we all have the same memories of that holiday?” asked Trixie. “Why does it feel like our lives are patched together from clichés and recycled bits?”

Vinyl frowned. She’d been concerned with following this mystery, but Trixie seemed to be bothered by something more specific. “What’s eating you, Trix?” she asked.

Trixie looked at the floor. “Nothing. It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“That memory, that… with Smarty Pants on the beach. That was... just before it all went wrong. Before my parents started fighting all the time. Before the money problems. Before the gambling. Before the shouting. That was the last time we were all happy together. And if that’s not… if we never…”

Shit. Vinyl cursed quietly at how deeply she’d put her foot in it. I’m the one that started following this, I pushed her into it. I knew her parents were divorced, I just didn’t think. I should say something, but... Vinyl knew she’d never been good at that sort of thing. And... what could she say? For all they knew it was true. The silence dragged on. Come on, Vinyl, she’s supposed to be a friend. You need to say something to her. Anything! Why aren’t you saying anything?

Octavia stopped pacing and stood awkwardly. Neither said anything. After a few seconds Trixie took a deep breath, turned to Vinyl Scratch and asked, “So, are you going?”

It took Vinyl a second to refocus. “Oh, the Pinkie thing?” She turned the card around. One side had the address of Chryssi’s Wedding Supplies, the other the note she’d given them. “Er, I guess so? I’ve got a gig Saturday night, but eleven isn’t so early. So, yeah. What about you, Tavi?”

Octavia shook her head. “I’m sorry, Vinyl, but I can’t. Mr Clef is coming round on Sunday morning for a cello lesson.”

“Oh. That’s okay. Just the two of us, eh, Trix?”

“No can do,” said Trixie. “Trixie's mother has custody this weekend. Trixie would never hear the end of it if she bailed. I’m sorry, really.”

“No, it’s okay, that’s cool. It’s probably just a big waste of time anyway, so I’ll let you both know when I find nothing at all.”

“You too, Vinyl. Shoo. You can’t stay on my bed all night.”

Octavia had shown Trixie out and was now urging Vinyl to leave as well. She grabbed the edge of her blanket and tried to pull it out from underneath Vinyl, without much success. Vinyl simply stared at the ceiling, her arms and legs stretched out over the now badly rumpled sheets.

It is ridiculous. At least, it should be. The stuff she said should be so ridiculous, we should all be able to dismiss it all as clear nonsense. Instead we’re… we’re not laughing. We’re all reacting differently. Trixie was reminded of the divorce. And Tavi was…

“Hey, Tavi. Why are you so mad?”

Releasing the blanket, Octavia put a hand on her hips. “I tend to think of myself as the sane one, I’ll have you know.”

“Yeah, so why’d Chryssi get under your skin like that? You're not the sort to get angry just because somebody talks back at you.”

Octavia hesitated. “She…” She turned to look away. “I didn’t like the things she was saying. And… I didn’t like the way she said it. Like she thought we were beneath her. Like we didn’t even matter.”

“Okay, but you’ve dealt with jerks before,” said Vinyl. “It never got you this mad before.” You haven’t met Mr Blueblood, she added to herself. Yeah, imagine how well that would go. I’m kind of curious to see it, actually… but that would be cruel.

Octavia took a deep breath. “She was saying that our memories aren’t really ours. That they don’t count for anything. All the…” She stopped again with a sigh. “I guess it made me annoyed because losing those memories would take away part of who I am. Of who we are. And… well, because it seems like she could be right,” she murmured reluctantly.

Vinyl frowned. I wonder which memories she’s talking about? Most of the time I’ve seen her has been one of our adventures.

She asked, “Hey, d’you remember that thing with the train and the noodles?”

Octavia squinted and crossed her arms. “You mean the time I had to ring up and pretend to be your mother to get them to release you?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Vinyl grimaced. “I’d forgotten about that bit. How about the school talent show?”

“The one where you insisted on playing a beat over the top of my performance? There were real talent scouts in the audience, you know. It could have been the start of my career.”

Vinyl dismissed that with a wave of one hand. “Eh, you wouldn’t have wanted them to pick you up that young anyway.”

Octavia shook her head. She turned and sat on the edge of the bed, and allowed herself to slump backwards until her head landed on Vinyl’s stomach, eliciting a muffled grunt of expelled air. She rested her hands on her own stomach with a sigh.

“How about old Mr Gustave?” asked Octavia.

Vinyl frowned. “Yeah. I still kind of feel bad about that one.”

“You should. He worked all morning on those éclairs. If it helps, though, I heard the other contestants had nibbles taken out of their entries too.”

“We’ve done a lot of fun things, haven’t we?”

“We’ve done some downright dangerous things,” corrected Octavia. “Mum always said you were a bad influence. If only she knew half the things you’ve dragged me into.” She paused. “That’s the question, though. Are any of those real? If not, if our memories were put into us somehow, then when does the real me begin?” She turned her head to look at Vinyl. “The real us?”

Vinyl got to Sugarcube Corner early. Pinkie Pie was working behind the counter, wearing a cheerful green-and-yellow-striped top, maroon trousers and a frilly apron.

“Good morning, Scratchy!” she called out.

Vinyl grinned at the man ahead of her in the queue, who’d scowled back at her. When her turn came, she said, “Morning, Pinkie. You’re cheerful today.”

“Sure am!” Pinkie beamed.

Vinyl blinked through the haze of the previous night. “Er… coffee, black, and…” She scanned the rack of pastries. “One of them,” she said, pointing at something with honey and almonds in it.

“Coming right up!” she said, getting the coffee quickly. Vinyl took her breakfast and sat at a corner booth where she could see most of the shop. She idly buried her nose in a music magazine and waited to see what, if anything, was going to happen.

A few minutes before eleven, Pinkie Pie came in. She was wearing a maroon top with a unicorn emblazoned on it in silver sequins, and a lighter pink skirt. She was carrying a bag of what looked like paints and brushes.

Vinyl blinked and turned back to the till, where Pinkie Pie was still juggling coffee jugs and serving customers.

The new Pinkie waved a greeting to several of the customers at tables, slithered under the counter like a limbo dancer, high fived the other Pinkie as she popped back up, and pushed through the swing door to the back.

That's new. Does Pinkie have a sister she never mentioned? Vinyl scoured her memory, but she hadn’t really spoken to Pinkie Pie that much.

Not long after, Pinkie Pie came in the main door. Again. Except this time she looked different: her hair fell straight down instead of its usual frizz, and was a darker colour than usual; she had a judgemental demeanour, full of teenage resentment; and she wore a Crystal Prep uniform, with the jacket slung rebelliously off her shoulders, the shirt unbuttoned low and the skirt decidedly too short. She moved slowly and with attitude, greeted nobody and exuded no cheer whatsoever.

She was followed a few seconds later by a Pinkie Pie wearing a pink boiler suit over a white long-sleeved top, and carrying a box so big that she couldn’t see over the top of it. She weaved blindly between the tables, narrowly missed several customers, hopped on one leg as she struggled for balance, and nearly bumped into the gloomy Pinkie. “Whoopsie! Sorry! Didn’t see ya there,” she chirped.

“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” grumbled the dreary Pinkie.

Another Pinkie Pie came jogging into the café wearing a tastefully cut pink pinstripe trouser suit, with her hair tied back into a frizzy ponytail. She danced around the glum Pinkie and quickly took hold of the other side of the box the boiler suit Pinkie was carrying. “Here, let me help.”

“Thanks!” Together they navigated the box through the tables.

“Oh, Pinkie!” an older woman called out.

All the Pinkies present looked up, but only the one working behind the counter replied “Yes?”

“That’s enough for your shift, I can take over now.” The older woman waddled up to the counter. “You’ve been working all morning. Go have fun with your friends.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Cake!”

Vinyl couldn’t help staring as the various Pinkie Pies all filed through the door to the back. She looked around, but the other customers either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. Was this normal around here, or were they all somehow blind to the proliferation of Pinkie Pies?

She needed to find out what they were doing back there. She couldn’t just walk in though. Could she listen from outside? It was a warm day, so the windows were likely to be open.

She drained her coffee, folded up her magazine and slipped out of her chair. As she reached the door, a Pinkie Pie burst through it carrying a few big rolls of brightly coloured wrapping paper. “Scuse me!” she said as she narrowly avoided a collision. She was wearing a blue top covered in pink and yellow dots.

“No probs,” said Vinyl, dodging out of her way.

Sugarcube Corner had an event room in the back, behind the kitchens, with windows all along two walls opening onto a neglected garden.

Vinyl was right, on a day like this the windows of the back room were all open. She skulked along the wall, keeping low and careful not to show herself. Once she was in position she cautiously peeked over the bottom of the window to see what was going on.

“Ooh! Ooh! Me!” shouted the Pinkie in the glittery unicorn top.

“Go ahead, planet-hopping Pinkie Pie,” said the girl in the suit.

She cleared her throat. “I have a message from the premier party pony Pinkie Pie. She’s throwing cute-ceañeras for two fillies at the same time next Tuesday and would appreciate some help making them both the best party ever.”

“What are the requirements?” asked pinstripe Pinkie.

“The first is Zipporwhill. She loves her little dog, and the Pony Tones. She's small, very fast-moving and energetic, always flying.”

“Sounds like she uses a lot of energy. Does she eat a lot?”

“Yes, but doesn't like to be seen doing so by any colts.”

“So we'll need a variety of different dishes and to keep them moving.”

“That's the plan. The other filly is Lily Longsocks. She’s really strong but doesn’t like being reminded of it. Her cutie mark is in landscape gardening.”

Pinstripe Pinkie contemplated. “Patisserie Pinkie, are you free on Tuesday?”

“Yessiree!”

“One more. Perfect present planner Pinkie?”

“Sorry, no can do,” said the girl in the boiler suit. “I’ve got Fiddlesticks’ birthday on Tuesday, and Shining Armor’s on Friday to prepare for.”

“That’s okay. Pinkamena?”

The glum Pinkie responded with a grunt. “Ugh, what?”

“Can you go help her after school on Tuesday?”

“You know I hate going there. Hooves are so useless, and all the ponies look at me funny. Why can’t Polkadot Pinkie do it?”

“It’s my turn to play with the Rainbooms on Tuesday,” said the girl in the dotted top.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” said the gloomy Pinkie.

“Next I have a question from Politico Pinkie. She says that the Mayor went to talk to Cerberus recently, and though she wasn’t able to catch any of the conversation she gathered it was quite serious. The mayor asked for five donuts later. Five!”

The door pushed open and another Pinkie entered. This one was wearing a strangely old-fashioned dress, long down to her feet but gathered close under her bust rather than at the waist. Vinyl wasn’t good with history, but it looked like something off TV. “Sorry I’m late, girls,” she said.

“Just in time,” said Patisserie Pinkie. “How do you fancy a trip to Ponyville with me?”

“Oh, yes!” Her voice, while definitely Pinkie, was oddly more refined than the others. “I can check out the latest fashion at the Carousel, and compare it to Rarity’s here.”

“Thank Celestia for that,” muttered Pinkamena. “Saved by the belle.”

“Oh, you’re still going,” said Pinstripe Pinkie.

“What? You’ve got Period Pinkie now, why do you need me as well?”

“I can take care of banners and decoration for Zipporwhill’s cute-ceañera,” said the Pinkie in the dress, “but we’ll need you to help with the catering. And please don't call me that,” she added, “my name is Diane.”

Pinkamena grimaced. “You mean I have to cook with hooves? Great, this trip just keeps getting better and better,” she snarked.

Vinyl could barely believe what she was seeing. There were half a dozen Pinkie Pies sitting around, sticking decorations to banners and wrapping presents.

Am I dreaming? They're totally all Pinkie Pie, except maybe that glum-looking one with the straight hair.

“Whatcha doin’?” asked a cheerful voice from behind her ear. Vinyl jumped, spinning round to see a Pinkie Pie standing behind her, leaning down. This one was wearing a bright yellow shirt, and had blonde streaks in her pink hair, though its natural frizziness meant they were mixed up with the rest of it. The effect was like two-colour candy.

“Er… y’know, just… checking out the…” She scanned around quickly, looking for something. “The wildlife back here. Loads of rare birds and insects in this garden.”

There was a moment of silence as the obvious lie settled in.

“Oh, thanks. I put nuts and seeds out for them. Mrs Cake says I shouldn’t encourage the birds, but I think it makes the garden more cheerful.”

“It does that. Very, er, impressive collection here.”

“I do always wonder how they get by without any proper seasons here. I mean there’s no Winter Wrap Up, no Running Of The Leaves. How do the poor things know when they’re supposed to do stuff?” pondered the surprise Pinkie with a finger to her chin. Then she shrugged. “But they seem to manage.” She wandered around the corner and pushed open the back door into the event room, joining her fellow Pinkies.

Vinyl wasn’t sure whether to sigh in relief or run in panic. She settled for inching her way carefully away.

“So…” Trixie paused to get her words in order. “You’re telling us that there were lots of Pinkie Pies, and they were all dressed differently and acted differently but they’re really all Pinkie Pie and not impostors or family members. And they meet up at Sugarcube Corner and work together to be… more Pinkie Pie somehow. And then they take turns being the actual Pinkie Pie that we know at school. And… something about horses that I really didn’t get?”

“Er, more or less.” Vinyl wasn’t sure she’d quite told it right. “And I didn't get the horse thing, either.”

“And how many of them did you say there were?” asked Octavia.

“I saw eight, and they mentioned a couple more, I think.”

“Right.” Octavia and Trixie exchanged glances.

Trixie commented, “Honestly, it’s the organisation that’s hardest to believe. I mean, Pinkie’s always so airheaded, it just seems wrong for her to be holding meetings like that. Do they keep minutes?”

“That and the pinstripe suit,” added Octavia. “I mean, really, pink stripes on a trousersuit?”

“Oh, she totally made it work for her,” defended Vinyl. “She had this whole power woman thing going on. Same for the others - the Polkadot Pinkie, Patisserie Pinkie, that one with the blonde stripe—”

“You mean Patissier?” asked Trixie. “If she works at a patisserie, she’s a patissier.”

“Pâtissière,” corrected Octavia.

“Patisserie is what she said,” insisted Vinyl.

“Still, it’s an impressive conspiracy theory,” said Octavia. “A secret society of Pinkie Pies. Where do they all come from? How many more of them are out there? Are they undercover? In positions of power?”

“More like just beneath power,” said Vinyl. “The Vizier, you know, pulling strings from behind the throne. At least, that’s the impression I got.”

“Vizier Pinkie Pie?” asked Trixie. “The Pink Eminence? The balloon behind the throne. The… hang on, Trixie is trying to think of something that starts with ‘P’.” She trailed off.

Octavia shook her head. “It’s an amusing image, but quite hard to believe. Really, I’d struggle to think of anyone less conniving than Pinkie Pie.”

Vinyl spotted a thoughtful frown on Trixie’s face. “Penny for your thoughts?” she asked. A Pinkie for your thoughts. Heh.

Trixie shook it away. “No, it’s probably nothing.” She scrunched up her nose. “So do you have any idea why Chrysalis wanted us to see that?”

Vinyl mirrored her frown. “No. I don’t know.”

5. Guitar Centred

View Online

Octavia picked the short straw. Vinyl had been seen by one of the Pinkie Pies on Sunday, so her following them again would be sure to draw attention; while Trixie had no reason to enter the music wing of the school at all. The cello practice room was close to the room the Rainbooms used, a fact she knew well from all the noise they made, so Octavia had every excuse to be standing right outside their door listening.

“Come on girls, I spent ages writing this,” said Rainbow Dash from the other side of the very opaque door. “You’ve got to get it right.”

“Except that Rarity did most of the lyrics,” pointed out Applejack.

“Yeah, then I set them to music.”

Octavia carefully slid the door open just an inch so she could see inside.

“Music that Fluttershy wrote,” added Applejack again.

“Oh, but you did that guitar solo all by yourself,” Fluttershy reassured her.

“And you helped me get the rhythm right, Applejack,” added Pinkie Pie. Is that Polkadot Pinkie, Pinstripe Pinkie or Patisserie Pinkie? wondered Octavia. Vinyl’s descriptions hadn’t made the differences clear.

“So it’s all of ours!” insisted Rainbow, adding, “But mostly mine.” Octavia groaned. Rainbow Dash was such a jerk sometimes.

“Ah’m just saying…” muttered Applejack.

“When you should be just playing! Come on, Pinkie?”

Pinkie Pie – whichever Pinkie Pie it was – tapped her drumsticks together with a “One, two three!” and the girls started again on one of their annoyingly upbeat songs.

“There was at time we were apart, but that’s behind us now.
See how we’ve made a brand new start, and the future’s lookin’ up.
Ooh-oh, ooh-oh!
And when you walk these halls you feel it everywhere...”

“Stop, stop, stop!” shouted Rainbow Dash.

“Whatever is it this time?” Rarity asked.

“You were late coming in on that bit, Rares. And Pinkie, your timing is off.”

“But I’m trying extra-hard, Dashie.”

“Yeah, I can tell, but hitting the drums extra-hard doesn’t help the time.”

“This was easier when Twilight was here,” said Fluttershy despondently.

“I know what you mean,” said Applejack. “Everything just sort of came together. Like the magic knew how to make it work, y’know?”

Magic? Are they talking about time Sunset Shimmer blew up half the school? Twilight was the name of the girl who helped stop her, right?

“Well she’s not here now,” said Rainbow. “She’s off being a pony princess in another world. So we’ll just have to make this work the hard way.”

Twilight is a… ‘pony princess’? In another world? Are they talking about a computer game or something?

The girls started playing again.

“We are all together!
Ah, oh, ah-ooh-oh!
Now it’s better than ever!
Ah, oh, ah-ooh-oh!”

Octavia was shaken out of her distaste for the music by the incredible sight of Rainbow Dash glittering and levitating off the floor. She watched on in amazement as one by one the girls started to transform, growing fabulous long pony-tails, sticky-up ears, and in the case of Rainbow and Fluttershy, wings. Wings! How does that work? Do they have holes cut in the back of their shirts? Are the wings somehow incorporeal at the base? Are they even real objects at all, or just an illusion?

She scrambled for her phone, desperate to record this for the girls to see.

Trixie squinted. “I… don’t really see it.”

“Yes, I realise the recording isn’t brilliant, but I know what I saw. Look, right there, those are wings on her back.”

“That blue smudge? It kind of looks like the light from the window behind her.”

“And would the light make her hair grow longer like that?” challenged Octavia, pointing at the long rainbow-shaded ponytail that was just barely visible.

“Maybe she got extensions?”

“I’m not sure I see it either, but if Tavi says it's true then I believe her,” said Vinyl, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Thank you, Vinyl.”

Trixie shrugged. “So…what exactly does this mean? The Rainbooms can suddenly grow wings and cat ears?”

“Cat? That’s not what cat ears look like. They're more like fox ears, surely.”

Octavia was losing patience. “I’m fairly certain they’re pony ears,” she pointed out. “Like the headbands they were handing out.”

The other two squinted at the screen. “No, horse ears aren’t that shape. Could they be cow ears maybe?”

Vinyl turned to stare at nothing for a minute, thinking. Octavia quietly asked her, “What are you thinking?”

“This magic thing happens when they play music, right? We need to see it for ourselves to confirm it. But they only do that in the practice room, where it’s hard to catch them. Or on stage if they did a show, but there’s nothing until the festival in a few months, and they're probably not stupid enough to do a big music display in front of an audience. We need to lure them out somewhere we can see them. Somewhere they’ll feel comfortable playing.”

“Could you invite them to one of your gigs?”

Vinyl scrunched up her face. “Not really the right style. And they’d know it was me. I’m pretty sure Pinkie has my number. Or, well, one of them does,” she added.

“How about the shop, then?” wondered Octavia. “It’s perfectly normal for musicians to visit a music shop. And with the way she treats her instrument, Rainbow Dash is going to need a new one soon.”

Vinyl considered it. “Yeah, we can drop a hint or something, maybe a leaflet or a sale voucher, and lure them in. But you wouldn’t normally play more than the odd riff in the shop. How do we get them to play enough to… y’know, start the magic going?”

Trixie broke the silence with a mischievous laugh. “I have an idea,” she said.

“Rainbow Dash, I simply don’t understand why you can’t just play the guitar you have,” whined Rarity as the girls entered the shop.

Vinyl was working the till that day, as arranged. She wouldn’t have been, but she asked her uncle for extra hours, saying there were some USB turntables she was keen to buy so she needed the extra money. She sat behind the counter, carefully looking engrossed in her beats. She slipped off her headphones as the Rainbooms came in.

Rainbow put her guitar case down on the counter and opened it. The poor wreckage of an instrument emerged with a helpless ‘sproing’. Octavia was right, she’s utterly ruined it, thought Vinyl.

Rarity gasped. “Now I understand.”

Pinkie bounced around the store, picking out random instruments. “How about this one?” “Lookie here!” “Super groovy!”

“No, Pinkie,” said Rainbow in increasing frustration, scanning around the stock.

“Well, whatcha looking for?” asked Applejack.

“That’s the problem!” complained Rainbow. “I need something that looks as awesome as I’m gonna make it sound.” Casting around, she finally saw something that took her fancy. With a grin she reached for a massive double-necked guitar, only to find she had competition. “Hands off my guitar, Trixie!”

“I touched it first, Rainbow Dash!” retorted Trixie, right on cue, with just the right note of challenge.

“Sounds to me like this is a makin’ for a nice, friendly competition,” chuckled Applejack.

“All right! Let’s see who plays best!” proclaimed Rainbow, always eager for a fight.

Trixie feigned surprise. “A shred-off?”

“Shred on,” replied Rainbow Dash.

Nicely done, Trix. That went perfectly. Now let’s see what happens when she plays.

Trixie was exhausted. She lay slumped on Octavia’s bed, all her limbs spread out like a starfish.

Octavia had the video up on her computer. “See? I told you she had wings.”

Vinyl was leant over her shoulder, a little too close. Octavia could smell her hair. Did she have to be so maddeningly close? “And I believed you, Tavi. Still, it’s another thing to see it close up.”

“It sure is,” said Trixie without moving.

“I'm impressed by the footage you got here. And by the way you got Applejack to play along.”

“Tha’ much were easy, sugarcube,” drawled Trixie in an embarrassing imitation of Applejack. “I got myself paired with her in chemistry, stroked her ego by letting her tell me all about alkalis and how they affect the soil, then casually mentioned that my guitar playing is so much more powerful and great than Rainbow Dash, and how I'd love a chance to prove it.”

“Well, it worked,” remarked Vinyl. “They were eating out of your hand.”

“Occasionally my public image can be useful.”

Octavia sat back in her chair, swiveling round to face them both. “So… what does it all mean? We’ve got human versions of Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest walking around, which is creepy. There are memories we have in common, which is more than creepy. There’s a rude shopkeeper who says none of us are real, like some sort of delusional nihilist. There’s a collection of Pinkie Pies, at least one of them apparently in a position of power, which would be terrifying in itself. And now we have a school band who create some sort of illusion when they play music, despite lacking any sort of talent.”

“Damn right,” agreed Trixie, though without much enthusiasm. “Amateurs, the lot of them.”

“You can add in the time Sunset Shimmer became an actual demon, turned half the school into zombies, ripped the school doors off, and got beaten by the Rainbooms and that girl nobody recognises, leaving a big hole in the floor,” said Vinyl.

“Which principals Celestia and Luna have still failed to adequately explain.”

“And the fact that Sunset Shimmer seems to be friends with the Rainbooms now.”

“You know, I think she slept at the school,” said Trixie.

Octavia blinked. “Er…who did? Sunset Shimmer?”

“No, that girl. The one who wasn’t actually a student at all, but still won the crown.”

“Oh, that girl. Um, Twilight Circle, was it?”

“Twilight Sparkle,” Vinyl corrected.

“Yeah, her,” said Trixie. “Only Trixie saw her there really late at night, and she wore the same clothes the whole time she was here. I think she must have slept in the library. With her dog,” she added.

“I'm sure that's against some rules. The thing is, it’s clear something strange is going on in this town, I just… don’t see what it all adds up to. Do either of you?”

Vinyl shrugged. Trixie made a half-hearted motion that might have been a shrug had she lifted more than half a muscle.

They fell quiet for a while.

Eventually Vinyl broke the silence, saying simply, “Ponies.”

“Gesundheit.”

She shook her head. “There’s something that woman in the shop said to me the first time I met her that’s been bugging me.”

“About people not being real?”

“No. Well, yes that, but something else as well.”

“About a duck’s spleen?”

“Ew. But she said she knew every pony in this town.”

“A bit presumptuous, but that sounds like her.”

“Not everybody. Every pony. And she just said it straight, like it was normal: ‘everypony’. Like it was a real word.”

Octavia frowned. Trixie lifted her head to look at her askance.

“Um. That's not so unlikely, is it?” said Octavia. “How many ponies do you imagine there are in this town?”

“Applejack’s family have half a dozen,” volunteered Trixie. “They let little kids ride them in the summer.”

“So it wouldn’t be very hard to know all of them.”

Vinyl carried on, “And one of the Pinkie Pies, one who wasn't at the meeting, got called the ‘premier party pony’. Again, they called her a pony, like it was normal. They talked about throwing parties for colts and fillies as well. Then another one complained about having hooves.”

“Did she have hooves?” asked Octavia.

“Not that I could see. But she seemed to be implying that she would have hooves if she went to help ‘premier party pony’ Pinkie Pie.”

“That doesn't sound likely. She isn't going to just suddenly grow hooves in place of her hands, surely?”

Trixie said, “There’s that big horse statue in front of school.”

“Yeah, the school’s always had a horse theme for as long as anyone can remember, with the ‘wonder colts’ and all that. But now it seems like I keep hearing ‘ponies, ponies’ everywhere I go. Like it’s all connected,” she said. “Like there are ponies all over the place… but they don’t look like ponies. Hidden among us, pretending to be people.”

Octavia’s frown turned into serious concern. “Vinyl, are you… suggesting that the town is being invaded by shape-shifting alien ponies?”

6. On The Horizon

View Online

Octavia crouched behind the bush, getting her hands and knees dirty.

My skirt is getting dirty as well, she noted. I don't look forward to explaining this to Mum. She'll probably think I'm being bullied or something.

On the other side of the street, Pinkie Pie was acting very suspiciously. She had a big cloth sack over her shoulder which clanked as she walked, and was checking surreptitiously around every few seconds before conspicuously moving from cover to cover.

She's being so obviously sneaky, it's like she wants to draw attention to herself.

“Why are we hiding?”

“In case Pinkie Pie sees us,” replied Octavia in a whisper.

She cautiously watched Pinkie’s odd behaviour for a few more seconds before the source of the question registered. She turned round to look into the big, grinning face of Pinkie Pie.

“Surprise!” whisper-shouted Pinkie.

She was crouched down behind the same line of bushes as Octavia, as if she were following her. This particular Pinkie had a blond streak in her hair, unlike the Pinkie they were watching.

Don’t flinch, don't scream, don't fall over no matter how much my left ankle aches in this position. Just turn calmly around and talk to her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked the cheerful girl behind her in a whisper.

“Following you,” said Pinkie, matter-of-factly. “What are you doing here?”

Well, if she's not ashamed to admit it, neither am I. “Following her,” she said, indicating the other Pinkie Pie who was now crouched behind a hydrant down the street. People gave her odd looks as they walked past. “What is she doing?”

The part-blonde Pinkie leaned past her to watch her lookalike sneaking along the sidewalk. “Oooh. She's just laying down a Chekhov's gun for later.”

“She what?” said Octavia rather louder. “She's got a gun in there?”

The Pinkie Pie giggled. “No, silly, it's a trombone.”

Octavia turned to see that, sure enough, the other Pinkie Pie was now trying to stuff a full-sized trombone into a mailbox. “I don't get it. Why is she trying to hide a trombone there?”

“For trombone-related emergencies, of course!”

“What's a trombone-related…”

Octavia turned to find her gone.

Vinyl eased her foot onto the brake, sliding to a stop at the junction. She flicked the indicator left.

She found driving helped her think. While her hands were busy with the mundane task of hurtling down the road and not killing anyone, her mind could focus on other things.

The roads were quiet this morning, so she was able to make decent time. She’d already circled the town twice, and this was the third time she’d come to this junction.

But I’m still turning left again. Why is that?

Vinyl reached to change the indicator, and found herself hesitant. Left was the road back into town, taking her past the waterfront. Straight ahead was the tunnel under the river to Griffonstone. Right was just the road out of town, going south to… wherever it was.

I could take whichever road I want, but turning left feels more... natural?

Her hand hovered over the indicator, not quite flicking it.

I’ve already cut school today. I don’t have a gig or practice. I don’t have to work in the shop. I’ve got time on my hands. I should be as happy going either way. So why do I... just not feel like turning right?

The tip of her finger was resting lightly on the indicator, and still she didn’t move it.

When was the last time I actually left town? Where was the last place I went?

Vinyl realised she simply couldn’t remember leaving town recently. Her memories from childhood couldn’t be trusted, apparently – and if she was honest, it did sometimes feel like those had happened to a different girl.

So I’m just turning left out of lazy habit? All the more reason to change that, right? Rules are there to be broken.

The car that had pulled up behind her honked its horn in annoyance, and Vinyl quickly flicked the indicator and turned right.

One of Trixie’s favourite lunch spots was a secluded bench surrounded by trees. It was near the music wing and, helpfully, a long way from the bees. She was part way through her sandwich when she spotted Applejack moving with purpose.

After a moment’s indecision she decided to follow her. She shoved her sandwich into her bag and scurried to catch up, making sure not to get too close.

When exactly did this sort of subterfuge become normal for us? she wondered. We’re suddenly listening at doors and following people around. Are they really going to lead us to any sort of answer? Or even a clue? They don’t seem to know what’s going on in this town either.

Wait, where did she go?

She hurried around the corner and located Applejack taking the path down to the school’s motor shop. Trixie kept a safe distance as she followed.

“There ya are, Sunset,” said Applejack as she strode through the big doors of the motor shop. “Snails said ya’d be down here. Whatcha up to?”

“Just patching up my bike.”

Applejack whistled. “This yours? I didn’t know you had such a sweet ride.”

“You thought the jacket was just for show?” She paused. “Okay, it’s at least partly for show. I guess I really was quite shallow before,” she muttered. “Plus being down here gets me away from everybody’s eyes for a while.”

There were a pair of four-wheelers with big tyres parked by the wall. Trixie clambered carefully onto one of them so she could stand on tiptoes and see through the small high window. She winced as she touched the metal wall of the motor shop; it really got warm in the afternoon heat.

She was just in time to see another girl enter from the other room. She was light pink with big fluffy hair, and was wearing an adorable pink boiler suit, now sadly messed up with streaks of engine grease. Her face and hands were stained with grease too, and she had various tools shoved into pockets and sleeves.

On seeing Applejack, she gasped, ran over and wrapped her in a big hug, pinning her arms to her sides.

“Oh. Hey there, Fluffs,” said Applejack in a flat tone. “Tell me, do you really need to do that every time you see me?”

The pink girl nodded her head enthusiastically, rubbing it against Applejack’s shirt.

“Okay. Only you’re getting a little grease on me there.”

The girl leapt back with another gasp, pressed her hands together and gave a series of short apologetic bows.

“Tha’s fine, really, it’ll get mussed up anyhow when I do the planting later.”

The girl grinned, broadly.

“Are ya working on the motocross bikes?”

The girl shook her head. She gestured to the other room, where the back half of an elderly station wagon could be seen with several pieces scattered around it, then brought her hands together to mime separating them with fingers spread.

“Yer takin’ it apart? The whole thing?”

She nodded.

“Why?”

She mimed the same action in reverse, bringing her hands and fingers back together.

Sunset said, “She’s been at it for months, taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together. She won’t let me help, either – seems she wants to know where every bolt goes.”

“That’s kind of impressive, actually,” said Applejack. “Anyhow, Rainbow and the crew sent me lookin’ for ya, Sunset. We were hopin’ you wouldn’t mind hangin’ around the practice room a bit, give us feedback, tell us what needs fixin’ up, that sort of thing. That and Rainbow really loves an audience.”

“Really? Are… would that be alright?”

“Why wouldn’t it be, Sugarcube?”

“Well, I assumed, after Princess Twilight went back home, that…”

Again they’re calling her a ‘princess’.

“That what? We’d drop you in it?”

“Well… Being seen with me right now probably won’t do any of you any good. You know, what with me turning into a demon and trying to enslave the school and…”

Sunset petered out, and Applejack said nothing for a few seconds. The pink girl looked from one to the other in concern.

“Sunset, darlin’. Y’all can be a right moron at times.”

“What?”

“We all of us promised Twi, before she went back to Equestria, that we were gonna take proper care of ya.”

Where's Equestria? wondered Trixie.

Applejack continued, “Now, I realise there’s plenty of folks out there who might go and break a promise like that. But Applejack ain’t ever gonna be one a’them. Nor’s Rainbow, or Rarity, or Fluttershy, or Pinkie. You’re one of us now, you’re a friend. We ain’t going to be ashamed of that, no matter what anyone says.”

Sunset said quietly, “Thank you.”

“’Course, we ain’t gonna lie to you either. You can expect plenty of hard truths.”

“I’m sure I deserve them,” said Sunset with a chuckle.

“Now, enough snifflin’. You all done with that bike there?”

Sunset nodded.

“Good. Now get yer scrawny—Whoa Nelly!” she squawked as the two of them were pulled into a sudden group hug by the pink girl.

“I think she's glad we made up,” said Sunset.

“Boundaries, Fluffle Puff, boundaries!”

Vinyl slowed down as she approached the city limits. The houses had petered out a few miles ago, replaced by farms, scattered trailers and landscape, but this was still technically town land. Ahead, she saw the town exit sign approach. She indicated, slowed and pulled off the road.

She parked close to the battered ‘you are now leaving town’ signpost. On the other side of the road, facing the other way, stood the corresponding welcome sign.

Getting out of the car, she walked past the signs, and as she did the perspective of the world ahead of her seemed to change. It formed a wall or barrier. The closer she got to it, the less real it looked. The landscape just stopped here, like she’d travelled all the way to the horizon, and whatever was beyond it looked different.

Gingerly she reached out, then stopped. No sense doing something stupid. She picked up a stick from the ground and pressed it into the barrier; it stopped like there was a wall there. Then she threw the stick; it passed straight through. She reached out her fingers, felt them touch the boundary. Nothing blew up.

Vinyl Scratch rested her hand on the horizon. It felt rough to the touch, like terracotta. Looking through and beyond it, the landscape appeared to continue on in three dimensions, though much simpler than the real landscape on this side. Plants, dunes and even wildlife were repeated in regular patterns, as if the rolling hills around town were mass-produced.

She felt the warmth of the sun and a pleasant breeze. Glancing up at the sky, she wondered just how much of it was real. Where did reality end and illusion begin?

Birds flew overhead, distant dark specks that seemed not to care which side of the horizon they were on. She jumped as a small rodent of some sort scuttled past her feet and through the horizon. As it did, the creature changed, real fur and skin swapped for a simplified, cartoonish imitation.

‘Little mice can scurry in and out of the cage, and never even know it’s there. But as soon as they see the bars, they’ll be stuck inside forever.’

The creature doubled back through the horizon to the real side with a beetle in its mouth. Mock fur was replaced by the real thing, every hair in place, every toe on its little feet, every little tooth, every detail you’d expect to see on a real animal.

Did that animal just stop existing, then start again? she wondered. Was it paused, or was it stopped? Is there a difference? Is it even the same creature as the one that went through? Does it remember its previous life, and does it also remember catching that beetle?

A noise announced the approach of another car. As it got closer, Vinyl could see three people inside, laughing and singing along with the car radio. It was moving quickly, and Vinyl realised with horror that it was going to hit the horizon, that they simply couldn’t see the solid wall ahead.

“Stop!” She had barely a moment to raise her hands and start shouting a warning before the car hit the wall… and passed straight through. It carried on down the road, now a boxy caricature of itself filled with simplified placeholder people.

Casting a glance behind her to make sure the road was clear, Vinyl stepped into the road and up to the exact spot through which the car had passed. She rested both hands against the surface of the horizon and pressed, feeling absolutely no give at all. It was solid like rock.

She pulled a foot back and kicked the horizon, earning nothing but sore toes for her trouble. Hopping back, she rested leaning against the town sign.

The people in that car had… stopped being people. Now they were just… cardboard cut-outs of people. And they were fine with it. At some point they’d probably drive back, complete with memories of events that never really happened. They could go in and out freely, but Vinyl couldn't.

This really is it, she thought. This is the answer we’ve been looking for. The walls of our cage, entirely of our own making. We could have stayed oblivious, been free to go wherever we wanted, for the low, low price of our souls.

Vinyl had expected to feel anger, desperation, even some kind of offence at finding herself imprisoned like this. Instead she found an odd form of peace.

I know what I am. I know where I came from. I know my place in the world. All the questions that were keeping me awake have been answered.

There’s just one question left: am I going to take it lying down?

She stared into the horizon a little longer, but it had given her all the answers it was going to. Ahead of her was nothing. Nothing real, anyway. Behind was her whole world.

She pushed off the road sign with a grunt, her feet stirring up a little cloud of dust where they landed. As she turned back to her car, she spared a glance at the far side of the road where the other sign sat pointing the other way, welcoming people into town.

Welcome to
TARTARUS
Drive carefully!

7. Dreams of Vinyl

View Online

“Wake up, Vinyl.”

Vinyl Scratch mumbled something indecipherable about more minutes as she was gently rocked.

“Come on, wake up.”

“Is it morning already?”

“Actually it’s afternoon. I just got back from school.”

The voice gradually filtered its way through to her brain. “Tavi?” she murmured. “What are you doing in my house?”

“I’m not. You’re in my house, Vinyl. You’re in my room. You’re in my bed.”

Vinyl peered at the blanket she was clutching. Sure enough, it looked like one of Octavia’s. “Huh.”

Octavia picked up Vinyl’s jacket from the floor and hung it on the back of the chair. “Have you been asleep here all day? Is that why you weren’t in school? And how did you even get in here? I know that Mum locks the door.” She jangled her keys to illustrate.

Vinyl bobbed her head. “Your window’s open.”

Octavia looked at her bedroom window. “It’s also upstairs. Quite a lot of stairs. Did you really climb all the way up here?”

“Seemed easier. ’S closer than my house.”

“Only by four streets.” Octavia shook her head in bemusement. She sat lightly on the side of the bed and slid a lock of Vinyl’s bright blue hair aside. “Oh, Vinyl. What am I going to do with you?”

“You could feed me?”

Octavia sighed and rolled her eyes. “Mum will be home in an hour or so. You can join us for dinner. Is that good enough?”

Vinyl poked one hand out in a big thumbs up, while using the other to pull the blankets closer.

“So tell me, were you out at a concert all night? You know the school doesn’t approve of you working if it’s going to interfere with your studies.”

“Nah, I was at the library.”

“The library? That doesn’t sound much like you. And doesn’t the town library close in the evenings?”

“Yeah, but the records bit isn’t really open in the day anyway. It’s all behind this heavy blue door upstairs, and the staff watch you like vultures if you get close to it.” She yawned. “So I had to wait for them all to go home.”

Octavia was concerned. “Are you telling me that you broke into the town library at night to get at the private records?”

“I didn’t break in. I just… stayed in. Is it my fault they don’t check the cupboards when they lock the place?”

“And you stayed there all night?”

“Their photocopier’s really slow. Got some good stuff, though.” She waved a hand in the direction of Octavia’s desk, where a bundle of papers sat on the keyboard.

“We’ll look at all that later,” sighed Octavia, getting up. “I have homework to do. And so do you, by the way.”

Trixie laid a few photos on the bed, showing Sunset Shimmer hanging out with the Rainbooms, and others with her lifting bags of sand. “As you can see, the demon queen of Canterlot High is now best buddies with the girls that defeated her so publicly. When she isn’t stuck at the building site.”

“You can’t carry on calling her a ‘demon queen’ because of what happened at the Fall Formal,” said Octavia. “The school asked us all to give her a second chance, remember?”

“Yeah, we’re supposed to forget it ever happened, right?” said Vinyl. “Tia and Woona gave that whole speech, that was totally not saying, ‘Don’t tell anyone about magic or they’ll shut us down’.”

“I called her that long before the Fall Formal,” defended Trixie. “She’s been a bitch for years. Anyway, don’t you think it’s odd behaviour for girls who were so recently enemies?”

Octavia picked up a photo of Sunset and Fluttershy laughing as they left the pet store. “It is certainly a stark turnaround. Are you suggesting that the magical battle was all an act, and they were working with her all along? It was quite a show they put on that night.”

“I wouldn’t know. I was all zombie, remember?” said Trixie bitterly.

“And she did tear off the front doors of the school,” pointed out Vinyl. “And drilled that big hole in the ground in front of the statue. We didn’t imagine that, they only just finished filling it in. Sunset Shimmer is still helping them rebuild the doors.”

Trixie continued, “They all still talk about Twilight Sparkle as a ‘pony princess’, whatever that means, from some place called ‘Equestria’. Sunset Shimmer is in on that too, whatever it is, and they’re happy to talk about that and the magic thing with her around. And also around Fluffle Puff, but that’s probably just because they don’t think she’ll tell anyone.”

“Is Sunset Shimmer as surprised as us by it?”

“Not at all. If anything they seem to treat her as an authority on all the weird stuff.”

“We could certainly do with one of those, we seem to be stumbling around in the dark here,” said Octavia.

“Anyway, good stuff, Trix. What about you, Tavi?”

Octavia cleared her throat. “The Pinkie Pie that attends Crystal Prep goes by the name Pinkamena. She’s seen as a loner by the other students, but still contributes to school events in her own way. I’m told she can play the acoustic guitar, accordion, harmonica and theremin all at once, which is an impressive feat, though her choice of song isn’t always popular. At their recent Shadowbolts Got Talent event, she did a one woman rendition of ‘Creep’ followed by ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’.”

“Eek, cheerful,” said Vinyl.

“That confirms what Vinyl saw at the bakery then,” said Trixie. Vinyl nodded her head in deference, then turned back to Octavia.

She continued, “The one known as Diane doesn’t attend any school I can find, but she is a regular performer at local amateur dramatics groups, appearing in the role of the Nun’s Priest in their recent production of The Canterlot Tales. She typically likes to wear period clothing of some sort, even when she’s not performing, and changes her mode of speech and body language to match the period and character.”

“You said local,” said Trixie, “but local to where?”

“Mostly to the north and east sides of town. Griffonstone and Crystal Town. She performed at the Manehattan Theatre once.”

“How about the politico one they mentioned?” asked Vinyl.

Octavia shook her head. “I haven’t heard anything about her from my arts or music connections.”

“I might be able to find out something through my mother’s connections?” volunteered Trixie. “No promises though, it’ll be hard to do without blowing our cover.”

“That would be cool, Trix.”

“Now, how about you, Vinyl?” asked Trixie.

“Yes, come on, Miss Scratch. Do tell us where you’ve been all week.”

Vinyl suppressed a smirk. Taking her time, she unrolled six large sheets that she assembled on the bed into a table-sized black-and-white map of the town. It looked more like a schematic than a consumer map, with the city limits clearly marked. Red marks dotted the edges at various points.

“I’ve been to see the end of the world,” she said calmly.

The other two exchanged a frown. Octavia asked, “I beg your pardon?”

“The end of the world. Right here.” She indicated a red mark to the north of Crystal Town, followed by others. “And here, here, and here. All the way around.”

“In what sense are these points the ‘end of the world’? They each look like ordinary roads to me.”

“These are the official city limits, but they’re also where the world ends.”

Octavia asked in concern, “Vinyl, are you feeling alright? I’m starting to think this whole affair may be getting the better of you.”

“I’m feeling great, Tavi. Never better.”

“What do you mean, ‘the end of the world’, though?” asked Trixie. “Is this like the Mayan thing a few years ago?”

“Nope. It’s simple, if you walk up to the line here you’ll find there’s no more world. That’s the edge. The limit. The boundary. The horizon. Everything past that point is an illusion, and a pretty shaky one at that. I’ve checked all these other points round the edge,” she said pointing to the red marks, “and they’re all the same. No more world past the city limits, just a fake painted landscape and a fake sky.”

She looked into their concerned faces.

“What, you don’t believe me?”

Octavia replied hesitantly, “I’ll admit we’ve encountered some strange things in the last few weeks, but even so, this does test our credulity somewhat.”

“Ow!”

“I told you it was there.”

Trixie rubbed her nose and glared at the smug Vinyl.

Octavia stepped up to the horizon and lightly touched it, captivated by the concept. “And you’re saying this barrier goes all the way around the city?” she asked in awe.

The sun was setting, throwing shades of pink and orange across them. Their shadows were long, but where they fell through the boundary they became simpler, like the shadows of crude cardboard cutouts.

“Yup. I spent all week checking it, right around. It lines up perfectly with the city limits, from what I can see. That’s why I wanted a copy of the plans. It’s a really big area actually, like twenty miles across, and a lot of what’s inside isn’t buildings or anything.”

“Incredible.” Octavia slid her fingertips across the invisible wall.

“Yeah. I mean, this thing goes all the way down to Fillydelphia by the river, across to Las Pegasus, and up to Crystal Town. The only bit of the boundary I’ve not checked is along the west edge.”

“Why not?”

Vinyl shrugged. “’Cos it’s in the middle of the river.”

Trixie was less enamoured with the discovery. She kicked the horizon, slammed her hands against it. “So we’re trapped in here? Like prisoners?”

“Are we?” asked Octavia. “We’ve all been outside before. We’ve visited other places. I don’t remember this being here before.”

“Have we?” asked Vinyl. “When was the last time you went somewhere?”

Octavia stopped to think. “Well, not recently, I’ll admit. We went camping in the Everfree Woods a few years ago…”

“Yeah, but the whole Everfree Park is inside the city limits, for some reason,” pointed out Vinyl.

“How long has this been here?”

Vinyl shrugged. “I dunno. Just like I don’t know what it’s called or why it’s here.”

“All right then, how do other people get out?”

“They don’t.”

“Don’t be silly, Vinyl. People go in and out of the city all the time. I think we’d hear about it if we were all locked in here.”

“I mean it. Sure, people and animals cross through it all the time, but when they do they just get all… simplified.”

“Simplified?”

“Yeah, like they’re just placeholders for real things. I’ve seen it. Then when they come back in, they get turned back into full people again.”

“That’s ridiculous,” chided Octavia.

“Stick around here long enough, you’ll see it for yourself. People can leave easily enough, they just give up their reality when they do it.”

Octavia prodded the horizon more cautiously. “Why would that happen for other people and not for us?”

Vinyl shrugged. “No idea about that either.”

“So you haven’t found any way to bypass it?”

“No. Ah…” She hesitated. “Thing is, I don’t think whatever’s out there—” she indicated the counterfeit landscape beyond the horizon “—is real. I mean, not properly real. If there’s anything outside Tartarus, I’m fairly sure it’s not whatever’s the other side of that horizon.”

“And I thought your alien ponies idea was crazy,” muttered Octavia. “What did Chrysalis say, about guests?”

Vinyl nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that too. She said she was a prisoner here, and she made a distinction between ‘guests’ and ‘locals’.”

“So if we’re all prisoners here, who’s the jailor?” asked Trixie.

“And is ‘prisoner’ even the right word?” asked Octavia. “This whole arrangement feels a bit too… impersonal for a prison. Even if we are trapped here by this horizon thing, I’ve never seen anything like a jailor.”

“Unless we’re supposed to be the jailors?” wondered Vinyl.

“Surely we’d know about it if we were,” said Octavia. “What sort of prison keeps its staff in the dark?”

“Ugh. This whole thing is giving Trixie a headache,” said Trixie. “Ambiguous hints and nonsensical walls. Why can’t we just get a straight answer?”

She glared at the sign reading, ‘Welcome to Tartarus,’ but it told her nothing useful. She already knew what the name of the city was.

Vinyl leaned her back against the barrier, seemingly resting on air, and crossed her arms. “You know, I’ve seen a whole bunch of films where all the trouble would have been avoided if people had talked to each other. Like, ‘Why didn’t you just ask him that right at the beginning?’ You know?”

“I suppose so,” said Octavia cautiously. “Go on.”

“And we aren’t getting many answers just by looking at this thing.” Vinyl indicated the wall behind her. “I’ve been thinking about this all week. But somebody inside this city must know more about it.”

“Trixie would rather not go back to Chrysalis,” said Trixie with distaste.

“Me either. But what about Rainbow’s crew? They seem to know something about all this.”

Octavia stood next to Vinyl; she couldn’t quite bring herself to lean on the horizon. “And you think they’re going to tell us? Isn’t this some sort of big secret?”

“They didn’t seem to care about Rainbow doing that magic guitar thing in the music shop with us watching,” said Vinyl, “so maybe they just don’t think it’s much of a secret. So I’m thinking, y’know, maybe we could just ask them? Save ourselves an hour and a half of bad acting and explosions.”

Trixie spun around, a wide smile suddenly plastered on her face. She strode up to Vinyl and, in an unnaturally cheerful voice, she asked, “Hi, Rainbow Dash? I just wanted to ask if you know anything about an invisible wall around town, or the fact that this whole city is actually a secret prison. Oh, and we think a couple of your friends are alien ponies. Would you and the girls happen to know anything about that?”

“She’s got a point,” said Octavia. “We’d sound pretty crazy, asking them about any of this.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Vinyl acquiesced. “We need a way of asking without playing our hand.”

“Perhaps not,” said Octavia. “There’s another aspect to this. You said you don’t know why we’re stuck behind this barrier and other people aren’t.”

“Yeah,” said Vinyl cautiously.

“What if the only difference between us and them is that we know it’s there? What if just knowing about the horizon is what traps you inside it?”

Vinyl frowned. “That sounds familiar.” She paused, trying to remember the words Chrysalis had said to them. “Er… How did it go? Little mice can scurry in and out of the cage, and never even know it’s there… but as soon as they see the bars, they’ll be trapped inside forever.”

“Exactly,” confirmed Octavia with a nod.

Trixie looked sour. “That’s what the creepy shopkeeper said to us, right?”

Vinyl nodded. “Yeah. I guess she was warning us about this. She did ask if we really wanted the answer.”

“And she couldn’t have just told us about this?” asked Trixie. “Wouldn’t that have been easier than all the cryptic messages and breadcrumbs?”

“How could she tell us, without trapping us in here anyway?” asked Octavia. “Not that we’d have believed her.”

“So,” said Vinyl, continuing the chain of logic, “if we think that just knowing about the horizon really is what traps you inside it, I guess we have to avoid telling anyone about it, right? At least for now.”

“It’s a pretty nuts idea,” said Trixie. “How are we supposed to tell if it’s true?”

The three of them stared at the horizon, but it gave them no answers.

Octavia couldn’t sleep.

It was too hot, so she kicked her covers off. Then it was too cold, so she pulled them back. It was too dark, so she opened her blinds. Then the street light was shining in her eyes, so she closed them. She was thirsty, so she got up for a drink. Then she needed the toilet, so she got up again. Then she was too cold again. With no sign of approaching sleep, she lay on her back and stared at the familiar details of her ceiling, going over the day’s encounters.

The other two were fixated on the thought that their memories were fake, and that this invalidated who they truly were – especially Trixie for whom those memories, that one memory in particular, was so important. Vinyl was driven by simple curiosity, unflinching in her desire to get to the bottom of the mystery.

That wasn’t what drove Octavia. She was strong. She wasn’t just a product of her memories, of what her parents and society had taught her, of a roll of the world’s dice. From a young age she’d taken charge of her own development, sought out her own path, built her personality the way she wanted it. She wasn’t anyone’s achievement but her own. Taking away one childhood memory now wasn’t going to change who she was.

Still, she found herself inescapably perturbed. She kept returning to something else the woman had said.

‘There’s barely a whiff of love in the three of you.’

That mocking dismissal grated in Octavia’s ears, ringing through her mind again and again as she lay there. She’s wrong, she thought. That just isn’t true. She doesn’t know anything about me!

She turned over, bunched her blankets up like a person and wrapped herself around them. She clung tight, her leg hooked around the make-believe partner, her face pressed into the fabric. She clutched it tight with a trembling hand.

She breathed out through her mouth and took a deep breath in through her nose. Though aware that it could be her imagination, she felt certain that the sheets still held hints of Vinyl.

Octavia spent Saturday morning strangling a growing collection of neighbourhood cats.

She would normally have found cello practice relaxing, but nothing was flowing right. She laid down her bow with a frustrated sigh and slouched through to lunch when called.

“Honeybun, what’s happened to your cello playing?” asked her mother incredulously. “Just last week you were doing so well.”

She dabbed a lump of bread in her soup halfheartedly. “I guess I’m just not in the mood for it today, Mum,” she sighed.

“Is it the audition? I told you, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t accepted straight away. Nobody ever succeeds at things like that the very first time, you’ll just need to keep trying until they recognise your talent.”

“It’s not…” Octavia trailed off and left it at that. Honestly, it was easier if her mother thought it was just nerves bringing her down. That was easier than explaining how she really felt. And it wasn’t like the audition didn’t make her worried.

“I’ll tell you what, why don’t you go for a walk after lunch? That’s sure to clear your head. You’ll need some nice new clothes for the audition, right? You can go shopping.”

“I guess. Yeah, sure.”

So she spent the afternoon idly browsing racks of similarly boring clothes, waiting for some sort of sartorial inspiration to strike. As she was on the verge of admitting defeat, buying the same thing as usual and turning for home, she caught sight of a black shape: one of Chryssi’s assistants, slipping quietly through a nearby aisle of boots. She couldn’t tell if it was the boy or the girl, they looked so alike and both wore mainly black. She hurried round the corner to get a better look, but only found an older woman checking out the floor plan by the elevators.

Emerging from the shop, she caught sight of the assistant again in the crowd on the other side of the road, heading down a side street. She crossed over the road intending to follow him or her, but lost sight of them again, only to catch another glimpse at the far end of an alleyway.

Finding some of the motivation she’d been lacking all day, she set forth down the alleyway to track them down.

Octavia slipped into the wedding shop. She was surprised to find it unlocked this late, when all the other little shops around it were shuttered and sealed. It was dark inside, apart from odd little lights here and there illuminating displays of merchandise, some flickering or throbbing, and the dim green glow of the emergency sign over the door.

It was quiet as well. Her footsteps sounded louder, echoed further. Her breath broke the silence like an intruder. She brushed against a display, dislodged some of the merchandise and failed to catch it, and the whole shop reverberated for seconds. Mannequins and displays that had looked quite ordinary before now loomed eerily out of the gloom, deceptive angles making them seem to turn as she passed, the occasional soft rustling adding to the effect. Was that the air conditioning making the fabric move, or a rat hiding behind the stand?

Reaching the far side of the store, she slipped past the till. Behind it, the door to the office was ajar; she gingerly nudged it further open.

“I had a feeling I’d see you again soon, Miss Melody.”

How does she keep doing that? Octavia wondered in frustration. She sagged and pushed the door open fully.

It was even darker in the office, away from the street lamps and the shop windows. It took Octavia a few seconds to squint and find Chrysalis reclining in a big floppy couch covered in cushions. Her eyes gleamed bright in the darkness. The effect was like that of a wild beast in its lair.

Lounging in the same chair, practically on top of her, was a shorter, plumper girl with big eyes. She reminded Octavia of a shorter, dumpier Pinkie Pie, though she couldn’t imagine Pinkie being so languidly erotic. The girl had her arms wrapped around Chryssi, gripping her protectively; the older woman was idly running her fingers through the girl’s hair, tousling it with her long green nails. The colours all faded into a muted grey in the gloom, but she could vaguely make out the bright colour of her hair.

“Fluffle Puff?” asked Octavia incredulously. Fluffle Puff lifted a hand to wave at Octavia, keeping her arms wrapped around the older woman.

“You look troubled, little girl,” said Chrysalis. “Something distressing you?”

“You knew, didn’t you?” challenged Octavia.

“Knew what?” Chrysalis was keeping her cool, teasing her.

Octavia paused a moment to cool her head, then carried on. “We saw the horizon yesterday.”

“Horizon?”

“The wall around town.”

“Ah, I see. I suppose it’s as good a name as any. In that case, yes, I know all about it.”

“So in that case you must know… What is it?”

“What does it look like? It’s a wall that keeps all of us in here. Not just our bodies, but our minds as well. It was certainly a shock to see it when I first arrived here. I find the sight of the thing quite unnerving, even now.” She paused. “And all three of you saw it?” Octavia nodded. “Interesting.”

“You said you arrived – where from? Somewhere outside?”

“That’s right. Just outside of this stagnant little puddle is a magical land filled with sunshine and smiles and harmony.” She said this with a touch of venom, as of the idea was offensive to her. Fluffle Puff stirred, beating feeble fists playfully against Chrysalis’ stomach. “I know, dear, you don’t like it when I talk about the outside.”

Octavia sat against the edge of a desk. “So… what is this town? Why are we trapped here?”

“I’m afraid the answer to that is different for me than it is for you and your friends. I’m what you might call a visitor, whereas you’re all locals.”

Octavia asked, “A visitor. So Trixie’s right, is she? That this whole city is a prison?”

“Of a kind, yes. It’s the most ridiculous prison ever devised, built by a race so devoted to the concept of forgiveness that they threw all practicality to the wind.”

“Does that mean there’s a way out?”

“Many, but they’re all guarded. So for the time being I please myself with little distractions.”

Chrysalis slid a pair of fingers slowly down the girl’s body, playing her like a piano. Fluffle Puff wriggled as they touched her armpit, settled down with a sigh as they waved back and forth down her side, then shivered as they dragged down her leg. Octavia watched the display awkwardly.

“Fluffle Puff, what are you doing here?”

“She’s with me,” said Chrysalis forcefully. Fluffle Puff stuck out her tongue and blew Octavia an extended raspberry.

“With? As in...?”

“Oh yes,” she said, then added, “Often.”

Octavia suppressed a shudder at her lascivious tone. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were, um, lovers,” she said.

“Lovers.” The older woman rolled the word around her tongue. “Such an interesting word. It implies very little love, yet plenty of lust.” She tenderly stroked the girl’s head. “Isn’t it strange how readily those two words are interchanged, even though they’re such different concepts?”

“That’s because they’re supposed to belong together,” protested Octavia.

“You’re so old-fashioned,” the older woman purred patronisingly. “The world just isn’t that… grey.”

Octavia found herself angry at the thought. She stepped forward and grabbed Fluffle Puff’s arm, meaning to pull her out of the chair and away. Fluffle Puff instead pulled her hand back, wrapping it tighter around Chryssi’s waist and burying her face in the woman’s hair. Chrysalis in her turn wrapped her arms around the girl.

“So it’s, what? ‘Friends with benefits’?”

“You wouldn’t understand the heart of a girl in love,” said Chrysalis dismissively.

“And you do?”

“Absolutely. You could say it’s something of a vocation for me,” said Chrysalis. “I’ve always had a great professional interest in love.”

“How can… You heard her, Fluffle Puff. She doesn’t love you, she’s just using you!”

Fluffle Puff shook her head emphatically. Chryssi wrapped a protective arm around the girl’s head as she said, “It’s alright, dear.” Turning to Octavia she said, “Don’t bother. She belongs to me.”

“You think you can just take what you want? Are you using the three of us too? Are we part of some sick plan of yours?”

Chrysalis gave her a patronising look. “Don’t worry, I have very little interest you. Without any love to be felt, there’s very little in you three to hold my interest.”

“How do you know I’m not in love?” Octavia was getting upset, nearly shouting now. “What do you even know about me?”

In a flash, Chrysalis was standing. She gripped Octavia’s chin and pulled her face close, eyes locked together.

“You don’t smell of love, dearie. Not one bit. You smell of frustration, resignation and fear. You’re not in love. You’ve surrendered.”

Octavia’s eyes were wide with shock and decked with tears, but she couldn’t pull them away. She couldn’t move at all. She was locked onto those haunting green eyes, unable to blink. “I… I don’t…” she whimpered.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve met your soulmate and you’ve given up. The barriers, the circumstances, the risks,” she wheedled. Her nails felt like claws digging into Octavia’s throat.

Pulling her head closer, Chrysalis whispered into her ear, “You had your chance and you blew it. You traded it all away for cheap fear. What you’ve got left now isn’t love at all. It’s closer to hate,” she snarled. “You resent the effect she has on you. You’re jealous of how much you adore her. You hate how she doesn’t love you back.”

Octavia couldn’t stop staring, couldn’t blink, couldn’t look away. She gasped, “No! She…”

“Tell me, do you really see the two of you happy together? As brilliant and pure as she is, and as tainted as you are? Do you see yourself serving her breakfast in bed, a warm smile on your face and subterfuge in your heart, clawing to get out? Do you really think she won’t ever notice?”

Chrysalis blinked, and Octavia was finally able to close her eyes. Chrysalis released her, letting the girl slide to her knees sobbing.

Fluffle Puff slid up behind Chrysalis and gently wrapped her arms round her. Standing on tiptoes to reach the taller woman’s level, she purred into her ear then gave it a little nibble.

“You’re right,” said Chrysalis. “I don’t need to be so mean.”

Chrysalis turned, wrapping her arm around the girl’s waist and pulling her up into a kiss. Absent-mindedly, she lifted a foot behind her and shoved Octavia’s shoulder with it, toppling her over onto the floor. Finally snapped out of her trance by the taste of carpet, Octavia scrambled to her feet, pushed through the door, stumbled through the darkened shop and out into the cool night.

Octavia took a bus home. She didn’t notice Sugarcoat walking a comfortable distance behind her along the dark street. She didn’t notice Apple Bloom sitting three seats behind her on the night bus. She didn’t notice Fleur de Lis walking past her house as she let herself in.

8. Underworld

View Online

Vinyl hefted her main bag onto one shoulder, and the smaller bag onto the other, before she picked up her satchel and carrier bag and headed out. There were times when she wondered if she could have chosen a lighter career.

It could be worse, she forced herself to think. I could be hauling around a cello.

It was only a short drive to the club, but once parked she had to drag her bags down a motley cluster of narrow streets and alleyways. The sun was setting, spilling fractured lines of gold down the alleys, punctuated by the shadows of angular street lights and billboards. The door to the club was set back from the street, at the bottom of a short flight of steps. The blue neon sign above the door reading Underworld was switched off, and the door was bolted shut, but she’d been told to expect this. She knocked on the door. After a minute of silence she knocked again.

“We open at nine!” shouted a woman from inside, muffled by the thick wood. She sounded posh, and more than a little annoyed.

“I’ve got an appointment!” she called back.

“Nobody told me about any appointments!” hollered the woman grumpily.

“I’m running your set tonight. It’s Vinyl Scratch!”

After a pause, the woman started slowly undoing the various locks holding the door in place. Eventually she pulled the door open and poked her head out. She was an older woman with blonde hair, warm brown skin and a sensible suit at odds with the venue. She looked Vinyl up and down critically.

“Really? You are?” she queried in a condescending tone. “I can’t say that you look the part.”

“Maybe not, but I sure sound it,” said Vinyl with significantly more confidence than she felt. A little swagger was part of the game, after all.

“Very well then, do follow me. We’ll check with ‘his lordship’.” She ushered Vinyl in, past the ticket booth and down the smooth brick stairs, securing the door firmly behind them.

The club was in the basement of a converted industrial building of some sort, with a lot of exposed pipes and brickwork worn down over the years. Torn posters adorned the walls unevenly, advertising acts of the past, some of them faded beyond recognition. At the bottom of the stairs she was led round a corner and through a door marked ‘Staff only’ into a messy lounge with a mismatched collection of seats mixed up with instruments, cables, speakers and other equipment.

“You can leave your stuff here for now,” said the woman, walking over to knock at another door. Vinyl gratefully slid the bags off her shoulders, setting them carefully down.

“What is it?” came a man’s voice from inside. It sounded rich, full of itself, and it made Vinyl cringe. She took a deep breath and reminded herself of why she was here.

“Somebody called, er, Viner...”

“Vinyl,” she corrected, “Vinyl Scratch.”

The door burst open. “Vinyl, darling!” The man was blond, with fair skin, a bright white suit and a big cheesy smile.

This is my big break, don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up. “Hi, Mister Blueblood. I’m all ready for my set tonight. Got the kit, the tunes, the duds, the works.” She indicated the various bags.

“And I’m expecting great things from you, sweetums,” he said in an infuriatingly familiar tone. “You’re here nice and early. There’ll be acres of time to set things up, so first, why don’t we take a stroll into my parlour and we’ll go over a few things. Harsh, honey, take five, I got this.”

The woman harrumphed as she headed out the door. “Just don’t do anything I’ll regret,” she muttered.

Blueblood guided Vinyl into the office with a hand pressed into the small of her back. She bit her cheek, suppressing a shudder and working to keep the irritation out of her eyes. He needs that hand, she reminded herself. I need him to have that hand so he can pay me, and write a letter of recommendation to the next club manager.

Blueblood’s office was even messier than the staff room. Papers were strewn across the two facing sofas, along with a stapler, a laptop, a hole punch, plates of half-eaten food and folders full of completely unsorted accounts, receipts, invoices, job applications and scribblings.

“Find a space, sit down,” he said with a wave as he shut the door. Vinyl reluctantly pushed a slew of paperwork aside, causing a minor landslide onto the floor. She felt dirty just touching it all, and wondered how he always managed to keep his shiny white suits immaculate when his room was in such a state. She suspected the answer involved too much money.

He shoved his laptop aside to sit opposite her, his expression turning serious.

“Okay, Scratch, last chance for you to back out of this. It’s...” – he glanced at his watch – “quarter to seven now. I can still get Sweetie Drops to cover your set if you don’t think you’re up for it.”

“I’m up for it. I promise.”

“Good to hear. But the competition set you did was only twenty minutes, and the preview last week was barely an hour. You did well, sure, but this is the real thing. It’s different. There’s more to keeping a crowd alive and kicking for that long. You can’t just keep playing the same thing, you have to...” – he waved his hands ambiguously as if that would help at all – “change it up, keep their attention, and stay on top of the mood of the room. It only takes one bad song to drive everyone off the floor.”

“I know. I got that, and I can totally do it. Don’t you worry.” And don’t you dare touch me again, you nasty little—

“Wonderful. The doors open at half eight. We’ll get Berryshine to do the opening set to about ten, then you take over for the rest of the night. That means you’ll be catching the office parties, but by midnight they’ll either have given up or got properly stuck in.”

Vinyl wasn’t listening to him, or looking at him any more. Her eyes were drawn to the brick wall behind him, which was… shimmering. It looked like sunlight caught the texture of the brick – except there was no sunlight down here. They were underground. Through a hundred little wavering points and patches of light, she caught snatches of daylight, colour and movement. The bright blue of sky, white of clouds, green of a rolling grass hillside, greenish brown of a tree trunk. She pieced the scene together from disconnected stars of detail, like a minimal impressionist painting come to life.

“Also it’s a Saturday so you’ll see some of the school crowd, but that tails off after eleven, about the same time the closing bar traffic files in.”

“Got it,” she said absently.

Moving through her barely glimpsed landscape was a figure. It was yellow and pink, vaguely four-legged with a big head. It was some sort of animal, she couldn’t quite tell what, but it had a familiar gait...

“One last thing, if you’re going to be a regular here, you’ll need a stage name. Berryshine uses the name Berry Punch when she’s on stage, and Sweetie Drops—”

“Pony,” said Vinyl without thinking.

“Really? Okay, you sound sure of it. I’ll introduce you as DJ Pony.”

Her eyes snapped back to him. What did I just agree to?

“How do you want to spell it?” He reached for a pad to scribble on. “Something ‘leet’, like Pone-three?”

“Er, sure. Yeah, that works.”

“Fabulous, I’ll mock up a title plate saying ‘PON-3’, and we can stick it on the projectors when your set starts. Now go set up your kit, and try not to mess with Berryshine’s stuff while you’re at it. She’s awfully possessive, and we don’t need any more bottles through the speakers.”

Vinyl was pretty good at this. She had the whole club rocking, and some well-placed changes in tempo had helped to break up the clusters and get the punters mingling. She knew she would, of course – this was her calling, her raison d’être, her true home – but there’d still been a degree of bravado in her promises earlier.

She spotted a few kids from school among the crowd: Rarity with her hair down and wearing plenty of diamonds. Flash Sentry and his band mates all playing air guitar. Tree Hugger wearing flowing green robes and doing her own thing to no discernible rhythm. Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest doing an intimate jive-like dance. Octavia in a tight little dress…

Tavi?!

Octavia was standing near the door at the far side of the room. She was wearing a slinky, shiny dark grey dress with horizontal bands that emphasised much more than it concealed. She wore a grim face, and hugged her arms, keeping her body closed. She kept moving behind objects and people, shielding herself, whether from the dance floor or from Vinyl’s vision. Her eyes darted about, as if she expected monsters to jump out from every corner.

What are you trying to pull, Tavi? Seriously, you’d stand out less if you turned up wearing nothing but a neon sign.

Vinyl nearly missed her next cue to keep the beat going, but managed to bluff it by quickly setting up a massive bass drop that had dancers whooping and doing silly things with their hair.

She waved the other DJ over. “Hey, Berry, do you mind covering for a minute?”

“Yeah, it’s rocking, right!” shouted Berryshine.

“No, I mean can you watch my set? Just for a couple of minutes!”

“Sure thing!” She made to head for the bar. “What are you drinking?”

Deciding that mime was the universal language of the deafened, Vinyl made an exaggerated motion of stepping away from the mixing deck and gesturing for Berryshine to take her place. She finally got the idea and took over.

Vinyl threaded her way through the crowd, hopping nimbly through, between and occasionally over the dancers. Octavia was staring intently at a patch of brick on the wall; she looked up at Vinyl as she approached, and staggered backwards, only saved from falling over backwards by hitting the wall.

“Tavi, what are you doing here?” Vinyl wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be pleased or worried.

Octavia hesitated before answering, “I… I wanted to see you, Vinyl. That is, I wanted to properly see you, here, where you’re in your element. Your true self. Not just the side of you I get to see outside.”

“Whoa, that’s nice of you, but you kind of look—”

Without warning, Octavia stepped forward and pressed her lips to Vinyl’s.

What the–?

Is she... she’s kissing me. She’s kissing me!

And that... kind of feels nice.

Is she drunk? She doesn’t smell drunk. And I should know. From right here. She smells of, uh, orange blossom? And tea. Damn it! No. Stop smelling. She’s my friend, I’m not supposed to be smelling her. Because smelling her is worse than kissing?

Should I step away? Should I push her away? Would that be rude? Should I hold her? Is being rude more important than… than letting her know how I feel?

How do I feel? This is Octavia, right? This is the girl whose sand castles I kicked down, who shared her lunch with me, who lent me pencils and, now that I think of it, never got them back. She’s my oldest friend. My most trusted friend.

My friend who has really, really soft lips. I mean, does she moisturise them, or what? How do you even get lips that soft?

Shit, stop, no, don’t think that!

How long has she felt this way about me? Does she actually…

But oh, wow, that feels nice. It’s all tingly and warm, and is that her tongue? How does she know how to do that?

And that’s her hand on my back. At least I hope it’s her hand, not some creep’s, but it’s a crowded club so I can’t be sure. Which, by the way, isn’t the most romantic place for this, and I’m the one who’s at home here. What possessed Tavi to do this here, of all places?

Is that her breasts pressing against me? I think so. I can’t really see from here, without turning my head away which I don’t want to do, but it must be. That dress she’s wearing is really tight. Like, I never really noticed before, but…

Gyaah! Don’t be distracted. This is important! You need to make a decision. You can’t just stand here, you need to...

Wait, don’t stop—

Octavia broke the kiss. She paused a moment, her lips hovering over Vinyl’s, then closed her mouth and took a step back. Her eyes were pained.

“I… uh… Tav… um…”

“I know, Vinyl. I could tell,” Octavia said as she wilted. She turned and walked away, up the stairs and out of the club.

Vinyl felt she was supposed to run after her, stop her, hold her, say something, anything. But what? What could she possibly say that wouldn’t somehow make things worse?

The most important thing had already been said.

9. Watching the Sunrise

View Online

Vinyl walked.

She walked down streets and turned up alleyways. The town was quiet at night. She walked all the way to old Canterlot Town, then climbed to the top of nearby Foal Mount.

She paused in one of the old town’s countless charming little squares. This one had a balcony on one side, a viewing station sandwiched between two houses, with a bench overlooking irregular streets and roofs below stretching down to the river like a patchwork picnic cloth. It was presumably supposed to be beautiful or something.

How long had she been walking? Her shoes were liberally decked with dust, her legs ached, her feet stung, her mouth was dry. She looked up. The sun was barely starting to edge over the horizon.

The horizon that’s about ten miles that way, she thought. That’s what set this whole mess in motion. That’s what ruined Trixie’s memories, what made Tavi…

Except that’s not really true. Octavia found the courage to do exactly what she wanted to. Finding the horizon didn’t force her to do anything. How long has she felt this way? Days? Months? Years? Always? What does that mean for our friendship?

“You look lost, young lady.” The voice was of an old man, resting on the bench. He was so small that Vinyl hadn’t spotted him before. He sat hunched over so low that the tip of his beard nearly touched the walking cane on which he rested.

“I'm sorry, I didn't realise this spot was taken.”

“That's quite alright. I don't mind some company for once.”

Vinyl looked out over the dark rooftops, the first inklings of dawn beginning to creep over them. “I wasn't expecting to see anybody up this early.”

“Nor was I. I’m here every day, and rarely see a soul,” he said.

“To watch the sunrise?” she asked incredulously.

He nodded. “To watch the sunrise,” he repeated. “It reminds me of old friends. Friends and family.”

An old man’s old friends. Will Tavi and me still be friends in a few years? Decades? Or will this… change everything?

“You seem distracted,” he said. “Troubled, even.”

Vinyl coughed. “I guess.” She hadn't met his eyes, instead looking at the horizon, the rooftops, the ground, the flowerbeds, her hands, the bench.

He was watching her calmly, barely moving. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

“What?” she asked, startled. “Talk about what?”

“It. Whatever it may be. There’s clearly an ‘it’. And when a person is haunted by an ‘it’, they often find relief in talking about it.”

Tell a complete stranger? About Octavia, about the kiss, about… Why does he want to know?

She took in the man’s tiny frame, his hunched back, dishevelled old coat and scuffed shoes, his elderly grey hair and beard, and the joyful twinkle in his golden eyes.

Stop being suspicious of everyone you meet, Vinyl. This isn’t his fault. He’s one of those rare people who’s actually nice. He’s offering to help.

What do I even say?

Vinyl sat down with a sigh. “All right. I’m… worried about a friend.”

He said nothing.

“No! No, this isn’t one of those ‘I’m just asking for a friend’ things that's clearly about me. It's not that.”

He laughed quietly but waited.

“She…” Vinyl paused to gather her words. She hunched over, looking down at the flower boxes at the base of the railings. “She cares about me more than I realised. A lot more. Last night she kissed me.” She glanced at the old man to see if he looked shocked or disapproving at all, but he wore the same quiet curiosity as before.

She continued, “I had no idea she felt like that. Which, I guess, just means I’m a complete idiot, right? No surprise there. I mean, normally I can read a room, you know? I can look at a crowd and know who fancies who, or who’s got a chip on their shoulder, or who’s had too much to drink already. It’s a big part of what I do. I have to get a feel for the crowd so I can guide it the right way.

“But I never had a clue what Tavi was thinking. I mean, in hindsight it’s obvious, you know? The signs were all there. Any old friend doesn’t just put up with the shit I’ve put her through.

“So when she did it, I just… froze. I had nothing. And now she thinks I hate her or something. I don’t want to lose her. We've been friends for, well forever. I want to make it right, but I don’t... know what right is. I keep trying words out, but no matter what I think of, they sound wrong.”

“That’s because words are lies,” said the old man with finality.

Vinyl looked at him in surprise. “What? No! I didn’t lie to her. At least… I didn’t mean to.”

He shook his head. “I don’t mean your words, or hers. All words. The very purpose of language is to deceive.”

Vinyl frowned. “That sounds kind of bitter.”

“Not at all,” said the old man. He took a deep breath, looking out over the rooftops dappled with silver dawn. “Long ago, in the dream time of the world, all of the creatures were mute.”

Okay, thought Vinyl, the old guy wants to tell a story. May as well let him. She sat back to listen.

“One day, on a cold winter’s morning, a pegasus and a gryphon met at a watering hole. They saw each other at the same moment, and in that moment both knew that they would have to fight to the death. The gryphon knew because her chicks were starving, and the meat of a pegasus just might see them through the winter. The pegasus knew because he didn’t wish to leave his own foals without a father. So tell me, what do you think happened next?”

Vinyl wasn’t expecting to be called on for answers. “Er… a pegasus is like a horse with wings, right? And a gryphon is half bird, half lion, so it has wings too?”

“That’s right,” said the old man.

“Only the gryphon has claws, while the pegasus only has its, er, hooves?”

“Yes, but don’t underestimate hooves. They pack quite a punch.”

Vinyl tried to work out the facts. “So… which of them could fly faster?”

“In a straight line, the pegasus could. But the gryphon is smart. She knows the pegasus likely has a family or friends nearby.”

“So the pegasus probably isn’t going to just fly away either, or else the gryphon will turn on his family. So he could stand his ground and fight, but in nature documentaries that usually doesn't work well for the prey. Or he could try and lead the gryphon away…”

The old man chuckled. “Don’t worry, there’s no right answer. The same scene played out countless times across unmeasured aeons. And the old god-kings in their towers across the ocean watched it repeat and repeat until one day, they decided they were bored. And so, with their fearsome magic, they gave the powers of comprehension and speech to all the creatures of the world.”

God-kings? Towers across the sea? This isn’t like any creation myth I’ve heard before.

“One day, not long afterwards, the same pegasus met the same gryphon at the same watering hole. They recognized each other, as they’d both barely survived their last fight, and each carried scars to prove it. Neither wanted to fight again, but both knew they had no choice. Just as they were about to start, the pegasus raised his hoof and shouted, ‘Stop!’”

The old man paused, his hand raised. Vinyl glanced down at his hand, dark red in colour and covered in spots and veins from age, then back up at his wrinkled face lit up with the joy of storytelling.

“The gryphon stopped. The pegasus said to her, ‘Further up the river you can find my brother. He is injured, and does not know to expect you. He has no foals of his own to look after. You can feed your chicks this day without a fight’.”

Vinyl asked, “Was he telling the truth? Selling out his own brother?”

The old man smiled. “Maybe he was. Maybe he just wanted a chance to escape. Maybe he was leading the gryphon into a trap.”

“So did the gryphon believe him or not?”

“How could she? The pegasus was her enemy, so of course he would lie. At the same time, if there was a chance she could feed her chicks through the winter without risking a dangerous fight, she couldn’t ignore that. The gryphon was not stupid, yet these words put her in a dilemma.”

Vinyl looked out over the rooftops. The golden dawn light washed over terracotta rooftops, evaporating dew and filling the air with scattered dusty scents. She took a deep breath.

“So you’re saying,” she started slowly, “I can’t find the right words to say because... there are no right words?”

He nodded. “No matter how well chosen, words alone will always ring of falsehood if that's what the one listening expects to hear. You would need to find some other way of conveying your meaning. Something that cannot be a lie.”

Vinyl looked at him. “What could that possibly be?”

“I cannot tell you that,” he answered kindly. “The answer is different for each person. But don’t worry, you will find an answer. Something that works just for the two of you.”

The old man got up to leave, slowly easing his cracking joints upright. He fumbled around before setting his hand on his walking stick.

Vinyl called “Hey, I never even caught your name?”

“I’m sorry, dear, I’d probably forget my own head if it wasn’t stitched on.” He frowned, paused, felt on top of his head, then carefully knelt down to reach under the bench, fumbled around for a few seconds and emerged with a battered old hat that he put on. “Much better. Where was I? Ah, yes, introductions.” He stuck his hand forward for her to shake. “Hello. My name’s Tirek.”

10. Frustrations

View Online

Trixie couldn’t sleep.

She stared at her luminescent magical rabbit alarm clock. It was such a silly little thing, but she kept it because her mother had bought it for her eleventh birthday.

Except she hadn’t. Her eleventh birthday had never really happened. All of Trixie’s memories of being a happy child with two loving parents, everything her life was built on had been made up – somehow, by someone.

Trixie hadn’t really believed it until Friday night, when Vinyl had taken them to see the edge of the world – what they’d come to refer to as ‘the horizon’. It stood as a resolute, irrefutable statement that the world she thought she lived in was a lie. Every excuse, every pretence of reality, had faded in the light of that solid wall of unreality. She’d tried to think of other explanations for it, but none of them were at all convincing.

It was hard to know what frustrated her more: that so much had been taken from her, or that she didn’t know who to blame for it. She didn’t blame Vinyl Scratch, or Octavia. They were simply following the same trail she was. She couldn't blame Chrysalis, who was as much a prisoner as she was. She couldn't blame her parents, who didn't have any more choice than her in what they'd been made to be.

Who had made that decision for them in the first place? Who was responsible for this fake world and this fake life? Could they have given her any sort of life they wanted, or did they have to give her this one? Couldn't they at least have let her know what her current life really was? Did they have to give her these memories of a better time that never even existed?

She thought back to her eleventh birthday. She'd been so excited she ran around in excitement and broke a vase, spilling roses, porcelain shards and water across the floor. It was a nice vase. For years she saw that faint discoloration in the carpet by the fireplace and felt guilty about it. She still felt the memory of that guilt. Except that hadn't happened either. She felt guilty for something she hadn't ever done.

Now that comical little clock, its edges glowing faint turquoise in the night, was a symbol of everything she’d lost.

She wasn't going to get any sleep at all.

A few hours later, she slumped down to breakfast having barely slept at all. Her father was frantically rushing around the kitchen trying to do six things at once and none of them well, a sure sign he was expecting a tough day at work.

Trixie pushed her cereal around the bowl half-heartedly.

“How’s school, honey?” asked Jackpot. His tie draped through the butter as he fumbled with the hot toast. His suit was crumpled, his shoes muddy, his hair askew. He never looked tidy any more, and Trixie was sure it must affect his work, but whenever she brought it up he said he was fine, seriously, just fine, stop worrying about it.

“It’s okay.”

“Was everything all right with mom last weekend?”

Oh yes, papa, absolutely lovely. As usual we had a wonderful time without you, thought Trixie. Thanks to Mama earning substantially more than you, she’s able to take me to all manner of exciting places you never could. Last weekend we saw an exclusive live show by the Symphonic Metal Opera at the Manehattan Theatre, and next weekend she’ll be taking me to rub shoulders with VIPs at the Grand Gathering Gala. There’ll even be a performance there by the Griffonstone Quintet. Won't that be fantastic?

“Meh,” is what she said, nudging her spoon and spilling a little milk.

“Morning, Trixie!”

Trixie slumped into the car’s leather back seat. She always found Pacific Glow distressingly energetic in the mornings.

“I thought mom was supposed to be driving me today?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs Dandy Lion had to be at an early meeting with investors. You’ll just have to make do with little old me.” She winked at Trixie in the rear-view mirror, then indicated and pulled out.

How long does it take her each morning to put her hair into that ridiculous shape?

“Did you get the Gala ticket I e-mailed you?”

“Yeah. That’s all Trixie needs, right? Trixie doesn’t need to print it out or anything?”

“Nope. And since your name’s on the list, you probably don’t even need that, they’ll know who you are anyway. Um, best take it just in case, though.”

For the next twenty minutes, Pacific Glow drove while humming something tuneless and upbeat, her big twin poofs of hair bouncing up and down, while Trixie glumly watched her in the mirror.

She’s been up for how long already, ferrying my mother about and doing her menial work? And she was probably up late last night doing the same thing. And still she manages to be cheerful. It’s like a bottomless well of cheerfulness. Like…

Trixie’s eyes widened as she looked at the bright pink pom-pom hair bobbing about in the front seat.

No… no, she couldn’t be. Could she?

“Although he’s remembered now as a great scientist, it’s important to remember that Star Swirl also dabbled in alchemy. He lived in a time when belief in the supernatural was commonplace. At the same time he was classifying the known elements and developing the periodic table, we’re told that Star Swirl was experimenting with ways of extracting magical power from crystals. It sounds silly to us now, but he saw no conflict between science and magic, instead seeing them as two sides of the same coin.”

Trixie sat there chewing nervously on her pencil, even more bored than usual. The events that Miss Cheerilee was describing took place centuries ago in a foreign land. Did any of them actually happen? Was Star Swirl even a real person, or was all this just made up?

“According to notes left by his assistant, Meadowbrook, Star Swirl was also interested in Celestialism, an obscure belief that the sun was raised each morning by a goddess named Celestia, and the moon by her sister Luna.”

The class found this idea very amusing. While they were laughing, Trixie cast her eyes left and right. Octavia was withdrawn, her eyes barely focused. Vinyl was laughing along with the class, but had a shifty look, as if her cheer was fake. Something is definitely up with those two, she thought. I’ll have to check in break.

“Yes, yes, just like our school’s principals,” continued Cheerilee. “No doubt the sisters were named after the two goddesses of legend.” A student put her hand up. “Yes, Lyra?”

“Is that why Celestia uses a sun symbol, and Luna uses a moon?”

“Well, you’d have to ask them or their parents, but I expect so.” She indicated a map of the city on the back wall. “You may be interested to hear that the two rivers that bound our city were once known as the Celestia and Luna Rivers. That too was a hold-over from Celestialism, and more recently they're simply known as the East and West Rivers.”

The bell rang, and Trixie quickly packed her bag.

“But listen, everyone,” added Cheerilee, raising her voice to be heard over the suddenly active classroom, “don’t go pestering the principals all at once about this, okay?”

Monday was awkward. And nobody was telling Trixie why.

She'd been right in her suspicion. Vinyl and Octavia had not spent the morning classes exchanging meaningful glances, but rather a pointed, conscious lack of glances. Each would hover on the verge of looking at the other, only to turn away, in a frustrating dance of never quite doing anything. A subtly encoded refusal to communicate that would speak volumes to anyone who could decipher it. But neither of them had given Trixie the codebook.

Flash Sentry caught up to her in the hallway after lunch. “Hi, er. Trixie? Can I maybe ask you something?” he asked.

Trixie was instantly suspicious. Flash was the poster boy for shallow, popularity-obsessed students. That wasn’t even an allegory, she’d seen the actual posters, and suspected he’d had them printed himself. He was mainstream incarnate. So what could he possibly have to ask her?

“You may ask the Great and Powerful Trixie a question,” she replied haughtily.

He scratched the back of his head in that cute embarrassed way that seemed to drive other girls wild, but just drove Trixie mad. He said quietly, “Er, I mean like, in private. If that’s okay?”

Not many places in a school are truly private. There's enough traffic of curious people that whatever corner you hide in, the chances of being seen are high. If she was seen talking to Flash Sentry somewhere secluded, the assumption would be that there was something ‘going on’ between them – regardless of a complete lack of evidence. And rumours like that flying around the school would make life very difficult. ‘There’s no smoke without fire,’ people would say, as if that excused them believing whatever nonsense they felt like. She really didn’t need that right now. So she needed to make sure they weren’t seen.

She quickly took in their surroundings. There were only a few students in this hallway: Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle running towards one of the art classrooms, presumably in search of some sort of mischief; Minuette heading out of the biology classroom having just fed the fish; Snowflake carrying an assortment of sports supplies.

“Hold on a second. Wait right here,” she said, and walked past a block of lockers to the door to the biology room. She casually opened it, checked inside – yes, it was empty, good. Now she just had to pick the right moment when nobody was looking to beckon him over.

She turned round to find Flash standing right behind her, with that infuriatingly dumb, innocent look on his face.

“Dammit,” she growled. “What part of ‘Wait right here’ don’t you get?”

“Hmm? What do you mean?”

“Just get in here.” She grabbed his shirt, hauled him in and closed the door before anyone could see them.

The biology room was dark since the blinds were down, and quiet save for the various little noises of fish, amphibians and mice in their cages. Students were on a rotation to feed and look after them. Fluttershy, normally the go-to choice for animal care, had been excluded from the rota and forbidden from going anywhere near them after her stunt with the frogs a few weeks ago.

“And just what did you wish to ask the Great and Powerful Trixie?”

Flash stepped closer to her, and his expression suddenly turned more serious. He was a little too close, in fact. Trixie took a step back to keep a reasonable distance.

He stepped forwards. She stepped back.

“Um.” Another step. “What are you—?” Her back bumped into the old wood and glass fume cupboard. “I’ll have you know that the Great mmmmmff!” He clasped one hand over her mouth. His other hand gripped her shoulder, holding her in place.

Trixie’s situation dawned on her. She’d walked in here, dragged him in with her, shut the door, making sure nobody knew they were here, and now he’d turned on her. She’d always thought Flash was just a buffoonish playboy, dumb and vaguely offensive to womankind but otherwise harmless. Had she been wrong?

She grabbed his arm in both hands, trying to dislodge it from her mouth, but found she hadn’t the strength to shift it. Was Flash always this strong?

He leaned in and whispered, “Shhhh.”

Her eyes narrowed. If he thinks I'm some meek little girl he can take advantage of, he has another thing coming! Her eyes flicked to the door as she planned her escape. First, distract him with a swift knee and a bite to the hand. Second, rather than trying to match force and push him off, duck and turn my head to the side so he crashes into the glass. Third, make a run for that door. If he grabs my hoodie, raise my arms and angle my hips to slide out of it. And, as soon as I can, shout for help.

Her planning was curtailed when Flash erupted into green flame that covered him from head to toe – including the hands holding Trixie. It's burning me! She screamed through his fingers as the fire licked at her skin. A moment later the flames had evaporated and Flash had been replaced by a youth with black skin and steely blue eyes. She recognised him as one of the two assistants from the creepy wedding shop.

“Chrysalis wishes to speak with you,” he said in a voice like a rattlesnake. “Come to her shop tomorrow night. Alone,” he stressed.

He released her, and as he stepped away another flash of flame replaced his angular face and lean body with the strong, gentle features of Big Macintosh. He shut the door behind him as he left, leaving Trixie gasping in shock amid the rustling cages.

She stayed there catching her breath, hunched over, hands on her knees, fear and anger warring inside her. She struggled to drag enough of the sickeningly warm air into her lungs, and gagged at the lingering smell of Flash, or whoever that really was. After a few minutes she caught enough of herself to draw in a really deep breath.

“And she couldn’t send me a freaking e-mail?!” she shouted.

Trixie couldn’t sleep.

She stared at her luminescent magical rabbit alarm clock. The comical little symbol of everything she’d lost.

That's it. I've had enough.

She grabbed her phone, yanking it off the charging cable, and quickly tapped out a message.

hey mom, is it ok if i bring a couple friends 2 the gala?

11. The Taming of the Queen

View Online

“Morning, Trixie!”

Trixie slid into the back seat. “Good morning, Glow. Here, have a sweetie!” she chucked a big gobstopper to Pacific Glow.

“Thanks!” She popped it in her mouth. “You’re im a goob moov shoday,” she said through a mouthful of gobstopper.

“That’s right, Trixie is excited for the gala.”

“You gof ve eshtra tickesh you ashed for, righ?”

“Sure enough.” She waggled her phone.

“Washou gon wear?”

“That outfit with the big hat and all the sparkles, I think. The one mother got me last year. Speaking of which, can Trixie perhaps ask you for a little favour?”

“Hmmmf?”

“Hey Trix, I got the speaker you asked me… for… huh?”

While hefting a nearly person-sized speaker, Vinyl looked around in confusion. Trixie had closed the door behind her, locked it with jangling keys and shoved those keys firmly in her pocket.

With effort, Vinyl lowered her hands enough to let her peer over the top of the big speaker. Octavia was stood at the far side of the music room with her arms crossed, frowning.

She turned back to Trixie, who was standing in front of the door. She narrowed her eyes. “I’m guessing you weren’t really going to ask me about the acoustics, then?” she asked.

“Sorry about the trickery, girls, but Trixie really needs to talk to you two together,” said Trixie, stepping forward to take the speaker from Vinyl with both hands and walk it carefully over to the far side of the room.

Hands full, facing away from her, totally defenceless. The keys are in my back pocket, she saw me put them there.

Right now she’s wondering if she can get those keys out of my pocket and escape while I’ve got my hands full. But if she does that she’ll never find out what this trick was about, and the curiosity will kill her. So she won’t do that, and having decided not to, she’ll have no choice but to take the conversation seriously.

She’s so easy to mold.

Trixie put the speaker down in the corner and stood up. “Take a seat.” She indicated a table with three chairs. Vinyl and Octavia reluctantly took seats on one side, avoiding each other’s eyes, while Trixie hopped into the other, leaning forward.

Damn it, they’re still at it, thought Trixie.

“Okay, so,” started Trixie. “It’s clear you two have something going on,” she said, waving a hand in the air between them, “and that’s lovely, really, but we’re on a clock here and Trixie really needs you to back her up. Both of you. Think you can do that?”

The other two murmured their assent, looking more and more like naughty children.

They’re still at it. Whatever it is, it’s still going on, and it’s going to distract them from what we need to do next. How can I get them to concentrate?

She said, “Good, because Chrysalis is expecting me to swing by her shop tonight, and Trixie doesn’t plan on being her plaything any longer.” She turned to Vinyl. “You wanted to get closer to the politico Pinkie Pie. I have an idea where we can do that.” She slid a leaflet across the desk.

Vinyl leaned forward to read it. “The Grand Gathering Gala?”

“The Gala?” asked Octavia, suddenly interested. She reached for the leaflet “Well, I’d love to go, of course, but it’s famous for—” Her fingers brushed Vinyl’s, which were reaching for it too. They both pulled back, looking away.

Yep. Damn it, damn it, damn it. They just can’t concentrate like this. I have to fix this right now if they’re going to be any use at all. Sorry, girls, but this is for your own good.

Trixie put her phone down on the desk in front of her and unlocked it. “Yeah, actually…” She stood up, still looking down and tapping buttons on the screen, and said, “Octavia, here, can you have a look at this?”

Octavia leant forward in her chair. Without warning, Trixie reached a hand behind Octavia’s head and pulled her forward into a kiss.

Octavia froze, her hands awkwardly waving in the air. Vinyl’s widening eyes darted quickly between the two as she realised what was happening, until she jumped to her feet and shoved the two of them apart. Octavia fell back into her seat with a soft thud, a look of shocked confusion on her face.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” shouted Vinyl.

In response, Trixie grabbed the lapels of Vinyl’s jacket and pulled her forward into a kiss as well. It was badly aimed, sloppy, and only lasted a second before Vinyl pushed away and stumbled back, knocking over her chair and landing roughly on the floor.

Trixie stood up straight, looking down at both her victims. She took a second to catch her breath.

Octavia recovered first. She coughed into her hand. “I suppose that little trick was intended to make a point?”

“It was,” confirmed Trixie.

From the floor, propped up on one elbow, Vinyl looked from one to the other, reserving her harshest glare for Trixie. She touched her fingers to her lips as if wary of a cut or bruise there. “Care to spell it out for me?” she said resentfully and a little too loud.

Trixie waved a hand in a big circle over the two of them. “This, whatever it is, this thing that you two have going on? I need you to get over it. I can’t just wait patiently while you figure it out, we need to pay attention right now. Chrysalis has been playing with us all, getting us to do her dirty work, and I’m pretty sure she’s got big plans for the Gala this weekend.”

Vinyl wiped her lips resentfully. “Where’d you get all that from?”

“First, she makes us doubt ourselves with that detail about our past. She gives us a lead so we’ll uncover clues that reinforce what she’s saying. Then she isolates us and tries to manipulate us individually. I’m guessing one or both of you have been to see her already?”

Octavia looked away.

“Trixie thought so.” She checked Vinyl, who shook her head. “You’re probably next, then. Well, two can play at that game, and Trixie can win it.”

Vinyl set her chair upright and firmly sat on it. She crossed her arms and slouched, shooting daggers at Trixie. “Why? What’s this Gala thing?”

Octavia cleared her throat. “The Gala is an event held once a year at Fillydelphia Hall, attended by the cream of local society.”

“I don’t get it,” said Vinyl. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a party, right?”

“It isn’t just any old party. The Grand Gathering Gala is the most prestigious event of the year,” explained Octavia.

“Snobbiest party ever. Gotcha.”

“Many of the most important people in the city will be there.”

“Boring old guys. Great.”

“The masquerade is apparently a sight to behold. Everyone who attends the Gala dresses spectacularly.”

“Stiff clothes. Check.”

“They’ll have the Griffonstone Quartet playing the ballroom.”

“Dull music. Boring dancing. Right.”

Despite the slight against her craft, Octavia pressed on. “It’s extremely exclusive. The absolute cream of society will be there.”

“Tedious conversation. Whoo.”

“Including, I imagine, the Mayor.”

Vinyl finally got it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “And you think, if there really is a Pinkie Pie working in the Mayor’s office, she’ll be there too. And we can find her, talk to her or stalk her or something, and get some answers.”

“Exactly,” said Trixie. “Or at least, there’s a good chance she’ll be there. And even if not, many of the people there are likely to know something. It’s our best chance at finding a connection and some answers that don’t come from Mistress Chrysalis.”

“But as I said, it’s utterly exclusive,” reiterated Octavia. “Money alone won’t get you a ticket.”

Vinyl snorted. “I’ve snuck into plenty of parties before.”

“Not with security like this. Do you really imagine we could inveigle ourselves into it without getting caught?”

Trixie proudly brandished her phone. “Why should we sneak in when Trixie has tickets? Wait, hang on.” She tapped in the unlock code again and brandished her phone, a little less triumphantly. “Tickets!”

Octavia’s eyes grew till they looked like saucers. “How…” she breathed.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie has her ways,” she boasted. “Speaking of which, there’ll probably be a second Pinkie Pie at the Gala.”

“Who?” asked Vinyl, moments before Octavia could.

“My mother’s secretary, Pacific Glow.”

“What? How long has…”

“She’s been working for Mom for a few months now, but I only just worked out who she really is. She hid it well. She keeps her hair up in a big puffy twintail thing and wears glasses, and she really doesn’t act like a Pinkie Pie - until you give her sugar, that is. Then she becomes totally Pinkie.”

“We are so going to that party,” said Vinyl.

“What were you saying about Chrysalis wanting to see you?” asked Octavia.

Trixie told them the story of her intimidating invitation the day before, concluding with, “I’m through being her puppet. It’s time we took control.”

“All right, but how? Whenever we talk to her she seems to know everything about us, and we know basically nothing about her.”

“That’s what she wants us to think. She’s been trying to play hard to get, making us work for it, reeling us in, but she’s gotten more hurried lately. Her ‘invitation’ for me to meet her tonight was even more forceful.”

“It’s terrible,” sympathised Octavia.

“It’s desperate,” corrected Trixie. “She’s running out of time, and she needs us for something soon. She lured us in, she told us about our memories, pointed us at the Pinkie Pies, and pushed us into finding the horizon. She wanted us to learn about all of that. And she’s clearly on a timescale, or she wouldn’t be pushing at each of us so hard now. Remember that night she called us ‘puppets’?”

Octavia nodded.

Trixie continued, “She made a distinction between ‘locals’ like us, and ‘guests’, or outsiders like her. That means there is an outside, something beyond that horizon.”

Vinyl’s scowl deepened. “That’s a big conclusion to get to from a couple of words.”

“I know, but there’s one more thing. She also called herself a ‘prisoner’.”

“Meaning that, however many of these ‘outsiders’ there are, they’ve all been put in here as some sort of punishment?” asked Octavia. “That this whole city really is… their prison?”

“The thing is, Chrysalis doesn’t strike Trixie as the type to just put up with something like that. Trixie’s guess is that she has an escape plan, some way out of this town, and we’re a part of it. She needs the three of us to do something to make it happen. And if it’s urgent like that then it probably has something to do with the Gala this weekend.”

“So she wants you there tonight so she can manipulate you into doing… whatever she needs you to do to escape?” clarified Octavia. Trixie nodded.

“Like what?” asked Vinyl.

“I don’t know, but whatever it is she’ll probably try and make me think it’s my idea. And in the next couple of days I expect she’ll do something similar with you two.”

“I can’t say I enjoy being her plaything either,” said Octavia. “What can we do about it?”

Trixie reached under the table and pulled out a heavy bag that she put in front of Octavia. “You’ll need these.”

Trixie closed the door behind her with a soft click, leaving Octavia and Vinyl Scratch sitting there. For a second, Vinyl almost expected her to lock them in.

They sat side by side, both facing nothing.

With Trixie gone, Vinyl lost the target that had been keeping her angry and focused. There was nothing left but her and Octavia. No excuses, no distractions, no helpful annoying splinter to fixate on. Nothing but the awkward silence between them.

Octavia broke it first. “What do you think is out there?”

Vinyl looked out of the window, as if that was symbolic of the world beyond the horizon. “An answer to all this ‘pony’ nonsense we keep hearing about would be a start,” she said. “Beyond that… I’d like to see a world that isn’t locked up in a little box like this one.”

“Is it really so little?”

Vinyl shrugged. “Okay, so it’s a fairly big box.”

“What I mean is… is it so constraining? Are we suffering so badly from being here? Whatever is outside the box could be absolutely anything, Vinyl. It could be a desert wasteland, or an old and dying world, or black empty space, or frozen ice, or something beyond our imagination. Compared to that, life in here is set up pretty well.”

Vinyl frowned at her. “So you’re happy living in this cage? I can see why you would be. It is nicely gilded.”

“I didn’t say that, Vinyl,” insisted Octavia more sharply. “I want answers just as much as you do. But I need to know if you’re prepared for what we might find.”

Vinyl stared down at the table. I know I shouldn’t take it out on her. Tavi has stuck with me through plenty of scrapes before. She’s got the same doubts as me, I’m sure.

“Mice,” she whispered eventually.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s about what I saw at the horizon,” said Vinyl quietly, “and what Chrysalis said before. ‘Little mice can scurry in and out of the cage and never know it’s there, but once they see the bars they’re trapped’.” She took a deep breath. “I told you, I saw a car full of people drive out of town, and just… wink out. Stop being people. They never realised it was happening. And maybe some time later they’ll drive back through, and start being people again. Maybe the same people, just with a few extra memories, and they’ll never realise those memories aren’t real. Or maybe they’ll be whole new people that just think they’re the same people. Either way… I…” She struggled for words.

“Now that you’ve seen the cage bars, you can’t ignore them?” Octavia finished her thought for her in a gentle tone.

Vinyl nodded. “Yeah, I can’t. I can’t… pretend to be fine, you know? Not any more. Not when I feel like I could just be rubbed out at any moment, at the whim of… whatever it is that’s set all this up. Or when…”

“When what?” asked Octavia.

“Not when the same thing could happen to you.”

“To me?”

“If all our memories are fake, or some of them are, and there’s no way of telling, then what’s to stop you from being a different person from the one I know? How can I…” She trailed off.

“How can you what?” asked Octavia more quietly.

Vinyl looked resolutely at the speaker sat in the furthest corner of the room. She forced out, “If… if you could change suddenly like that, or if my memories of you could change for no reason, then how… how can I love you?”

Octavia looked away, closing her eyes with a pained expression. Nothing but the sound of their breathing interrupted the silence. Vinyl became acutely aware of the feel of the chair, the sweat under her shirt, the shape of her spine, the position of her fingers, the pressure on her toes, the thickness of her tongue. She coughed, feeling cold creep up her cheeks.

“Oh, Vinyl. What am I going to do with you?”

Vinyl gasped, and looked up sharply to find Octavia looking right at her with an indulgent smile.

“You always try to handle things like this on your own. It’s okay to ask for help sometimes.”

Octavia turned her chair around to face Vinyl directly. She rested one hand below her throat and Vinyl could see the fingers shivering slightly. Taking a deep breath, she said, “I love you, Vinyl Scratch. But I’m also your friend. I don’t ever want to be part of what’s making things more difficult for you. When you’re facing a problem like this, know that you can talk to me. Don’t be afraid of scaring me away.”

Vinyl’s eyes grew wide. She tried to reply but could do nothing but gape. She closed her mouth, scrunched her eyes shut, and meekly nodded.

“Good.” She felt Octavia’s hand gently tap the top of her head. She felt Octavia lift her hand away, and heard her stand up. “When you’re ready.”

People milled around the square outside Chrysalis’ shop, admiring clothes and jewellery in shop windows. The sunset was spilling warm gold across the tiles, bricks and ivy. Inside the shops and cafés, candles were being lit and lights were being turned on.

The door to Chryssi’s Wedding Supplies jangled open and Trixie stumbled in, pushed by the female of the two assistants who followed her in and stood by the door.

Chrysalis looked up from the display of corsages she was arranging. “So glad you could join me,” she said.

“What’s going on?” asked Trixie, glancing frantically around the shop. “Who are you?”

Chrysalis sighed. “Has it really been so long? I’m a little disappointed, I suppose, but not really surprised. None of you ever manage to remember me for more than a few days.”

Trixie watched in confusion as Chrysalis walked about the shop, smartening up the displays and picking up dropped petals from the floor.

“My name is Chrysalis, and I have an offer to make you.”

“An offer? Is that why the great and powerful Trixie was dragged here by that ruffian?” She turned to look accusingly at the assistant standing guard by the door.

“I hope you weren’t treated too badly. It was a necessary precaution to make sure you found your way here safely. To make sure you didn’t miss out.”

“Miss out on what?”

“On a solution to your problem, of course.”

Increasingly exasperated, Trixie called out, “What problem?”

“I’m talking about your mother, Trixie. Dandy Lion never has time for you, does she?” Trixie gasped. Chrysalis put a hand on her shoulder. “I know, dear. It’s all right. You haven’t done anything wrong, but it feels like you’re being punished, doesn’t it? Like the only thing she really loves is her job.”

“How do you know all this?” asked Trixie. She blinked tears out of her eyes.

“It’s my job to know people. And when I can, it’s my job to help people. Let me help you, Trixie.”

“Help me how?”

“I believe your mother does still love you. She just needs reminding of it. And what better way to do that than to make her think she’s going to lose you?”

Trixie flinched. “Lose me? What are…”

Chrysalis shook her head. “Don’t worry, you won’t be in any real danger. It’ll all be a trick. But Dandy Lion doesn’t need to know that.”

Trixie swallowed and cleared her throat. “What do I need to do?”

“We’ll send her a message saying you’re caught in a… shall we say, a gas leak? Something like that? When she hears that I’m sure she’ll come running over to see you.”

“A gas leak? Um… where would there be a gas leak.”

“I’m fairly sure your school still has a gas boiler, right? Listen, I’ll take care of sending her an urgent message – let’s say, Saturday afternoon? You just need to let her know in advance where you’ll be. Tell her you’ll be dropping by school for a club activity. And maybe mention that the school have announced they have problems with their gas flow, or something. What would they call it, to avoid causing a panic? A ‘breach’?”

Trixie snorted. “I would if I ever saw her.”

Chrysalis gave her a sad smile. “That’s a shame. In that case I suppose you’ll have to tell somebody else and ask them to pass the message onto her. Is there anybody like that?” she asked.

As she will know, that would be mom’s secretary, Pacific Glow. Who is actually a Pinkie Pie. And the Pinkie Pie Society will meet on Saturday.

A broad, wicked smile slowly leaked onto Trixie’s face. “So that’s how Trixie fits into your plan.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Straightening her back and standing tall again, she said, “You need the great and powerful Trixie to leak information about a breach in the wall to the Pinkie Pie collective, ahead of their next meeting on Saturday morning, so that they’ll act as a distraction during your own escape that night.”

“What are you…?”

“Very clever. And you probably have similar plans for all three of us. Did you get all that, Octavia?”

“Oh, thank goodness,” said the assistant standing by the door in a politely clipped voice. She reached up and dragged the turquoise wig from her head. “This thing is unbelievably itchy.” She unclipped her own silky dark gray hair, allowing it to flow down, and ran both hands through her hair. “Yes, I heard every word of it, and it does confirm the conclusions you reached quite nicely. Vinyl?”

“Yeah, I’m impressed, Trix,” said Vinyl, walking in the door with a phone pressed to her face. She hung up and put her phone away. “You really had her eating out of your hand.”

The three girls surrounded Chrysalis, who looked on with wide eyes. Where previously she had owned the space, now she was fenced in. Her stunned expression quickly soured into one of resentment that she turned on Trixie. She caught Trixie’s eyes as she stepped forward, drawing her in, and the girl was treated to a brief vision of something much more bestial, with dark, serpentine eyes and a long, snarling muzzle full of teeth. She knew it couldn’t be real, but the image was incredibly compelling.

Er… maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for Trixie to confront her after all…

Then Trixie’s vision was filled with pink as Fluffle Puff collided with Chrysalis, standing between her and Trixie, and wrapped her arms around the older woman.

Chrysalis closed her eyes, her ire calming. After a few seconds she said very quietly, “Thank you.” Fluffle Puff lifted her face to look into Chrysalis’, her eyes dotted with tears. In return, Chrysalis patted her head. “It’s all right.”

The pink girl nodded, squeezed one more hug, then bounded into the back room.

Turning back to the three girls, Chrysalis crossed her arms and stood up straight. “So I take it the three of you remember a little more than you were letting on?”

“You mean about the horizon, and all the Pinkie Pies,” replied Octavia.

“The real live Smarty Pants,” added Vinyl.

“The fake memories,” said Trixie. “Oh, and your lackey cornering me in the biology room. I couldn’t forget that.”

Chrysalis nodded. “Interesting. And now you’ve come here to stop me, I suppose.”

Trixie exchanged a glance with the others. “Not… necessarily,” she confessed.

Chrysalis narrowed her eyes and considered them cautiously, waiting for the rest.

“It rather depends on what you were planning,” continued Trixie. “See, Trixie figured you had an escape plan of some sort, and it involves the three of us. Only, now we’ve figured it out, and without us doing your dirty work that plan’s falling apart. You’re on a deadline, right? So you’ve got a choice, really. We can work together, or you can go back to square one.”

Chrysalis said nothing, but stood for a few moments more in thought, then she turned and called out politely, “Fluffle Puff dear, can you make our guests some tea?” The pink girl leaned out of the door and saluted.

Turning back to the three girls, and gesturing to some chairs at the back of the shop near the shoes, Chrysalis asked, “Why don’t we take a seat?” She walked over and sat on a bench by a rack of brightly coloured ribbons.

“Where shall we start?”

Vinyl was the first to speak up. “Let’s start with what this place really is.”

12. Pink Haze

View Online


Screaming.

Running.

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

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

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

A girl was crying.

She didn’t know why.

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

Pink notepaper. Crayons. Glitter. Glue.

How do I know that?

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

What was I…

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

Where did I come from?

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

Where do I…

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

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

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

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

What’s that smell?

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

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

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

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

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

Who could…

They’re hurt. They’re not moving.

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

Blacker than…

Than…

Than who?

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

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

Who am I?

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

The girl made a decision.

One.

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

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

The girl continued to smile down at her.

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

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

“What’s your name?”

I can’t… it won’t…

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

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

“What? You can’t talk?”

The girl shook her head.

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

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

The girl frowned. Pony?

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

The girl shook her head, confused.

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

Then she screamed.

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

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

“Wh- what d- did you do t- to me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where am I? What is this place?”

She turned to the girl, who simply shrugged.

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

“What’s her problem?”

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

“Really? Well, if you insist.”

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

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

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

Then she screamed.

“I remember…”

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

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

The girl tilted her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl beamed.

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

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

That…

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

That’s not…

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

That’s not me!

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

That never happened!

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

That’s not me!

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

None of that’s real!

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

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

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

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

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

A farm? They’ll have food, right?

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

Ouch. At least I’m over the fence.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s yer name, thief?”

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

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

I wish I had an answer to give you.

“What? Cain’t you even speak?”

She shook her head.

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

She sniffed and nodded.

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

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

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

“Ey, Applejack!” interjected the young man.

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

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

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

She shook her head, and looked back again.

“What, ya leave somethin’ behind?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you’d gone,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

The girl pressed the apple against her stomach.

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

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

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

Oh, that’s good. I was really hungry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh no. She doesn’t like it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every street we walk down looks the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s that smell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look lost, little girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how would you know that?”

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

What’s a ‘homunculi’?

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

Oh, eww! Stop that!

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

The girl pouted at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” said Chrysalis cautiously.

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

“Point taken, old man.”

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

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

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

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

The girl gaped. Did that…

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

“Is that thing real?” asked Chrysalis.

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

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

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

“Hmm? What is it?”

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

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

“Owie!”

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

“Who are you?” asked the woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have a good day,” said the third.

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

“How did he do it?”

What is she trying to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird…

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

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

“Well, if you’re sure.”

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

“Careful, don’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm? What’s that?”

The girl pulled her towards it.

“Some sort of board with writing on it?”

They stopped in front of the signpost.

‘Tartarus’?

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

What’s wrong?

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

13. The Edge of the Knife

View Online

“It all just looks so… normal.”

They were sat around a table in Sugarcube Corner. It turned into a quiet place in the evenings; a couple of people were sitting at tables, reading newspapers or tapping away at laptops, and occasionally somebody would come in for a takeaway coffee.

Octavia cupped her head in her hands. “You know… I look around and it’s all just the same as it always was. People all around us are going to go to work and school tomorrow and have lives like they always have. Everything’s as it should be. And yet…”

At the back of the shop, Pinkie Pie tallied up the day’s takings. Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie wiped the tables. The other customers in the shop seemed not to care about the doubling, so neither did the girls.

“You don’t believe her?” asked Vinyl. She was slumped back in her seat, nursing a mug of steaming hot chocolate.

“I really don’t know what to believe any more. It’s all so unreal. One moment I’m doing something normal, like sitting or buying a drink, and I forget about the whole thing. Life is the same as it always was. Then the next moment I’ll remember it again. ‘Oh, yes, I’d forgotten. None of this is real. Including me.’”

Trixie stayed quiet. She had both her feet up on the seat, hunched tight, and was resting her head on her knees. Her expression was sullen. A cup of tea sat forgotten on the table.

Vinyl watched them both reflectively. “It’s certainly not what we’d have thought. But what else could explain the things we’ve seen? The horizon, the dolls, the wings and stuff that the Rainbooms get, and the…” she indicated the pair of Pinkies.

“Trixie has no reason to trust her,” she said, speaking up for the first time. “She’s lied to us before. She could still be lying to us now.”

“It’s true, she could be,” agreed Vinyl. “And even if she’s telling the truth, it might not be the whole truth. She might be twisting it to get our cooperation. She still needs us to help with her plan, after all.”

“But even if that’s true,” said Octavia, “if she’s still at least telling us some of the truth, or a twisted version of the truth, in order to manipulate us, then it still means that…” She tailed off, unable to complete the thought.

“That we aren’t real,” said Trixie. The other two looked at her sharply, as if shocked she could say it out loud. “That we aren’t real people at all, just an echo of somebody else, made out of bits of other people’s memory. That everything we think ever happened to us was just made up to fill in the gaps, like an optical illusion.”

Octavia scrunched her nose up in distaste, sitting back in her seat. “There’s some other person out there called Octavia. She really is. She’s not pretending, and she’s not a copy of me – I’m a copy of her. She’s the reason I exist. She plays cello, so I play cello. She has grey hair, so I have grey hair. And… she doesn’t even know I’m here. I can’t even blame her for it. None of this is her fault.”

She looked up at the other two. “There’s another Vinyl Scratch and another Trixie Lulamoon out there. Other people as well. And they’re all…” She hesitated.

“Ponies,” completed Vinyl, sullenly.

They sat in silence for a while. Vinyl watched steam rise from her cup; Octavia watched condensation run down her glass; Trixie watched the street lights, filtered through the slats of the window shade, play across the table.

Octavia broke the silence again. “People always assume I must have pushy parents. Why else would a girl my age want to learn something difficult and old-fashioned like the cello, if they weren’t being pushed into it? But I chose to learn cello for myself. I went to see the Griffonstone Quartet play once, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I wanted to do the same thing. I didn’t care that the cello was taller than I was, or how difficult it would be, or how much it would cost. So I saved up my allowance, looked for a teacher in the phone book, and wrote a letter of permission in my mother’s name. That first lesson went well, until the end when I tried to pay the teacher with a handful of little coins. I dropped half of them, and we both had to scramble around on the floor to pick them all up. He was angry, but I think he was also a little impressed. He talked to my parents the next day, and they agreed to make the lessons a real thing.”

Vinyl had heard the story before. At least, she had a memory of hearing it before. That wasn’t quite the same thing, and she wondered if she’d ever get used to that.

Octavia nudged the top of her glass, watching the liquid move. “I feel real. That memory feels real. It’s more than just information, made up to fill in a gap. It’s a part of who I am. It… makes me who I am today.”

Octavia glanced at the clock. “I should be going. Mum will be wondering where I am.”

“I’ll drop you at home,” said Vinyl, sliding out of her seat.

“Thanks.” Octavia picked up her bag.

“Hey, Trix, need a lift?”

Trixie said nothing, simply stared at the table.

“Beatrix Lulamoon!”

“Gah!” Trixie jerked, and nearly fell over. “What?” She looked more confused than alarmed.

“You need a lift home?”

She blinked, took stock for a moment, then shook her head. “No. Er. Thank you. Trixie will call for a lift.” She pulled out her phone, but paused. “Um…”

Vinyl paused to see what she would say.

“Trixie… is not sure if she still wants to go to the Gala. Since we have the answers now, Trixie doesn’t quite see the point. And… Chrysalis did say some of the people there would be… not exactly people, as such.”

Vinyl bit her lip. “I know. Honestly, I’m not so sure either.” She glanced at Octavia, who was standing behind her. “I think we’re all just tired now. I guess we’ll talk about it tomorrow?”

“Yes. Right.”

Vinyl hesitated. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes.” Trixie bobbed her head towards the door. “Go. Both of you. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She picked up her phone and started typing a message.

“Changelings. At least that’s the word others would use for us. Our own word is… hard to pronounce with this tongue.” Chrysalis rolled her face as if trying to do something for which she didn’t have the anatomy.

Outside, the sky was nearly dark save for muted gold streaks amid the clouds. The colours picked out warm highlights and deep shadows in the little courtyard. The people were starting to thin out, and the shops and cafés were beginning to close. Shards of light spilled into the shop, mingling with the humming electric lights.

The girls and Chrysalis sat on a cluster of chairs next to the shoes, surrounded by wedding gear.

“We are… how do I describe it… farmers of emotion. Through subtle and unseen ways we tend the collective soul of a community, solving disputes, encouraging cooperation, guiding other creatures towards enlightenment – if they’re willing to listen. Sometimes communities turn against us, resent our interference. They may even paint us as evil. It makes it easier for them to sleep at night, condemning what they don’t understand.”

“Wait here, I’ll just bring the car round.”

“All right.”

Leaving Octavia in front of Sugarcube Corner, Vinyl hurried down the road, passing people on the sidewalk. A pink-skinned woman with three-toned yellow, pink and purple hair, wearing a sharp business suit, walking together with a white-skinned man with two-toned blue hair wearing smart casual. They shared a quiet laugh at some private joke. Her personal mark looked to be a heart made of glass or crystal, which she wore as a lapel pin; his was a blue shield, embroidered into his shirt, with a purple star in the middle of it.

Were there counterparts to each of these two people out there? Originals, of which they were pale reflections? Did they have the same marks? Were their counterparts a couple as well? Did they even know each other?

As Vinyl reached the parking lot, her phone buzzed with a message.

From: Blueblood
can u do sat? if dj pon-3 cant ill get dj berry punch insted!

Sure, just swap me out for someone else, why don’t you? Never mind that Berryshine can’t hold a set for more than half an hour, especially on a Saturday. At least Sweetie Drops can match a crowd’s mood. Am I that easily replaced?

They’d gone to the wedding shop that night, she realised, hoping to dispel this lurking notion that their memories were fake, to find some loophole to expose the lie, so that they could reclaim their lives. Instead it had been confirmed, even worse than they’d feared. If Chrysalis was to be believed, they were all replicas of somebody else.

Some pony else.

Closing her eyes, Vinyl tried to imagine herself in the form of a small horse. The image was utterly comical. She shook her head.

Some pony version of Vinyl Scratch. Is she like me? Is she a DJ, or a musician, or a performer? Does she like the same music? Does the outside world even have DJs? Would she play a Saturday night set any differently? Is she a swap-in for me, or her own self? Am I not needed any more because she’s there?

And there’s another Octavia out there somewhere? A pony Octavia. How about another Trixie? Another Celestia and Luna? Another Pinkie Pie—

Bad example.

She looked at the phone in her hand as the glow shut itself off, leaving a dark rectangular afterimage.

When did I become jealous? Since when did I have to be the one and only?

She thought about the girls she worked with. Berryshine, DJ Berry Punch, who could take a cluster of different cliques and get them all laughing along together, defusing anger and bringing harmony to the dancefloor. Sweetie Drops, DJ Bon Bon, who could tailor her style to fit any situation, making every night personal. They all had their strengths, but none of them could work an entire night without crashing. They needed each other. Vinyl knew she had the talent to be a great DJ, but she’d be a fool to try and do it alone.

This isn’t a competition. ‘Ultimate Vinyl Scratch contest! The best Vinyl Scratch gets to be a real girl!’

Fluffle Puff walked in from the back room carrying a tray of cups, weaving between aisles of bridesmaids’ dresses. As she approached the girls, she stuck her tongue out at Chrysalis.

“So what’s… outside?” asked Octavia. “There is an outside, right?”

“There is.” Chrysalis nodded as she took a mug. A smile crept onto her face. “Outside of Tartarus is a world where magic is commonplace, inhabited by dragons, gryphons, ponies and untold other strange and wonderful creatures.”

Fluffle Puff swung her hips to gently bump the woman’s head out of the way; in retaliation she swung her head back up to push the girl’s backside away, a mischievous smile on her lips.

“Magical?” asked Octavia. “I mean, dragons sound magical. And gryphons are at least mythical. But ponies not so much, right?”

“Whether great or small, every living thing carries magic within it. Only here in Tartarus can you find a magical dead zone. A barren desert of the soul.”

Octavia stood outside and watched as Vinyl hurried to her car.

It was properly dark now, dusk having faded into evening. The light from Sugarcube Corner’s windows spilled past her onto the street. Street lights and shop windows lit the town, which was still busy. People hurried to and fro, engaged in whatever activities made sense for their own lives.

Immortals. Demons. Criminals. Dragons. Monsters. All the people going past looked ordinary, but any of them could be the creatures Chrysalis had described to them: ancient beings of power, imprisoned here to contain them. It seemed so ridiculous.

That woman with the flower necklace. Is she a demon? Or those guys in suits. Are they immortal? Or those girls with the swagger and the 80s hair. Do they have fearsome magic powers? Or Pinkie Pie, is she—

Bad example.

“Hey there, Mister Cerberuses!” called out the Pinkie Pie as she skipped past, waving at a group of men in suits. This one wore a striped pink, blue and yellow sundress under a short denim jacket, and long stockings. Octavia tried to work out which one she was, but she only had Vinyl’s description of them to go on.

“Miss Pie,” replied one of the men with a curt nod. The Pinkie walked past her into Sugarcube Corner to meet the others.

It seemed obvious to Octavia now, but everybody else still had a blind spot for the number of Pinkie Pies running around. At school she’d seen two Pinkies swap places in the middle of the conversation, one picking up seamlessly where the other had left off, and Rainbow Dash hadn’t even noticed.

What would it be like to forget? To go back to being blind to anything unusual? To blend back into the crowd and leave this whole unsettling situation behind? Is it even an option? Could we ever actually forget, or will this doubt be with us forever no matter what?”

She pulled one hand out of her coat pocket, suddenly aware of the feel of the fabric against her palm. Just a few days ago, her hands were touching the horizon. She’d felt that rough, deceptive, invisible, undeniable surface. She’d seen the world beyond it – what passed for a world. The shallow imitation, repetitive and unimaginative.

That lie surrounded the whole town. Travel far enough in any direction, and you would surely come up against it. Then you either accepted the lie, and passed right through it becoming nothing, or you called it out and were stopped short, trapped within it. That’s where they were now: they’d seen the lie so it no longer worked on them. If it did, they’d just drive through the horizon like anybody else. And then… just cease to be. Become part of the lie.

That could happen to us too, if we let it.

They might not disappear in quite the same way people who passed through the horizon did, but some form of oblivion awaited them. She could feel it wrapped around her soul as surely as it was wrapped around the town. If she surrendered to the lie, if she tried to go back to her life as if nothing was wrong, then in time she would fade away until she was little more than a facsimile of herself.

The memory of scrambling around on the floor for a handful of small coins fluttered through her mind. She still recalled the grain of the wooden chair legs, the smell of the carpet. The frustration of realising how stupid she’d been, mixed with the proud determination to shape her own life.

Whether it had ever actually happened or not, that memory was a part of her. She knew that saving her allowance to learn the cello hadn’t been the smart thing to do. It hadn’t been the easy thing. As a little girl she’d been laughably unaware of the scale of money or the years of work it would take to learn an instrument. But in her childish way she had striven for what she wanted and refused to accept the idea that she wasn’t supposed to.

I didn’t accept my limits then. I won’t accept them now.

“Friendship?” repeated Trixie, stunned.

“Friendship,” confirmed Chrysalis, with sarcastic sincerity. She took a sip from her mug as Fluffle Puff closed the door to the back room. “Put simply, you homunculi are here as an olive branch, to give immortal criminals like myself a chance of one day finding redemption through the simple act of making friends.”

Trixie leaned back against a shelf of variously coloured silk ribbons. “That’s… ridiculous!”

Trixie would have called her father for a lift, but she knew he had a big presentation to make in the morning. She didn’t want to disturb him, so she texted her mother instead, before settling down. Barely a minute later, her phone buzzed.

From: Pacific Glow
Be there in 10. Sit tight.

Of course, Mom’s too busy to come pick me up. As usual. I suppose it makes sense. I mean, it’s not like we’ve ever been close, not really. It’s just my imagination. Just these dumb memories tricking me into thinking we were.

Does Pacific Glow just answer Mom’s phone all the time now? That’s actually a little creepy. Why would she even be working this late?

Pinkie Pie – the one from behind the counter – came over and asked, “Hey Trixie, do you need anything else before we close?”

She shook her head. “No thank you. Trixie is good.”

Pinkie hesitated. “Are you sure? Cause you don’t look so good. In fact you’re all down in the dumps over here.”

“I… Trixie simply has a few things to think about, that is all.”

“Would a cupcake help you cheer up?”

She shook her head again. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a lift coming.”

“Oh, is your mom coming to pick you up?”

Trixie flinched. “Uh, actually…”

Pinkie’s hands flew to her mouth in exaggerated distress. “Oh no, I’ve put my hoof in it, haven’t I? I always manage to do that. I say stuff that makes people feel bad, then when I try to fix that I say more stuff that makes them feel even worse.”

Hoof?

“Hey, Pinkie,” asked Trixie. “What are you doing this Saturday?”

“Um…” Pinkie thought for a moment. “I’m going to a party. And I’m going to another party. And I’m watching the Wonderbolts. And I’m practicing with the Rainbooms. And I’m working here.” She counted the items out on her fingers.

“Wonderbolts? You mean the Wondercolts, don’t you?”

“Oh, that too!” She added another finger, from her other hand.

Trixie shook her head. “You certainly keep busy.”

“I sure do. There’s never enough of me to go around!”

“Is one of those parties the Grand Gathering Gala?”

“That’s right. How’d you know?” Pinkie’s face fell. “Oh, I don’t have any tickets to spare, if that’s what you’re hoping. Sorry! They’re really strict with them.”

“That’s all right, Trixie and her friends have tickets already.”

She cheered up. “That’s great! I’ll see you there. At least, I won’t, but one of me will.”

Huh. I guess I’m going, then.

She watched Pinkie bound away back to the counter.

Certainly that’s what Chrysalis wants. She still needs us for her plan to work. Once we showed her that we weren’t going to be manipulated into doing what she wanted, she quickly gave up and switched to getting our cooperation by answering all our questions. It was quite easy to get her talking, really.

A little too easy.

She stirred her tea idly.

I stopped thinking properly, earlier. It’s not like me. If I’d been more myself, I’d have asked her some incisive questions, like what she was really imprisoned for, and whether the people outside would be pleased to see her.

I was too busy trying to swallow some of the outrageous things she was telling us, about immortals and magic and myths and dimensions, to actually figure out what her angle was. She blindsided us with honesty. Blinded us with the truth.

How much of that lot really was true? And what did she leave out? It’d be weird of her to tell us such a tall tale like that if it wasn’t true, at least partly – you’d choose something more believable for that, surely? – but still, you can hide some subtle lies among the truth.

Especially if you’re practiced at lying – which she is.

Honesty isn’t in Chrysalis’ nature. When she needed us to play along, her first plan wasn’t to ask, it was to trick us into it. Even cornered like that, she’s going to try and twist an angle of some sort. Right now her goal is to get us to help her with the escape plan, but there could be layers of plan behind that.

And if we do it, then what? Do we go with her and see the outside world for ourselves? Or wave her off with a smile and go back to our lives?

Another Pinkie pushed the door open with a jangle of bells. Trixie looked up to watch the arrival deliver a high five to her two other selves on her way to the back room.

Vinyl will decide to go to the Gala. Whether she admits it or not, her curiosity will drive her. She was the first of us to touch the horizon, the first to see the Pinkie Pies. She skipped school for a week to follow a lead. She’s not going to back down now.

Octavia’s too proud not to go, now that she thinks she’s been challenged. However prim she acts, that girl has a competitive streak as wide as the West River. Plus she’s obsessed with the musicians and the whole fancy scene.

That just leaves me.

Chrysalis said it might be dangerous to go. She said there would be more… things like her there. More ‘immortals’, older and stronger and more dangerous than she is. But those two idiots are going to go anyway, with or without me.

A harsh beep from outside told her that Pacific Glow had arrived in the car.

Trixie sat in the back of the car, watching street lights rush past hypnotically.

From hearing her friends talk, it’s clear that Sunset is a ‘pony’. Whatever ponies really are, other than small horses. She doesn’t exactly look like a horse, but definitely comes from outside. What did the Demon of Canterlot High do to earn a place here in the first place?

Chrysalis said there are all these people from outside, these prisoners walking around town, and we just don’t know who they are. Who else is one? Are they people we know? Is Principal Celestia one of them? Mrs Cake? Derpy?

She looked at the bobbing pink hair of her driver in the front seat.

Is Pacific Glow—

Bad example.

But she said everyone else in town – meaning us – is a copy, made from somebody else’s memories. That, like an optical illusion, we have just enough reality to keep the façade up and no more. That none of our memories are real.

She said the world outside is full of magic and wonder and mythical creatures. That humans are the anomaly, found only here in Tartarus. That everyone outside thinks this place is either a prison, or hell, or something like that.

“Trixie?” asked Pacific Glow.

“Hmmn?” Trixie looked up.

“Your Mom wanted me to ask you about Saturday.”

“What about it?”

“Would you like to go to the Gala from home or with your friends?”

Trixie thought for a second. Does it count as ‘home’ if I’ve never lived there? she wondered. “Friends, I think. We’d like to make an entrance together.”

“Okay.”

Chrysalis had an answer to everything we asked her – though at some point we were so surprised we stopped asking and just let her go. About the only thing she couldn’t explain is Pinkie Pie.

Pies. Pinkie Pies. Or should that be Pinkies Pie? As in ‘the sisters Pie’? No, probably not. Does Pinkie have sisters? Other than herself. Selves. I’ve never seen any.

Anyway. That’s a lot of answers to get from one place, a lot of trust to give one untrustworthy source. Right now Chrysalis is the only person telling us anything. If only there was someone else we could ask.

Such as another of these ‘immortals’. If they even exist, they supposedly know as much as Chrysalis does about Tartarus and the outside world, maybe more.

They might confirm her story. They might contradict it. They might surprise or confuse us. They might try to eat us or something, I suppose, but it’s unlikely.

Either way, there’s only one place we know we can find them.

14. A Door Full of Sky

View Online

Vinyl flopped into the driver’s seat, one hand slumping over the wheel.

Too bright. Sleep more.

Get to school. Then sleep.

Right. Find keys. Start car. Drive to school.

What else?

I should open my eyes at some point.

Reluctantly opening her eyes to narrow slits allowing the minimum of sunlight to assault her, she let them pass over a pile of clothes that had been dumped on her passenger seat. A frown crossed her face.

Shirt. T-shirt. Trousers. Belt. No underwear, though. Why do I have some guy’s clothes in my car? Damn, I really don’t think there are any good answers to that one. Especially guys that wear all black. What was I even doing yesterday?

Oh yeah. We were cornering Chrysalis and finding out how our whole lives are a lie. And before that…

Her eyes shot open as she realised whose clothes they were. She jerked round in her seat to look backwards.

Oh. Right. Oops.

Stumbling out of the car and round to the trunk, she listened carefully. Nothing. Cautiously she reached down, popped the lock and opened it.

Flash Sentry was stuffed inside the small space, wearing a white T-shirt and striped boxer shorts. He flinched, holding one arm over his face, either to ward against the sudden sunlight or protect himself. “Don’t hurt me!”

Vinyl squinted. “You can drop the act. I know who you are.”

Flash blinked up at her in confusion, then his expression dropped into one of slightly nervous resignation. A flash of green flame swept over him, revealing the black-skinned shop assistant with the same expression. He was stripped to his underwear.

“Here’s your stuff.” Vinyl dropped the clothes on him. “Sorry for taking it off you last night. And for knocking you out. Octavia needed to be you for a while.” It had taken them hours to apply the black face paint, green wig and blue contact lenses to Octavia, and hours more to get it all off again afterwards. Fluffle Puff’s enthusiastic scrubbing in the back room of the shop may have hindered more than it helped.

“Whatever your intentions regarding our Queen, I shall not allow it,” he said. His voice had a strange echo to it. He presumably intended for the words to sound intimidating, but the trembling undertone didn’t make that very convincing.

Vinyl leant on the open door of her trunk, looking down at him. “It’s okay, we sorted that all out already. We had a nice long talk with Chrysalis last night and we’re friends now. So go ahead, get dressed.”

“You’re… friends?” He squinted up at her in disbelief.

“Yup. Speaking of, do you want a lift to school?”

“So what happened to the real Flash Sentry?”

Chrysalis tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

Trixie leant forward. “Well, I mean, when your assistants—”

“Changelings,” corrected Chrysalis. “Well, not real changelings exactly, but the best I can make in here.”

Trixie cleared her throat. She still wasn’t comfortable with the idea of Chrysalis ‘making’ people, whatever that involved.

“Yeah. When one of them is walking around looking like Flash, you can’t have them bumping into the real Flash, can you? That would pretty much give the game away. So did you send him out of town? Lock him up somewhere? You didn’t…” She met the other girls’ eyes for reassurance. “…kill him?”

“I didn’t do any such thing. I didn’t have any reason to,” Chrysalis reassured. She was relaxed and comfortable, lounging back in her chair, in contrast to the girls’ heightened nerves. “After all, there’s no such person as Flash Sentry. Never was.”

The high glass dome of the library roof was one of Canterlot High’s defining features, and it made the library a more pleasant, and therefore popular, place than it otherwise might be. On sunny days it brought natural light into the reading area; on rainy days the sound on raindrops was comforting; and in the evening, it brought the colours of dusk into the library.

Students weren’t supposed to venture out onto the roof itself, but plenty of them did, at least once. There weren’t any locks or barriers to stop them. The school had somehow managed to survive all these years with an unofficial policy that ‘if you fall off it’s your own dumb fault’, though how they maintained that with students like Snips and Snails around was unclear.

Trixie navigated the bookshelves to where a short, narrow staircase led up to the dome. A few students were sat at tables, more talking than reading. Flash Sentry was glaring at her, but Trixie returned the look.

I guess Vinyl must have let him out, then. I hope he isn't going to cause trouble. The memory of being cornered, and of green fire on her skin, made Trixie nervous. She felt no guilt at all for ambushing him the night before.

Trixie scurried up the narrow wooden steps between two bookcases, pushed open the glass door panel and stepped out onto the roof, all the time juggling her lunch.

I really hope this wasn't a prank or something.

She spotted Vinyl sitting near the edge, and walked over. Vinyl raised a hand in casual greeting.

“So why the roof?” asked Trixie as she reached Vinyl's spot. “A bit dramatic, isn't it?”

Vinyl shrugged. “I figure it's the only place nobody's going to interrupt us.”

Trixie looked out over the sunny grounds, at the students scattering from stuffy classrooms, finding corners for lunch, or in a few cases flirting. Dramatic without even realising it. That's so Vinyl.

The sound of the door opening made Trixie turn to see Octavia emerging from the library dome. She squinted as she stepped onto the roof, shielded her eyes from the sunlight glinting off the glass, then walked over to join the group.

“I got your message, Vinyl,” said Octavia. “Why the roof?”

“I just asked that,” said Trixie.

Vinyl smiled up at her through her purple shades. “I figured it’s somewhere we wouldn’t get interrupted. We need to—”

As if to prove her wrong, the glass door opened again. A turquoise head poked out, and a pale yellow one beside it; the owners saw them and ducked back into the library with a quick, “Sorry,” shutting the door behind them.

“So. Yeah, uh.” Vinyl coughed.

“No interruptions,” said Octavia. “Clearly.”

Trixie peeled open each of her sandwiches to inspect the contents, and was relieved to see ordinary ham and cheese in one, and peanut butter in the next. That meant Pacific Glow had made these; on the rare occasions Dandy Lion found time to make lunch, she inevitably used more problematic ingredients.

“Yeah. Anyway, after last night,” continued Vinyl, “we need to decide whether we’re going to go along with—”

The door opened again, and a grey head with blonde hair poked out, looking left and right. The owner leant a little too far and fell out the door onto her face. Octavia hurried over to offer Derpy a hand up. She smiled awkwardly, waved to Vinyl and Trixie, and headed back down.

“Er. As I was saying,” resumed Vinyl when Octavia had returned, “the three of us need to decide whether we’re going to do what Chrysalis wants us to do. I didn’t want to talk about it there.”

Octavia nodded. “Well,” she said, “the tasks themselves seem easy enough. I’m not sure how they add up to an escape plan though.”

Vinyl shook her head. “Me either. I mean, what am I supposed to find in the basement that’s any—”

“Oh, give it a rest,” interjected Trixie. “You’re both going to say ‘yes’, aren’t you?”

The two girls were stunned. After a few seconds, Octavia stuttered, “Hang on, I don’t think that’s a given.”

“Tell me you’re not,” challenged Trixie. “Come on, tell me right now that you’re not going to go along with this.”

“Well, um…” Octavia trailed off. She exchanged a glance with Vinyl.

“See? I thought not. You’re both going to do her little missions and then follow this rabbit hole as deep as it goes. Now sit down and have lunch.”

Octavia frowned, but she sat down beside them. Vinyl was quiet, until she asked, “So… does that mean you’re in as well?”

Trixie said nothing through her mouthful of sandwich, then she said nothing after finishing it. She didn’t look at Vinyl. Eventually she replied, “We’ll see.”

Octavia leaned over the tortoise enclosure, watching their slow progress towards lunch. Behind that, the wall of fish tanks glugged idly, and the hamster maze rattled.

“Um,” said Fluttershy quietly behind her, “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. I hope you’re not mad…”

Octavia turned around with a gentle smile. “Not at all,” she said. “I understand you need to take care of the animals properly.”

“Oh, good,” said Fluttershy with relief. “Were you interested in the tortoises? Or maybe a snake? Snakes can be very loving creatures.”

“I’m sure they can, but I actually had something else in mind. I’m looking to start keeping bees.”

“Oh!” Fluttershy brightened even more. “That’s a lovely idea. Bees are very good for the environment, and help pollinate all the flowers. They’ll be very good for your garden.” Fluttershy was warming up now, clearly in her element. “You’ll need to order some from an existing breeder, unless you have a source in mind.”

Octavia scratched her head. “Actually, we already have a bunch of them living in the roof of our shed, but it isn’t very conveniently placed for it. I was hoping we could move them into a proper hive?”

Fluttershy looked uncertain. “Well, um, a wild colony is more likely to survive than one that’s been moved a long way, but you have to be careful. It’s very stressful for the bees. You generally need to move them away first and then back again. Can you not leave the hive where it is?”

“Not really. If I don’t move it then the hive is going to be destroyed when the shed gets demolished.”

“Oh my, that’s terrible!”

“I know. But Daddy said I could keep them if I learn to keep them properly and put them in a nice beehive somewhere tidy. There’s a flat bit at the far end of the garden. So I’ve watched a few videos online, and it doesn’t seem too hard.”

Fluttershy nodded. “We have a couple of books about it as well. You will need to learn what you’re doing, especially if you’re moving a wild hive. And you should probably get help from somebody with experience.”

“I spoke to Miss Cheerilee about the bees they keep at school.”

Fluttershy’s face fell. “Oh.”

Octavia knew what was troubling her. The school’s bees were known for being unusually aggressive. Nobody could explain why, but students quickly learned to keep their distance from that corner of the school grounds.

Delicately ignoring the change in mood, she asked, “So what sort of equipment will I need?”

“Um…” Fluttershy pulled out one of the books and started pointing at items on different pages. “Well, you’ll need the hive itself, and some protective clothing. You’ll need a smoker to get at the natural hive, though the school might have one you can borrow. Then a queen cage for the new hive.” She pointed each out in turn.

“The queen cage – that’s where the queen lives, right?”

“Oh no, she only stays in the queen cage for a few days. You let her out once the hive is settled. Keeping her in there any longer would be cruel.”

“Really? Hmm.” Octavia looked pensive.

“What is it?”

“Oh, nothing.” She shook her head. “I must have misunderstood something, that’s all. So I’ll probably need more than one set of clothes, right?”

“There’s one thing we couldn’t work out.”

Vinyl had finally started to relax. So far, Chrysalis seemed to have been giving them straight answers. Of course, that in itself was a source of power, and Vinyl wasn’t about to let her guard down.

“Just the one?” asked Chrysalis wryly.

Vinyl ignored the sarcastic jibe. “We’ve seen the wall. The horizon. But if this place really is a prison, then… where are the jailors? Or guards or whatever you call them. We’ve not seen anybody like that, have we?”

Octavia shook her head. Trixie shrugged.

“Isn’t anybody in charge here?”

“There is one jailor,” said Chrysalis. She finished off the last of her mug. “That’s all it needs.”

“Only one guard?”

“Yes. Well, depending how you count.”

Vinyl quietly pulled the heavy door open. The warped metal scraped across the concrete floor, louder than she’d have liked, leaving trails in the dust. She glanced nervously back at the stairs, but nobody came running.

Is this really the place Chrysalis was talking about? She lifted her hand from the door and noted the grime that had already settled on her fingers. I don’t think anybody’s been down here in years. So what exactly am I hoping to find?

She slipped through into the darkened corridor beyond, lined with various pipes and cables. It led to the right, with a single door at the far end. She tried the door cautiously and found it wasn’t locked. She pulled the door open and recoiled from the sudden rush of light.

When her eyes had adjusted she lowered her arm to look out. Am I asleep? she wondered. She turned to check where she was, and where she’d come from.

Behind her was the corridor behind the locked door in the boiler room in the lower basement of Canterlot High School. The boiler thrummed as it powered the school’s heating and water.

Ahead of her was clear blue, open sky. All around was a landscape of hills and fields, including one notable mountain in the distance that had something shining white built into its side. Some miles below, separated from her by an achingly big gap, were thatched roofs and streets, a small town of some sort. It was far enough below to make it difficult to pick out details, but there was movement on the streets suggestive of people.

So there’s a door in the school basement that’s... full of sky. Okay, I admit, that is not what I expected to find down here.

A fall from here would be very unpleasant. Keeping a tight grip on the door frame and an eye on her feet, she leant out to get a better look.

A gentle breeze whistled past. Far below she could hear the general bustle of an active town.

How am I so far up? Am I in a really high tower?

Swallowing, she looked down below her feet. There was no side of a tower that she could see, no building, nothing at all below or around to indicate how she and the doorway were suspended up here. She looked to the sides, for the edge of whatever structure they must be in and saw... nothing. Just more sky.

Stepping back, she looked at the outside surface of the door she’d opened. It was painted to look like sky.

Except that it’s not paint. My eyes go straight through it, like it’s made of sky.

She watched, entranced, as a small fluffy cloud drifted across the sky and slid onto the outer surface of the door. Experimentally she wiggled the door back and forth on its hinges; the cloud moved with it, vast acres of sky shifting quickly around. Looking down, the landscape as seen through the door shifted as well, trees and buildings effortlessly sliding in a way that made her eyes hurt.

It’s like this building or... whatever it is I’m in is invisible.

A bird approached the door, climbing up to Vinyl’s level. As it got closer, she realised it couldn’t be a bird. It was the wrong shape. It looked like a little horse or…

Pony?

Yes. It’s a little pony with wings, and a big head, and enormous eyes, flying towards me.

It occurred to Vinyl that she should be scared out of her wits, but the situation was just so weird that it didn’t quite seem real. The pony-like creature didn’t attack or anything. It – or she, since Vinyl got the distinct impression that it was female – simply hovered there.

Those wings don’t look nearly big enough, she thought​. And they’re not moving fast enough either. There’s no way she should be able to fly with those. It just wouldn’t work.

Yet the pony was there, and clearly flying. It raised a tentative hoof to her, and Vinyl raised a hand in response. The two of them touched, fingers to hoof, each confirming the other was real.

She had soft grey fur and a straw-blonde mane. There was a familiar symbol emblazoned on her side. Her head was far larger than a pony’s should be, and flatter in the face, closer to being human. Her eyes were huge, but seemed mismatched, pointing different directions. Almost like…

“Derpy?” she said incredulously.

“Hey, Vinyl,” said the pony creature in Derpy’s voice. “What happened to your body? And how come you’re in a door in the sky?”

“I... was just wondering that—”

A harsh voice interrupted her. “What are you doing down here, young lady?”

Vinyl turned to find vice-principal Luna standing in the corridor behind her with her arms crossed, a bundle of papers held under her arm. The bright daylight from the door cast sharp shadows against the cellar walls. As Luna stepped forward into the light, her pupils contracted.

“Vice-principal Luna. Hi. Er. I was just having a look around, and...”

“Just having a look around past the sign that says ‘No entry’?”

“Sign? I didn’t see any sign. It was dark, you know.” The sunlight shone bright on Luna’s clear blue skin. Man, she knew how to moisturise. Shame about the fashion sense.

“And behind a locked door.”

“That was supposed to be locked? Really? I totally just opened it.”

Luna glanced down at the set of keys Vinyl was holding. They had a sun emblem key fob marking them as belonging to Principal Celestia.

“I think you’ve seen enough down here,” said Luna. “Go on back to class and we’ll say nothing more about this.”

“Cool! Um...” she glanced behind her at the door full of sky. “Did you know this was here?” The little flying pony that looked like Derpy had gone. I guess our confrontation scared her off. What are wings for, if not running away when you need to?

Luna looked past Vinyl with a sternly raised eyebrow. “This… broom closet?”

“Broom cupboard?” Wait, can she even see what I’m seeing? It is real, right? I mean, it’s right there, all... skyish. The light shone brightly onto Luna’s face, declaring how real it was.

Luna’s hand reached past Vinyl, and returned holding a broom. “Broom. Cupboard. Cupboard of brooms.”

Vinyl prodded the broom. How did she do that? The cupboard didn’t have any brooms in it. It didn’t have any cupboard in it.

“So, Luna—” Luna coughed pointedly. “Er, I mean, Vice Principal Luna, right. So why is this broom cupboard locked up then?”

Luna jerked her thumb, indicating the shallow alcove to her left in which a cluster of sturdy boxes and switches were bolted to the wall. “Because the power circuit for the whole school is down here. If some nosy student tried to mess with that, they could get seriously hurt. And since nobody comes down here—” She leant in close to whisper, “Nobody would ever find them.”

She straightened up and stepped aside. “Now run along back to class.” Vinyl turned to shuffle past her. “And Miss Scratch?”

“Yeah?”

“Give me those, please.” She indicated her sister’s keys.

“Oh. Right. Hehe.” Vinyl dropped the keys into Luna’s outstretched hand she as slipped past. She turned to see Luna silhouetted against the rectangle of sky as she shut the door. “Good night,” she called out.

“Sweet dreams,” replied Luna.

15. Not Enough Pinkie Pies

View Online

Trixie checked the note she’d brought.

Canterlot Town Hall, basement, behind maintenance
third door on the left

She counted the doors again to make sure, then knocked on the third plain wooden door. She hoped she had the right one, they all looked the same down here. For a few anxious seconds, all she could do was stare at the small printed white sign saying ‘Supervisors’, lit by wan, flickering lights.

The door was opened, just a crack, by a very tall black man, heavy set and muscular, with a round, squashed face. He was wearing a sharp dark suit and a maroon tie.

“Yes?” he asked in a deep, sonorous voice that echoed through Trixie’s body. Even though he was bent over, she had to crane her neck to look up at him.

“I’m here to see the supervisor?”

“Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

“Um. Do I need one?”

A voice just as deep the man’s, but softer, called out from somewhere behind the door, “Oh, let the poor thing in. She can have a cup of tea with us.”

The man at the door reluctantly grunted and stepped back, letting the door open. Trixie stepped through, ducking under his arm, and he shut the door behind her.

“Do you take milk and sugar?” The second voice was from an identical-looking black man in an identical-looking suit. This one had tiny pince-nez glasses perched on his squashed nose. Muscles moved under the suit as he carefully poured from a delicate China teapot.

“Yes, please. One sugar.”

As tea was being poured, Trixie took a moment to look around. The room was homely, filled with accumulated knick-knacks and thoroughly lived-in. There were three comfortable chairs gathered around a little round table, each with worn spots from years of use. The assorted rugs, pillows, cushions and throws seemed at odds with the sharp black lines of the suit each man was wearing.

A third large man, nearly identical to the other two, bounded around the corner from the next room. “Do we have guests? It’s been ages since we’ve had guests!” He skidded to a halt in front of Trixie, nearly bowling her over with his bulk, and grabbed her hand to give it a hearty shake. “Hello! Welcome! Greetings! How are you doing!”

The second man pushed the third away with a friendly shove to the shoulder. “Settle down and let the poor girl have some space. Here you are, dear, have a nice cup of tea.” He let her go and sat down. Though his tone was that of a comforting grandmother, his voice was as deep as the others.

Released from the grip of the enthusiastic man’s massive hands, Trixie took the opportunity to sit down as well. She pulled the cup and saucer towards her and took a sip, and though it was still too hot she had to admit that it was good tea. She looked up at the three big men. Their features were practically identical, but a few of the details were different.

The first, the one who had opened the door, wore a purple-red tie – Maroon? Burgundy? Something like that. – and what looked like a choker under his white collar. He had a stern expression, as if he disapproved of everything going on. He remained standing as there were only three chairs, holding his teacup in one hand and his saucer in the other.

The second, the one who had poured the tea, wore a sunflower yellow tie, and had little round glasses. His expression was softer and more indulgent, like an old granny’s. He’d put his teacup down and was turned round in his chair, rummaging around behind it.

The third, the one who had shook her hand so vigorously, wore a turquoise tie, and a single earring: a small silver stud with a turquoise stone. He was more cheerful, and despite wearing the same sharp suit his body language was more relaxed.

The second, yellow, turned back to the table with a box of biscuits. “Would you like—”

“—a biscuit?” interrupted the third, hurriedly.

“Thank you,” said Trixie, taking a shortbread wedge. The first leaned over the table to pick up a chocolate finger. The third started dunking an iced biscuit in his tea, sloshing a little over the side.

“Um. I was hoping to see the supervisor?”

“That’s me,” said the first.

“Oh.” Trixie turned in her chair to face him. “I’m Trixie.”

“I’m Cerberus,” said the first.

“Pleased to meet you, dear,” said the second.

Trixie waited. “Um.” When no further statement was forthcoming she asked, “And who are you two?”

“As I said—” said the first.

“—my name—” continued the second.

“—is Cerberus,” completed the third. With the same voice coming from three mouths, the effect was almost like the statement had been said by a single person.

“Um.” She looked from one man to the next. “Are you brothers?”

“No,” said first.

“We aren’t brothers,” added the third.

“Not exactly,” said the first.

“Now, dear, what can we do for you?” asked the second.

Dismissing her confusion, she took a moment to gather her thoughts and her breath. “The great and powerful Trixie wishes to go outside!” she declared.

There was a pause while the three men contemplated it. The first frowned even more. The second raised her eyebrows in concern. The third’s enthusiasm deflated a little. “Oh no,” said the third.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” added the second. “I’m afraid—”

“—going outside is quite impossible,” said the first. “It isn’t—”

“—a place that you’d want to go to,” completed the third.

“Why not?” demanded Trixie. “Am I a prisoner?”

“No! Not at all,” said the first.

“Quite the opposite,” said the second.

“Really? What’s the opposite of a prisoner?” demanded Trixie, raising her voice. “Somebody who can come and go freely, surely?”

“Well...” said the second.

“It simply isn’t safe,” said the third.

“Not for you, at least,” said the first.

“Why not for me?” she challenged. “What am I, that has to be kept here? What have you done to my memories? Was that you? What have you done to my...”

She ground to a halt, unable to get the next word out.

“Oh the poor dear, her—”

“—memory must be—”

“—broken somehow. Who would—”

“—do such a thing? We can’t have—”

“—our homunculi running around with—”

“—broken memories. That would be—”

“—so cruel.” The second turned to Trixie. “I’m sorry, little one—”

“—but it simply isn’t allowed—”

“—for anybody to leave,”

“Then why is Pinkie Pie allowed out?”

The three men’s heads snapped up in unison.

“Did you say—”

“—that Pinkie Pie—”

“—has escaped again?”

Trixie sniffed. “Yeah, some of her. From the sound of it, they come and go all the time.”

The third turned to his fellows and said, “She must have found—”

“—another way out.” The second turned to ask Trixie, “Did she say—”

“—where she was going?” finished the first.

“No. Um. Except they said they were going to see another Pinkie Pie?”

The second clarified, “Then they’re visiting—”

“—the primary. I knew she—”

“—couldn’t be trusted,” finished the first. He lifted his nose and sniffed. “Yes, they’re in—”

“—a kitchen. Sugar, flour, oil, hay, cinnamon. Sugarcube Corner,” added the second. “She’s making—”

“—gingerbread,” said the third. “Gingerbread ponies. There are—”

“—three of her there,” finished the first. His nose scrunched up. “And two foals.”

Trixie looked around her in confusion as the two seated men stood up, and all three moved with purpose towards the door. She stood up and reached out a hand.

“Hey, where are you—”

“—going?”

Trixie was stood on the pavement. This caused her some confusion.

How did I get here? she wondered. Wasn’t I in the basement talking to three men just a second ago?

People and traffic meandered past. Trixie turned to look at the big wooden doors of Canterlot Town Hall, now closed, at the top of the stone steps.

She walked up to the doors, rattled their handles, looked for any catches or keyholes, but quickly had to admit that they were shut tight.

She sat glumly down on the broad stone bannister to one side of the steps. It was cold to the touch, but she needed a second to understand what she’d just seen.

Three men called Cerberus, that look alike. They deny being brothers. They finish each other’s sentences, more than any married couple. It’s almost like they’re the same person, but… they can’t really be, can they? That doesn't make sense.

They knew where Pinkie Pie was, just by sniffing. Like they’re connected to her somehow.

The big double doors opened with a bang, and Cerberus strode out. The three of him each carried a Pinkie Pie under one arm, her arms and legs dangling down.

The first, the grumpy one with the maroon tie, was carrying the girl who'd called herself Diane. She wore a dark pink dress that was tight around the waist and billowed out around the legs. “Excuse me, Mister Cerberus, can I ask you to put us down now?”

The second, the kind one with the yellow tie and glasses, was carrying the one known as Pinkamena, wearing her Crystal Prep uniform. She had an expression of grumpy tolerance, as if she was accustomed to such mistreatment. She said nothing but, “Ugh.”

The third, the enthusiastic one with the turquoise tie, was carrying a Pinkie Pie that looked normal – at least, normal for Pinkie Pie. She wore a simple white dress decorated with yellow, pink and blue balloons. “I’m telling you, Mister Doggy, you’ve made a mistake.”

“No mistake,” said the first, setting Diane down on her feet at the bottom of the steps. “Three Pinkie Pies left, and all three are returned.”

“Yeah, but not the same three,” said the last Pinkie. “I’m the actual Pinkie Pie. You know, Ponyville’s premier party planner? So if you could just drop me back where you picked me up, okay?”

The second set a very grumpy looking Pinkamena down. “But I’m afraid you—”

“—would say that, wouldn’t you?” finished the third, putting the last Pinkie down.

The three looked put out as Cerberus turned his backs and walked back up the stairs.

Pinkie called out, “Hey, Mister Cerberus, I have a question!” The third of him turned and looked at her. “When’s your birthday?” she asked.

The yellow-tied one looked momentarily reflective before answering, “I don’t remember.” He turned and went through the door.

“So,” said Pinkie after he’d shut the door, “do you think we can get to the gap before he shuts it?” She ran a little on the spot, as if revving up to sprint.

“I’m afraid not,” said Diane, her voice inflected with an aristocratic lilt. “He’s probably closed it already. We’ll just have to find a new one.” She started slowly walking down the street.

“Does that mean we’re all going to be out searching town again?” asked Pinkamena. “That’s always such a drag.”

“It shouldn’t take very long,” said Diane. “They’ve been popping up all over the place lately.”

“I hope that other Pinkie will be okay looking after Gummy while I’m away,” said Pinkie as they rounded the corner and went out of sight. “He gets really clingy around dinnertime.”

“Lift up your elbows!”

Thwack!

Tirek paced around Vinyl as she stood in the park, her back straight and her arms held up in an empty hold. Even though he moved slowly, he was capable of delivering a surprisingly hard impact with his cane. Vinyl obediently raised her elbows again lest he feel the need to hammer the point home.

“Remember, your girl is taller than me, so you’ll need to keep those arms up.” He stepped around to her front, and lifted his cane to indicate her right hand. “That hand goes on her shoulder blade, not lower down. You need bone to lead. Angle your hand down a bit, that’ll help keep the elbow up.”

“I really don’t know how long I can hold my arms up like this,” said Vinyl, starting to wobble. As Tirek raised his cane again, she straightened up.

“And that’s why you’re practicing,” he reiterated. “Keep your stomach in.”

She sucked her stomach back in. “I’ll try.”

“Do or do not, there is no try,” said the little old man with a grin.

Vinyl glared at him. “Seriously? I think you’re enjoying this a bit too much,” she muttered.

He chuckled to himself as he made his way over to the bench overlooking town. “Okay, that’s enough,” he said, easing himself down slowly onto the bench.

Vinyl slumped into the seat next to him, her arms limp at her sides. “Am I really gonna be okay for tomorrow? Seems like I’ve got so much still to learn.”

“You’ll be fine. That’s a good sign, really,” he said. “The more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know.”

“Ah. I must know lots then,” mused Vinyl.

“Just don’t get cocky,” cautioned the old man. “Be confident, not careless.”

Vinyl watched the shadows creeping over the buildings through eyes half closed. Foal Hill Park had a wonderful view of the hillside leading down to the river, and across to Griffonstone.

I saw a pony.

A little pony with wings. I have to keep reminding myself, because it doesn’t quite seem real. I saw a pony. I opened a door in the sky, and there was a little pony with wings flying there. And she talked to me. A horse that talked. Or a pegasus, I guess. But whatever her species, she was unmistakably Derpy.

Only, I saw Derpy in school today. She didn’t seem any different than usual. Same goofy smile, same wall eye, same two arms and two legs. Same… not a pony-ness.

Chrysalis told us that each of us is a copy of some pony that lives out there. It was pretty hard to believe, but now I’ve seen it.

“Hey, Tirek. Can I ask you something?”

“You just did.”

Vinyl ignored his pedantry and asked, “Are you… human?”

For a long minute, Tirek said nothing. He simply rested his chin on the end of his cane. His hands wobbled over the end of it, where the walking cane’s handle didn’t quite fit right. His eyes were focused on the horizon.

Is he insulted? Is he angry? Sad? I really can’t tell.

Eventually he said, “I think the handle’s going on my cane. I’m going to need it replaced soon.”

Vinyl looked down at the cane with a frown. It was made of darkened reddish wood, slightly uneven. The handle was carved metal, maybe silver, in the shape of a bull’s head, with a ring through its nose and two big horns, which had been worn smooth over the years. “It looks old.”

“It is. I’ve had this cane for a very long time. I’ve had the shaft replaced a dozen times, the handle at least three or four, and the ferrule more than I can count.”

“Ferrule?”

“The little rubber foot.” He indicated the bit at the bottom of the cane. “It wears out quickly.”

Okay, so I guess he’s not angry? He just doesn’t want to talk about it.

“You must really like that cane if you’ve replaced all the bits.”

“Oh, I’m quite attached to it,” he said. “I’ve still got the original handle in a drawer somewhere, though it wouldn’t fit any more.” He finally turned to look at her. “But tell me something. If I’ve replaced all of the parts, is it still the same cane?”

“Er…” Wait, this is a lesson?

He waited patiently for her response.

If you replace just a small bit of it, say the handle or the… foot, whatever he called it, then the cane as a whole is basically the same. Mostly. The shaft is a much bigger bit, so if you replaced that then it wouldn’t be mostly the same any more.

On the other hand, the handle is probably a more important bit, since it’s where your hands go. You maybe wouldn’t notice if you replaced the shaft, as long as it was the same length as the old one, but you’d notice the handle, even though it’s smaller.

So if you replaced the shaft with one that’s just the same length as the existing one, and the handle with an identical one, that means it’s basically the same. But is that any different from making a whole new cane from matching parts?

Except he said the old handle wouldn’t fit. That means the wood isn’t quite the same width as it used to be. If he didn’t ever replace both bits at once, does that mean that the size of the wood and the size of the handle both changed gradually, until they’re different enough not to fit any more?

Tirek watched the thoughts flickering across her face.

“I think…” she started.

“Yes?”

“I think that, if you still love this cane as much as you always have, then that makes it the same.”

He smiled, looking fondly down at the cane.

“Did I get it right?”

“There is no right answer. But your answer is as good as any, and probably better than most.”

“Oh.” Vinyl was disappointed.

“Tell me, is there an object you’ve looked after for many years like that?”

An object I’ve loved? Vinyl thought of her Smarty Pants doll, the one that had started her on this path. Since retrieving both Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest from the attic, the dolls had been sitting atop her bookshelf. “I guess can think of one,” she said. “A doll I used to have. There’s… a lot of memories attached to that doll.” And not just for me.

“Is your doll still in good condition like it always was, or have you had to repair it?”

“It had to be fixed when I was little. One of the eyes fell off and had to be replaced with another button.” A button taken from my mom’s blouse. If… well, if that ever even happened. “And I’ve patched it again recently.”

Tirek nodded. “So is it the same doll it used to be?”

“Yes,” said Vinyl without hesitation. “I mean, apart from the fixes. But even that just adds to the memories.”

“And are you the same girl you used to be?”

The word ‘yes’ caught in Vinyl’s throat as she hesitated. I’m not the same, am I? She was more innocent. More reckless. She’d never had to work for a living, or sit through hours of boring classes, or put up with Blueblood’s advances. She could dive into things without a second thought.

And every time she went too far, Octavia was there to pull her out.

“I… guess not? But I think she’s still in here,” she added quickly. “She’s still a part of me.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Taking a deep breath, Tirek leaned forwards on his cane and pushed himself to his feet with a grunt. “I’m not the man I used to be,” he said. He turned to Vinyl. “And your girl isn’t the little girl she used to be.”

A mare stepped reluctantly through the Everfree forest. She didn’t want to be there. She hung at the back of the group, her eyes to the ground, wanting the ordeal to be over.

The rough hood chafed at her ears. The heavy cloak fell awkwardly over her withers and her dock. The hair on her cheeks was matted from tears, and her lungs hurt from crying.

Oh Celestia, why must I focus so on the physical? Is there not something more important today? Why must even my own mind betray me?

But the sight of a scar on her leg reminded her of the sliver of white bone she’d seen poking from the middle of a pastry. She scrambled to the side of the trail to retch into the bushes, but there was nothing left in her. She’d thrown it all up already.

One other pony held back from the group, waiting patiently for her. Neither said a word.

The ponies ahead of her, all wearing similar dark hooded cloaks, were struggling to keep one pony under control as he fought to escape. It took two large stallions to drag him forwards, and there was a pale blue glow of magic around him as well. “You’ve got the wrong pony!” he shouted. “I didn’t mean to! I mean… the Mare In The Moon made me do it!”

He lashed out with a hoof, pushing the hood from one pony’s head, exposing the glowing horn.

“You may as well be rid of that, Doctor,” snarled the prisoner. “As the only unicorn in town, everypony knows who you are.”

The unicorn turned away and lifted his hood back up without saying a word. The blue glow surrounding the prisoner renewed, and the group resumed their trudge forwards.

They took their prisoner down into a cave, cursing and kicking, to the pool of water at its bottom. They spread out to stand around the edge of the pool, their reflections clear in the water’s surface.

The leader of their group spoke at last. “You have been found guilty of the crimes of murder, cannibalism, desecration of the dead, and disharmony. For these you are banished.”

He nodded at the two stallions holding the prisoner, and they shoved the prisoner into the pool. The water wasn’t deep at all – only a foot of clear water above a stone floor – and yet the prisoner sank deeper and deeper, fading from sight. As he sank he held out a hoof towards the mare. Whatever he said, she couldn’t hear, though his expression was angry and desperate.

As the water settled, Grand Pear reached up and pulled down his hood. So did Bonnie, Stinkin’ Rich, Burnt Oak, Leechbowl, Rosewood Brook, Pokey Oaks, Silk Scarf and Pink Fondant. Grand Pear led them as they spoke as one:

“To Harmony’s mercy this sinner commend
For none here remain who would call him their friend.
To his redemption, reflections we lend
In hope to one day his transgressions amend.

Into our own reflections we stare
Yearning for ones whose reflections we share.
We solemnly swear to abide by this prayer
And remember that any among us may err.”

Pink Fondant mumbled the words, not really feeling them. She stared into the empty pool, at her own reflection among those of the other ponies around its edge. Then her reflection blinked.

Her eyes widened. A part of her wanted to run – she’d known a lifetime of fear in the past day – but the image transfixed her with terror and fascination. Her reflection changed before her eyes, her muzzle growing shorter, her face flatter, her ears lower. She watched it change, and couldn’t escape the conviction that it was watching her back. It reached up to her with a hoof – no, with something else, some sort of paw with long fingers. It was strange, otherworldly, but somehow she knew it wasn’t malicious. Her reflection looked as sad as she did. Leaning forward over the edge, she slowly extended her own hoof down to meet it.

She was jerked back. She looked up to see Silk Scarf holding her away from the pool. The older mare shook her head. She said nothing still, just nodded her head to the path back out of the cave. Fondant looked back at the pool, but it had returned to normal.

The walk back to Ponyville was slow. Nopony said much, as they kept their eyes open for the dangers of the forest.

As they emerged from the forest and neared the Apple farm, Silk Scarf sidled up beside Pink Fondant. “You need a place to stay tonight, hun?”

Pink Fondant looked up. She wanted to say ‘thank you’, but the words caught in her throat.

“There’s something else?”

“I…” She gathered up her nerve. “I’m with foal,” she said.

Silk Scarf blinked. “Yes, I know.”

“What? You know? But… how could you know? I didn’t know myself until…”

“Pinkie, darling, you’re my oldest friend. I could see it weeks ago. It’s wonderful news, and Celestia knows we need some good news in our little town. Your foal can play with my little Chiffon, and they can call you silly names like ‘Nana Pinkie’. Oh, do you know if it’s a filly or a colt?”

“Doctor Leechbowl did a spell of some sort on me yesterday, and he says it’s a filly. That was right before…”

Silk Scarf hugged her. “I know, deary. I know.”

Pink Fondant lifted a hoof to her stomach. “Are you sure it’s good news, Silky?”

“Whatever do you mean, darling?”

“I mean, everypony in town is going to know who the father is. I saw how ponies looked at me during the trial. Nopony’s going to want to talk to me, are they? Nopony’s going to laugh when I try to cheer them up. And the other foals are going to pick up on that. They’ll make fun of her. Foals can be so cruel.”

“We can get through it, Pinkie. I know we can.”

Pink Fondant shook her head sadly. “You’re strong, Silky, stronger than me. But I need to find somewhere new for this filly. Somewhere she can grow up happy. That can’t be Ponyville.”

Silk Scarf nuzzled her friend. “You’re set on this, aren’t you?” Pink Fondant nodded. “Where will you go?”

Fondant hung her head. “I don’t know. I’ve never even left Ponyville before.”

“I don’t like to think of you wandering the roads alone. It’s not safe for a mare on her own.” She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, then decided to speak. “I have a cousin. Feldspar Granite. He’s a rock farmer, out west. I know he’ll take care of a mare in need. And he won’t ask too many questions.”

Pink Fondant looked up. “Really? Oh, thank you, Silky.”

“You know, it’s a hard life, Pinkie. Cold beds, long days in the fields, rock soup. I don’t think there’ll be many cupcakes there.”

Pink Fondant nodded, her expression grim and determined. “Good. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy cupcakes again.”

16. The Grand Gathering Gala

View Online

The deep thrum of Vinyl’s car horn told Octavia that it was time to leave.

Would it kill her to have a normal car? Or at least a normal car horn?

“Honeybun, are you off?” called her mother.

“Yes,” replied Octavia as she grabbed the tall garment bag from its hook in the hall, and picked up the smaller bag with make-up and accessories.

Her mother came through from the kitchen. “Come here,” she said softly. “Come give me a kiss. I’d give you a hug, but—” She wiggled her marinade-stained fingers.

Octavia smiled and leaned in and kissed her mother on the cheek, keeping the bags held carefully away to avoid getting them dirty.

“Now remember you’ve got the audition next week. Have fun tonight, but don't stay out too late.”

“I won’t,” Octavia reassured her. “I’ll be back later tonight.”

She pulled the door open and smiled as it closed behind her.

Will I, though? she wondered.

Octavia leaned forward to straighten Vinyl’s cravat, while she stood awkwardly upright. Three reflections of them surrounded them in the full length mirrors of the bridal shop’s generous changing room.

“Is it supposed to be this shiny?” asked Vinyl, picking at her sleeve.

“Yes, it is,” said Octavia.

“And this frilly?”

Vinyl Scratch was wearing an elaborately frilly light cream-coloured men’s shirt with ruffle cuffs, a light blue cravat that matched the lighter shade in her hair, a darker blue velvet waistcoat with damask embroidery and silver buttons, a well-tailored white jacket with long triangular tails, and tight cream trousers with a shiny stripe down each leg. The effect was of an enticing rogue from some centuries ago.

“Precisely this frilly.” She brushed a speck of dust off and stood back to admire Vinyl’s figure. “Quite fetching, if I say so myself. Chrysalis was right. A cravat does suit you.”

Vinyl lifted one leg as she looked awkwardly down at herself. “If you insist. At least I have proper shoes. I don’t know how you can walk in things like that.”

Octavia wore a long, slinky dark grey evening dress of layered lace and chiffon with a tastefully placed diamond keyhole, which left her shoulders and back exposed. A white cashmere shawl around her shoulders was gathered into a purple jewel at her breast. Her purple shoes were thin, delicate and raised in a heel. The look evoked music, culture and sophistication. It was a lot less revealing than her club outfit had been, but Vinyl still found her eyes drawn downwards a little more often than she would admit.

Octavia rolled her eyes. “It’s not that hard. In fact, a little heel makes it easier to dance.”

“Really? How about a lot of heel?”

“Are you two done flirting?” asked Trixie, straightening her hat then unstraightening it again for comparison as she stood in front of another full-length mirror. “Because I think we were supposed to be doing something tonight.”

Octavia turned her smile on Trixie. “And perhaps you’ll find your Prince Charming there tonight, hmm?”

“Oh, please. I’ve yet to meet the man or beast who can keep up with the Great and Powerful Trixie!”

Trixie wore an asymmetrical dress that hung loose off her left shoulder, clung tight to her midriff then blossomed out into a wide skirt around her legs. It faded from indigo at the top into deep blue around the skirt, scattered with a diagonal band of white, gold and blue stars. Her white and cyan hair was styled into a French braid that fell down her left side. She wore a matching indigo witch’s hat, extremely large and floppy.

A pink blur suddenly landed on Trixie, removing the floppy hat and placing it atop her own head instead. “Hey!” called Trixie.

Fluffle Puff wore a dress built to resemble a ballerina’s tutu, ruffled at the breast, pinched tight at the waist and fluffing out at the hips into a short skirt that was so wide as to be nearly horizontal. The translucent surface layer was deep pink, while the various petticoats beneath it were white with a hint of pink. She wore long pink stockings that ended in delicate pink shoes with sharp little heels – unlike real ballet shoes – and matching long pink gloves reaching nearly up to her shoulders, with a small heart-shaped window at the top of each. Her hair was slicked down into a bob, held there with gallons of gel and a fleet of pins. At odds with the rest of the colour scheme was a thin black choker around her neck, broken only by a small pink heart brooch.

“Be careful, Fluffle darling,” said Chrysalis, striding into the room. “You don’t want to damage your dress.”

Trixie took advantage of Fluffle Puff’s moment of distraction to steal her hat back. Fluffle Puff jumped into Chrysalis’ arms.

Chrysalis wore a long flamenco-style dress that stretched nearly to the floor before flaring out into a wide skirt. It was black, a fine diamond argyle pattern of matte and gloss, with narrow elongated diamond slits cut into it vertically revealing a bright green layer underneath. The bottom of the skirt was lifted up by means unseen, revealing a green wave of fabric that brushed the floor. Detached sleeves, narrow until they reached the wrists, were decorated with filigree fractals of green embroidery. Upon her head sat a miniature crown in black with four points that each ended in a teal bauble.

“Are you nearly ready?” she asked.

Fillydelphia Hall stood on the banks of the East River, looking out across the water. To the south was a road tunnel beneath the river, a constant stream of cars driving to and from Griffonstone district on the far bank. The Baltimare Mall divided it from the beach at Horseshoe Bay.

A little further up the bank to the north was the Hoofington Tower jutting out into the river, and beyond that the famous Manehattan Theatre.

A limousine crunched to a stop on the gravel and, amid careful manoeuvring of dresses, five figures stepped out. A few others were walking from their cars nearby, in no particular hurry, up the steps to the main door. The girls followed, with Chrysalis taking the lead, her arm hooked in Fluffle Puff’s.

Inside the door, the scenery became significantly more ostentatious. There was a plush corridor lined with red and gold wallpaper and curtains, and at the far end a pair of doors through which a herald announced each guest arriving.

“Councillors Haakim and Amira,” he called as the previous couple stepped through.

“Have fun, girls,” said Chrysalis as she took her companion's arm and they headed in together.

“Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings!” announced the herald. He was very smartly dressed, stood upright like a toy soldier, and spoke politely but loud enough to reach over the hall. He added more quietly, “Plus one.”

The pink girl grumpily stabbed her heel at his shiny black shoe as she walked past, causing the herald to yelp. “And Miss Fluffle Puff,” he announced more clearly and in a higher pitch.

The three girls waited their turn in the entry hall, slowly sinking into the thick red carpet. Octavia took the moment to brush a bit of dust off the shoulder of Vinyl’s jacket. She leaned in close. “I notice he announced her real name and position,” she said quietly. “Does that mean that everybody here already knows what the deal is?”

“Yeah, I think so,” replied Vinyl. “I mean, Chrysalis did say this was the big shindig for all the out-of-towners.” And it confirms that she was telling us the truth that night.

“Perhaps they assume that any ordinary people in there simply won’t notice,” pointed out Trixie. “Chrysalis had no trouble telling us things she thought we’d forget. She underestimated us.”

“And it sounds like that attitude is normal,” said Vinyl. “So they’re going to talk freely, and assume the harmless little humans aren’t listening? Good. We can work with that.”

“We should listen for future announcements, they may tell us something.” Spotting that the herald was waiting for them, Octavia turned to her friends. “Ready?”

They each nodded, though Vinyl continued to feel uncomfortable in her shiny white suit. They turned to the door and stepped through into a plush hall.

As they passed, the herald called out, “Octavia Melody, D.J. PON-3 and the Great and Powerful Trixie.” He even rolled the Rs in just the way Trixie liked.

How does he know that name? wondered Vinyl. I’ve only been using it for a week. I’m not sure anybody else even knows it except… oh no. Is Blueblood here somewhere?

The three of them stepped onto the balcony and gasped.

The ballroom was large in every way, longer than it was broad, and at least as tall. The far wall was lined with tall windows overlooking the bay. In between the windows stood white pillars that stretched up towards the ceiling, each wrapped with intricate gold branches and leaves that drew the eye up to where they joined a ceiling of broad arched colonnade in white and gold. In the triangles between the spans were painted scenes from myth and legend, impossible creatures, villains and heroes. Hanging from the ceiling were three enormous chandeliers combining hundreds of little lights with a similar number of diamonds.

The entrance opened out onto a balcony spanning three tall arches and overlooking the whole ballroom, allowing them a clear view of the dance floor where hundreds of men and women – and a few who could have been either – spun in a dizzyingly fast display that seemed flawless, couples coming ever closer to colliding but never setting a foot wrong. Each guest wore an outlandish outfit and a similarly exotic mask, myriad colours and designs, often with details picked out in gold. Capes, gauntlets, horned masks and extravagant hairstyles moved swiftly across the floor, making it hard to follow a single one.

“Hey, you know those ‘magic eye’ pictures…?”

Octavia elbowed Vinyl in the ribs, though without any conviction. She was too distracted.

“What are they dancing?” asked Trixie.

“The Viennese Waltz,” replied Octavia as if reading from a book. “It's faster than the normal waltz.” She turned to look at the musicians playing from another balcony. “And quite lovely.”

I’ll say it's faster. How could anybody dance to this? I thought ballroom was supposed to be staid and slow. Vinyl gulped. “The Fall Formal was never like this.”

“Trixie, honey, I’m so glad you could make it.” A woman walked up the stairs and approached them, drawing Trixie into a curt embrace.

“You thought I wouldn’t be here?”

“Sweetie, shall we head down?” Trixie's mother gently took her arm and guided her to a wide marble staircase that curved down to the floor. The other two girls followed, blinking as their eyes were pulled away from the hypnotising show below.

As they reached the bottom of the stairs Chrysalis placed a hand each on Vinyl and Octavia’s shoulders, leaning between them. “Now you two go mingle, enjoy yourselves, meet the other guests.” She leaned in. “Just remember,” she whispered, “be ready when the time comes. I won’t wait for you.”

At one end of the ballroom was a stage, with deep red curtains drawn over it. At the other was a set of archways leading into other rooms, with the smell of food wafting through. As they reached the bottom step Vinyl cast her eyes around for where the music was coming from. Sure enough, there was another balcony in one corner, and on it a cluster of musicians that she presumed must be the Griffonstone Quartet.

From up on the balcony, they heard the herald proclaim the arrival of “The Sisters of Winter.” Three tall, slender women with pale skin stepped through and down the stairs, their long white hair billowing after them.

The song came to a decisive end, and as one the dancers stopped, and variously bowed, curtsied, embraced or said polite goodbyes. Some started walking off the floor, some exchanged partners or sought out others from the crowd gathered at the edges. After a few seconds the quartet began playing the introduction to a much slower song.

One, two, three, one, two, three. Right, thought Vinyl, it's now or never. She took a deep breath, then stepped in front of Octavia with her left hand held out, palm up, offering a dance.

Octavia practically choked, in that refined way of hers. “Vinyl, you… you can't possibly?” She looked to either side as if concerned that somebody might see them.

“I can and I will,” said Vinyl quietly, surprising even herself with her confident tone.

“But what if… you can't even… oh dear,” said Octavia, reluctantly resting her hand in Vinyl's and allowing herself to be pulled forwards.

Casting a glance over her shoulder, Vinyl stepped backwards onto the floor. It was thankfully more clear of dancers now, or she would surely have stepped through several of them. She pulled Octavia towards her, bodies pressed close, and slipped her right hand onto Octavia's shoulder blade to hold her there. The dress Octavia was wearing left her back clear, allowing Vinyl's fingertips to rest on her skin directly, in tiny points that electrified them both.

Angle the right hand down, keep the elbows up.

Octavia rested her left hand on Vinyl's shoulder. “At least you know the proper—ooh!”

She was interrupted as Vinyl launched into a slow waltz. At first they seemed to be fighting, as Octavia sought to lead the dance from the follower’s position, but she soon relaxed, a grin spreading across her face as she realised that Vinyl was leading her properly.

“Vinyl,” she breathed, barely audible above the music, the scraping of shoes across the floor and the background chatter of the room. “When did you learn this?”

“Just a little trick I picked up,” bragged Vinyl. Every morning at dawn for the last four days. I shall have to thank that old Mr Tirek when I see him again.

Part of my job during a waltz is to steer and avoid accidents. The repeated words of her mentor reminded Vinyl that she was meant to keep looking over her partner’s shoulder, yet her gaze was drawn again and again to Octavia's eyes.

The illusion couldn't last forever, of course. On reaching the end of the room, Vinyl tried to lead Octavia in the grand sweeping turn that would take them around the corner, but Octavia misinterpreted the mute sign language of nudging and pulling, and tried to do a completely different grand sweeping turn. They stumbled, grazed a few other couples, and dodged out of the way of a third who were zooming past them. There was an awkward pause as they stood there, holding each other with elbows tucked in, before a suitable gap presented itself and they could get back into the circle.

After two waltzes the music changed to something slow but with a rhythm that Vinyl didn't recognise, and certainly couldn't dance to. She dropped her hands and started to apologise, but instead Octavia pulled her close.

“It's alright. We can just do this,” she said quietly, rocking slowly. Other dancers spiralled around and past them.

That works. Even a dumb DJ like me can do side to side in time.

Dandy Lion pulled her daughter past a cavalcade of brightly dressed guests.

Those blue women with the light blue hair look exotic. Are they prisoners? How about that really short guy with the two… sticky up bits of hair at the front, that kind of look like antennae? Does that tall guy have horns, or is that just a hat? Is that big guy's eye injured, or does he think an eyepatch looks good?

There are clearly plenty of these epic criminal types here.

“Spoiled, darling! How wonderful to see you here.”

“Dandy, how lovely.” The two women exchanged symbolic pecks on either cheek.

“Have you met my daughter Trixie?” She nudged Trixie forward. “Trixie, you must meet Spoiled Rich, her husband’s very big in real estate.”

“Pleased to meet you, Trixie.” Trixie nodded in acknowledgement.

“Doesn’t your daughter go to the same school, Spoiled? Canterlot High?”

“Only the junior division so far. Diamond still has some growing up to do, but she’s already top of her class academically.”

“Oh, that is so important. Tell me, is Filthy around? I don’t see him.”

“No, he got stuck doing a business deal. He’s always working. That’s the life of an entrepreneur, I’m afraid.”

“Even today? Oh, that is unfortunate. He’s making a habit of missing these things.”

Seriously? We come to the monsters’ ball and we’re wasting time on prattle like this? I’m supposed to be meeting important people, getting real answers, not swapping bake stories.

“I did see Raven around, I think.”

“Oh, I haven’t seen her in so long. I wonder how she’s doing.”

“I’m… just going to get a drink,” said Trixie, edging away. “Be right back.”

“Sure thing, sweetie,” called Dandy Lion. She sighed as Trixie’s dark blue dress disappeared among the vibrant crowd. “I hope she gets back soon, I was hoping to introduce her to the Mayor.”

“I didn't know if I'd see you here.”

Cerberus’ deep voice rumbled as he laid a heavy hand on Chrysalis’ shoulder. She turned her head to see a wide, canine grin on his big, flat face as he stood behind her. He was wearing a deep red waistcoat, embroidered with red and gold patterns, and a matching tie.

She smiled innocently in return. “Worried my invitation might have got lost in the post? How sweet of you,” she said.

The tall man didn't flinch. “It did occur to me that you might—”

“—try to escape,” said the man’s twin, wearing a green waistcoat, as he stepped up to the pair through the crowd.

Chrysalis brought her hands to her mouth. “You mean run away? On the night of the Gala?” she exclaimed in mock surprise. “Who would do such a thing?”

The two men chuckled. “I know, I know. That would be—”

“—incredibly rude. And yet, for some reason, practically all—”

“—new arrivals seem to try exactly that,” said a third man, wearing a blue waistcoat, weaving through the crowd to join them. Fluffle Puff dodged nervously out of his way with a quiet gasp.

“Really?” intoned Chrysalis sarcastically. “All of them? What a strange coincidence that is.”

The man in green replied, “It's almost like it's a—”

“—tradition to try to escape on the night of your first Gala. Not that—”

“—you'd ever stoop so low, I'm sure,” completed the man in red, releasing her shoulder.

“Surely not many of them can have succeeded, though,” said Chrysalis, turning to grab gently onto the red tie of the man behind her wrapping the silk around her hand. “Not when there's a big, strong man like you guarding the gates,” she added.

“Not a one,” replied the man confidently.

“Then I'd be a fool to even try,” said Chrysalis with resignation. “And this Queen is no fool.”

“Perhaps not, but I hope you won't be—”

“—too offended if I keep an eye—”

“—on you, just in case,” said the man in blue quietly, leaning in close. “And your—”

“—little friends, of course,” added the man in green, glancing back at Fluffle Puff.

“Look all you want, boys,” said Chrysalis, running two fingers sensuously down her hips. She wrapped the fingers of her other hand around the man’s tie and pulled his face down to hers. “Just don't touch,” she hissed.

The musicians, safely ensconced in a cozy balcony above one corner of the room, chose that moment to start playing a tango with a sharp, stabbing rhythm. Chrysalis slid her hand down the man's tie, pulling it free of the red waistcoat as she let go and danced away, her feet stamping aggressively in time with the music, stabbing the poor dancefloor as if it had offended her.

Up on the other balcony by the entrance, the herald called out, “Principal Abacus Cinch of Crystal Preparatory Academy, Dean Mi Amore Cadenza, and Shining Armor.”

Chrysalis stopped, her eyes narrowing as a hungry grin crossed her face. “Well, isn't that interesting,” she muttered, and turned to stride towards the arrivals.

Fluffle Puff blew a long raspberry at the men before turning and running after her. Cerberus watched them go, scowls on all three of his faces.

The three academics stepped down the wide staircase onto the ballroom.

“Now do remember, Cadance,” said Principal Cinch, adjusting her glasses, “we're here to promote the Academy's respectable image among the prestigious parents and soon-to-be-parents. Not to enjoy ourselves.”

“Can't we do both?” asked the young Dean innocently. “Shiny and I have been looking forward to this—”

She turned to Shining Armor for confirmation, only to find him missing. Quickly scanning the room, she found him rapidly spinning across the floor in the arms of a woman in a slinky black dress, their bodies pressed intimately together in a sultry tango. The woman appeared to be leading, and Shining Armor's face betrayed a mix of shock and excitement.

“Hmmf,” Cadance pouted, crossing her arms.

Principal Cinch had turned her disapproving glare on something else. “What are those children doing here?”

Cadance frowned. “Children?”

“See, three of them, over there by the buffet tables.” She squinted. “One with big orange hair, one purple, and a turquoise one over by the… are those tacos?”

Though they only touched in a few places – the gloved fingers of Octavia’s left hand resting on Vinyl’s shoulder, the warm pressure of Vinyl’s fingers resting on Octavia’s shoulder blade, and Octavia’s right hand resting in the crook of Vinyl’s hand – their bodies felt connected, moving more in time with each other than with the music.

How many times must we have touched, growing up? How many times have we hugged? How many times have we shared a sofa and a blanket and a tub of ice cream? How many times did I squeeze past her without thinking? It's different now. Why does every touch feel special?

Because she kissed me. Because now there's the suggestion of… what? Romance? Love? Sex? Guilt? Comfort? Whatever it is, this new thing, it's in every little touch.

Except that it's not new at all for Tavi, is it? She was aware of it all along. Every time we cuddled or hung out, the thought was in her head, in the background. And I never had a clue.

From up on the entrance balcony, the herald called out, “Mr Blueblood and Ms Harshwhinny.”

What?

Vinyl’s head jerked up. Concerned, Octavia asked, “What's wrong?”

Blueblood? Damn it, what's my boss doing here? I really don't want to deal with him tonight.

Octavia looked around, catching sight of the two entering the dance hall. She yelped as Vinyl pulled her into the nearby doorway leading to the buffet tables. “What’s going on?”

“I’m suddenly incredibly hungry.”

“Cadance! Dean Cadance!”

Principal Cinch called out, but got no reply. The dance floor was big, the people on it varied, and the music surprisingly fast.

She was losing patience, fast. First Shining Armor had disappeared, then Cadance had gone to find him. The guests mostly seemed to be more interested in dancing than talking, and with masks everywhere she was finding it hard to identify any of the important people on her list for tonight.

Worst of all, there were children running around. What were they even doing here?

She decided to abandon the dance floor in favour of the food hall. The people there would surely be more willing to talk. She manoeuvred awkwardly past a large man in a blue suit with an eyepatch, dancing with a much smaller man whose hair resembled a pair of antennae. They wore complementary blue-and-gold masks.

“Where has that girl got herself to?”

Cadance hunched a little lower to keep the head and shoulders of the large man in the blue suit between her and Principal Cinch. This had the side effect of cuddling her closer into the arms of Shining Armor, which was fine. It had taken her ages to find him after that annoying woman had whisked him away, and now she wasn’t going to let him go.

They were both largely ignoring the tempo of the music, moving instead to a slow rhythm that was purely theirs.

“There you are!”

For a moment, Cadance thought that Principal Cinch had found them, until the voice registered. Confused, she looked up from the loving embrace of Shining Armor to see Shining Armor standing next to him.

“Honey?” She started cautiously, her eyes flickering between the two men. “I don't… understand. How…”

The newly arrived Shining Armor wore a deep frown. “Nor do I, pumpkin. Can you explain to me why you're dancing with this strange man?”

The incumbent Shining Armor, the one she'd been dancing with, was guarded and protective, holding Cadance tight. “Who's this guy, Cady? And why does he look like me?”

“It's almost like he's a copy of me,” said the arrival, his voice laced with suspicion. “Some sort of doppelgänger.”

“He's got all my clothes as well,” said the incumbent. “The little blue handkerchief and everything. Is he an impersonator, dressed up as me? Tell me this is a joke, Cady.”

“Why would I impersonate myself?” asked the arrival. “That doesn't make a lot of sense.”

“Here you are, though, looking just like me. Are you trying to trick Cadance?”

“That would be my line,” said the arrival indignantly. “And I can't help noticing you've still got your arms around her.”

“She knows which of us is real,” insisted one of the identical men.

“I'm sure she does,” said the arrival. “Don't you, Cady?”

Cadance blinked. “I… can't tell which of you is the real one…”

They both looked hurt. The incumbent turned back to the arrival and continued looking him up and down. “We do look pretty similar, I have to admit,” he said grudgingly.

“I guess we do,” said the arrival. “So how long are you going to keep dancing with him?” he asked impatiently.

“A little bit longer,” said Cadance from deep in her beau's embrace. Her pink cheek rested against his white shirt. “I like it here.”

The incumbent grinned. “She likes it here.”

The arrival glared daggers for a few seconds, then relented. With an exaggerated sigh, he said, “I suppose I can't really blame you for that. After all, I am rather handsome.”

The incumbent nodded acknowledgement. “It's true, I am.” He released Cadance, stepping away from her and towards the other Shining Armor, leaving her arms grasping nothing.

He reached up to cup his other self's face, leaned in and kissed himself slowly. They remained together for a few seconds, then reluctantly broke the kiss. They remained staring into each other's eyes.

Cadance was briefly put out at having her embrace ended, then shocked and confused at the sight of her love folded in on itself.

“Damn, I'm pretty,” said one of the Shining Armors – she could no longer tell which.

“And a good kisser too,” added the other, leaning forward to repeat the process.

“There you are!” She turned to see Shining Armor struggling through the crowd of dancers to reach her, holding two glasses.

“Shiny? What…”

He took notice of her expression. “Are you all right? Did something happen?”

She turned back. There was no sign of the two Shining Armors at all, just a crowd of other people, dancing, moving and talking.

“I… uh…” She thought about how she could tell him what just happened, and what it would sound like. “Uh… you know, never mind.”

“Aren't you enjoying yourself?”

Trixie had nestled herself in the corner made by one of the big pillars, and stood there nursing a soda as she watched the strange people stream past. She looked up to see a little old man. He was shorter than her, though some of that was from the way he was hunched over his walking stick. He wore a well-worn suit, with a dark red waistcoat that nearly matched his skin tone.

“A party like this only comes around once a year,” he added. “You'll wish you'd taken the time to enjoy it properly.”

She tried to smile. “It's all right, don't mind me. I'm just a little distracted. This is all a little… unfamiliar. The outfits and the music and the dancing.”

“I'm sure you must have danced before, though a ballroom is a little different.”

“No, I can ballroom dance. My mother taught me when I was little.” When we were still a family. “It’s just overwhelming, actually being here.” Trixie fidgeted a little.

“If I were five hundred years younger then I'd ask you for a dance myself, but I suspect you wouldn't want to drag a little old fellow like me around the floor.”

Trixie tried to chuckle at the lame attempt at humour, but couldn't help wondering, Might he really be hundreds of years old? Or even older? Is he one of them? She thought back to Chrysalis telling them that Tartarus housed some of the oldest and most dangerous beings in the world. Some of those people out there on the dance floor are immortals. Things with monstrous power. Things that had to be locked up in here.

She fiddled nervously with her drink.

“And I'm sure you'd rather find a handsome young lad to dance with, somebody with character and a nice smile. Somebody like…” His eyes scanned the crowd.

Trixie looked up, alarmed. “What? No, I don't need—”

“Blueblood!” called the old man.

“No, please don't…” muttered Trixie.

A tall young man in a shining white suit sauntered over, a massive smile on his face. “Mister Tirek, I didn't think you'd be here.”

“I never miss a Gala, you know that, lad. Now listen here, young Mister Blueblood, I've discovered something shocking here tonight. Unforgivable, even.”

Blueblood's expression turned serious, or at least mock-serious. “Oh dear. Do tell me more.”

Turning to the blushing Trixie, Tirek explained, “Apparently, this charming young lady here has absolutely nobody to dance with.”

Blueblood gasped in faux horror. “No! It cannot be!”

“I thought perhaps you might be able to help correct the situation?”

“If the little lady will allow it, then it would be my honour.” He held out a hand to her, and she could think of little to do but accept it, allowing herself to be pulled out onto the floor and into the handsome man's hold.

Wait… did he say Blueblood? Isn't that the name of Vinyl’s boss?

Dandy Lion watched her daughter dancing. She turned to the woman beside her. “You know, Raven, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“Really? You don't think you'll be picking pieces of Blueblood out of the shrubbery?”

“Oh, I hope so. My little girl needs to learn to put her foot down.”

Raven nodded sagely. “And Blueblood needs to learn how hard it is to get blood out of a white coat,” she said with a smile.

“I must ask my secretary to send something nice to poor old Ms Harshwhinny,” said Dandy Lion. “I really don't know how she manages to put up with him.”

“You should get some bail money ready for her as well,” added Raven. “You know. Just in case.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you're a little bit scary?”

“Only my closest friends,” replied Raven with an affectionate nudge.

Dandy Lion spared a glance toward the doorway leading to the private rooms. She leaned in conspiratorially and asked, “How is she?”

“You met her earlier, yourself,” said Raven innocently.

“Yes, we met officially, but… how is she really? Just between friends.”

Raven dropped her voice as well. “She doesn't enjoy coming here, never has. She doesn't like the change.”

“It doesn't seem to bother you as much.”

Raven shrugged. “I'm just a unicorn. I don't have as much to lose.”

“And is that the only reason she's in a bad mood?”

“It's the only one she'll admit to. Even to me, she won't talk about the early days.”

Dandy winced as she watched the escalating altercation between Trixie and Blueblood. “I think he's going to be learning that lesson after all.”

“Arrabbiata sauce,” said Raven with the appreciation of experience. “Nasty.”

“Looks like he'll be fishing meatballs out of his pockets as well.”

Raven looked down at her plate. “Oh. Is that what they are?”

Octavia cleared her throat. “Vinyl, honey?” she asked in a near-whisper.

“Yeah?” replied Vinyl in similarly hushed tones.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, Tavi.” Vinyl peered through the narrow slit of light between the doors.

Octavia shifted her feet, trying to find a comfortable position. “What exactly are we doing in here?”

Vinyl paused before answering. “I was… hungry?”

Octavia looked down at the silver platter laden with vol-au-vents, with which the two of them were sharing a very small, dark cupboard. “So I can see.” As an afterthought she plucked a morsel from the pile. Through a mouthful of salmon and cream cheese she added, “That said, there is, mmm… one more question I’d like to ask you about our situation.”

Vinyl peered cautiously through the gap in the door as the sound of guests eating and talking filtered in. “Go ahead,” she said quietly.

Octavia leaned in to whisper, “How exactly do you know Mr Blueblood?”

Vinyl stiffened, and nearly dropped the tray. She turned to look at Octavia with a nervous smile, carefully adjusting the hand carrying the platter before any puff pastry could slip to the floor.

“I mean,” added Octavia, licking her fingers, “we're clearly in here to avoid meeting him. Which, from what I know of him, is a perfectly fair reaction. I'm just curious how you two know each other.”

She quietly cleared her throat and said, “Well, he, uh, he owns the club I work at.”

“Oh.” Octavia pushed a vol-au-vent into Vinyl’s mouth. “I suppose that makes sense.”

“Howv vo wou vow im?” she mumbled through a mouthful of pastry.

“He sponsors the Griffonstone Quartet, as well as a number of theatre companies, choirs and orchestras. I’ve seen him at plenty of auditions.”

“Griffonstone Quartet?”

“The ones playing in the balcony above us.”

Vinyl shushed her. “Here he comes.” Her eyes narrowed as she peered out through the narrow sliver. “And he appears to have walked into a tray of food,” she added with a quiet smile. “Some sort of tomato sauce all down his nice white jacket.”

“Who's that shouting?”

“Oh, wow. That's Gustave.”

“Gustave the pastry chef? I haven't seen him in years. What's he doing here?” She plucked another vol-au-vent from the tray. “Apart from these yummy things.”

“Shouting at Blueblood,” Vinyl narrated. “Something about him making a mess and wasting food. Trying to shove Blueblood back out onto the dance floor.” Vinyl gasped. “And receiving a cake to the back of the head.”

“What!” Octavia stood on tip-toe and struggled to look through the narrow gap above Vinyl's head. “Gustave or Blueblood? Which one of them?”

“Blueblood did. Though bits of it are on Gustave’s jacket as well.”

“Somebody threw a cake at him? Who?” Octavia squeezed in try and to see through the gap.

“I didn't see, but it looks like Blueblood is throwing something back. Little bowls of something.”

“Is that pickled vegetables?”

“There's some little sandwiches coming back. Or bits of them.” She winced at the sight of bread landing butter-side-down.

The cupboard door rattled as something squishy struck it, and both girls pulled back. Fear didn't keep them away for long, though, and they both pressed their eyes to the gap.

“I think I can see Pinkie Pie throwing little custard tarts,” said Octavia. “Or is that… two different Pinkie Pies? It's honestly hard to tell.”

“Actually, I think there's a Pinkie on both sides. They seem to be enjoying themselves.” Vinyl gratefully accepted the pastry that Octavia was offering. “Thanffs,” she mumbled around it.

“Oh dear, poor old Mr Gustave isn't enjoying himself.” She looked down at the tray. “And we appear to be out of vol-au-vents.”

“Hang on.” Vinyl judged her moment carefully, then quickly reached out and caught something. She brought it in and pulled the door shut.

“What have you got?” asked Octavia, unable to see it in the dark.

Vinyl held up the bowl, its contents shifted to the side in transit. “Some sort of… nest made out of spaghetti? I think? With a…” She licked her fingers. “Mushroomy sauce in the middle.”

“Well, that's going to be difficult to share, particularly without cutlery.”

“We'll just have to slurp one end each until we meet in the middle,” said Vinyl with a smirk. They both started to laugh.

The door was pulled open abruptly, filling the cupboard with light. “Sacre bleu!” Gustave le Grand stood there, cream caked into his receding hair, pasta sauce dripping down his mustache, his eyes wide in astonishment. “You two!”

Vinyl darted to Gustave's left, still laughing. Octavia dodged to his right with a polite “Excuse me!”

17. Interview With a Goddess

View Online

Keeping her profile low and her steps quiet, Vinyl slipped into the meeting room. The muffled sounds of the party filtered from somewhere downstairs, and faded when she shut the door.

There was a dappled, multi-coloured light coming from the far end of the dark room, though the source of the light was hidden behind the back of a large chair. The walls of the room were panelled in dark red wood, peppered with unlit brass wall lamps whose curves cast enlarged shadows. Here and there were oil paintings of which only a glint could be seen in the half light. The room was dominated by a broad table in a similar dark wood, polished to a shine. Surrounding the table were a number of comfortable looking chairs.

Vinyl took a few steps around the table. Can I find somewhere good to hide and listen before the Mayor gets here? Perhaps a cupboard? Maybe under the table? It’s big enough. As long as nobody tries to play footsie under it… Gack! No! That would be—

“Hello, Vinyl. Please take a seat.”

She ducked behind a chair. Somebody’s there! Somebody knows I’m here. They…

She knows my name. How creepy is that?

The voice was a woman’s. It sounded familiar, but Vinyl couldn’t quite place it. Without moving from her shelter, she listened to the creak of a turning chair. At the same time the light in the room seemed to brighten and shift. Vinyl couldn’t see the person speaking from behind her chair, but she could see the pattern of warm and cool colours spilling across the walls like a miniature dawn. Was the person in the chair carrying a weird multicoloured lamp?

I can’t see from here, not without revealing myself. Unless I can see their reflection?

Looking up at a framed picture on the wall, Vinyl saw a reflection in the glass. The multi-coloured light source appeared to be moving.

I can’t quite make it out. Is that a lamp of some sort, or…?

It resolved into the outline of a woman, framed by a mass of glowing hair that moved on its own, lifted by an unseen breeze. It was the only light source in the room, standing out against the dark wall, and left the face it surrounded in darkness, an unsettling void.

Monster! Chryssi warned us there would be monsters at the Gala. This is one of them! No real person’s hair glows like that.

Her breath was frantic and short. She quickly took stock of her situation, her eyes darting around the room. Long room. Longer than it is wide. Big table in the middle. She’d have to go around it to get to me – unless she went over it? She’s sitting down, up onto the table would be awkward. She looks tall, she’s probably fast. There are chairs in the way both sides, danger of tripping. Her chair rotates, so she’d be able to quickly jump to either side. She’s holding a cup in her right – that’s a reflection, remember – right hand. If she moved to the right she’d spill it over herself, so she’ll probably go left. One exit, ahead and to my left. Any other exits? No other doors. Up, down? Ceiling tiles? No, that’s wood panelling. Can I get under the table? I’d be trapped. No. Get out quick, get somewhere with more exits, more options.

Without waiting any longer, Vinyl dove for the door, yanking at the handle and finding it locked. Seriously? Who locked it? I’ve only been in here a few seconds!

The lights turned on, warm golden lamps set around the walls. Vinyl turned sharply to look at the light switch next to the door. I didn’t touch that. Is there more than one switch? There must be. She turned around to look behind her.

The woman hadn’t moved from her chair. She sat patiently holding a cup of tea.

Now that Vinyl could see her clearly, she looked a little like Principal Celestia. In fact she looked a lot like Principal Celestia, and sounded like her too. She was taller, though, with a thinner face and a longer nose. And there was no mistaking the thick mass of hair that billowed gently in an unseen breeze and contained a cosmos of intricate detail. She was not Principal Celestia.

The sun really shines out of her… hair. Heh.

She wore a classical styled dress that looked like it belonged on a statue of an angel, or maybe an ancient goddess. The clean white fabric hung in simple, graceful folds, and was edged with fine gold thread. A thick golden necklace hung around her neck, with a large purple gem set in the middle.

The Celestia lookalike gestured to one of the chairs. “Do please take a seat,” she repeated.

Vinyl didn’t step away from the door. Her breath was fast and heavy. Door’s locked. Did she lock it, or did somebody else? She apparently turned the lights on without getting up. Or she’s just got a friend who likes playing tricks. Or the lights and door are all hooked up to a remote control of some sort. I’m not sure which is more scary, magic powers or the sort of person who’d spend hours setting things up for a trap.

No windows. No other exits. And she can maybe move stuff with her mind. Somebody who looks like Tia, only… not. And I don’t mean like one of Chrysalis’ changelings. This isn’t a pretend Tia. It’s like… a different Tia.

“You’re not Celestia, are you?” she said cautiously.

“Am I not? I would disagree,” she said with a comforting smile. Vinyl was not comforted.

She’s Celestia, but she isn’t Principal Celestia. Does that mean she’s… “You’re the other one – the one from outside, right?”

The woman paused. If Vinyl didn’t know any better she would say she looked a bit impressed. “Cerberus was right. You have been doing your homework.”

So she knows Cerberus, at least well enough for him to pass news onto her. Presumably after he saw Trixie the other day. Or they did. I’m still not sure how pronouns work, with three of him. Trixie was supposed to go and check on Cerberus, one of Chryssi’s little assignments for us. It was a mistake. We should never have agreed to work with her.

“What did Cerberus say about us? About me?” she asked.

“That you ask a lot of questions and sneak into places you don’t belong,” said the woman with a knowing smile. It faded as she added, “That the smell of someone else lingers on you. Someone much more dangerous.”

Did she say ‘smell’? I smell of somebody? Ew.

“Smell? That’s… a bit creepy.”

She must mean Chrysalis, though. So apparently Cerberus can smell that we’ve been hanging around her? That might affect the plan tonight. But then, we were never planning to just slip away quietly without being noticed, were we?

The woman sighed. “Yes, Cerberus has always been a bit like that. You have to forgive his way of working. He is uniquely well suited to his job.”

So if she’s getting reports, does that mean this woman’s in charge of this place? Of Cerberus? Or that she at least knows who is?

If so, that’s exactly what we’re here for, isn’t it? To find powerful people who can give us answers about who we are and why this town is the way it is.

Well, don’t screw it up now, Vinyl. This is what you wanted, so take it. Get the answers you need out of her! Do it gently. Let her think she’s in charge, which, yeah, she probably kind of is, and let her talk. If only I could act the way Trixie can…

“So… you’re not a prisoner like the ones downstairs. You’re something different, right?”

“I certainly hope so,” said the woman.

“But you’re not human, are you?”

A flicker of annoyance passed across her face. “No, I’m not.” The woman glanced down at her own fingers, curled around the handle of a teacup, as if she found them unsettling.

“So are you a… pony?” I still can’t quite believe I’m saying that. “Or some other kind of creature? Are you some sort of monster?” Damn it, that was too blunt. Please don’t eat me!

The woman looked disappointed. “I’m no monster,” she chastised, adding more gently, “simply a pony like any other.”

Like any other, really? She doesn’t seem much like the Derpy I met in the basement. Or that version of Derpy. I mean, she was kind of strange, with the wings and the really big eyes, but she was nice and cheerful, just like the real Derpy. I mean, like the Derpy I know. But this Celestia isn’t at all like our Principal Celestia.

It makes sense. This woman is in charge of… something. I don’t know what, but she’s totally got an ‘in charge’ air. Our Celestia has more of a ‘just barely holding on’ air.

Come on, do this, Vinyl. You came here for answers, and here’s the freaking queen of… somewhere, with all the answers you need.

She stepped forward and put her trembling hands on the back of a chair.

“Is it you?”

Though the woman didn’t appear to understand the question Vinyl had asked, she kept confusion out of her manner, merely tilting her head to invite further clarification. That unflappable serenity is really starting to piss me off.

Vinyl tried again. “Are you the… I mean…”

She struggled to put everything into a single question. They had so many doubts, so many questions, that she didn’t know where to start. I really wish I’d prepared for this, now, but… well, we didn’t know what we’d be facing.

“The horizon,” she started slowly. “I mean the wall thing around town, that people appear and disappear as they go through it. The dolls that are also people. The memories we have in common. It’s all so contrived. Something in this place, this Tartarus, it… changes us. Makes us, even. It puts memories in our heads, arranges things, decides who we’re going to be. But… who actually does that? Who decided that I was going to be Vinyl Scratch. Is it you? Are you in charge of all this?”

Vinyl found she’d settled her eyes on the table during that. She looked up. The woman’s smile had faded, replaced with a sad frown.

“Oh dear,” she muttered, finally putting down her teacup. “That silly old fool never did think through the consequences of his actions.”

“Consequences?” asked Vinyl.

“The unique properties of this realm were discovered long ago by a powerful wizard who travelled here quite by accident. He found himself transformed in body and separated from his magic. The humans he met were reflections of the ponies he knew, similar enough that he at first thought them visitors like himself.”

“He was a pony?”

“He was. On his return, he wrote about the way this realm would drain away the magic from any creature that enters it, rendering them harmless and making escape difficult, while calling upon their memories of others as a template for the creation of phantasms like yourself. This wizard believed that this realm would serve as a useful… holding pen for those aggressors who could not simply be defeated. He even surmised that may have been the purpose behind its creation.”

“Surmised? You mean you don’t know what makes anything here happen like it does?”

“Well… we had theories, about where it came from and how it works, but they were little more than guesswork based on the fragments of legends and the observations we made. Nowhere could we find an explanation of this realm.”

“So… you don’t know? You’re the one in charge of this place, and you don’t know how it works or why?”

The woman shook her head. “I suppose I don’t. I’m sorry, Vinyl. I have no answers to give you.”

“You don’t know.” Vinyl gripped the back of the seat, her fingers pressing into the fabric. “You don’t know how any of this works. You can’t even tell me how real I am.”

“I realise it’s little comfort, but none of us ever imagined that a phantasm could discover her own nature as you have done. It’s something that hasn’t happened before.” She paused, and lifted her left hand. A small click behind Vinyl signalled the door unlocking. She added more quietly, “I am sorry.”

Vinyl looked behind her at the door. “Which means none of those monsters out there know, either.”

“I expect not. Though some of them probably think they do, so I’d be careful whose advice you listen to.”

“Right.” Her shoulders slumped, she turned to the door.

“You remind me of her,” said the woman, as Vinyl’s hand touched the door handle.

She froze. “Of who?” she asked quietly.

“Vinyl Scratch.”

She means the other Vinyl Scratch. The other me, the one that lives out there somewhere. The pony named Vinyl Scratch.

Except she didn’t say ‘the other Vinyl Scratch’ or ‘the pony Vinyl Scratch’. She just said ‘Vinyl Scratch’. Because to her, the other Vinyl Scratch is the only real one.

“What’s she like?”

The woman smiled. “She’s fun. Always shakes things up. She was actually the DJ at my niece’s wedding.”

“She’s a DJ?” said Vinyl before she could stop herself.

She’s a DJ as well. We have more than a name and a face in common; our profession as well. What else? Does she think like me? Live like me? Love…

If she is like me, did these things happen at the same time, or did they leak in one direction or other? Am I making the same choices she did?

“Yes. Apparently she goes by the moniker ‘DJ PON-3’ professionally. Isn’t that silly?”

“Heh. Yeah, silly. So how long has she been using that name, do you know?”

The woman paused to think. “I think I first heard of it a couple of years ago.”

The same stage name. I’ve been using it for less than two weeks, she’s been using it for two years. Actually, Blueblood suggested it. How does that work? Did he suggest it purely because the other Vinyl uses that name? I’m sure he doesn’t know about her, he can’t have done it deliberately. Were his actions, were both our actions, arranged by some higher power to make that happen just right?

Did that conversation even happen at all, or do we both just have a convenient memory of it? The pony Vinyl has this nickname, so I had to have it as well.

I really do remember it. I remember the smell of Blueblood’s office, the mess everywhere, the condescending way he was talking to me. I remember seeing a pony through a… gap in his wall, where there shouldn’t be one. I remember going back later than night to check, and finding nothing. Can a fake memory be so real?

And if one memory can be faked, what’s to say another isn’t?

“You look troubled,” said the woman.

“Er, yeah. Just… thinking about me and her. Like, does she wear shades?”

“She does, actually. Purple ones, just like those. And she has enormous speakers that she takes all over the place.”

“Sounds a lot like my car.”

“I suppose in any world, some things don’t change.”

Vinyl grinned. “I guess so.” She pushed the door open and slipped out.

Except that she gets to choose. And I get to follow.

Ms Harshwhinny emerged from the gentlemen’s toilet with the fed up face of somebody who’s had to put up with this nonsense before and will no doubt have to again. She carried a bag with a stained white suit shoved inside it.

She passed by Octavia, who was standing by a door marked ‘Private’ and failing to look innocent. They nodded acknowledgement to each other.

I wonder what Vinyl’s doing up there? I hope it’s worth the risk. There’s no telling when somebody’s going to try and use these stairs.

“Oh, Miss Octavia.”

She turned and saw Blueblood emerge from the toilet. He’d changed into a dark blue suit with a matching cravat, a shade carefully chosen to offset his golden hair. He continued straightening his sleeves, pulling his bow tie and smoothing his jacket as he spoke. “I didn’t realise you’d be at the Gala,” he said, barely looking at her.

I’d have thought twice about it if I’d known you’d be here.

“I am,” she said simply. “I didn’t think you’d recognise me though.”

“Of course I recognise you,” he said curtly, fiddling with his sleeves. “You’re the up and coming talent who’s going to win the audition next week.”

That’s nice to hear, if a little presumptuous. He must have heard my recording.

“I’m flattered by your confidence. There are more than two dozen musicians in the running though, many of them extremely talented, so my place is far from guaranteed.”

“Nonsense. I already told the selection committee who to pick.”

He… told them who to pick? Just told them, in advance, not even waiting to see all the performances? And they’d listen to him?

Of course they’d listen to him. They have to. He’s Blueblood. He pays most of their bills. They’d go under without his blessing. I don’t really want to believe the selection committee would be so easy to sway, but if the orchestra’s survival was at stake, it’s likely they would be.

Would Blueblood really abuse his power like that? Apparently he would. He really is that shallow. I wish I was even surprised, but it’s entirely in keeping with what I’ve seen of him.

Certainly, I’d like to think I have a good chance of winning on my ability alone, but if the winner’s already been set then… what’s the point of even having the auditions? What have I been practicing for? What have I been so stressed for? What have the last few months even been about?

And I can’t do anything about it. My whole career depends on this pillock. If I’m rude to him here he could as easily change his mind.

Except… it doesn’t. Not any more. I’m leaving it all behind. My career. My stress. My dependence on men like him.

Blueblood fiddled with a golden compass rose cufflink, trying to get the ‘north’ end of it perfectly straight.

I don’t know what we’ll find out there. I’d be a fool to assume it’ll be free of trouble. But… I don’t need to care what somebody like Blueblood thinks of me any more. I could tell him exactly what everyone thinks of him. I could step on his foot, spit in his face, rip those bloody cufflinks off and stamp on them. I really could.

She realised she’d been holding a fist tight by her side. She willed the fingers to open.

Is that really what I want? Revenge for a hundred petty little things?

No.

I could… And I don’t need to. None of it would matter to me any more. I’m not defined by my reaction to him. I’ll admit it’s tempting to take my frustration out on this fop – he really does ask for it – but doing so would only reinforce the anger, not relieve it. It’s not who I am.

“That’ll have to do,” he muttered to himself. He seemed to notice Octavia still standing by the security door. “Are you waiting for something?”

She inclined her head to the ladies’ toilet. “Just a friend,” she said. Not strictly inaccurate.

He nodded absently and pushed past her on his way back to the dance floor.

Oh so tempting…

After a minute’s thought, Octavia pulled out her phone and scrolled through the address book until she found Fluttershy.

Trixie was Pinkie spotting.

Is that another one over there by the window? Her hair looks different, kind of a sixties bob thing, but it’s the right colour. She stood on the central balcony, arms resting on the railing overlooking the dance floor. How about the one with the straight hair?

She looked over to where Chrysalis was dancing with her little pink girlfriend. I don’t think Fluffle Puff is one of them, despite the colours. She hasn’t got the right figure.

At the far end of the room she could see Octavia, standing guard over the staff entrance that Vinyl had disappeared through a few minutes ago.

Trixie is sure that right now Vinyl is trying to decide if she should go along with the escape or not. Like she has a choice. It's obvious that she’s going to do it. And Octavia will too.

“So how many’ve you got?”

Trixie blinked. “Er, four…”

“Not bad,” said Pinkie Pie. “I see six!”

Trixie looked up at the girl resting on the railing next to her. “Make that five for me.”

Pinkie giggled and said, “Yeah, but I don’t think I count.”

Trixie frowned. “You don’t count as a Pinkie Pie?”

“No. Well, yes, lots, probably more than any of the others, but also no. See, all the other ones came from the same place, which means they’re all like sisters. One big family.”

“And you’re not one of them?”

“Nope. You’re talking to the original. The premier party planner pony, Pinkie Pie!”

Again with the ‘pony’ thing. Does she mean that literally, or is it just something people say?

“I… Trixie sees. So how many of them are there? In total?”

Pinkie thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I can’t remember? Thirty? They’re not all here though. “

“Yeah, the Pinkie I spoke to said you were going to another party today. A bunch of things in fact.”

Pinkie drooped a little. “Yeah, I was supposed to be giving a little filly her cute-ceañera today. I even promised, but now I’m stuck here,” she sighed. “I really hope the other me can do something about it.”

And that is Trixie’s way in. Gotcha!

“Hey, if you’re a premier party planner,” she asked, quietly adding ‘pony’ in her head, “do you mind giving Trixie a hand with something party-related?”

Pinkie blinked for a second, looked down at one of her hands and said absently, “Oh yeah, I have those now.” She looked up with a grin. “Sure thing, Trix! What do you need?”

Trixie let a smile creep across her face. She leaned in to whisper, “Thing is, the Great and Powerful Trixie has a surprise planned. Something to really make this party jump.”

“Ooh, I like surprises!” She turned serious. “As long as it’s a good surprise, not a bad surprise. You don’t want to ruin a party with a bad surprise,” she threatened.

“It’s a good one, Trixie promises!”

“Do you Pinkie Pie promise? Cross your heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in your eye?” She produced a cupcake from somewhere.

Since when are they even serving cupcakes here? I only saw those dainty canapés. Unless I threw some cupcakes at Blueblood earlier? “Er, sure. Trixie promises.”

“Okay then!” said Pinkie, suddenly cheerful again. “How can I help?” She stuffed the whole cupcake in her mouth.

Damn, she bounces back quickly. “Well, the mood of this party right now doesn’t really suit my surprise. It’s a bit too staid and formal.” She glanced over at the next balcony over, where the musicians were playing something slow and thoughtful, and Pinkie followed her look. “Trixie was thinking it’d be nice to change it up a bit, get people hopping. Just for a minute before my surprise. Does that sound like something you could do?”

Pinkie swallowed. She thought for a moment, or at least put on a thoughtful face, before replying, “Yes, I suppose I could manage something like that…”

Trixie produced a sealed envelope and slowly waved it in front of Pinkie’s face. “And in return, Trixie could let you have this.”

“Ooh!” Pinkie leaned down to examine the envelope from all angles as if she could discern something about the contents. “What is it?”

“Well, Trixie might just know a way for you to keep that promise after all.”

Pinkie wiped the table down. She’d spilled milkshake over it in her enthusiasm, as well as a little over Bon Bon. Her very good friend Lyra hadn’t minded, oddly enough.

“Best take care of this before it attracts any bugs,” she remarked to herself.

Sugarcube Corner was quiet. Quiet enough to make Pinkie restless. She’d wiped down the other tables, cleaned the floor, refilled the sugar pots, put out the bins, and was in real danger of descaling the coffee machine.

“I’ll say,” the other Pinkie sitting at the far table agreed. “You don’t want all the boys turning up in your yard. Again.”

“Hey, thanks for keeping me company.”

“No problem,” replied the seated girl. “I was supposed to be at a Wonderbolts show today. It’s probably over already.”

The door swung open and the Rainbooms poured in.

“You gotta admit,” said Rainbow, “that was an awesome game. Right?”

“I will admit that some of those feats of acrobatics were quite impressive,” said Rarity. “Though why they had to perform in all that mud is beyond me.”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a bit of mud,” said Applejack. “Am I right, sugarcube?”

“Oh. Um, there are lots of creatures that like the mud. Like earthworms and moles.” She looked to Sunset Shimmer for confirmation.

“Don’t ask me,” said Sunset, holding the door open for another Pinkie Pie. “I grew up on a mountain. There wasn’t a lot of mud around. Hey, didn’t you grow up on a farm?”

“Yup,” said Pinkie cheerfully, bouncing in through the door, “but it wasn’t the—”

Pinkie’s phone buzzed – all three of them at the same time, with slightly different versions of the same upbeat tune – and the three Pinkies dove to read their messages.

“Gotta go!” said the Pinkie by the door, turning right around.

“See ya!” said the next, following her.

“Bye!” called the last as she ran out after her companions.

Sunset shut the door behind the last of them. “What was that all about?”

“Eh, you never know with Pinkie,” said Rainbow, throwing herself into a chair and putting her feet up on the table. “She’s weird like that.”

The door swung open as Pinkie pushed her head through. “Feet off the furniture, RD. And make sure you pay for your drinks!”

The musicians put their bows down as they ended the tune. They turned pages, stretched their arms and shook out their hands in preparation for the next song.

“Cupcake?” asked Pinkie Pie, leaning into their balcony room through the narrow doorway. She proffered a plate of cupcakes in various flavours.

“Ooh, don’t mind if I do,” said Gabriella, plucking a lemon cupcake from the plate.

“Careful,” chided Gilda. “Don’t get any of that icing on your instrument.”

“I mwown,” said Gabby through a mouthful of cupcake. She’d rested her viola on her knees.

“Thanks,” said Greta, taking a caramel cupcake. “Not many people remember the musicians.”

Pinkie leaned forward to let the other musicians take a cupcake. “Yeah, I saw you guys up here, hard at work and everything, and I thought, ‘Pinkie Pie, you know what those guys need? They need cupcakes!’” She twirled the plate. “So I brought you cupcakes.”

Giselle smiled as she daintily pecked at her cupcake. “It’s appreciated. I just wish we could take a few minutes break.”

“Why don’t you?” asked Pinkie Pie. “Oh, here, have a napkin.”

“Thanks,” said Gilda, taking a little napkin and cleaning her fingers. “But somebody’s gotta keep this party going. People won’t dance to silence.”

“I can cover for you,” said Pinkie. “Just for a song or two.”

“Really?” asked Gabriella eagerly.

“We can’t let you use our instruments,” warned Giselle.

“That’s okay, I brought my own.” She reached behind a sash curtain and pulled out a trombone.

Gilda was surprised. “How long has that been there?”

“I stashed it there earlier in case of trombone-related emergencies. At least, I assume I did. One of me must have.”

“What’s a trombone-related emergency?” asked Gabriella.

“This is, silly!” replied Pinkie.

Guests across the dance floor were exchanging partners and pleasantries in preparation for the next dance. The gap since the end of the last song had stretched to a minute or two, long enough for people to glance up at the musicians’ balcony, but they were sure it would start up again any minute. Idle chatter filled the hall as people waited.

They all stopped what they were doing as a double strum of what sounded like guitars punctuated the room, followed by a pair of drumbeats.

They looked up to see a troupe of pink-haired girls in the musician’s box, wielding a variety of instruments. One of them appeared to be playing a half-dozen instruments at once, including a theremin.

There was another double strum, another pair of drumbeats, and the Pinkie Pie at the front of the group started to sing.

“The warden threw a party in the county jail…”

18. Tartarus Rock

View Online

From: a.cinch@cpa.edu
To: celestia@canterlot-high-school.org
Subject: Friendship Games

Dear Miss Celestia,

I’m contacting you to arrange matters in advance of the upcoming Friendship Games. As I’m sure you remember, it will be Canterlot High School’s turn to host the event this year. Will you be able to construct a suitable course for the games in time, or would you rather allow Crystal Preparatory Academy to take care of it for you?

How is your sister settling into her role as your vice principal? Has she picked up her predecessor’s reins? We must catch up sometime – far away from the inevitable hostility of the competition, if possible.

Tonight, Dean Cadance and myself shall, of course, be attending the Grand Gathering Gala; but feel free to call me tomorrow to coordinate details.

Yours,

Abacus Cinch
Principal, Crystal Preparatory Academy

This email has been scanned for viruses and malware by Clover AntiVirus™.

A knock on Celestia’s door drew her attention from the important task of glaring grumpily at the screen. She straightened her back. “Come in,” she said, taking care to adopt a neutral expression.

“Hi, Tia!”

Celestia sighed. “Pinkie Pie, I’ve told you before not to call me…” She stopped and stared at the girl sauntering into her office. “How long have you had that blonde streak in your hair?”

“Surprise!”

“It certainly is surprising. I can’t say I like it, myself, but our philosophy here at Canterlot High is to allow students to explore these things in their own way. So what can I do for you?”

Pinkie looked awkwardly at the door. “Uh, well… I overheard a couple of the younger kids say they saw Sunset Shimmer running around the school naked. I kinda… thought you should know.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes. “Again?” She pushed her chair back from the desk and stood up. “I swear, it’s like that girl grew up without clothes or something. Where was this?”

“Somewhere near the gym, I think?”

Celestia headed out to find her most notorious problem student. She knew there was a good chance she’d simply be wasting her time, but she had to do it anyway.

Not long after that, Pinkie Pie left the office with Celestia’s keys.

“…everypony on the whole cell block
was dancing to the jailhouse rock!”

Abacus Cinch was not amused.

“Well, I hardly think that’s the sort of thing we want from—”

She broke off as her elbow was nudged by a couple slipping past her onto the dance floor.

“Ahem. From the prestigious Gala, that is to say. It is supposed to be—”

Another bump, another couple headed to the floor.

“Oh dear. Such disorder. I trust that you at least have the sense to eschew such activity, Dean Cadance.” She turned to where Cadance had been standing a moment ago. “Not again,” she muttered as she spotted Cadance and Shining Armor spinning across the dance floor with big grins on their faces.

The dancers could not be said to be organised. Gone was the orderly circuit of the waltzes and foxtrots. Gone was the formal unity. In its place was a jumble of impromptu variations and attempts at something fast and jazzy. More than a few couples collided, fell down, or lost all semblance of the song’s rhythm and simply moved at random. Yet so many of them were having fun.

Vinyl emerged from the door marked ‘Private’ with a head full of troublesome thoughts. She was surprised when Octavia took her by the hand and pulled her into a set of fast moves that left her increasingly dizzy. She tried to hold on and get a handle on the dance, but found herself spun around incessantly. Octavia only held her by one hand at a time, just a light touch with a few fingers, yet seemed able to control all her movements. She surrendered to the dance and found herself laughing, and Octavia laughing with her.

All too soon the song came to an end. The girls both looked up at the troupe of Pinkies up in the musicians’ booth, as did those dancers who weren’t preoccupied trying to catch their breath.

As the last bars of the song faded into the accumulated sound of breathing, footsteps and chatter, Vinyl’s eyes were drawn to the floor, where a white cloud had started rolling across the ballroom. People all around them started muttering, wondering what was going on, looking down at their shoes. Vinyl lifted one foot out of the mist.

“Is this dry ice?” she asked, a gentle kick sending a tuft of it rolling over Octavia’s feet. Or… what’s the stuff they use for that now? Glycerol something?

“WELCOME!” shouted Trixie’s amplified and distorted voice from the stage. “Welcome to the best Gala you’ve ever seen!” Vinyl could just about make out a little wireless microphone on her head.

“Oh no,” muttered Octavia as she closed her eyes. “What is she doing?”

A single light snapped on over Trixie’s head. “In fact,” she continued, “once you behold the unbelievable wonders about to be revealed by The Great and Powerful Trixie, you’ll be in no doubt at all that this was the best night ever!”

Behind Trixie the curtain began to rise and more spotlights spiralled around the stage, most of them indigo or blue. The audience muttered, unsure what to make of the interruption.

“I guess this is the surprise she was talking about,” said Vinyl uncertainly.

“Am I the only one who didn’t spend the last few days planning something?” wondered Octavia.

“But! The Great and Powerful Trixie does not work alone!” she proclaimed. “Before we begin, allow Trixie to introduce her glamorous assistant, the lovely Fluffle Puff.”

Fluffle Puff trotted to the front of the stage, daintily holding the sides of her tutu as she dropped down in a curtsey.

“And one more thing. Trixie will need… a volunteer from the audience. Let Trixie see…” She made a show of shielding her eyes from the spotlight and looking out over the uncertain faces.

Many of the audience avoided eye contact, waiting for somebody else to be picked, though a Pinkie Pie could be heard at the back of the room jumping up and down, yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!”

“Aha! Of course, who better than the most respectable fellow in town? Mister Cerberus, come on up here!”

Only two of Cerberus could be seen in the audience, spread out at opposite corners of the room, but a spotlight landed on the one who was standing nearest the stage. The tall, pale women in the matching light blue dresses that he’d been talking to all took a step back. Cerberus didn’t seem inclined to move until three girls emerged from the crowd, latched onto him and started pushing him onto the stage.

“Come on, Cerby,” said the one with the big frizzy haircut.

A few of the audience looked altogether too happy to see Cerberus inconvenienced, barely concealing smirks and sneers. Vinyl took careful note of who they were.

Cerberus reluctantly allowed himself to be pushed up the little steps onto the stage.

“So glad you could make it,” said Trixie, to subdued laughter.

Cerberus leaned down and whispered something in Trixie’s ear.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” said Trixie dismissively. “Hold this for me, please,” she said, handing him a black marker pen.

“You look hot in that suit. Aren’t you hot? I’m certainly hot.” With a flourish she produced a small paper fan, and proceeded to fan herself. Then with a flick of her hand the fan was replaced with a deck of cards fanned out. She presented the deck to Cerberus. “Pick one of these cards, any card, and do not show it to Trixie. Just write your name on it and put it back in the deck.”

Cerberus’ expression remained stern as he did so. He replaced the card while Trixie looked away, shielding her eyes.

“Thank you.” She carefully closed the deck, making sure the edges were tidy, then turned to her assistant. “Look after these for me, would you?”

She flung the whole deck at Fluffle Puff, who flailed in exaggerated motions, trying to catch the cards as they scattered all over the stage. Despite themselves, the audience laughed a little.

Near the back of the audience, another of Cerberus stood with his back to a wall. His attention was divided between the stage – where one of his selves was being dragged into a series of increasingly implausible situations – and the surrounding crowd that he scanned for signs of any sort of misdemeanor.

“’Scuse me!” said Pinkie Pie, squeezing past the bulky man. “Bye bye, Mister Cerberus. See you soon,” she called out as she waved and headed towards the exit.

Cerberus’ scowl deepened. “Now where does she—”

“—think she’s going?” wondered Cerberus. His eyes were lost in the cup of tea he held.

The Mayor looked up from her notes, peering at him over the top of her glasses. “Pardon?”

Cerberus focused on her. “I’m sorry, just talking to myself. Carry on.”

“All right,” she continued. “Now, these projections on homunculus population…”

“Let’s see what else is in Trixie’s hat, shall we?”

Fluffle Puff grinned and held out Trixie’s big, floppy hat. She shook it slightly. Trixie plunged her arm deep into the hat and rummaged around. Something squeaked like an animal’s toy. She pulled her hand out holding another white rabbit.

She frowned as she held the rabbit up to her nose. “That’s strange, Trixie doesn’t remember putting so many rabbits in there.”

As more of the audience got the joke they joined in the laughter. It was clearly the same rabbit as the last two times, with the same black patch on its left ear. Somehow, through sleight of hand and stage magic, Trixie was transferring it back into her hat each time.

Trixie shrugged. “Trixie may as well put it with the others,” she said. She walked over to the big purple box on wheels at the right side of the stage from which Cerberus’ legs were protruding, opened the lid and put the rabbit in. Cerberus twitched one foot as the rabbit landed on his leg inside the box.

At the far left of the stage was another box, from which protruded Cerberus’ head and shoulders.

Fluffle Puff shook the hat again, and Trixie returned to the centre of the stage, delved deep into it and emerged with the same white rabbit. She looked suspiciously back at the box where she’d deposited the rabbit just a second ago. She walked over to it again and opened the lid, but this time the lid of the other box – the one containing Cerberus’ upper body – opened at the same time. Three identical white rabbits emerged from it just as Trixie was putting the one she carried down.

The whole audience was laughing along now. She had the attention of the whole room, enough that nobody noticed the other Cerberus slipping quietly out.

“Oh Fluffle Puff, can you shut that box for Trixie?”

The pink girl nodded, dropped the big hat and hopped over to Cerberus’ upper end. Stuffing the rabbits in, they both slammed their lids shut at the same time.

Trixie walked to the middle of the stage, picked up her hat and dusted it off. “Let’s try that again, shall we?” She shook the hat.

Fluffle Puff reached in, and the audience were clearly expecting another rabbit. They weren’t expecting her to emerge with a single large feather: an iridescent, apparently real peacock feather.

“Hmm,” said Trixie thoughtfully. “Fluffle Puff, can you think of anything to do with this?”

The pink girl nodded enthusiastically. She took the feather, danced over to Cerberus’ feet, and started tickling them with the feather. His feet and head squirmed at the same time.

Slowly and with reverence, Fluttershy donned the heavy outfit. She slid the loose, stiff gloves on, making sure they were properly sealed, before picking up the helmet and placing it over her head, draping the veil over her face. So prepared, she opened the biology room door and stepped out to face the hive.

“Don’t worry, my little bees. Your queen will be free soon.”

The books and websites on apiaries that Fluttershy had read all said that bees only get angry if disturbed, but the bees at Canterlot High School were famously aggressive. They would swarm anyone who approached their hive, and students quickly learned not to take shortcuts anywhere near the apiary.

It took them only a few seconds to cover her. Hundreds of bees clung frantically to the outside of her veil, a frenetic moving carpet that nearly filled her vision. Every time she breathed out, the heat of her breath seemed to spur them to more activity. She walked slowly so as not to step on any of them. As she stepped up to the hives they grew ever louder.

“Oh, please don’t be mad at me. I’m here to help you.”

She lifted both arms, the baggy sleeves covered with bees, to carefully remove the roof of the hive and set it on the ground, followed by the top cover, the quilt box full of wood chips and the heavy boxes full of frames, setting each tier carefully down on the ground, until she reached the last one: the brood box.

She had to know if Octavia’s email was correct. If it was, she’d be able to solve the mystery of Canterlot High’s angry bees. She'd be able to relieve these poor creatures’ suffering.

“Pardon me,” she said, parting the frames. Sure enough, nestled between the frames of the brood box was a tiny wooden queen cage. It was small enough to fit comfortably into Fluttershy’s gloved hand, barely larger than a finger, yet it was the heart and soul of the whole hive. Turning it over to look through the grille, she saw that the queen was alone in her cage.

“Oh, you poor little thing. Don’t worry, I’ll have you out of there in no time.”

She took the knife from her pocket, slid the blade out of its sheath just one notch, and pushed it into the little cork plugging the end in the cage, using it to pull the cork out. Kneeling down in front of the brood box, she set the queen cage down on top of the frames and watched the queen crawl out of the cage.

The activity of the entire hive was centered on that one point, as thousands of bees poured into the hive to surround their queen. The frantic mass grew, until it forced Fluttershy to take a step back.

Lifting into the air, it formed a swirling ball in the air that continued to grow until the swarm was larger than Fluttershy. As it rose into the air, the mass took on a definite shape, somewhat like a bear with a longer torso and more legs.

“Oh dear,” whimpered Fluttershy. “I thought you’d be happy.”

The hive opened its mouth, made entirely out of bees, and roared.

Trixie and Fluffle Puff each grasped one of the big purple boxes on wheels. Trixie had the one with Cerberus’ head, while Fluffle Puff had his feet. They each gave a shove, trundling in from opposite sides of the stage, and pushed the boxes together with a satisfying clunk.

“There you go, Mister Cerberus. Good as new.” Trixie stood back and dramatically wiped the sweat from her brow, until she noticed Fluffle Puff pulling on her dress. “What is it?”

Fluffle Puff pointed down at the pair of boxes between them. Cerberus’ head was pointing to the left of the stage, but his feet were pointing towards the audience.

“Hmm. Do you think he’ll notice?” asked Trixie with a shrug.

The audience were laughing, crying and howling.

Trixie scooped up her oversized hat from on top of the box and walked forward. “Let Trixie see what else is in here,” she said, turning her hat over and shaking it. A ball of string, some confetti and a playing card fell out. “No rabbits!” she said triumphantly, to another round of laughter.

Fluffle Puff bent down to pick up the card, then showed it to Trixie, who examined it then turned to ask, “Hey, Cerberus! Tell me, is this your card?”

Though still trapped in the box, Cerberus peered at the card with his black signature scrawled on it, and nodded. “It is,” he said. The crowd cheered.

School was quiet on a Saturday afternoon, but there were still a few students around, mostly there for some sport or other activity. Sunset Shimmer was the only one who was there to rebuild the school.

Her hands were rough and scraped, her back ached, and her eyes watered. She’d spent the afternoon carrying heavy bags of mortar and sand for the work crew who were rebuilding the front doors of school. The workmen had left just a few minutes ago. From the corner of her eyes, she could see the scaffolding over the front door, green plastic sheets hanging off it, the piles of material covered for the night.

She leaned against the plinth, simply looking at the letter in her hands. It was written on thick paper, with a rich texture and subtle ivory colour. Instead of an envelope, the letter was folded closed and sealed with a blob of golden wax over the lip. Pressed into the wax was a familiar circular symbol: a stylised sun with eight points.

The letter had appeared in her locker at some point during the afternoon, with no sign of who put it there or when.

Sunset had some idea what the letter might say. In fact, she had hundreds of ideas, ranging from a loving plea for her return to a sentence of permanent exile. Barely a night had gone by since she had come to this world that she hadn’t wondered when this letter or one like it might arrive.

“Celestia…” she whispered.

“Yes?” said Principal Celestia from close to her ear.

“Gyah!” Sunset dropped the letter, turned and took a shaky step back.

Celestia stepped around the corner of the plinth into view. She stopped upon hearing a crunch and, looking down, realised she’d stepped on the letter. She knelt down to pick it up. “Oh, that’s strange. It has my mark on it,” she said. “Is this for me?”

“Wait! No, it’s… it’s not for you. It’s for me.”

“It’s for you… from me?” Celestia frowned. “I don’t remember sending this.”

“No, it’s, the thing is, it’s from the… other Celestia. At least, I think it is…” She trailed off.

“Oh. This is something to do with the other world you came from, isn’t it?”

Sunset nodded.

Celestia handed back the letter. “I still can’t say I understand it fully. But I take it there’s another person called Celestia over there, is that right?”

“There is.”

“And you two were friends?”

Sunset nodded. “I was her personal student.”

“Oh, so she’s a teacher too?” asked Celestia with a smile.

“Well… not exactly. She’s the Princess.”

Celestia burst out laughing, a high tinkle of joy.

Sunset looked shocked. “What are you—”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Celestia rested a hand on the plinth as she bent over. “It’s just the idea of myself as a privileged little princess. All innocent and pouty in a pretty dress.”

Sunset shook her head with a frown. “She isn’t anything like that. She’s wise and kind and… and I didn’t appreciate her. Not properly. Not when I had the chance.”

Celestia made an effort to subdue her laughter. “She sounds a lot like a teacher to me.”

“Yeah, I guess so. She does run a school, after all. In fact, that’s kind of what she does best, teaches ponies to be better.”

Celestia paused. “Ponies?”

“Yes.”

“You mean with the…” She lifted her hands, little fists pointing down, to resemble hooves.

“Yes.”

“And the…” She pulled forward from her nose to signify an elongated muzzle.

“Yes,” sighed Sunset, rolling her eyes.

“I see. So… there’s another me, and she’s a pony, and a teacher, and a princess,” Celestia muttered in amusement.

“She’s been doing that for more than a thousand years. Teaching ponies, making them better and then letting them go do it. Making a country that’s better. A world that’s better. She hardly has to rule at all any more.”

Celestia pondered a moment. “She’s the ruler? Not a Princess?”

“The word means something a bit different over there,” explained Sunset. “I got really confused by that when I first came over here. Like the first time I got arrested, I kept screaming at them, ‘Take me to your Princess!’ They didn’t take me very seriously, of course.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes. “You got arrested?”

“Oh. Uh…”

“More than once? I don’t remember seeing that on your file.”

Sunset looked shifty. “Yeah. I might have… forgotten to mention that bit.”

“Forgotten.”

Sunset coughed.

Celestia shook her head. She looked over at the construction work. “Never mind. I can see you’ve turned over a new leaf now, so I’m prepared to let the past be in the past.”

“Thank you,” said Sunset.

“So…” Celestia indicated the unopened letter. “Shall I let you read it in peace?” She turned away.

“Um… Actually, can you…” She paused.

Celestia smiled. “Of course.” She leaned back against the plinth alongside the girl.

Coughing a little, Sunset carefully broke the seal and unfolded the letter, the rich paper unfolding smoothly.

Celestia said nothing.

The sound of the street grew quiet as she read. “She… she wants to see me. It doesn’t say… I suppose I shouldn’t have expected it to…” Sunset wiped her eye.

Celestia said nothing.

She looked up at the street and frowned. “Hey, where’d everybody go?” She turned to Celestia.

Celestia said nothing.

The woman had a kindly smile on her face that was almost like her counterpart. She was silent, unmoving. She didn’t blink, she didn’t breathe.

“Celestia? Principal Celestia!” Sunset shook the teacher's shoulders, to no effect. Still the woman didn't move a muscle.

She turned to look around, frantically searching for help of some kind. A tall man in a dark suit was walking slowly towards her.

“Please, she needs help. I don’t know what…”

His pace unchanged, the man flicked his wrist. Celestia evaporated into white mist.

Sunset staggered back, her eyes wide. “What… what did you do to her?”

“She’s safe,” said the man in a deep voice. “Back where she belongs.”

Sunset turned, bolted, tried to run, tripped, scraped her hands on the hard tile. Scrambling to her feet, she turned to the side of the plinth facing the school. She pressed both hands to the cold surface, closed her eyes tight, and pressed. It wasn’t the right time for the portal to be open, but she had to try. Slowly her palms began to sink into its cold, polished surface. It was opening for her!

A large hand grabbed the back of her collar and yanked her away, throwing her down on the lawn. She tried to get up again but found her arms and legs stuck, unable to move. Her breathing was frantic as he knelt down in front of her.

“Don’t worry, little one,” he said softly as he placed a hand over her forehead. “You won’t remember a thing.”

“Why are you—? Why?”

“An old friend asked me—”

“—to look out for you.”

“I beg your pardon?” asked the Mayor.

“Hmm? Oh, you’ll have to excuse me. I was elsewhere,” said Cerberus, lifting his teacup.

“You really seem to be distracted this evening. Would you prefer to do this another time?”

Cerberus nodded and stood up. “I think it might be best. I should take care of another matter. If that’s all right?”

“Oh, yes, quite. It will give me a chance to see how Celestia is getting on with her guest.”

Cerberus sniffed at the air. “Vinyl has left the room already. Celestia is still in there. She smells… thoughtful.”

The Mayor didn’t get a chance to ask exactly what he meant, because he left the room in a bound.

The warmth of sunset spilled across the river as a sheet of gold, out of which the mass of Fillydelphia Hall cut a deep blue shadow. The lengthening silhouettes of the town’s hills edged out over the water.

The sweeping music from the grand dances of earlier had subsided into a gentle romantic lull. Vinyl and Octavia did likewise, swaying back and forth in a slow comfortable rhythm.

With a gentle pressure on Octavia’s back, Vinyl pulled her closer. Their bodies just barely touched, tiny tantalising points of contact. With a deepening smile, Octavia slid her left hand around Vinyl’s back and leant forwards to rest her head on Vinyl’s shoulder, facing away from her. Octavia’s long grey hair spilled over Vinyl’s white jacket.

“I’m not sure that’s the proper form,” said Vinyl.

Very quietly, Octavia said, “Fuck the proper form.”

Vinyl gasped in mock horror. “Tavi! I didn’t know you could.”

Octavia squeezed Vinyl’s left hand. She pulled a little closer, her body touching Vinyl’s in a dozen places as they continued to rock back and forth. “I can do anything I want to, Vinyl. You taught me that.”

I did? I mean, she’s been much more bold recently. More honest, too. Is that my influence?

They swayed in place as Vinyl thought about their years spent as friends. I’ve always been the wacky one. The one that got her in trouble, every time I went off chasing some dumb idea. The one who didn’t stop to think about what I was doing.

This time’s no different, is it? Something new caught my fancy so I chased after it, and she followed me. Is that really freedom, or have I just been dragging her along?

The movement of their bodies reminded her that she was supposed to be in this moment, not wandering the land of maybes.

Several times, Octavia opened her mouth, or took a breath, or started to clear her throat only to hold back. There’s something she wants to talk to me about, thought Vinyl. But she’s worried about what I’ll think.

She quietly asked, “What are you worrying about, Tavi?”

Octavia’s eyes darted up to hers, then quickly away as a moment of guilt crossed her face. She looked back as she took a breath, and replied, “I’m wondering what you’re going to decide.”

Vinyl frowned. “Decide?”

Octavia nodded. Her fingers pulled the material on Vinyl’s shoulder. “I mean, with Chrysalis’ escape plan. We followed her this far to get answers, but… when the time comes, how far will you go? Would you rather leave and see the outside, or stay here?”

“Oh.” Vinyl paused. She’s right. What are we going to do when this is over? Can we even go back to our lives after what we’ve seen? “Honestly, I hadn’t thought that far.”

Octavia relaxed and allowed herself to smile. “Well, yes. You wouldn’t be my Vinyl if you had a plan.”

‘My’ Vinyl? I suppose that doesn’t sound so bad.

“How about you? And Trixie?”

Octavia’s smile broadened. “Haven’t you realised yet? We’re both going to follow you. Whatever you decide.”

“Er… are you sure that’s a good idea? I don’t tend to make good decisions.”

“You never did,” said Octavia. “It’s always worked out anyway. I trust you.”

Vinyl felt suddenly guilty, as if she’d been caught in a lie. They trust me? How? I couldn’t trust Tavi when she kissed me. I couldn’t trust her feelings were real. I couldn’t trust her to…

“How?” she asked quietly.

“Hmm? How?” queried Octavia.

“How can you trust me? When… so much of what we are could be fake. I don’t even know where the real me ends and the fake begins.”

“Because you don’t need to.”

“What?”

“You’re more than just a book full of memories,” said Octavia. “You’re a soul. I see your soul in everything you do, I have for years. I saw it in the way you threw yourself at this little problem. I see it in your face now. I trust your soul.”

“Even though I…”

Octavia nodded sadly, but kept her eyes on Vinyl’s. “When I kissed you? You were honest with me. It wasn’t the answer that I wanted, but it was the honest truth. You weren’t trying to hurt me, but you couldn’t lie to me either. That’s why I can trust you, even now.”

Vinyl wanted to object, wanted to hide, wanted to squirm out from under the lens of Octavia’s gaze.

“Besides, it wasn’t entirely fair of me to spring it on you like that.”

Vinyl frowned. “Why did you? I mean, why now? You spent so many years keeping quiet. I should have realised it ages ago, but I didn’t.”

“No, you shouldn’t.”

“Huh?”

“I worked quite hard at it. You weren’t ever supposed to realise anything. That was the point.” She sounded oddly proud, and also a little put out. “Until I ruined the whole thing, of course.” She turned away. “I’m... sorry for lying to you.”

Vinyl shook her head. “That’s alright. Just…” She paused. “Were you… happy? Being friends and nothing more? Keeping it all in?”

Octavia took a second before answering, “Yes. Yes, I was happy. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”

“So what changed?”

It was Octavia’s turn to look sheepish. “Well... it was Chrysalis. She managed to get under my skin, I suppose. She implied that my longing for you wasn’t real love, just infatuation. I was offended, and I was feeling insecure, and I did something foolish.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, I make bad decisions too sometimes.”

“I guess that’s comforting, in a way.”

“Now we just need to get Trixie to admit to having ever made a mistake.” They shared a laugh.

I’ve always been the one with the crazy ideas, but I was never alone. Tavi’s always been the one who watched my back. I was always looking ahead, because I knew, whatever happened, she was looking out for me. She made all the crazy possible.

She made me feel safe.

It’s not the same. I know it’s not the same thing she feels for me. But could it be enough? I don’t want to be somebody who can’t love. I don’t want to be somebody who takes and doesn’t give anything back. Tavi trusts me, and that makes me want to be someone worthy of her.

Even in this, when she says she’ll follow me. Other people might see that as pressure, as making me decide for two. But that’s not it. What she’s saying is, she’ll be there either way. I can think clearly, look forwards, because I can trust her.

I trust her. I do. I’ve spent way too long not thinking about it properly, but underneath everything else, I totally trust her. And she trusts me, more than I trust myself.

I want to find it within myself to love Tavi the way she loves me. I want to be the person she sees in me. It’s not the same, but it’s good.

Vinyl lowered her face to gently plant a kiss on the top of Octavia’s head. A slight intake of air showed that it had been noticed.

“Whatever we see,” she whispered, “whatever we decide, we’ll decide together. I promise.”

Octavia raised her head to look directly into Vinyl’s, a silent question on her lips. Vinyl answered by meeting her lips with a gentle, forgiving pressure.

The setting sun washed the balloon in beautiful colours as it hung over Ponyville, a spectrum of subtle shades of which the Princess could be proud. The distant mountains were captured in a slowly moving silhouette.

The equipment filling the gondola added to the balloon’s weight, though it was offset slightly with thirty little party balloons tied to the sandbags. She let a little more sand out to adjust her height, then picked her way to the other side of the gondola.

An alarm clock went off somewhere among the pile of equipment, a little wooden owl popping out on a spring to ask, “Who? Who?” A little alligator sat perched on top of the clock, watching it go in and​ out.

“Who indeed?” wondered the bright pink pony. “At the end of the day, who are any of us?”

The alligator didn’t respond.

She turned to look over the edge of the gondola at the ground far below. “I think I’m in the right place, Gummy. Now we just need to wait for them to get here.”

She gazed out at the peaceful dusk as the sun settled over the horizon. Barely a whisper of sound disturbed the peace.

“I said, now we just need to—”

A door opened up in the sky just a few feet from where the balloon hung. The doorway wasn’t part of any structure, it simply sat in the sky. Beyond it was darkness, into which a gaggle of girls were pressed. All of them were pink, and all nearly identical save for slight differences in clothing and attitude.

The first girl, who was identifiable only by a yellow streak in her pink hair, leapt from the doorway into the balloon while screaming “Tally ho!” The gondola was sent rocking slightly as she landed face down and legs up. When she stood up a second later she had become a bright pink pony with golden yellow streaks in her poofy mane and tail. “Ooh, I get the balloons.” She quickly grabbed the string holding the party balloons in her mouth and proceeded to tie it around her barrel, until her hooves lifted slightly off the floor of the gondola. The first pony gave her a gentle shove, and she lifted all four hooves up to drift out into the open air. The remaining pony then stepped out the way so the next girl-turned-pony could land.

“Geronimo!” called one of the girls as she leapt.

“Look out below!” sang another.

With the help of her companions, one of the ponies strapped herself into the pedal-operated flying machine which was then tossed overboard. Pedalling like a madmare, she managed to get it upright and airborne, hovering near the balloon.

The rest of the ponies clustered in the gondola, squeezed tight and adding enough to its weight to make the balloon sink gradually down.

“Please tell me that’s all of you,” said the first pony, pressed uncomfortably between several of the others.

“That’s all of you,” replied one of the others, cheerfully.

“Okie dokie lokie! Down we go,” replied the first. She pulled a rope with her teeth to release some hot air from the balloon. The helicopter and balloon-hoisted pony followed, and together the flotilla of Pinkie Pies began to sail downwards.

19. Descent

View Online

What is a pony?

Is it an equine creature with four or six limbs, a short muzzle, a big head and big eyes?

Or is it a heart willing to accept others and live in harmony? To sing of its troubles and its desires? To—

“Hey, Gummy!”

“Hiya, Gummy!”

“Hey there, Gummy!”

“How’s it going, Gummy?”

“Hi, Gummy!”

Mare after mare after mare trotted in through the back door of Sugarcube Corner, each of them ruffling the top of Gummy’s head with a hoof as she passed. The little alligator looked on passively.

I picked the wrong day to give up icing sugar.

Octavia grimaced as she pulled the skirt of her long silk dress further up to allow her to clamber awkwardly over the barrier. Her poor dress, beautiful and fresh this afternoon, was so scratched now that she was never going to be able to wear it again. Vinyl offered a hand to help her over the barrier, then Octavia offered the same to Trixie.

The endless stream of cars rushed past, their noise amplified by the enclosed space of the tunnel. The noise got louder as the girls headed down the slope in single file, clinging to the wall. They ducked past pipes, stencilled signs, emergency lights and various unidentified boxes attached to the wall. The narrow space between cars and wall afforded little comfort.

A semi hurried past, inches from them, the wind stirred up by its passing whipping at clothes and hair.

“You do realise that I’m a musician, don’t you?” shouted Octavia, barely audible. “I rather appreciate my hearing!”

“You’d best hurry up then,” shouted Chrysalis from the front of the line. Behind her, Fluffle Puff beckoned them forwards with a hand motion.

Trixie, at the back of the group, clung onto her hat, gripping tight with every car, van, truck and lorry that passed.

“I wish we could have at least changed clothes,” said Octavia, clutching a bag to her side.

“No time,” replied Chrysalis. “We need to do this quickly.”

The tunnel flattened out and turned slightly, revealing a metal door a little further down. It had a flickering ‘emergency exit’ sign above it. Just past that door was the horizon, a wall cut straight across the road. Even down here in the tunnel, it was an impermeable barrier. Every car that drove past them went through that wall, instantly swapped for a simplified representation of itself. On the other side of the road, blocky imitation cars were transmuted into the real thing as they returned to the real world, complete with bored drivers and passengers, and swept on up the tunnel.

They edged along the narrow gap, and when Chrysalis reached the door she pulled at it. It refused to budge. Catching up, the girls gathered in a line along the wall. Trixie leaned out just far enough to shout, “It’s locked, isn’t it?”

Chrysalis simply grinned back, her smile promising mischief. She lifted her hand and politely knocked on the door, three metallic clanging sounds. A second later the door opened with a click, and she immediately pushed through, pulling Fluffle Puff after her. Vinyl turned to share a glance with Octavia, then the three followed through.

The sound of cars stopped the moment they stepped through, replaced with blessedly comfortable quiet. The ticking of a clock and the low crackle of a fireplace were all they could hear now, though a glance back through the door showed the traffic continuing to rush past. As the ringing in their ears faded, they took in the comfortably furnished room, the faded wallpaper, the well-worn furniture.

Trixie turned around and around in confusion. “I’ve been here before. This is Cerberus’ place! Except I came in that door last time, not this one.”

“I thought you said that was in the City Hall?” asked Vinyl.

“It was, but this is definitely it.”

“You mean it’s just like the other room you saw?”

“No, I mean it’s the actual same room,” insisted Trixie. She pointed at the small round wooden table with its accumulated years of dark circular marks. “Unless they went to the effort of copying all the coffee stains exactly?”

“Maybe they moved all the furniture down here?”

“And the wallpaper too? Why would they—”

“Ladies!” called out Chrysalis. “Time waits for no mare. We need to be moving before Cerberus gets back here.” She gestured through another door. This one was shorter and had a triangular wedge cut out of the top to allow it to fit under a stairway. It looked to lead to a cupboard with shelves filled with dusty cleaning supplies.

Chrysalis pulled out a flashlight and turned it on. She had to hunch over to get into the cramped cupboard without bumping her head. Fluffle Puff had no such trouble, being somewhat shorter. Carefully the girls followed them into the cupboard, around a corner, then another corner, along a short stretch, then round again.

With every step the warped wooden ceiling and walls, lined with shelves and hanging cupboards, got lower and more misshapen, until the structure was leaning in on them, held up by beams like a mine shaft. Irregular stone could be glimpsed behind and between the wood panels. Gnarled old wooden shelves, curled up with time, had long ago deposited their cargo of knick-knacks, faded papers and parchment, little old pottery jars with cork stoppers, and trinkets so decayed they couldn’t be identified.

Without an obvious join, the wooden tunnel transitioned into a twisting shaft carved from red stone. Sand filled the bottom of the tunnel, making a relatively flat floor interrupted by jutting shards of rock. Octavia brushed a hand against the rock wall. It sluiced away, leaving her grey fingers dusted with fine red sand.

“Sandstone?” she asked. “Are we still underneath the river?”

“Not exactly,” replied Chrysalis. She had ducked down to avoid hitting her head on the low ceiling.

Octavia looked at her. “So where are we then? And how did we get here?”

“It’s… complicated.” Chrysalis waved a hand in a circular gesture as she walked. “I could explain, but I’d rather escape while we have the chance.”

She proceeded to turn and trace the tunnel down, followed by Fluffle Puff and the girls, their evening dresses increasingly torn and damaged.

The skies above the Whitetail Woods were clear, calm and pleasant in the evening air. The occasional sounds of wildlife echoed far below. An idle cloud drifted by, pushed by the mildest breeze and lit by the moon.

With a screech of tearing reality, the cloud burst apart, shredded by a dark hole in the sky. Through it tumbled a frenzied swarm of bees, their collective sound loud in the night. Though it bulged at the edges, the swarm was pulled sharply together by an unseen gravity, so close that every wing scraped against another’s body, until with a snap the swarm became a single creature. It was larger than man or pony. It had six limbs and a pair of diaphanous wings, which it frantically started flapping to keep it from falling into the canopy below. Its head was white, its body a series of wide black and white stripes with occasional yellow flecks, and its tail ended in a vicious stinger.

The rift was closing inexorably, but a roar could be heard through it. “Bugbeaaaaaaaaaar!”

The creature swerved in the air to dodge the sudden appearance of a giant, black, three-headed hound which twisted in mid-air, attempting to grasp it with massive paws. The dog fell straight down, lacking any means to keep itself up, but disappeared into another rift a second later. The bugbear strained to fly faster, to veer unpredictably around the sky.

Again the dog pounced, dropping without warning from a sudden rift above the bugbear, plunging straight past it with outstretched claws almost close enough to scratch its prey. Its roar was cut off as it vanished again a moment later.

The bugbear tensed, massive head twitching as it looked up, down and around to try and find its attacker. It brought its stinger up, ready.

The dog appeared above and behind it, wrapping its front legs around the creature, two of its heads biting into it. Together they fell, dropping towards the forest below.

A shimmer of air, a screeching tear, and they dropped onto a cold stone floor: a monster gripped by three large men in suits. What little light they had suggested they were in a narrow cavern of grainy red stone.

The creature exploded into a swarm of bees, dropping the three men to the sandy floor. The swarm scattered in every direction, through every passage and twist of the caverns. The buzzing faded as the swarm spread out and thinned. The three men picked themselves up from the ground, looking quickly around, searching. The noise picked up in intensity down one passage, and the rest of the bees quickly swarmed that way, joining back together as they gathered before a bright, narrow crack in the cave wall through which the night sky could be seen. The men ran to follow, but couldn’t reach them before the swarm slipped away through the crack.

Reforming into itself again, the bugbear tumbled out into the open air, turning to look back at the crack of darkness it had come from. The fissure hung in the open air, but stitched itself back together and soon evaporated entirely.

A moment’s screech of torn space was all the warning given before the three-headed dog landed on the bugbear’s head, all four paws gripping tight. The bugbear swiped and twisted, trying to dislodge the massive hound. The two tumbled, both scrambling and snarling, towards the trees below.

A moment before they would have hit, they fell instead through a rift that appeared beneath them.

They fell a distance inside the cave, alongside a deep waterfall. The hound quickly became three large men, clinging to the beast’s back. The bugbear again became an angry swarm just before hitting the ground, taking the brunt of the impact. Hundreds of bees died under the weight of the men, or drowned in the pool at the waterfall’s base, but the rest scattered. Before they could get far, the men lifted their heads in unison and together produced a deep, massive roar that reverberated throughout the tunnels. Each and every bee was stunned, their wings locking and dropping them to the cavern floor where they lay, a twitching carpet.

The men stood up, and brushed down their suits. One said, “Find it quickly. It can’t—”

“—have gone far,” completed another. They scanned the downed swarm as members of it twitched and bled ichor.

“Aha!” The man in the green waistcoat knelt down. “Here it is.”

On the red cavern floor, among the many bees, was one that was larger with a long, golden thorax. The man took from his inside pocket a queen cage, a small wooden enclosure no bigger than his finger with a wire grille covering one side. He carefully slid the paralysed queen inside it and replaced the cork seal.

“Let’s get you—”

“—back where you belong,” he said to the queen. “I have other—”

“—things to deal with.”

Vinyl followed the fickle glow of Chrysalis’ flashlight through narrow caverns that danced with shadows with her every step. Trixie’s phone light added a small measure of illumination behind them. Various scrapes and dents in the soft walls indicated that somebody had been down this way before, possibly while carrying something metal. As she edged down a step, her dancing shoes slid unnervingly across the flaking sandstone floor, threatening to slip from under her. She offered a hand to help Octavia down the same step.

I see light up ahead. Not a lot, but something. Is that…

With a final awkward clamber over jagged rocks, she emerged into a larger cavern. It sloped slightly downwards, and at the far side of it a small stream trickled down the wall and through a narrow crevice in the floor that had been worn smooth. There were several lanterns on the floor spaced around the outside, lighting it passably, along with a variety of heavy tools.

It also contained a car.

What the… How did that even get in here? She looked around the cave walls for some opening she must have missed. There’s no way it could have been driven in here. Unless one of these walls has a hidden opening? Or the car’s an illusion? Or…

It was a sturdy, solid looking station wagon, though an older model, with an extra row of rear-facing seats bolted in the back. Its front was pointed at the stone wall with the waterfall. It looked completely out of place in the caves, the clean metal a stark contrast to the natural stone. There were a few sandy red scratches in places, and all the windows except the windscreen were empty of glass, but it otherwise looked to be in good condition.

“Is it all ready?” asked Chrysalis.

Fluffle Puff stepped out from behind the car, carrying a wrench and wearing a pink boiler suit with plenty of black oil stains. Her big pink hair was tied back with a scrunchie. She gave Chrysalis a thumbs up and a satisfied grin.

Wait! Didn’t Fluffle come down here with us?

Fluffle Puff was indeed standing just behind Chrysalis, still wearing her dainty pink evening gown.

Octavia stepped into the cave behind her. “Um. Vinyl. Why are there two Fluffle Puffs?”

“I… uh, I don’t know.” She looked from one to the other.

“Trixie would appreciate an explanation as well.”

The Fluffle Puff they’d spent the evening with grinned a sharp and very unfluffy grin, and in a gout of green fire she was replaced by the female one of Chrysalis’ assistants. She wore an evening gown a similar shape to the one she’d worn as Fluffle Puff, but in shades of black and green. She lifted her wide skirt as she curtsied, the satisfied grin never leaving her face.

“You…” Trixie jumped straight from confused to offended. “Trixie did her show with you! We rehearsed and everything. You were lying to Trixie this whole time? How could you… wait, is that the car from the motor pool? The one you were taking apart and putting back together.”

The real Fluffle Puff nodded her head enthusiastically.

“You took the whole thing apart and reassembled it down here, piece by piece? Really?”

“Seriously?” asked Vinyl. “They moved the whole thing in pieces? How long must that have taken?”

Hands on her hips, she beamed with pride. Then she blinked, tilted her head, scrunched up her pale pink face tight and scrutinised Trixie.

“Yes, she was spying on you,” confirmed the black girl, stepping round to the car door and opening it. “And we helped her carry some of the big bits. Come on, hop in.” She slipped into one of the back seats.

Chrysalis strode round to the driver’s seat. “She’s right, girls, we need to be going.”

The girls looked confused. “Trixie still doesn’t understand. How are we supposed to drive anywhere from here? We aren’t exactly on a road here, there’s nowhere to drive to.” She regarded the elderly car. “Also, Trixie calls shotgun,” she added.

“I’ll explain on the way,” said Chrysalis impatiently. “Now get in, before Cerberus finds us down here.”

Vinyl hesitated. Moment of truth, she thought. This is when we decide whether we’re going to leave or stay. What are…

She realised that Octavia and Trixie were both looking to her to make the decision.

So it’s all on me. Wonderful.

It would feel a bit silly to come this far then turn around, but that isn’t a good reason not to. Chrysalis is in a hurry, so I’ve no doubt she’ll drive off without us if we stop here.

I still don’t trust Chrysalis. There are things she still isn’t telling us, things she kept out of the plan. Like swapping one of her assistants for Fluffle Puff at the Gala.

They really need names. The boy one didn’t seem very talkative when I drove him to school. That might be something to do with me locking him in my trunk overnight, though. And he turned back into Flash Sentry before getting out.

Wait, is there even a real person called Flash Sentry at all, or is it just him?

Not the point. Concentrate!

Chrysalis has a plan, even if she’s being coy about some bits of it. That’s in her nature, she’s just naturally secretive. It’s gotten us this far, and as far as I can see, it’s our best shot for getting out of town and finding out what’s really going on.

Finding out what our lives are about. That’s what this is about. All the things we’ve seen, all that Chrysalis told us, all that the Celestia impersonator told me at the Gala, just served to make it more confusing.

Going with her is a gamble. We don’t know for sure what Chrysalis has planned, we just have to hope it works out for us. Not going with her means we’ll never get answers. Unless another chance comes up, we’ll spend our lives in doubt – about each other and about ourselves.

Unless the system, whatever it is, arranges for us to forget. Makes us feel okay. And that’s probably the most frightening option of all.

She stepped forward to get in. The others did the same, following her lead, Trixie sitting in the front next to Chrysalis. Octavia, Vinyl and Fluffle Puff sat in the middle row. As the did, they saw that both of Chrysalis’ shop assistants were sitting in the extra back seats, alongside one other person.

“Mr Tirek?” asked Vinyl, twisting round to see the small, elderly gentleman sitting behind her. He’d acquired an oversized coat with a hood to go over his suit. “What are you doing here?”

The old man smiled kindly. “Just hitching a ride, dear.”

Chrysalis said, “I asked him to come along. Now buckle up, this is going to get bumpy. Fluffie, darling, do you have the thing?”

From a pocket somewhere within her boiler suit, Fluffle Puff pulled a rugged-looking little box with a number keypad and a little stubby antenna, which she passed forward to Chrysalis. “What is that?” asked Trixie. Grinning, Chrysalis held it up and entered a short sequence of digits. Vinyl tried to catch the numbers she entered, but couldn’t see clearly.

“A detonator,” said Chrysalis, and pressed the ‘enter’ button. Trixie shrieked as the cave wall in front of them exploded in a shower of red sand, peppering the windscreen and filling the cavern with a thick cloud of dark red sand, obscuring what little light the lanterns gave off. It filled the car, too, through the missing windows.

As the dust settled it became clear that the bulk of the explosion had been directed outwards, into the much larger cavern to which they were now connected by a ragged opening.

Trixie’s hand were shaking. She nervously lowered them from over her head. Somehow, the station wagon looked to be intact. The sound of its engine starting prompted her to look across at Chrysalis.

“Hold on tight, ladies!” She turned the headlights on and dropped the hand brake.

With a lurch the car started forwards, through the new hole and down the slope of scree left by the detonation. It swerved around a stalagmite, dodging cave formations and streams of tinted water, rushing relentlessly downwards as the cavern twisted.

Vinyl gripped Octavia’s hand as they were thrown to one side and the other by the car’s movement. The limited light from their headlights did not fill her with confidence as Chrysalis sent them hurtling around corners at dangerous speeds. With a sudden crunch the left wing mirror was torn off as the car scraped past a rock formation.

“Where are we going?” shouted Trixie.

And then suddenly, with an unpleasant drop in their stomachs, they weren’t in a dark cave any more. The car was in the open air. The moon hung large in front of them, the stars glittered above, and a dark forest lurked somewhere far, far below.

20. Inferno

View Online

Vinyl clasped Octavia’s hand in her own as they all dropped. Her stomach lifted unpleasantly. The seatbelt pressed her down. A growing rush of air could be heard through the open window, drowning out the engine.

The car smashed through the treetops to a cacophony of screeching metal and snapping branches. The girls held on for dear life, while Chrysalis whooped in joy. It bounced around, nearly flipped over several times, and finally crash landed on the forest floor amid the debris of crushed trees, crunching through its now ruined suspension.

The engine stalled. The headlamps were dark; they must have been broken in the landing. The echoes of impact faded away, and so eventually did the ringing in Vinyl’s ears, leaving the forest quiet and dark.

“Owwww… ow ow ow.” Trixie gingerly pulled away the tree branch that had jutted through her window and left scrapes over her face. She clutched the oversized costume witch’s hat that rested on her lap.

Chrysalis turned to the girls, her hands still gripping the wheel, with a manic grin. She caught her wheezing breath long enough to ask, “Who wants to do that again?” All three girls shook their heads.

On the back seat Tirek slowly unfolded, rubbing his bruised head. He raised a hand to cover a cough prompted by the dust, pollen and other debris thrown up by their impact.

“All right, follow me,” said Chrysalis. She twisted her body in the car seat, kicked open the driver’s side door with both feet and hopped out.

Unclear what else to do, the girls struggled to push open their own doors, eventually succeeding with an awkward scrape of misshapen metal. They clambered after her, falling onto the forest floor and slowly regaining their wobbly feet.

So this is outside? thought Vinyl. Honestly, it just looks a lot like the Everfree Woods. But I guess one forest is much like another at night. She looked up. The moon looks different though, I think? Hard to say exactly why, exactly. It’s bigger? Brighter?

The floor of the clearing was damp, evidence of recent rain. Behind them, Tirek and the two assistants slowly let themselves out of the vehicle.

“What’s that smell?” asked Trixie, backing away from the car.

Vinyl sniffed in alarm. Burning oil. And… rotten eggs? Diapers? Oh, sulphuric acid. “That’s the battery, I think. It must have broken when we landed. Uh… let’s get away from it just in case.” They all quickly put a safe distance between themselves and the wrecked car, walking to the centre of the wide clearing where the clear moonlight could reach them.

Chrysalis looked up to the sky, and the girls followed her gaze. Somewhere up there, amid the scattered stars and the soft drifting clouds, was their home. They couldn’t see it. Whatever camouflage kept it safe was flawless. Vinyl wondered, Do birds occasionally fly into it by mistake? Or is it not exactly ‘there’? How does that all work?

Vinyl and Octavia exchanged looks, each checking if the other was okay.

The sounds of a forest at night picked up around them. Is that because they stopped when we made all that noise, and they’re getting back to business now, or because my ears are just now getting used to the quiet after being in a car crash? Indistinct rustling amid the undergrowth seemed to circle around them. That had better not be anything frightening or I’m… I’m so going to scream at it.

The two assistants strode forward to stand obediently to either side of their queen as she breathed in deeply. “I’ve missed the smell of the real world,” she said, stretching her arms out. “Can you smell that? Real air, with real magic!”

“I can,” replied Tirek, bringing up the rear of the group, “but I can’t say I appreciate the atmosphere here as much as you do. This forest is too full of old, wild magic, rotten and sour. I prefer it fresh myself.”

“You’re too fussy,” she said. Suddenly she jerked her arms back in, crouching down, holding herself as she let out a pained gasp. She dropped to the forest floor, landing on all fours.

“Chryssi, what is it?” asked Vinyl, stepping forward.

She was stopped by the two assistants, their palms raised, standing calm and to attention. “Let this happen,” the male said.

Chrysalis cried out in an unnatural voice, lifting her face to the sky. Her neck was longer than it should be, her face elongated in a silent scream. Her fingers clutched the moss and roots beneath her, trembling, but seemed to be losing grip as they grew shorter, becoming stunted little bulges. The mistreated ball gown bulged and split as translucent wings pushed their way through, tearing seams that left it hanging from her body in shreds. Her legs grew shorter and slipped out of the shoes she was wearing to scrape grooves across the forest floor. A protrusion pushed its way through the skin on the top of her head, emerging as foot-long curved horn. Chrysalis trembled and gasped with each new change.

The girls watched this transformation in horror. It all happened too slowly, too much detail visible, too much obvious pain. This only grew worse as they saw sunken dimples in her arms and legs grow into punctures and then holes, cutting through bone and muscle to do so, leaving spots of dark blood on the leaf litter. When it was over, Chrysalis lay slumped on the forest floor, breathing deeply.

“You always were such a drama queen, Chrysalis,” said Tirek. The girls turned to see that he too had transformed. His upper half was still that of a little old man, save for an elongated, bovine face, but from the waist down he now had the torso of a small horse, with four legs on the ground. He was still shorter than all three girls, still hunched over with age, and still wearing the grey hooded cloak.

Trixie was the closest to Tirek. “What are you?” she whispered.

Tirek lifted one wizened hand to clench and flex it. “After so long, I am, once again, the man I used to be.” He took a tentative, wobbly step forward on his ancient legs, stumbling to his front knees.

“Are you okay?” asked Vinyl.

“I will admit that I’m no longer entirely used to this form. It has been… some years since I had all my own limbs in the right place, and I appear to have grown old.”

“Is there anything we can do?” asked Trixie.

“Actually, Miss… Trixie, isn’t it?” Trixie nodded. “There is one little thing you can help me with.” He took another awkward step forward, then lunged with surprising speed and grabbed Trixie’s neck, pulling her close. He opened his mouth as if to inhale, and… stopped.

“Huh,” he said after a few awkward seconds. “It’s true, there really isn’t a single drop of magic in you. Until now, I never had a chance to check. You are remarkable creations, really. I hope it doesn’t catch on.”

“Let her go!” shouted Octavia.

“Put her down, Tirek,” called Chrysalis, clambering to her hooves. “We need them. And you’ll get your fill soon enough.” She stretched to full height in her new form, which resembled a small horse but for the black chitinous plating, the curved black horn protruding from her forehead, the enlarged snake-like eyes, the fangs and the diaphanous green wings. It looked like some sort of insect had evolved to imitate the shape of a horse. Her voice was mostly the same as before, but with a strange resonance to it; her tone, too, had a confident certainty it had been lacking before, even in her most overbearing moments.

Tirek shrugged. He rattled Trixie like an uncooperative jar from which he’d hoped to retrieve some morsel, then dropped her casually. She scrambled away from him, clutching at her neck.

Octavia put a comforting hand on Trixie’s shoulder, while watching Tirek closely. Vinyl stood between Tirek and the girls.

“Need us? What do you need us for?” asked Vinyl. “You’re outside now, aren’t you? You’ve escaped. Surely you can let us go and be on your way.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” said Chrysalis. “You see, getting outside was only half the battle. There’s something else we have to take care of before we’re truly free.”

She looked up to the sky.

A few seconds passed. They looked at Chrysalis. She continued to look up expectantly.

“Any second now,” she added.

A few more seconds passed.

“That’s odd. Maybe he isn’t coming.”

While all eyes were raised, Trixie took the opportunity and bolted for the trees, but the female assistant moved more quickly than a human could. She tackled Trixie to the ground. They both landed face-first in the detritus, a tree root digging into Trixie’s stomach. She cried out.

“Trixie!” shouted Vinyl. She tried to run to her, but found she couldn’t. Why can’t I move? Something was holding her around the torso, pinning her arms to her sides. What is this? She looked down but saw nothing. “What?” She struggled against the invisible bonds.

“Vinyl!” Looking up, she saw that Octavia was trapped the same way. They both felt a sharp tug that lifted them off the ground and dragged them to one side, away from Trixie.

With an almighty THUD!, something huge landed in the middle of the clearing where they’d been standing, spilling up clouds of detritus.

When she opened her eyes, it took Vinyl a few seconds to work out what she was looking at. The shape was large and black, a silhouette against the dark forest backdrop, with a faint sheen of moonlight reflecting off its fur. Muscles moved underneath. It was the most enormous dog she’d ever seen, easily the size of the car. It turned to face her, and she saw it had three heads. Each of them was flat faced like a bulldog, but far larger.

Vinyl struggled in mid air, but couldn’t escape whatever invisible force was holding her. She closed her eyes again and flinched as the dog’s middle head leaned down and asked her politely, “Are you alright, little one?”

“Cerberus? Is that you?” shouted Trixie, still held to the ground and unable to see.

“It is, little Trixie,” said the dog’s third head.

“Cerberus?” Vinyl open her eyes. “Really? You’re three people inside Tartarus but a three-headed dog outside? How does that work?”

“Are you a fool, Queen Chrysalis?” asked the dog’s first head, ignoring Vinyl’s question.

His second continued with, “You know I can dispel these conjured—”

“—servants of yours in an instant,” finished the third.

“I’m certain you could,” called Chrysalis. “But I don’t think you’ll do so as readily when there are innocents in the way.”

Vinyl and Octavia were dragged again by the unseen force, this time away from each other. Vinyl was dragged to Chrysalis’ side and held in the air next to her, while Octavia was shoved over to where Tirek was standing. She hung in the air, her legs dangling.

“These little homunculi of yours have developed quite interesting souls over the last few months, haven’t they? Just think of what they could become in a few years. Your little toy kingdom might be in for some big changes. It would be just terrible if they were caught up in our little squabble, and missed that chance. So much wasted potential.”

Cerberus growled, a deep sound from three throats that made Vinyl’s bones rattle. “A low trick,” said the left head. “Worthy of—”

“—a backstabbing, honourless—”

“—fiend like you, Chrysalis,” said the right head.

She replied confidently, “Call me what you will, guard dog. I’m certain you aren’t willing to sacrifice these girls’ lives, even in pursuit of your duty.”

The two homunculi stepped forward, the female leaving Trixie on the forest floor. She started to get up, but some unseen force lifted her off the floor and dragged her, shrieking, backwards until she was hovering in front of Cerberus’ faces. She struggled, managing to kick Cerberus in the nose.

“The great and powerful Trixie will never forgive an insult like this! Release her at once!”

“Isn’t she adorable,” said Chrysalis. “Now, Tirek, if you will?”

Tirek stepped cautiously up to Cerberus, dodging back as the dog snapped at him with bared teeth, held back by the levitating human shield.

The two homunculi moved in. They grabbed Cerberus’ left head from both sides and held it down to Tirek’s level. Trixie’s helpless body was waved unceremoniously between the two growling heads as a shield. Octavia was held in front of Tirek, protecting him from Cerberus’ anger and his teeth. Vinyl was held as a shield in front of Chrysalis, giving her a clear view.

Tirek opened his mouth wide, and appeared to draw the breath from the struggling Cerberus’ open mouth. The dog’s whole left side slumped as something left him, weakened and shaking. His left head dropped to the floor.

“Nooooo!” roared the middle head. He bit the air, trying desperately to reach Tirek without touching the girls hanging in the air between them. Trixie shrieked as the snapping jaws came very close to her. Tirek danced behind the hovering Trixie, staying out of harm’s way. Cerberus growled in frustration as the two homunculi grabbed his middle head and held it in place.

Tirek stepped cautiously around Trixie and opened his mouth wide, drawing whatever it was out of Cerberus’ mouth again. The giant dog dropped further, losing strength. His legs buckled and he fell to the floor in an undignified whump.

The right head still growled with indignation. “You really think you’ll get away with this? It won’t stop me for long. I’ll get you back where you belong soon enough.”

“With all your magic gone, you’ll hardly be in a position to stop us, guard dog,” said Chrysalis. Where previously she had always seemed poised and in control, now she was wild, captivated by the rush. Her voice teetered on the verge of laughter.

Tirek paused and held up one finger. “About that,” he said. He stepped back, keeping clear of the third head.

“What?” asked Chrysalis impatiently. “Hurry up and take his magic like you promised, and we can finally be free.”

“Of course, of course. It simply occurs to me, though,” said Tirek, “that now the puppy’s out of the way, it won’t just be the two of us who take this chance to escape.” He stepped away from the defenceless Cerberus. “Before long, every creature in Tartarus will see the open gate and take their chance to run for it. Every nightmare from the dawn of Equestria, every deposed tyrant, every demon spawned of broken magic. All of them will be free to leave, and all at once.”

“You see sense then, Tirek?” asked Cerberus. “You would—”

His middle head merely coughed.

His third head took up the sentence, completing it with, “—spare the world this devastation?”

“So?” demanded Chrysalis, with manic laughter still infecting her voice. “That just means we’ll have a little competition. A game, if you will. Who can take over the world first? We have a head start.”

“I’m not really one for games, Chrysalis. Playing fair just doesn’t seem smart to me. I’d prefer to rig the game in my favour. So to cut out the competition, I think it might be best to leave our friendly guard dog here with the remaining third of his magic. That way, he can hold the rest of them back while we set about taking over the world.”

He’s getting closer. Is he bigger than he used to be? He doesn’t seem quite as frail any more.

“That’s not what we agreed to, Tirek!” Chrysalis was dividing her attention between the levitating girls and the argumentative centaur.

“But it has advantages, doesn’t it? Cerberus won’t have the energy to follow us when we leave here, but he will have just enough to keep the gates closed and keep the rest of them safely locked away. Unless you’d rather battle sirens, windigos, umbrals and nightmares for the throne of Equestria?”

Chrysalis paused. Her eyes darted between Tirek and the three girls being held aloft.

“It also occurs to me,” added Tirek, drawing out the words, “that once we’re done here you’ll have very little use for me.”

Too late, Chrysalis realised he’d been inching closer to her the whole time. Her attention shifted suddenly from the girls, who each dropped onto the muddy ground, free of the grip of whatever unseen power had been holding them up. At the same time, Tirek’s arms flattened against his side and he lifted off the ground, his four hooves scrambling for purchase.

I can move, thought Vinyl as she crawled to her knees on the forest floor. She glanced over at Octavia and Trixie. We all can.

Tirek grinned, the expression demonic on his dark red face. He opened his mouth wide and breathed in. The power restraining him went away, and he fell a few inches back to the ground. His hooves sunk into the damp earth, and he spread his arms wide.

Chrysalis didn’t wait even a moment before pointing her twisted horn at him and unleashing a beam of some kind, searingly bright in the dark forest. The beam twisted and bucked in the air as it was sucked into Tirek’s mouth. The twisting curls of energy cut through trees and set bushes alight. “You’re mad,” she snarled through gritted teeth. “My changelings will be here soon. They will have heard my signal already.”

He’s definitely bigger now! That’s no illusion.

The station wagon chose that moment to catch fire, one spark expanding into an ugly blossom of flame and smoke that flowed swiftly across the vehicle, the scattered leaves and the nearby trees.

Vinyl shielded her eyes. Shit! I guess a fuel line did get ruptured after all. Where’s Tavi? Is she okay?

She sought out Octavia, who held an arm in front of her face and was coughing. Vinyl hurried over, took Octavia’s other hand and led her to the far side of the clearing, away from the fire. Black smoke started to block out the stars above them.

I hope the fire doesn’t spread, or we’re in trouble.

Turning back to the combatants, she saw Tirek silhouetted by flames, the frail centaur standing proud between the two larger forms of Cerberus and Chrysalis. “It will take them hours to smell you, bug queen, and hours more to get here. And when they do, they’ll find you weak and without your magic. Are you sure they’ll even give the time of day to such a weak, deluded, deposed queen?”

What happened? Did he do the same thing to her as he did to the big dog – to Cerberus? No, I don’t think so, she’s still standing up.

Chrysalis took slow steps backward, keeping her focus on Tirek. One of her assistants was creeping up behind Tirek; Vinyl couldn’t see where the other one was. Behind her the flames were spreading, cutting off her retreat.

Where’s Trixie? I’m thinking she had the right idea, and we should go.

Trixie was scrambling to her feet, but she was lifted off the ground again, pulled backwards with a yelp and held in the air between the two creatures, an impromptu human shield.

“No! Let me go!”

Tirek had none of Cerberus’ compunctions about the safety of innocents. He pushed Trixie aside with surprising strength for one so small and old, jumped forward and grabbed Chrysalis’ long, equine jaw in both hands, opening his mouth wide. Her assistants darted forwards, but stumbled, confused and weakened. They dropped to their knees before evaporating in two puffs of black smoke that curled into Tirek’s mouth. Trixie dropped to the ground again.

With a blur of pink, Fluffle Puff threw herself between the two, her arms flung wide, knocking them apart. Chrysalis dropped to her knees, unable to stand any more. Tirek staggered back, his hooves losing purchase.

She crouched over Chrysalis, facing Tirek, her arms stretched wide in a barrier. Her hands were shaking, her eyes clenched shut.

The little old man leaned forwards. His face wasn’t much higher than Fluffle Puff’s. “What is it, you want to protect your mistress?” Fluffle Puff nodded. “Don’t be stupid. You don’t really love her. You don’t even have a heart. You’re not real.” He drew in a deep breath. “Now get out of my way!” he bellowed into the girl’s face.

Fluffle Puff flinched, but she didn’t move. She squeezed her eyes tighter together and continued to kneel there, hands stretched out, shielding Chrysalis. The rim of her battered pink tutu-like dress quivered.

Tirek growled in frustration. “Gyah, you things are so useless! Why did the bug queen even want to bring you along?”

“You wouldn’t understand, Tirek. You never did understand Tartarus,” said Chrysalis from behind her. She struggled to place one shaking hoof on the ground and lift herself up.

“What are you talking about, bug queen? I know more about Tartarus than any creature alive.” He slapped his chest with a hand. “I’m the one that built it!”

What?

“Oh, really? It was a team effort, from what I’ve heard,” said Chrysalis.

“You mean that stupid old unicorn and his pocket Princess?” scoffed Tirek. “They never understood the magics behind it, the intricate crafting that went into a null magic zone this big.”

I assume the ‘Princess’ in that is the Celestia I met at the Gala. Who’s the unicorn?

A rumble from behind Tirek reminded them that Cerberus was there. “Once again, Tirek claiming—”

“—glory that isn’t his,” said the massive hound. “You forget, I knew Star Swirl back in the day. I was—”

“—there when all four of you were working together. I know—”

“—where Tartarus came from. And you certainly—”

“—didn’t create it,” he finished.

Isn’t Star Swirl the name of that old scientist Miss Cheerilee was telling us about?

“Those spells would have collapsed centuries ago if not for my crafting! The old fool didn’t even think it was possible until I showed him how to do it. He was so closed-minded. I even made you, guard dog. And the only thing Celestia added to the effort was these useless homunculi.”

So Celestia did create the town, or at least she was part of it. She told me they just found it, or discovered it. Was she lying to me? Or is it somewhere between the two?

Wait. Four? Who’s the other one?

Cerberus continued, “And I was there when—”

“—you betrayed them all.”

“When they betrayed me, you mean!”

“No.” Cerberus shook his heads. “You tried to claim—”

“—the power of Tartarus for yourself. To use it—”

“—to steal other creatures’ magic. A perversion of its purpose.”

“I deserve that power. I made it!” he screamed. “It’s mine! Mine!”

“But you never understood it,” said Chrysalis. “That’s why you’ve never escaped in the thousands of years you were trapped there. And I did,” she added with a smirk.

“Don’t look so smug, bug queen,” snarled Tirek. “I know every facet of the magic that holds Tartarus together. I’ve spent that time studying it. I know its every weakness. It was only a matter of time before I cracked its shell and made good my escape.”

With what looked like great effort, Chrysalis pulled herself forward far enough to rest one hole-punched hoof on Fluffle Puff’s outstretched arm. Fluffle Puff dropped her arm, turning to look behind her.

“These homunculi aren’t just a distraction,” she said. “They’re the whole point of the place.”

Blinking tears away, Fluffle Puff sniffed.

“Tartarus swallows up a creature’s magic,” continued Chrysalis. “It draws away any power we have, for as long as we remain within. It renders us all equal. No matter how hard you struggle, no matter how great your power outside, there’s no way to break free through force alone.”

“Exactly as I made it! It’s the perfect trap.”

“But you never saw the solution to the puzzle. What one could never do alone, a group can do together.”

Tirek sneered. “Friendship? Really, you think that’s why your plan got us this far, because you discovered friendship? You were just lucky, Chrysalis – until your luck ran out.”

“It was no accident that my plan worked,” insisted Chrysalis. “Tartarus was designed that way. Working together is the answer to getting out of Tartarus.”

“Then why are you the one lying on the floor now?” asked Tirek.

Cerberus broke in. “I can’t agree with—”

“—that idea either, Chrysalis. If Celestia had made such a weakness—”

“—don’t you think I would know about it? I’ve worked—”

“—with her for more than a thousand years.”

“You know how that mare thinks, Cerberus. It’s riddles and schemes all the way down. She doesn’t trust anybody, not even you. She made this way out available as a test.”

“You overestimate her,” said Tirek dismissively.

“Are you sure? She outmanoeuvred you into revealing your intention and being imprisoned in your own trap. She outmanoeuvred me into attacking Canterlot at a moment it was most well defended.”

“What would you know about making friends, Chrysalis? You’re as much a monster as I am.”

With some effort, Chrysalis lifted her head up. “I am a Queen, Tirek,” she said with pride. “I live for my changelings and they for me, something you could never understand. What do you live for? Nothing but yourself. The answer to getting out of Tartarus was so easy. All I had to do was find a few homunculi with a spark of intelligence and work with them.”

I guess she means us. It didn’t sound like much of a compliment, though.

Cerberus said, “You don’t understand—”

“—friendship either, Chrysalis. Subjects are—”

“—not friends. You ordered your changelings—”

“—to attack a city, and they were defeated. Did you even—”

“—shed a single tear for those that died?” he asked.

“They died in service to the hive,” insisted Chrysalis proudly. “Fighting for our species’ future.”

Cerberus shook all three of his heads. “They died in service to your foolish ambitions. They would have been better off staying at home in their tribes.”

“And starving slowly in the desert, while other races like the ponies live in such plenty? What sort of life is that? You think I could let my species fade away like that?”

“Always talking about the species—”

“—and never the individual. Do you truly care—”

“—about anyone at all? Do you have even one real—”

“—friend?”

Chrysalis paused, looking down at her hooves, dug into the grass and leaves. The pride was gone from her voice when she finally answered, quietly, “Yes. One.” She lifted her head to look at Fluffle Puff.

The girl gasped, flung her arms around Chrysalis and hugged her tight. Chrysalis hadn’t the strength to return it, but she leant into the girl’s hair.

“Ugh, stop that,” interrupted Tirek with a shudder. “And save your bickering, you two. Especially you, Cerberus. I don’t need to hear a lecture from one of my own creations, particularly one who spent centuries playing with dolls. These mindless things were a waste of your time.”

“Excuse me…” Octavia interrupted. Tirek and Chrysalis both turned to look at her. “Did you say that Celestia made us? All of us?”

Tirek rolled his eyes. “No, not the school teacher, you useless little doll.”

“No,” said Vinyl, “the other one. The one with the big wavy hair.”

Tirek turned to look at her, his eyes narrowing. “How could you know that?”

Vinyl took a step back. “Um…”

“You’ve met her,” said Tirek, his anger growing again. “And this is the first time any of you have been outside of Tartarus, which means you had to have met her inside. She’s been in there, hasn’t she! Where? When?”

“I… really, I just met her tonight…”

“Tonight?” he screamed. “Tonight? She was there, at the Gala?”

“Err, yes, well…”

“Centuries of torment, centuries of isolation, and she swings by to attend a party?!?” Tirek’s already red face was turning maroon from his anger.

Whatever she did, centuries ago, she seriously pissed him off. Maybe my first instinct was correct, and she is a monster.

Chrysalis spoke up, untangling her muzzle from Fluffle Puff’s hair. “What does it matter that she was there? Get over the nag already.”

Tirek spun round to her. “It means she’s aware of our plan, bug queen. It means she’s ready to fight us.”

“Us?” Chrysalis shrugged. At least, it looked like a shrug, though her new anatomy, her lack of strength, her position on the ground and the pink girl wrapped around her shoulders meant it was hard to be sure. “You already double-crossed me, Tirek. The plan doesn’t mean a lot to me any more.”

“Don’t play offended, bug queen. You would have betrayed me eventually. This alliance would never have lasted. And now it’s over, and with it any hope for you and your hive. I’ll have found the centaurs and begun our tribe’s conquest before you can even lift your own head.”

From behind him came the deep rumble of Cerberus’ voice. “This will not be allowed,” he said.

Tirek turned on him. “Silence, guard dog. Your time is coming as well. Once I have all the magic of Equestria, I will return with an army of centaurs at my heel and flatten Tartarus as well!”

There was a tired rasping from Chrysalis. She was laughing. “You foal,” she said. “There are no centaurs left. They all died centuries ago.” She paused to catch her breath. “You’re the… the only one left.”

“You’re lying!” screamed Tirek.

Chrysalis struggled to place weight on one chitinous hoof. “Your conquest is never going to happen.”

Tirek whirled on her, his red, horned face a mask of rage. “You lied to me! You miserable little insect!”

“Of course I lied, you oaf,” said Chrysalis, forcing a smile onto her weakened face. “It’s what we do. You’re a fool for expecting anything else.”

Tirek reared up, ready to bring his two front hooves down on Chrysalis’ weakened body. Despite his small frame, that would still be a considerable impact.

But he stepped back without delivering the blow. Instead he cast his head about, trying to find something.

What’s that noise? Kind of a buzzing. Where’s it coming from? It seems to be all around us…

“No!” shouted Tirek. “It’s impossible! They can’t be here already.” He stomped over to Chrysalis, standing over her. “You were stalling, just buying time for your minions to get here.”

Chrysalis smirked up at him. “And you fell for it. Hear that? Soon you’ll have thousands of changelings to fight, not just one.”

The buzzing sound was getting gradually louder, audible even over the crackling of the fires around the edge of the clearing. How many of them are there? Are they all like her? Are we safe? And how fast is this fire going to spread? Vinyl looked around at the forest, universally dark and overgrown where it wasn’t already alight, wondering if there was a safe direction to go.

Tirek’s fists were balled up tight. “Graaaaarhh!” he bellowed directly into Chrysalis’ ear. Fluffle Puff flinched, but Chrysalis merely gazed up at him with a victorious grin on her muzzle.

At least, I assume that’s her ear. I honestly don’t know what sort of creature she is now or where they keep their ears.

“Tick tick, Mr Tirek.”

Tirek stamped a hoof in frustration. He spun around and walked angrily away into the forest, pulling the hood of his cloak over his head.

21. Reflections

View Online

“Thank you, my dear,” said Chrysalis quietly once it was clear that Tirek was well out of hearing. “That was nicely done. Would you like to get your phone back?”

Fluffle Puff nodded, a big grin on her face. She hopped up, went quickly back to the bush she’d emerged from a few minutes earlier, and picked up a small, black phone. She tapped a button, and the buzzing stopped.

Why does Fluffle Puff have a phone?

Okay, I feel a little bad for thinking that.

“Wait,” said Trixie. “So there isn’t an army on its way at all?”

“Oh, there will be,” said Chrysalis. “But just as Tirek said, it’ll take them hours to arrive.” She sniffed the air. “Maybe longer. The smoke will confuse them.”

“You tricked him?” asked Vinyl. “I mean, you knew he was going to double cross you, but you worked with him anyway, and had a plan ready to trick him when he did? That’s…”

“Monstrous?” Chrysalis grinned. “Of course I planned for it. I had no doubt he would turn on us, sooner or later – after all, treachery is in his nature – I simply didn’t expect it to happen quite so soon. When he did, I knew he wouldn’t think of a mere homunculus as a threat, or the technology they have. So when I mentioned that the changelings had ‘heard my signal’, Fluffle Puff took it as her cue to play the sound we’d prepared.” Fluffle Puff beamed. “But using Tirek’s power to get us this far was simply the most efficient way—”

“Trixie hates to interrupt a good monologue,” said Trixie, interrupting a good monologue, “but maybe we should continue it somewhere not on fire?”

She had a point. The gasoline part of the fire had burned itself out leaving a patch of forest alight in its wake, and despite the general wetness of the ground that patch was growing. I guess there wasn’t much left in the car, thought Vinyl. Even so, we should probably move from here. I don’t know how fast that fire is going to spread. Damp trees were giving up their moisture, filling the air with steam and smoke.

“Yeah, let’s…” Vinyl looked around for a clue which direction would be best. Aside from the fire, the forest looked the same in every direction. “Let’s look for somewhere safely away from here.”

“I’m afraid not,” rumbled Cerberus.

His second head added, “None of you will be—”

“—going anywhere,” finished his third head.

Shit, I should have expected that. The jailer isn’t fond of people who help prisoners escape. Now he’s going to punish us.

Except he can’t do a lot to stop us right now, can he? He’s immobilised. How quickly is he going to recover from whatever Mr. Tirek did to him?

“Er, I really don’t think it’s worth your effort to worry about us,” she insisted. “Not when there are criminals on the loose. We’re just going to, uh, leave you to it.”

“I will not hurt any of you, little ones. Do not worry,” said Cerberus.

He continued, “But there is a place for you all—”

“—back in Tartarus. The other one—”

“—as well,” he finished, turning one head to look at Fluffle Puff, who was sat on the forest floor hugging Chrysalis. Fluffle Puff stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry at the giant dog.

“Well, you know, I’m sure that place will wait for us,” said Vinyl, edging backwards. She motioned Octavia to follow her. “I mean, I’ve played hooky for a few days before, and it wasn’t the end of the world.”

“The magics of Tartarus that brought you—”

“ —into being demand your place in the world be—”

“—filled. Before long your existence here—”

“—will become untenable.”

Vinyl stopped edging backwards as the gravity of those words sunk in.

“Our… ‘existence will become untenable’? What does that mean?”

“He means that Tartarus will pull you back in,” interrupted Chrysalis. “Before you can get very far, you’ll be whisked back to the streets of Canterlot where it thinks you belong. “

Whisked back. So we never even had a choice? We still haven’t escaped. We can’t escape, no matter what we do?

Chrysalis added, “Oh, and I expect it’ll make you forget all about this as well. Am I right?”

“What?” cried Vinyl.

“I believe so,” rumbled the giant dog. “The four homunculi you led astray—”

“—will soon return to their proper place, purged of any—”

“—memories that could disturb them.”

Octavia, who had been listening incredulously, strode forward. “You’re saying it’ll erase our memories of everything that’s happened in the last few weeks? Everything we’ve done? And then it’ll put us back where we started like nothing changed?”

“You will be restored to—”

“—who you are supposed to be.”

Trixie butted in. “And how come you get to decide who I’m supposed to be?”

“You don’t think I planned for this?” asked Chrysalis.

Cerberus growled, “You planned to leave your—”

“—pet behind while you escaped. How heartless you are, Chrysalis.”

“Think again, guard dog,” said Chrysalis. She raised one trembling, punctured hoof to indicate their surroundings. “Look at where we are.”

Cerberus looked out in three directions at once. “We are in the middle of the Everfree Forest,” he said.

I was right! This is the Everfree Woods. Um. Wait, the Everfree is inside Tartarus, so that doesn’t make sense. Unless there are two forests called the same thing? But why would there be?

Not what’s important. Focus!

“Look closer, guard dog,” said Chrysalis impatiently, pointing at a patch of overgrown brambles. “Of all the holes out of Tartarus, I chose this one. Don’t you see why?”

Cerberus’ left head said, “I don’t. One patch of forest—”

“—is much like any other. At least you didn’t bring us down in Ponyville—”

“—where it would be harder to explain,” finished his right head.

“This isn’t just any old patch of forest. We’re a stone’s throw from the mirror pool,” said Chrysalis.

All three of Cerberus’ heads snapped to look at her, though two of them moved languidly. “So that’s your plan,” said his right head. “To abuse the—”

“—magic of that sacred—”

“—place for yourself. Is there no end—”

“—to your blasphemy, Chrysalis? You would—”

“—make reflections so recklessly?”

“Uh… Anybody care to explain?” asked Vinyl.

“The mirror pool is a place of magic,” said Chrysalis. “It’s one of the ancient gateways into Tartarus. In less civilised days, dangerous prisoners would be thrown into the pool to be banished.”

“How does that help us?” asked Octavia. “We want to avoid being pulled back in.” She coughed again.

“The mirror pool also does something else: it can be used to create reflections.”

“Um. So it’s a mirror?”

Trixie said, “You mean reflections like the Pinkie Pies, don’t you? Like clones, or imitations.”

“Exactly. Though generally only the one. Making dozens of copies like that is even more reckless than what we’re about to do.”

“And what are we about to do?” asked Octavia. “You still haven’t told us this part of the plan.”

“It’s simple. We use the mirror pool to make copies of ourselves that we leave in our place in Tartarus. That way we won’t get pulled back.”

“I see,” said Octavia. “I guess that makes sense.”

Vinyl eyed the growing flames. “I don’t know. Is this ’mirror pool’ really such a big thing, that we need to get to it right now? I’d say we have higher priorities.”

“It’s also in a cave,” added Chrysalis. “Which makes it safe from the fire.”

“Oh. Okay. Lead the way!”

With a great deal of effort and a little help from Fluffle Puff, Chrysalis got to her feet. She made it only a few steps before stumbling and dropping to her knees.

“I’m not sure I can get there like this,” she said. “Tirek did manage to take quite a lot out of me.” She fluttered her wings idly. “I haven’t the energy to fly either. And magic is beyond me.”

Am I supposed to be okay with how casually everybody’s saying ’magic, magic’ now, like it’s normal? I mean, I’m not going to hold up our survival for an argument about it, but still…

Chrysalis had her eyes closed, a frown of concentration on her face. Then a creepy smile spread across her muzzle, and she said, “Yes, that should work.”

“What will?”

“What changelings do best,” she said. A wash of green fire flowed over her from head to hoof. Trixie flinched.

Where Chrysalis had been was now… nothing.

Where did she go? Vinyl looked down. Oh. She’s turned into a little… fox, is that? Like a wild fox. Those little ones with really big ears. What are they called?

“Is that a fennec?” asked Octavia.

That’s the word. A fennec, right. Also, she just freaking changed shape! With magic!

The fennec that Chrysalis had become was tiny, barely as long as Fluffle Puff’s arm. It had long black fur, with perhaps a green tint, though it was hard to be sure at night; and big, shiny green eyes. Its ears were quite comically large. It lay motionless but breathing, clearly exhausted by the change.

And she changed size as well, actually, which is even more freaky. Does she weigh less now? How can that possibly be true? What happened to the rest of the mass?

The fennec spoke in a smaller, squeakier version of Chrysalis’ voice. “This seemed the best shape for finding our way at night.”

And of course she’s a talking animal now. Because that’s somehow weirder than the talking magical bug-horse-thing she was a second ago, or the massive talking three-headed dog right behind me.

Am I dreaming? Am I going to wake up and laugh at how weird this all is?

Fluffle Puff tenderly scooped the tiny animal up from the forest floor and hugged her tight. Chrysalis stayed limp, lacking the strength to resist.

“Much as I appreciate the boost,” she said, “Miss Trixie is right. We should go before the flames overtake us or the smoke suffocates us.”

“Finally,” said Vinyl, impatiently. She started walking towards the diminishing not-on-fire edge of the clearing. “We’ve stayed here too long.”

“Wait!” said Trixie.

“Seriously?” asked Vinyl, increasingly exasperated. “Do you want to burn to death?”

“What about Cerberus?” asked Trixie. “We can’t leave him here.”

“He’s a giant three-headed magical dog,” pointed out Vinyl. “He’s thousands of years old. He can take care of himself.”

“He can’t even move right now,” insisted Trixie.

“And what exactly are you going to do about that, carry him?”

“Just leave him,” said Chrysalis. “He’ll be fine.”

“I’d rather leave you behind,” snapped Trixie. “You used me as a human shield, don’t think I’ve forgotten that.”

Cerberus spoke up. “You need not concern yourself with me—”

“—little one. It is only through—”

“—force of will that I remain here. I need but release my concentration and Tartarus will have me once more. If Tirek had—”

“—taken all of my magic as he was preparing to, I would no doubt have returned there already.”

“Then why haven’t you?” asked Trixie.

“Because it is my duty to take you all back to Tartarus with me, where you belong.”

Vinyl stalked up to him and grabbed his active head with both hands. Wow, what big teeth you have, grandma. Was this a good idea? Never mind, can’t stop now, show confidence.

“That’s not going to happen. You know? It’s too late. Tirek took your—” magic, magic, magic “—whatever he did, and we aren’t going to sit around here waiting for you to get better while the place is on fire. We’re going to go now, find this ’mirror pool’ thing, whatever it is, and at least get to safety. The longer you’re here, the more danger we’re all in. Got it?”

Cerberus looked into Vinyl’s eyes. His eyes, though canine, spoke of deep intelligence.

And then Cerberus wasn’t there. There’d been no flash of light, no rising sparkles, no rush of air, no movement or sound at all to mark his departure. The space between Vinyl’s hands was simply empty. She checked around the clearing in case she’d gotten confused somehow.

“I… guess that’s okay then?”

“Left!” shouted the fennec. “Under that log!”

Fluffle Puff ducked to the left and under the tree branch that blocked their path.

“Towards that rock, the mossy one.”

Chrysalis was nestled safely in Fluffle Puff’s arms, her fur overflowing. Her large ears were turning this way and that, her eyes scanning the forest. Her black fur stood out against the pink girl’s tattered pink tutu dress, lit by the broken patches of moonlight they rushed through. Fluffle Puff was surprisingly nimble, weaving between trees and stones at the fennec’s instruction.

The girls followed behind, struggling to keep up. Octavia had reluctantly shed her shoes not long into their flight. She slipped again, losing her footing, but Vinyl caught her and helped her up. They had all slipped in the mud more than once, accelerating the damage to their dresses.

I’m lucky to be wearing fairly practical shoes for this. Though they are pretty much ruined now. It can’t be fun trying to run barefoot.

How is Fluffle Puff so fast? She’s wearing ballet shoes, or something like them.

Somewhere far behind them the fire was spreading, picking up speed. It would catch them soon.

“Are we nearly to this cave?” shouted Vinyl.

“It’s right there,” replied Chrysalis. “Behind those trees, there should be a hollow.”

They rounded the trees and saw a cave entrance covered with a big rock. “Curses,” spat Chrysalis. “Somepony’s sealed it up. Who would do that?”

Fluffle Puff wasted no time. She set her precious furry bundle down carefully, then motioned to the girls to join her in pushing the rock aside. It wasn’t as heavy as it looked, and despite their limited purchase on the muddy ground, together they managed to get it dislodged, revealing a dark opening.

They clambered down into the cave. Chrysalis clung to the front of Fluffle Puff’s dress to allow the girl two free hands. Trixie switched her phone’s light on to allow them to see, though a short way in the need for a torch lessened since there was a wan light coming from deeper in.

The chamber they emerged into was markedly different from the caves they’d crawled through earlier. It was cavernous where they’d been cramped; cool where they’d been warm; solid where they’d been crumbly. Strangely shaped mushrooms and alien plants clung to the corners of it, many of them glowing in various colours, filling the space with gentle light and making it feel both welcoming and wondrous. There was even a smooth ramp curving down to the edge of the pool.

Fluffle Puff hopped down to the edge of the pool. She knelt down and placed Chrysalis on the ground.

“We should be safe from the fire in here,” said Chrysalis. She lay with her eyes closed, though her ears twitched. “Give… give me a minute.” Fluffle Puff sat down on the floor, and began to gently stroke the little black fennec.

The girls settled closer to the cave wall, wary of the luminous water. “Is that it?” asked Trixie, indicating the pool.

“That’s the mirror pool,” said Chrysalis, leaning in with pleasure as Fluffle Puff scratched behind her ears. Since I know she’s intelligent, that looks unsettlingly erotic, thought Vinyl. I’m going to try very hard not to think about that.

She turned her attention to the pool. “It doesn’t look very… mirrorish,” she said. “It’s just a pool.”

Octavia sat down at the base of the wall and nursed her feet. Vinyl checked her phone. No signal. Of course. Is that just because we’re in a cave, or is it because we’re in a different world? She turned it off and put it away. It might be useful for something later.

She knelt down next to Octavia. “Hey, are you all right? You were pretty quiet back there.”

Octavia’s feet were muddy, her thin socks torn. She looked uncertain. “I… suppose I…” She paused and closed her eyes. “I guess I’m just a bit overwhelmed by all this. By… I never quite believed it was real. Even after everything we saw, even after seeing the horizon, I never quite thought it was true.”

Vinyl nodded. “I know. I keep thinking I’ll wake up.”

“And now we’re out here, and it’s all true. We’ve left our old lives behind. Forever. We don’t even know what this world is like, aside from Tirek and Chrysalis and Cerberus.”

“I don’t think the rest of this world can be like them. I told you about the pony I saw in the school basement, right?”

“The flying one that looked like Derpy?”

“Yeah. She looked so much like Derpy it was uncanny.”

“That’s still hard to imagine.” Octavia frowned. “She was a horse, right? A horse that looked like Derpy?”

Vinyl laughed. “Yup. A little flying pegasus pony. With grey fur and blonde hair.”

“Pelt,” corrected Octavia.

“Hmm?”

“Grey pelt and blonde mane.”

“Oh, right. She even sounded like Derpy. I don’t just mean her voice, either, I mean her whole attitude and everything. And she recognised me too.”

“So you think she knows the… other Vinyl Scratch?”

Vinyl nodded. “Celestia mentioned her too. She said that the other Vinyl’s a DJ, like me.”

“I suppose we at least know this world has DJs in it, then. That has to be a good sign. I wonder if they have real music too?”

Vinyl nudged her arm in mock offence. “I think we’re going to find a lot of things out here strangely familiar.”

“And some very strange things are going to be different. We’ll need our wits about us,” said Octavia. She had a thought. “Maybe we should try to find her when this is over? A familiar face to help us find our way.”

“Derpy? Yeah, maybe.”

We’re going to need somewhere to start in this world. Some first step.

Trixie, who’d been lingering at the base of the slope, called out, “Hey, Chrysalis.”

The black-furred creature had been resting her head on Fluffle Puff’s lap, her eyes more than half closed, but she looked up at the summons.

“What was it you said to us, the first time we met? Something about mice not seeing a cage?”

Chrysalis replied, “‘Little mice can scurry in and out of the cage, and never know it’s there. But as soon as they see the bars, they’ll be trapped inside it forever.’”

“Yeah, that’s it. It sounds like a quote or something. Where is it from?”

“It’s part of an old changeling poem. It tells the story of the only remaining drone from a swarm that had been ambushed and captured by zebras. She infiltrated the home of the city’s prince as a humble servant, and wove such a web of lies around him that, by the time he realised what she was, he couldn’t possibly unmask her without incriminating himself. If he’d remained oblivious he might have escaped her trap, but seeing it was his doom. She escaped with her swarm, and they all returned safe to their hive.”

“Is that how changelings usually behave?”

Chrysalis dropped her head to the girl’s lap again, letting Fluffle Puff resume stroking it. “She’s remembered as a paragon. We sing that poem to our nymphs, to teach them to be clever, cautious and loyal.”

“And what happened to the prince?”

“The poem doesn’t say. It’s just an old story. It’s probably not true.”

Vinyl stood up. “So how does this… y’know, work?” she called out. “I mean, we’re not running for our lives any more, so you can answer questions like that, right?”

“Gladly,” purred Chrysalis. She turned over onto her back, enjoying a scratch to the belly.

“What makes you think we can trust her?” interrupted Trixie. “You heard her, she thinks lying is noble. Why would she start telling us the truth now?”

“She has a point,” said Vinyl. “Why should we trust you?”

“Also,” sniped Trixie, “Trixie told you so!”

“As soon as we use the mirror pool, our escape from Tartarus will be complete. Your part in the plan is over already, so I don’t have any reason to deceive you any more.” Fluffle Puff switched from stroking to pinching Chrysalis’ ear. “Ow ow ow ow ow! Okay, I’ll tell the truth!”

Vinyl asked Octavia, “What do you think, Tavi?”

Octavia looked up from her feet, frowning. She took a moment to think about it. “I don’t appreciate being used either, but I don’t see anyone else giving us answers. In the circumstances I think it’s worth hearing her out, then deciding what to believe.”

And if any of it contradicts what the other Celestia told me, then… well, it’ll be interesting.

“Fair enough.” Vinyl looked up to Chrysalis. “So… the magic pool makes copies of people, right?” she asked. “And the idea is those copies go back and live our old lives for us, so we don’t have to? If a copy is as good as the original, doesn’t that effectively mean we have a 50-50 chance of being the copy, and getting sent back?”

“They aren’t truly copies,” insisted Chrysalis. “They’re reflections. Completely new people shaped from memories and impressions. They won’t be your true self, but rather based on how others see you and how you see yourself. They won’t share your own memories at all.”

“You mean it’ll be like a caricature of me?”

“That actually sounds right,” said Trixie. “At the Gala, Trixie met Pinkie Pie – that is to say, I met one who said she was the original Pinkie Pie, the one that all the others are based on. And she was different from the others we’ve met. She was still Pinkie Pie, only… deeper.”

“So why didn’t you mention any of this when you told us the plan? We aren’t inclined to trust you after this.”

“Because we needed Tirek to remain unaware of it.”

“What difference does it make? He’s out and gone.”

“For now he is, but Tirek is one of the most dangerous monsters around. It would be inconvenient for all of us if he actually succeeded in conquering Equestria. But even he can’t resist the pull of Tartarus without a reflection. Sooner or later, he’ll be dragged back in.”

“And we will too, if we don’t do this.”

Chrysalis nodded.

“I’m still not clear how this magic is supposed to work. What are we meant to do, jump in the pool?”

“No,” said Chrysalis quickly. “If you jump in, it’ll take you straight back to Tartarus. Don’t touch the water at all.”

“Oh. Right. Not doing that then.” Vinyl laughed.

Trixie said quietly, “Except… that’s an option here, isn’t it? Going back, I mean. Trixie means,” she quickly corrected herself. “If we do nothing we’ll end up getting dragged back eventually – our ‘existence will become untenable’, right? Which probably means we’ll end up losing our memories entirely. Or we can choose right now if we want to go back home or stay out here.”

Vinyl asked, “Are you really thinking of going back? You know if we do that we’ll be at the mercy of Tartarus. We might still forget all of this happened. We might be completely different people.” She looked to Octavia. “We might not even know each other.”

“How long do we have?” asked Octavia.

They looked to Chrysalis. She didn’t answer immediately. “I… don’t know,” she eventually said. “The truth is, nopony’s ever done this before. I assumed it would be quick, that’s why we chose to leave Tartarus this way. I didn’t want to risk leaving my Fluffle Puff behind.” She snuggled up to the girl’s hand.

Fluffle Puff gently lifted the fennec’s chin to look seriously into her eyes.

“Is it time already? I’m enjoying this form.”

Fluffle Puff nodded. With a sigh and a flash of green fire, Chrysalis was her full-sized black creature self again. Her punctured forelegs rested across the girl’s knees. She leaned forward and nibbled on Fluffle Puff’s ear, until the girl gently booped her on the nose and gave her a stern look.

“Oh, I suppose you’re right,” she said in her deeper, strangely-toned voice.

Chrysalis shuffled out over the edge of the pool. She was still wobbly on her feet, and needed Fluffle Puff to hold her upright.

“You can watch if you like,” she said to the girls. “Just don’t get too close, and like I said, don’t touch the water.” They edged cautiously closer to the water, close enough to see the girl and her monster reflected in it.

She turned to Fluffle Puff. “Ready?” The girl nodded solemnly. “Then we’ll do it together, like we practiced.” They looked together down at their reflections. Chrysalis spoke while Fluffle Puff mouthed the words silently.

“Into our own reflections we stare
Yearning for ones whose reflections we share
No hearth, nest or lair is awaiting us there
Yet all that we were, we beseech them to bear.”

Both of their reflections started to move differently. The reflection of Chrysalis changed, her muzzle flattening, her ears migrating down, her skin changing texture, the horn atop her head fading away. In a few seconds the reflection looked like the woman they were familiar with, rather than the beast that she’d become.

I wish that was the freakiest thing I’d seen tonight.

The reflections each reached out with a hand. “Remember, dear, don’t touch them,” said Chrysalis. Fluffle Puff looked to her and nodded again. A few seconds later the reflections dropped their outstretched hands and turned away from them, fading into the depths of the pool. Their ordinary reflections faded back in a moment later, leaving the pool as it was.

“And there you go,” said Chrysalis. “Fluffle Puff and I are now free. Tartarus won’t try to pull us back any more.”

“You just created two new people?” asked Octavia. “Those reflections we saw - they’re a new Chrysalis and Fluffle Puff to take your places in Tartarus?”

“Do we need to repeat that rhyme?” asked Trixie. “Is that how it works?”

“Don’t worry. The words should come to you.” Fluffle Puff helped Chrysalis away from the edge. “Thank you, my dear. My strength should return soon.”

Vinyl and Trixie turned away from the water. Octavia stayed looking at her reflection in the pool.

“Tavi?”

The mare could barely keep her eyes open. The warped wooden ceiling swam in and out of focus. Only the cries of a pair of newborn foals kept her from drifting away entirely.

The door creaked. “You can come in now,” she heard the midwife say.

Igneous crept on light hooves to the bed next to her own, where his wife lay. She heard them talking in whispers, and turned her head away to give them privacy.

Maud had been a good little foal. Where Limestone had wailed with every one of her mother’s screams, Maud had sat obediently and sucked her hoof, quietly worried. Some might have thought her an inexpressive foal, but Nana Pinkie knew better.

The midwife came up to her bed. “You farin’ all right over here?” She waited for a nod. “We can get rid of this now,” she continued, indicating the rubber tube that had connected the mare’s own foreleg to Cloudy Quartz’. She pressed a hoof against the skin, gripped the needle in her teeth and quickly slid it out of her. She dropped the needle, but kept pressure on the bloody spot. “Would you like to hold her?” she asked.

Pink Fondant took a second to focus. The poor midwife’s fur was matted with blood. It would take hours to scrub out. “The mother—”

“Needs her rest,” replied the midwife firmly. “You both do. But you can say ‘hello’ to the little ones first, if you like?”

The midwife waited for Pink Fondant to sit up, then carefully lifted two little bundles from Cloudy Quartz’ lap and transferred the first of them into her embrace. The little face and mane that poked out of the towel were as bright a pink as her own. “Hello,” she said quietly. The foal gurgled, burped and looked up at her with curious eyes.

“She looks just like you,” the midwife said.

It was true. It was like looking into a mirror. The foal lifted a hoof towards her, and she couldn’t help but think of her reflection reaching out to her so many years ago.

Igneous walked quietly over to her, holding the other foal. “I…” He stumbled over the words. The young farmer never had been very good at talking about things, not things that mattered, and the frog in his throat didn’t help. “Thank you, Nana,” he said, eventually.

“Now, Igneous. You and Cloudy are the closest thing I’ve got to foals.”

The midwife, who was checking Pink Fondant’s pulse, butted in, “And she’s the only other pony with pegasus blood factor for a hundred miles.” She frowned, and said more quietly, “I wouldn’t normally take so much, you know. I really hope it wasn’t too much for you.”

“Cloudy needed it more than I did,” said Pink Fondant, as firmly as she could manage.

“We…” Igneous coughed. “Cloudy thought that… We’d like to name her after you,” he blurted out.

Through the fog, she lifted an eyebrow. “Fondant Pie? That doesn’t sound like a very healthy recipe.”

He actually laughed, sniffing tears away. “I meant ‘Pinkie’. Pinkamena Pie.”

Pink Fondant looked down at the foal, her brow creased as she lost herself in thought.

The foal barely opened her eyes, gazing up innocently for a second at the mare.

She smiled as she held Pinkie close. “I like it. Pinkie Pie.”

Twice, she’d created a life and let it go. The first to that mirror pool, the second…

She’d always wondered how that other Pink Fondant had found her life. She had never had foals of her own; she’d never remarried, after leaving her husband behind in that pool. Now, she had another little reflection to care for, and this one she wasn’t going to let go.

She lifted the foal close to her face and whispered, “May your days be filled with laughter.”

22. To Be Or Not To Be

View Online

Can I do this?

I’ve spent so long working towards establishing my career, to making something of myself. I’d be leaving all of that behind. All those hours of practice, for what? We don’t even know what this new world is like, or if we’ll have any place in it.

This fear is familiar, though. The reality is, I’ve spent my whole life trying to take control, and it was all about fear. I was afraid of the unknown, so I tried to mark out the territory with my own plans. Days, weeks, months, years, rehearsals, auditions, concerts, all neatly subdivided and categorised to parcel up the unknown.

Fear drove me to work hard, to dedicate myself to something; but fear held me back from taking risks, from stepping outside those plans. A cage of my own devising. Life inside my own ordered plans would be boring, stifling, if there wasn’t a dose of the unknown. Of the frightening, even. Vinyl gave me that. She messed up so many times, but she kept an element of the unknown in my life.

Fear kept me from being honest with Vinyl, from exposing my heart to danger. Instead I kept it safe, locked up, slowly losing it as it dripped away.

The old world wouldn’t let me be in charge of my life, not really. It can’t let me be. It would control me, adjust me, push me to where it wants me to be, to be who it needs me to be. I might not even object; it would change my mind so I thought it was my idea.

But it also wouldn’t have that spark of surprise. Vinyl and I would both be forever in its shadow. Even if we both thought we were acting spontaneously, we wouldn’t really. We’d be doing it all according to a script. Like blindfolded actors, just repeating the lines we’re fed.

I want to be with Vinyl, but not like that. Not as puppets. That isn’t the Vinyl I love. The Vinyl I love is free and wild and bold. She isn’t my possession, or anybody else’s.

Can I really leave my life behind, leave all my plans and hard work unfinished? Can I step into the unknown?

I can do anything.

Vinyl showed me that. I don’t have to do what anybody else tells me, and I don’t have to be limited by what they say I can do. Most of all, I don’t have to be limited by my own fear.

It’s true, this new world is frightening. It’s unknown and strange, and I have no idea what we’re going to do when we leave this cave, where we’re going to go or what we’re going to see. And that’s frightening, but it’s fine.

I need to live in a world where I have a chance to set my own path, to make my own decisions, to be free. Fear doesn’t get to stop me.

“Into my own reflection I stare
Yearning for one whose reflection I share
Remaining aware of my heart’s inner snare
My will shall no more mere fear beware.”

Octavia gasped as her reflection lifted her nose in a proud sneer. The scratches on her face cleared up, and her evening dress became a much more reasonable purple and white top.

She lifted a hand to her own face, finding all the day’s damage still there. Only her reflection had changed. Her reflection did not lift her hand at the same time.

Am I really that proud and snobbish? Is that how others see me?

As her reflection turned away, Octavia whispered, “Good luck in the audition.” Her reflection straightened, stiffened, nodded imperiously, then faded away.

She looked away from the pool into the stunned face of Vinyl. Octavia summoned up a smile. It wasn’t quite confident, but it was the best she could manage. “Something wrong?” she asked.

“I…” Vinyl composed herself and returned the smile. “I suppose not. I’m just surprised, I guess. I didn’t expect you to be the first of us to do it. You’re leaving so much behind, so… I guess I’m impressed you could make that decision.”

“I can do anything. You showed me that. I simply decided what it is that I want more than anything,” said Octavia quietly. “That’s all.”

“Well, okay.” Vinyl turned to look at the pool, taking a deep breath. “My turn?”

“That’s up to you. You don’t have to do it for me, or anyone else. Take the time to decide for yourself.”

My turn. Here goes nothing.

I can’t believe Tavi just did it, just like that, without even talking about it.

I mean, she’s been more hesitant about this whole thing than any of us. I’m the one that’s been digging into secrets and refusing to give up on them. Tavi should have been the least ready of us to leave her life behind and face the – that whole unknown world out there.

And… it kind of puts me on the spot, doesn’t it? Now she’s done it, I can’t exactly not do it. It would be weird and out of character for me, it would be a betrayal – and it would break her heart.

She must have chosen it with me in mind. She must have known I’d face this choice, that I’d have to decide what to do. She believed I’d choose to do it. And… yeah, I can see why. Of course I would. That’s who I am, right? Why would she ever doubt it?

So do I do it?

On the road a week ago, I turned right. Something in my head was saying that I had to turn left, that I had no choice but to head back into town. I didn’t like that. And that’s why I turned right, why I wound up at the horizon, why I unraveled this whole thing. Because I wouldn’t listen to that voice telling me I had to do something.

I know Tavi expects me to do it. She’s so sure I will that she was happy to do it first. She’s more confident in my decision than I am.

I know I have a problem with authority, with being made to do anything. Right now, part of me wants to defy her expectations just because it rebels at the idea of being forced into it. That’s childish, though, I know. It’s counterproductive.

I can’t let myself do it just because Tavi expects me to. And I can’t refuse to do it just because I resent being trapped. I have to decide for myself. And if that happens to line up with what Tavi believed I would choose, well, that’s fine.

The whole reason we’re here at all is because we knew something was wrong with the way the world is. The actual secrets we uncovered were, if anything, secondary to that feeling.

What did I expect to find out here? So far all we’ve seen of it is a forest at night, which hasn’t been much fun as worlds go, but there’s obviously more out there than a few acres of old woodland. There’s a world full of magic, supposedly. I wish we’d had a chance to see more of it before we had to decide. If what Chrysalis and Cerberus say is true, though, we may not have very long. Tartarus has a leash around our necks, and it could yank us back at any time. And, from the sound of it, screw with our heads as it does it.

And that’s what’s been hanging over our heads ever since we discovered it, the fear of losing ourselves. We’re not here for physical comfort. Our lives were physically fine. We’re out here because we were afraid of having our choices taken away, of some thing deciding to change who we are.

What scared me more about that? Losing myself, or losing Tavi?

She’s always been there. My whole life, she’s been my support, my safe place, my fixer. Too often I took that for granted. I could do all the dumb shit I wanted, because I knew she’d be there to rescue me.

She loves me. She’s made that clear. But do I love her? Can I love her? I don’t feel the same way she does, I know that, and she knows that; but maybe in my own way I do, a way built of appreciation and gratitude and trust. Of knowing that I could never be truly myself without her. Can that be real love? I know I want it to be. I want to let myself feel like that. I want to be who she believes I can be.

I can’t ever do that in Tartarus. I can’t overcome that obstacle to love when I’m afraid of myself or Tavi changing. Being changed. When I’m forever looking for the puppet strings above her head – or mine.

It’s not going to just happen on its own, I know. Deciding to stay out here isn’t going to make me instantly fall head over heels or anything. Making this decision won’t change me – in fact, that’s the point. But I’ll have a chance. I’ll have a chance to overcome that fear, to trust Tavi, to open myself up. To become who I want to be.

That’s the most important question for me right now: whether I can learn to love her properly. If I don’t even try, I’d regret it. For ever – or until Tartarus decides to change my mind.

I need this chance.

“Into my own reflection I stare
Yearning for one whose reflection I share
With a heart, proud and fair, that I’m yearning to pair
Resolving to learn how to cultivate care.”

Vinyl’s own face was drawn in worry, more than she’d ever seen on herself. Her reflection, though, blinked, relaxed and then gave her a confident smirk. Her battered Gala outfit was replaced with her favourite white jersey, as the mud vanished from her hair and the scratches from her skin. The reflection fetched Vinyl’s trademark shades out of a pocket and put them on as well, followed by a pair of headphones. She started bopping to an inaudible beat as she turned away and faded from view.

Yup. Confident, quiet, oblivious to the world around me. That’s how people see me.

She was interrupted by Trixie. “Are you both out of your minds?” she asked, incredulous.

Am I? No, I don’t think so. This is the clearest I’ve ever felt.

“No,” insisted Vinyl, as she shook her head and looked to Octavia. “We just… decided what we really wanted.”

Trixie groaned. “Stop making googly eyes at each other and look at where we are. Do you know where our next meal is coming from, or where we’re sleeping tonight? We don’t know anything about this world, do we? For all you know, we could step out of this cave and be eaten by a dragon or something! Or all the food could be poisonous for humans. Or… or we fall upwards because the gravity’s broken or…” Her eyes widened. “Or we could be under mind control!” She turned on Chrysalis. “How do we know you haven’t whammied us?”

Chrysalis slowly opened her eyes. “Really? You saw Tirek taking my magic. I can barely control my own body, never mind some other creature’s mind,” she said slowly.

“You had enough of it left to play dress up,” snapped Trixie.

“That’s different,” replied Chrysalis. “Transformation is a natural ability.”

“Why would I believe you? You keep lying to us, every time, every chance you get, so why would I trust anything you have to say? This whole time you’ve been stringing us along, using us.”

Chrysalis looked mildly offended. “I have no more reason to lie to you any more.”

“You never needed a reason!” shouted Trixie. “You lie all the time, without any reason at all. It’s who you are. You lie so much, you can’t even see the truth any more.”

Chrysalis drew in a breath and struggled to her hooves, standing as tall as she could on proud, wobbly legs. “We are a queen!” she shouted, though her voice was strained and thin. “I bear countless lives on my withers, and yours is not one of them.”

“So we really are just a means to an end for you?”

“Yes,” she spat. “And I don’t see any reason to explain myself to a spoiled little—”

She stopped as Fluffle Puff rested her palm gently on her muzzle. The girl shook her head.

“What are…” She leant down to Fluffle Puff’s face. “No! No, we never lied to you.”

The girl crossed her arms and turned away in a huff.

“No, Fluffles! I swear by all the hives, I’ve always been honest with you.”

Trixie interrupted, “See? When you do nothing but lie, nobody will listen to you any more.”

Chrysalis whirled on her, rage on her face. “Don’t you dare take her from me! I’ve lost everything else. I lost my army, I lost my victory, I lost my position.” She stomped a hoof to emphasise each point. “I even lost my body and my magic when they locked me up in that place. And right after I get them back, Tirek takes my magic away again! Don’t take her from me…” She slumped to the floor, hacking.

Fluffle Puff slid her arms around Chrysalis’ long neck, and used one hand to lift her head up until they could see into each other’s eyes.

“I don’t deserve you, do I?” asked Chrysalis. Fluffle Puff shook her head with a smile. “Thank you,” she said quietly. The girl cupped the changeling queen’s long jaw in gentle fingers, and leaned forward into a kiss. It wasn’t flawless – they had to change position a couple of times before they could get mouth and muzzle to fit together – but they both surrendered to it.

“Great,” muttered Trixie. “Everybody’s at it but me.”

Turning away from the unsettling sight of the kiss, she stepped up to the edge of the pool. She looked down at her reflection, battered and scratched, tired and tear-stained.

It’s not fair!

This choice, this whole situation, it’s just not fair. I have to choose between an alien world filled with untold dangers, and giving up my identity entirely. That’s not a choice. And I don’t even know how long I have to make the decision before it gets made for me.

This isn’t what I wanted. I wanted to expose the lies, to find the cracks in the constructed story. I wanted it not to be true.

But it is true. We’re out here now, outside Tartarus, and there are freaking monsters running around. And one of them is the one we’re trusting to give us answers. Frankly, if it weren’t for Octavia and Vinyl and Fluffle Puff, I would have run off already. Into the dark forest…

No. Be honest with yourself, Trixie. You’re more scared of the unknown than you are of the monsters. That’s why you haven’t run away yet. You need the girls around to reassure you.

Ever since Vinyl showed us that damned doll, I’ve been afraid. I wanted the dangerous new thing to go away, to not be true. I wanted someone I could blame, someone I could disprove and discredit. Then I wanted to hide under my blanket and let it all go away.

And that’s one of my options, or at least, that’s what it really amounts to. Hide away in Tartarus, let somebody else take care of it all, let somebody look after me, make all my decisions. Oh, that’s so tempting. Just curl up under a blanket, let the complicated questions take care of themselves.

Especially when the other option is to rush out into an unknown world that so far looks pretty deadly. Oh, and that probably doesn’t have any other humans in it. At all.

Except the first option also means losing myself. Letting somebody, or something or however it works, decide my life for me, decide my mind for me. Never knowing if it could randomly change my mind at any moment, turn me into somebody else.

Would I be happy like that? Well, maybe I would. Maybe having those decisions taken for me would be nice. And maybe I’m just too stubborn to consider the options fairly.

This choice really isn’t fair.

I can’t believe the others made it so easily. Cut all ties with their previous lives. And did so by using whatever freaky magic this pool has to create new people! I’m sure Chrysalis would tell us they’re ‘not real people’. She said the same thing about us at first, and I’m not inclined to believe it now.

If I understand it, the new Trixie would go and live the life I left behind. She’d sleep in my bed, she’d go to school, everybody would call her Trixie. She’d be made from everybody’s impressions of what I was like, so nobody would even notice the difference.

Would my parents notice? Would they realise that their little girl got replaced with a fake? Dad might. He at least sees me every day. Mom hasn’t…

Mom hasn’t cared to spend time with me for years now. Ever since the divorce, really. She pays attention when we’re together, in those neat little slices of time she’s allocated to me on some piece of paper somewhere, but that’s it. If I try to ring or message her outside that, I just get Pacific Glow, the human answering machine. I know she’s busy and important and everything, but that doesn’t change it. She hasn’t spent enough time with me lately to notice a change. Not like it used to be.

Except it never was. That’s what pisses me off so much about this whole thing, that the past isn’t real. Everything I remember happening years ago, it never actually happened. That’s what I was really trying to refute.

But it wouldn’t help, would it? Even if I found the crack in the logic and proved that all my memories were real after all, it wouldn’t really bring them back. The past is gone, either way. Mom and Dad aren’t getting un-divorced, we aren’t going back to the family we used to be. It’s never going to happen. It doesn’t even matter that my memories of that time are fake. They always were. I was kidding myself that, if I was a good girl, and waited patiently for it, things would all go back to the way they should be. That’s never going to happen. Waiting for it won’t help.

What was it Chrysalis said when we first met? Uh… ‘Little mice can’t see the…’ Uh, damn it.

‘Little mice can scurry in and out of the cage, and never know it’s there. But as soon as they see the bars, they’ll be trapped inside it forever.’

Right. I really don’t think I’m going to start liking these changeling creatures any time soon. I can respect a good illusionist, but they sound thoroughly unpleasant.

That’s my problem, though. The illusion is gone. I’ve seen the truth now, and I can’t unsee it. The bars to my cage weren’t the walls of Tartarus, they were all mine.

I was keeping myself blind to reality. Deliberately looking away from it. I could escape the reality of it because I didn’t believe in it. But I can’t do that any more. I’ve seen how broken it is now, and I can’t ever un-realise that. I’m stuck knowing it. I can’t pretend any more, because I’ll know I’m pretending.

No matter what I do, we’re never going to be a happy family.

So… what? I leave them behind? I tell myself I don’t care any more? Move on with my life, no regrets? That doesn’t work either.

There’s nothing that works. I’ve lost. There’s no play here that gets me what I want. I thought, if I could find the perfect strategy, I’d be able to go home. But there isn’t a winning strategy. There never was, really. There was never any way for me to win this game. I should have folded at the beginning, cashed in my stake, been happy with my lies. But it’s all gone now. Does it even matter what I do any more?

Trixie was crying now, the distortion in her eyes and in the surface of the water both churning up her reflection.

I’m scared. I’m scared of this world that I don’t know anything about, full of unknown creatures. I’m scared of going back, begging to be allowed to have back what I left behind. And I’m scared of losing whatever part of myself I have left when some nameless, faceless thing decides to rewrite me. I’m scared of this pain, and I’m even more scared of having this pain taken away from me.

“I…”

It’s not fair. None of these choices is any good.

“…can’t.”

“Trixie?” Octavia knelt down beside her.

“How? How am I supposed to make a decision like that? It’s… my whole life. A whole world! Everything I’ve ever known.” Trixie shook her head, unable to pull her eyes from her own reflection. Its desperate eyes pleaded back at her. “It’s too much. I… c-can’t, I can’t, I can’t…”

Her reflection reached up and pulled a lock of bedraggled hair behind her ear.

Trixie gasped, then lurched back, landing on her backside and scraping her hands against the stone floor.

“It’s there!” she shouted. “She’s in there, waiting!”

“She’s… who?” asked Octavia.

Trixie scrambled away from the pool. “Don’t you see? My reflection. She’s in there already, under the surface. Waiting for me!”

Octavia glanced nervously back at the pool, seeing only the ripples on the surface, the sandy bed underneath, and her own reflection. “I don’t see anything,” she said.

“What did you see?” asked Vinyl, kneeling down next to her.

“My reflection, it’s… alive. Almost. She… she wants to exist. Wants to get out. I can feel it.”

Vinyl kept her voice calm and low. “It’s okay,” she said. “Take your time. Just tell me what you saw.”

Trixie took a deep breath. “Trixie saw her reflection, moving on its own. She moved her hair, when Trixie didn’t. She’s real, I know it.”

“How can you be sure of that?” asked Octavia.

“I know myself. Alright?” Trixie snapped. “I know what my face looks like, what my expression is saying. I can see what she’s feeling. It wasn’t just me I saw in there. Her eyes are hungry, she wants to get out, she’s longing to get out.”

“Are you sure?” asked Octavia. “We didn’t see anything like that in our reflections. Not until we said the… the incantation.”

“Actually,” said Vinyl carefully, “much as I’d love to dismiss it, we’ve seen weirder things today. I don’t think I even know what’s normal any more. And we don’t know how this magic pool really works, do we?”

“I suppose that’s true,” admitted Octavia.

“Hey, Chrysalis?” asked Vinyl. “You know anything about this?”

Chrysalis shook her head. “Not really. I can only guess.”

“So what’s your guess?”

“If I had to, I’d guess that Tartarus is getting impatient. It’s already noticed that she’s missing, and is starting to heal over.”

“So you don’t think her reflection is real yet?”

“I think it’s getting more real. Tartarus is…” she paused, clenched her teeth as she finally pushed herself back to her hooves. After a few short breaths, she continued, “Tartarus is filling in the gap she left behind. It’s weaving something to replace her. Or become her. It’s not a whole replacement yet, but it’s going to be.”

“And if I chose to go back?” asked Trixie. Vinyl and Octavia both looked concerned, as if the idea was unsettling, but said nothing. “Well, what happens to her then? To me? Which of us is more real then?”

“Again, my guess is that she’s the person you’d become. Tartarus has its own idea of who Trixie Lulamoon is supposed to be now. One way or another, it’s going to make that happen.”

“I don’t have long, do I? It’s starting to happen without me. How long?”

“I don’t know.”

Kneeling down in front of Trixie, Fluffle Puff took her hand, gently uncurling her fingers.

“Um. What is she doing?”

She looked to Chrysalis for answers, but the creature had curled her lips up in the silent snarl of a jealous dog guarding its dinner.

Fluffle Puff tapped Trixie’s palm twice to bring her attention back. Then she placed the tips of two fingers at the base of her wrist and slowly dragged them to the end of her little finger. She repeated this with all five fingers.

Trixie stared in confusion as she performed the action, then for a few seconds more, before realising that her breathing had calmed.

She looked up into Fluffle Puff’s face, and received a broad grin in return. Then the girl lunged forward and gave Trixie a tight hug.

“Okay, that’s, um…” She considered a moment before relaxing and wrapping her arms around Fluffle Puff. “That’s better. Thank you.”

Vinyl, who had been staring intently at the pool, muttered, “I wonder if it’s more than that?”

“What do you mean?” asked Octavia.

Vinyl turned back to Trixie. “I was just thinking. You said you knew how she felt, right? The other you, that is.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, maybe that’s more than just knowing yourself. Like… maybe you really do have a connection to her?”

“Um. Maybe?”

Octavia asked, “Are you suggesting some sort of telepathy between them?”

“Would it be the weirdest thing we’ve seen today?”

“I suppose not, but still. Did you feel something like that when you did it?”

Vinyl shook her head. “No, but I didn’t really give it a chance. I made my pick pretty quickly. Except the words I spoke, I don’t know where they came from.”

“Nor do I,” admitted Octavia. “They just seemed… fitting.”

“Besides, I’m not sure ‘telepathy’ is even the right word. It’s more like they’re… not really separate yet.” She asked Trixie, “Can you try something for me?”

Trixie nervously nodded.

“Can you try looking into the pool again, and say how you feel? How she feels? We’ll be right behind you,” she added.

“I… Trixie can at least try.”

Trixie seemed unconvinced, but she slid on hands and knees across the ground until she was over the lip of the pool. Her reflection looked back up at her, with a mix of fear and longing in her eyes. Is that my expression, or hers?

“Good,” said Vinyl. “Now, tell me. Does she look… I don’t know, aggressive at all? Malicious?”

“Um.” Trixie bit her lip. “No? Just… desperate. Pleading, I guess. She isn’t aggressive at all.”

“Good. That’s—”

“She’s trapped there,” interrupted Trixie. “In that in-between place. That’s what I feel.” She and her reflection both reached out for each other.

“No!” shouted Chrysalis.

Trixie felt a gentle tug on the tattered sleeve of her dress, lifting it away from the surface of the water. It fell a long way short of the overwhelming force that had flung the girls around so easily earlier. As before, though, there was no visible cause.

“If you touch it, you’ll be pulled in,” Chrysalis added.

Trixie yanked her sleeve free of the intangible grip. “And maybe I want to,” she said bitterly.

“Then do so deliberately, not by accident,” said the changeling. She slumped back down, the effort having exhausted her.

Trixie looked back at her reflection.

Are you real?

Chrysalis says you aren’t. But then, she said the same thing about us, didn’t she? She thought we were just imitation people. But I know I’m real. I know I live with my Dad, I know I go to Canterlot High, I know my mother bought me an alarm clock when I was eleven, I know we…

I know we all went to the beach at Horseshoe Bay when I was seven. I know my mother took a button from her dress to replace the eye on my Smarty Pants. I know it. I know it. But I also know it isn’t true, because that memory is a copy.

I know that Mom and Dad loved me. I know we used to be a happy family. I know they both tried so hard to hide their arguments from me during the divorce. I know it. But none of that is really true either, it it?

I have these memories. They’re a part of me, they’re what I’m made out of, but I know there’s nothing real behind it. They exist inside me and nowhere else. That’s all they are now – a part of me.

If this was a story, it would be easy. When adventure called, I’d just launch into it, safe in the knowledge that by the final chapter I’d be back at home. But it’s not safe. There’s no plan here, there’s no safety net, no saving the game and trying again. I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I have to make this decision, and then go live my whole life with whatever my choice is.

What do you think about it? Do you think anything yet, or are you just a whisper of what could be?

Vinyl and Octavia have each other. Chrysalis has her kingdom, and Fluffle Puff. What do I have?

I’m not a queen. I don’t have a kingdom or an army or responsibility for a million souls on my… shoulders. I’m going to go with shoulders.

I’m not a lover. I don’t have somebody waiting for me, somebody for who I’d do anything, risk anything.

I’m not a… wait, what does Fluffle Puff get out of this again? She’s kind of like Chrysalis’ moral compass, but that’s not really a good enough reason for her to jump out of the world like that. She must really want to be with her. I’m… not going to think too hard about that, it could get really disgusting.

What I mean is, I don’t have any of that stuff waiting for me out here.

I don’t have anything waiting for me back home either. Not really. The home I remember, the home I want, isn’t ever going to be there for me.

And honestly, would I accept it if it were? If I went home and Mom and Dad were all smiling at each other and playing happy families, would I fit in and be happy? No, probably not. I’d freak out and wonder what had happened to them. I remember the divorce. I remember the shouting, no matter how they tried to hide it from me. I remember it all falling apart. I can’t just pretend I don’t.

Unless… unless Tartarus does rewrite me, change what I think. Make them happy together, and make me okay with it, make me forget.

That’s what you are, aren’t you? You’re the me that forgets. The me that’s fine with whatever changes have to be made. You’re the me that gets what I can never have.

I’m not you. If I went back, maybe I’d become you, but then I wouldn’t be me any more, would I? I’d just be you.

I don’t want to forget. I remember Mom smiling as she sewed that button onto my doll. I remember how much they loved me. I’ll always remember, because those memories are important to me. I didn’t appreciate how much I was loved until it broke, not really, but I do now.

You get to live that happy life. You get to have what I never can, what you don’t even appreciate. And I get to remember.

“Into my own reflection I stare
Yearning for one whose reflection I share
For I now do forswear both regret and despair
And surrender that life to one who stays there.”

Trixie’s tears rippled the surface as her reflection turned and faded away.

Epilogue: Tartarus Girls

View Online

Rare Find was carrying a basket of oranges back home. Sweet! I get a nice bonus for this week’s delivery, and a bunch of oranges. The alley was dark, as sunrise took a while to work its way around the mountain and reach the west side of Canterlot, but he’d walked this way a hundred times before.

He stopped when he heard a rattling noise behind him. Who’s there? Was I followed? Was somebody watching the exchange? He looked around, and saw an open tin rolling harmlessly across the cobbles next to the trash cans.

Oh, thank the Princesses. I must have nudged it as I walked past. The nighttime makes everything seem more scary than it really is, even in the city. Oh well, it’ll be light soon. And tomorrow I head out to pick up another delivery.

He turned back to his task, and nearly trotted into a short figure in a dark cloak.

I can’t see anything at all under that hood. He’s just standing there, breathing. Is he okay? Does he need a doctor? Oh stars, isn’t he going to say anything?

“I’m very sorry,” said Rare Find with a forced laugh. “You came out of nowhere.”

“Is he friend, or is he foe, the pony wonders,” replied the figure in a deep, raspy voice.

I… what? I mean, yes, that’s pretty much what I was wondering. That and if he knows what I just delivered. Is he going to tell the guard?

“I can assure you, I am no friend,” he continued. “I am Lord Tirek! And I will take what should have been mine long ago.”

As Rare Find slumped to the ground, drained of strength and vitality, his fading thoughts were, At least… he doesn’t know…

“That’s not north, is it?” asked Octavia.

The three girls stood on the battlements of a relatively intact section of castle walls, looking out over the forest. In the distant east the sun was rising, throwing buckets of gold tinged with streaks of black and splatters of other colours across the canopy.

“It doesn’t look like it,” replied Vinyl.

She had one arm around Octavia’s waist as they stood looking out, both looking ahead with contented smiles. They resolutely did not look behind them.

“So what should we do about these guys?” asked Trixie.

She was leaning on an intact crenellation, her body language forcibly relaxed. Her battered magician’s hat lay on the stone floor beside her, cast in shadows.

“Smile,” said Vinyl calmly. “Avoid sudden movements. Keep our voices down.”

To their left, one of the advancing changelings hissed quietly, tasting the air with its disturbingly long tongue. To their right, a group of three took tentative steps towards Trixie. She gripped the stone, willing her body not to tense.

Another changeling hissed and chattered somewhere behind them. There were changelings perched on rooftops and sections of broken wall, changelings slinking along the battlements, changelings climbing up walls, changelings hanging down from stone archways, changelings looking out of bare stone windows, changelings crowding the street between the broken buildings, changelings hopping up to stand on fallen lumps of masonry, and changelings hovering in the air. Without turning around to look at the swarm, there was no way to count them, to tell which one had made the noise, though it was fairly likely that they’d lose count if they tried. The creatures were practically impossible to tell apart in their natural form.

“And we wait patiently for these other guys to arrive,” added Octavia, indicating the flight of silhouetted changelings flying in over the forest. The approaching group swooped around them once before landing on the battlements nearby. Nearby changelings ducked reverently out of their way. Several of the arrivals were wearing the forms of pegasi.

One of them stepped forwards. He was in the form of an orange pegasus who looked strangely familiar, and held his head high with an air of authority. The others around him lowered their heads in deference. He looked the girls up and down. A green flash enveloped his body, leaving him in the same shiny black body as the rest of them. He reared up, settling his weight awkwardly on his hind legs, before another green flash left him standing there as a human male.

Trixie allowed herself to turn and look directly into the face of Flash Sentry. The details were all there, from the annoyingly confident grin to the styled eyebrows. “You girls are a long way from home,” he said as he stepped forward.

Trixie looked at the other two girls. Then she took a deep breath, turned back to face Flash, and punched him hard in the face.