BOSS OF ME
Written by: ToixStory Edited by: Azusa (formerly by JohnPerry and Critic)
When Sweetie Belle is accepted into the mysterious Canterlot Music Meister Academy, she finds that life in a school filled with eccentric teachers, odd students, and lots of music is anything but normal.
Volume One - Sweetie Belle’s Precious Little Life
On a whim, Sweetie Belle signs up for a chance to be admitted to the prestigious Canterlot Music Meister Academy to test her skills as a musician. When she is accepted, a new world of adventure, danger, romance, and, of course, music open up to her; however, the CMMA is not without its own dangers. Under the watchful eye of Principal Luna and Octavia, the school desperately tries to maintain the peace in and around Equestria.
Volume Two - Sweetie Belle vs. The World
Just as life at Canterlot Music Meister Academy began to get normal for Sweetie Belle, her latent black magic power begins to rear its ugly head. Working in secret, she must try to uncover its secrets before she is discovered by friends or teachers, as the war of black magic against music begins to reach a boiling point and threatens to spill all over Equestria.
Volume Three - Sweetie Belle and the Infinite Sadness
Sweetie Belle thought her ordeal with black magic would end with fighting the zebra nemesis in the Everfree Forest. Instead, her victory set her and the CMMA on a warpath against all black magic users. The fight has taken its toll on Sweetie Belle and her friends. With time running out, it will be up to their group and whatever allies they can gather to save Equestria from a grisly fate.
Summer came as suddenly as it ever did. One day, Sweetie Belle was sitting in class for hours studying math, science, and geography, and then the next she was free with the ringing of the final bell.
As she walked out of the classroom on the last day, she looked around. The too-small classroom felt so large now that it had emptied out for the day. The erasers were cleaned and put up, desks cleaned out, and cubby racks bare.
It had been a long year, but definitely one of the best. Scootaloo had finally gotten her cutie mark—followed by celebrations both public and private for her success—and Babs Seed had even come down for an action-packed Night Mare Night. The school had served as a pillar to all that, a sturdy base that drew them back day after day, and it was almost a little sad to leave. But then, it would be waiting for her in the fall, and Sweetie Belle had a whole three months of fun to get started on.
Sweetie Belle scooted out the door under the watchful gaze of her teacher, Ms. Cheerilee, who shut the lights off and followed the new teenager outside. Scootaloo and Applebloom were waiting for their friend under the spreading oak tree a little down the lane. Soon, the three of them set off toward the sun-baked fields outside Sweet Apple Acres.
All three had long ago since gotten their cutie marks, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy a little adventure now and again. They trotted away, chatting excitedly between them. Summer!
The vacation passed, largely unnoticed by the rambunctious Cutie Mark Crusaders, with the speed and grace of childhood. They knew that, when they returned, life would be far different. It would be their ninth year in the Ponyville School, marking them officially as teenagers. It meant harder classes, longer times studying, and also more responsibility. Staying up an hour later, going farther away from Ponyville all on her own, and maybe a chance to stay at home all by herself. The possibilities would be endless.
One long day fell into another and soon they had piled on top of each other until, suddenly, it was almost over. The days grew long and the heat of mid-July began to wane with the coming of September.
For herself, Sweetie Belle began to grow anxious as she thought about the coming school year. Many times, she would take the portable record player her sister’s rich coltfriend had bought for her—Don’t worry, Sweetie Belle, I promise you he’s changed!—and lie out in the grass behind her parents’ house while she thought about the coming school year. Would she feel any different? Would ponies in town react the same toward her? More importantly, when would she start learning about something that had to do with her cutie mark?
In those tumultuous times between question and answer, she liked to look at the stars while listening to her record player. With a calculated amount of whining, she had amassed a sizable library of vinyls. A few of them were the usual fare for mares her age—Sapphire Shores and DJ Pon-3 to name a few—but a good bit of it was more unconventional fare. Sultry Strings, Fats Clef, Smooth Groove and his Del Tunes, Jenny Eat World, and Steve. The way the guitars sung and the bass moaned, the way the singer didn’t just raise his voice above the instruments but instead moved in harmony to the rest . . . it excited her.
When she wasn’t off with the Crusaders or pulling in her share of work at the boutique for a bit and a half an hour, that’s where she’d be. Her and her music. No matter the troubles that weighed on her, she could lose herself to a twelve-inch vinyl record.
Then, like a lightning strike, it was over. Summer ended, and the schoolhouse raised its flag and opened its shutters once more. The little foals stood in their lines with doting parents nearby and piled eagerly into Ms. Sparkle’s classroom. There, they would eagerly learn their letters and number and colors and how to tell the difference between noon and midnight.
The trip to Ms. Cheerilee’s classroom wasn’t marked by excitement so much as weariness. The same classroom, the same books, and the same feeling of instant longing for summer once each student passed the threshold into the room.
Which was why, on that day, it was something entirely new that ignited the students’ collected interests. It was colorful, it was bold, and it was also a poster four feet tall and placed on the side of the schoolhouse.
“Did you see what it says?” whispered Featherweight to Dinky.
“I heard it’s for some prep school,” Silver Spoon said to Diamond Tiara.
Diamond Tiara rolled her eyes. “If it was a prep school worth going to, I would have heard about it already.”
A new poster? Sweetie Belle sighed when she realized that she must have missed it on her way in. Too much thinking about the new school year, of course. She caught Scootaloo’s attention, and the pegasus filly shook her head. She hadn’t seen it either.
Ms. Cheerilee took that moment to walk in, however, and the first lesson of the year began and everypony forgot about the “new” for a short while.
“That sign needs more exclamation marks,” Scootaloo snarked.
The trio of Crusaders stood outside the schoolhouse, wasting their lunch period by craning their necks up at the poster. Its edges were tacked to the wall and a small breeze tugged at one of the corners. All the stenciled, bold letters were colored in a glaring red the screamed against the black background.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?!
ONLY THE BEST NEED APPLY!!!
FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES,
STUDENTS MUST INQUIRE FOR TEST!!!
TEST ADMINISTERED BY FEATURED MUSICIANS, INCLUDING:
There was a small wooden box below the poster with a mail slot on the top. Applications were taped to the wall above it, and a few had been taken already.
Applebloom scratched her head. “What do you think that test is for?” she asked.
“Beats me,” Scootaloo said, “but last time I checked, I wasn’t a musician.”
They both looked at Sweetie Belle. The white unicorn stared up at the poster even still, a hoof on her chin. Her eyes kept playing over the words until they burned into her mind. Musician. She was a musician! But then under that, Only the best need apply.
“Are you going to apply, Sweetie Belle?” Scootaloo asked.
Sweetie Belle hung her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’d be kinda cool to see if I got accepted, but . . .”
“But I don’t know if I’m good enough! It says they only take the best,” Sweetie Belle cried.
Scootaloo laughed. “Oh c’mon, you know it’s probably for some after-school thing or summer camp for next year. I’m sure you’ll get in easy; we’ve all heard you sing, and you listen to music all the time.”
“It might be fun, too, to audition in front of famous ponies,” Applebloom chimed in. “Ah mean, it’s not everyday you get to see them up close.”
“Vinyl Scratch and Octavia live in Ponyville already,” Scootaloo said.
“Well Ah didn’t know that!”
Sweetie Belle stepped forward to the applications. Each one was simple: just a space for the name, address, and type of musician for each applicant. At the bottom was a small reminder that auditions would begin in October.
Her hoof hesitated, but eventually she took one and headed off to lunch with her friends. After all, what could it hurt? Like Scootaloo said, it was probably for some dinky summer camp, and at least it would give her a chance to see some famous ponies up close for once.
She filled out the application during afternoon classes, marking the blank they left for type of musician as “Singer.” When the first release bell of many rang, she dashed outside and dropped the slip of paper through the narrow slot in the box. Just like that, she was done.
By the time she caught up to her friends, Sweetie Belle had practically forgotten about the whole thing. Why worry? It probably wasn’t something to get excited about anyway.
The late night wind blew swiftly through the vaulted towers of stone and brick that made up the residential section of Trottingham. The pale moonlight washed across the scene below of cobblestone streets, thatched roofs, and small wooden doors that made the city so distinctive from all others like it in Equestria.
Few electric lights burned in the double-paned windows that lined the narrow alleyway and refused to give their light to the harrowed mare who ran through the puddles left from the last rainfall.
She was an earth pony of few distinct features other than the small scars around her mouth and the grim haunted look that made its home within her eyes. All other identifying marks were obscured by a great brown cloak thrown about her shoulders that rested over her flank.
Her breath came in short gasps as her hooves pounded the street below and sent the sound echoing through the alleyway. She paused to check behind her before continuing on, and repeated the action every ten paces or so.
The cape she wore fluttered in the wind as the mare picked up her pace and sped down the alley toward the point where the alleyway met the street. She could find safety in the ponies who still made their way down the boulevard at that late hour.
She never got the chance. A misstep when running over a loose stone caused one of her hooves to get caught in the pavement and sent the mare tumbling to the ground in a crumpled heap that lay silently, cursing her lack of coordination.
Slowly, cautiously, the mare raised her head back toward the dark section of the alley from where she had come and the last known sight of her unknown assailant. Surely he had not stopped in his chase.
Nothing. Not a single movement stirred the inky darkness between buildings.
The pace of the mare’s heartbeat began to slow and her hooves stopped shaking against the cobblestone. She was safe; she had broken away from her pursuer. With a comforted sigh, the mare rose to her feet and began to back down the alley.
A chuckle passed over the ground behind her and the mare looked up to find the grinning form of a pegasus roosting on a wooden outcropping of the building beside her.
The pegasus’ beady amber eyes glared down at the mare from a coat as dark as the streets around him. His blue and white mottled mane that had once been a proud mohawk was now cut down to just above the surface of his head.
Wordlessly, the pegasus dropped to the ground in front of the mare and began to advance on her in slow and steady steps. It was all she could do to crawl backwards away from him, unable to keep her eyes off of his.
Those eyes . . . they tugged at her mind as she gazed into them. The amber irises shifted to a sickly green color and purple contrails of magic flowed out from the side. Dead center, the pegasus’ pupils glowed red as his grin grew larger.
Lightning the same color of the magic crackled around the pegasus’ wings and crept toward the mare along the ground in an unnatural way. The bolts of electricity clawed and snapped at her and made the mare cry out in fear as they rendered her helpless on the ground.
The pegasus took his time to close the gap between them, relishing in his feeling of absolute dominance on the mare on the ground below him. When his smile widened to show his teeth, it revealed a mouth full of jagged incisors that were not pony in any way. A long tongue ran over them as the pegasus finally reached the mare and stared down at her.
He raised a hoof that sparkled in lightning and prepared to bring it down on the mare as she cringed and cried out in terror.
A single note of a violin’s bow playing across its strings rang out from above the alley and passed through the gulf between the mare and the pegasus.
He paused and craned his neck up at the tops of the houses lining the alleyway to find the source of the noise. In the distraction, the mare below him managed to scramble out from under his hooves and half-crawled, half-ran out of the alley.
The pegasus paid her no heed. He had heard that specific violin before. That same violin that was the reason he had to settle for the most pitiful of prey the streets of Trottingham could offer.
“Thunderlane,” a quiet, orderly voice called from the roof above him.
The pegasus once known as Thunderlane snarled and looked up to see a figure perched on the edge of the rooftop and looking down on him. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out any distinguishing features, but the voice was enough.
He knew that, up there, a mare with a grey coat and darker mane and violet eyes was glaring at him all high and mighty like she always had. Octavia, his rage-addled mind dimly recalled.
Thunderlane spread his wings and flapped up into the air, gliding over Octavia’s dark figure and landing on the rounded roof behind her. A small trail of lightning flashed in the air behind him, providing an illuminating glow to the area around them.
Octavia watched him without a word, instead played a sharp note on the violin tucked under her chin.
“I thought you played a cello,” Thunderlane spat in a guttural voice.
The ends of Octavia’s mouth twitched. “I keep this one for traveling.”
“Why do you come to Trottingham, then?”
“I think you know.”
Thunderlane smiled and took a step toward Octavia. “Let’s pretend I don’t.”
Octavia placed her bow again on the strings of the violin before answering, “By order of both Princess Luna and her sister, Princess Celestia, you are accused of the unholy crime of the acquisition of dark magic and its use on the citizens of Equestria. Verdict on pain of evidence is guilty.”
She brushed a few stray strands of hair out of her eyes. “Your sentence for these crimes is immediate arrest and escort to Canterlot for imprisonment.”
Thunderlane’s toothy smile flashed white in the night.
“And if I refuse?” he said.
“Then the penalty is death.”
Thunderlane laughed. “Were it so easy.”
He leapt into the sky just as his lightning tore through the thatched surface of the roof, setting it ablaze. The flames scrambled through the air toward Octavia, but by then she had already leapt off the roof.
In the middle of the air, the grey pony set her bow to the violin and began to play a dramatic tune in a steady beat even as she fell to the cobblestone street. *
Before she could impact on the pavement, the sharp, resonanting notes streaming from her violin took shape and color as they came to life in the air around her. A bed of purple light spread out below her as the magic caught the falling violinist and swiftly propelled her up and away from the street like a spring.
Octavia landed softly on the roof of another house and scanned the area around her even as she continued to play. She looked to the air around her for the pegasus, but found nothing.
Suddenly, the air sparked around her as a bolt of lightning lanced at her from behind. Octavia hit a high note and sidestepped the electric attack even as it scratched and burned the air next to her cheek before flying off and landing somewhere in the distance to be followed by a dull explosion.
At no time did she stop playing.
Octavia spun around and watched as Thunderlane swooped down at her from above with another bolt driving itself out from under his wings.
Ready this time, the violinist spun her magic into a ball and sent it racing forward to meet the lightning as it moved to the beat of the music.
The magical ball collided with the bolt in mid-air and exploded in a mighty burst of blue, sickly lightning that branched out everywhere and purple magic that faded with the roar of a dying star.
Fire rained down from above and set even more roofs alight with an unnatural green fire that burned evenly across the houses.
“You’ve gotten better since the last time we’ve met,” Thunderlane remarked. “Though I’m still surprised to see you holding off like this.”
Octavia didn’t say anything in return, but instead closed her eyes and as her tempo picked up. The soft notes came in high and held their tones longer as she played. Around her, the spiraling purple magic condensed again.
A single beam of violet light screamed through the air in a vicious arc that sliced upwards toward Thunderlane. The pegasus spread his wings and banked away from the attack, but the attack still rippled across the skin of his midsection, leaving an angry gash in its wake.
He cried out in anger and his green eyes glowed. “Alright, enough of this,” he growled. “Time to finish this fight!”
The dark grey pegasus threw back his forehooves and began to condense his dark energies into a ball around him. He sent the crackling magic hurtling forth a moment later in the form of a massive bolt of lightning as wide as a pony was tall.
Octavia glanced at him through half-lidded eyes as she let her magic flow down her legs and pool on the roof beneath her hooves. An explosion of violet light sent the violinist hurtling through the night air once again, though this time on a controlled flight.
The lightning bolt crackled and sparked as it passed below her close enough to sheer off the last inch of Octavia’s tail and left the rest of it smoking. The violinist was too busy to notice it, however.
Instead, her bow began to race across the violin’s strings as the song began to end. The bow began to glow, and suddenly a purple blade about half of a foot long made of light sprang from the end of it, turning it into an impromptu spear.
Thunderlane twisted in the air and tried to throw himself out of the flying violinist’s way, but by then she was already below him and coming in fast.
Octavia gripped the bow in one outstretched hoof and slashed in a quick arc along her right side as she passed by the now-frightened pegasus. The blade sunk into Thunderlane’s middle and passed through him with a wet sound before the blade appeared out the other side, trailing a red mist.
With a thump and scattering of loose hay, Octavia landed on yet another thatched rooftop. The song done, its magic bled away into the open air.
Octavia slumped against the roof and coughed and wheezed for a few moments before regaining her composure.
When she did, she looked up to see a small, jet black crystal slowly floating down towards her, suspended in a small field of magic. It seemed so small to contain what was left of the pegasus that had once been Thunderlane.
It settled lightly on the roof and lay on its side. Octavia stared down at it and her gaze hardened.
The crystal felt light in hooves and was warm to the touch. The surface was, sure enough, opaque, though it seemed to almost glow in the moonlight.
Octavia raised her bow again and played a short, peculiar string of notes that vibrated the air around the violin in a new, blue field of magic. The air rippled and pooled into an oval that vaguely resembled a mirror hanging above the ground.
The surface of the mirror sprang to life and the image of Princess Luna appeared inside of it. Her eyes widened slightly, but other than that her demeanor remained stoic.
“We trust your mission was a success?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Octavia held up the black crystal for her to see. “Another one. Thunderlane, this time; an old resident of Ponyville, and the one we’ve been tracking since he fell a few years ago.”
Princess Luna sighed. “Most unfortunate. If Thunderlane made it all the way to Trottingham, then the lure has been spreading. We will need to investigate this further.”
Her gaze softened a little. “Did you make it through the fight in good condition?”
Octavia nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure? You do have a class to teach in the morning.”
“Don’t I know it,” Octavia said.
The mirror winked away with a departing promise from Princess Luna to give more research to the matter, but Octavia wasn’t listening very well. She popped her back and yawned before picking up her bow once again and placing the violin to her shoulder.
The notes poured out once again in a strange tempo that sent strands of light wrapping around the grey mare and the crystal at her feet. Soon, they encased her in a purple bubble that popped with a flash to reveal an empty rooftop and the gentle swaying of the late night wind.
It was on a cold Monday morning sometime near the beginning of October that a golden brown piece of toast, baked at the perfect temperature for exactly one minute and forty-five seconds, leapt out of the toaster and smacked Sweetie Belle in the face.
When it landed on the ground, it did so on the side that Sweetie Belle invariably knew to be buttersidedown, no matter which side she would have actually applied the creamy dairy product to. This did not bode well for the day.
The teenaged pony let out a startled yelp and jerked her white hooves to the side, knocking over a tall glass of orange juice. This in turn splashed all over the stallion sitting next to her at the too small table in the too small kitchen.
The orange liquid soaked into his immaculately brushed ivory coat and he jerked his head up in annoyance, sending his blonde mane flying behind him.
“Insolent knave!” Prince Blueblood cried as he flew back in his chair, his gold bathrobe whipping around him like a cape.
Sweetie Belle cringed. “S-Sorry, Prince Blueblood,” she stammered.
Blueblood looked down from eyes ringed with dark circles at the filly with the purple and pink curls cowering back a little from him. His expression quickly softened.
“Oh, sorry about that, Sweetie Belle,” he said quickly. “I’m just tired . . . and you can just call me Blueblood, you know.”
Sweetie sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
“Something on your mind?”
“Just that big test I’ve got today,” she replied in earnest. “It’s all about music, but what if mine isn’t good enough? What if I really can’t sing?”
Her face burned red as her voice cracked on the last sentence, a trait that had only increased since she became a teenager.
Blueblood smiled a little. “I would find that very hard to believe, considering your special talent does seem to be singing.”
“Yeah, I guess . . .” Sweetie Belle reached back and gingerly touched her cutie mark—a black treble clef overlaying a pink heart—like pressing on it too much would make it disappear.
“See, no reason to worry,” Blueblood said.
“Worry about what?” Rarity asked, walking briskly into the kitchen. Unlike her sister, she had deemed it better to groom herself before breakfast.
“My big singing test, of course!” Sweetie said. “What if I don’t pass it and they kick me out of school?”
“Oh Sweetie, you have nothing to worry about,” Rarity assured. Grimly, she picked up a brush and started to work at the teenager’s unkempt mane. “Really, what you should be worrying about is this mop you call a mane. Didn’t mother tell you to get it cut?”
Sweetie Belle crossed her forehooves over her chest as her sister dragged the brush through her mane from behind. “It’s my mane. She can’t tell me what to do with it.”
Rarity finished brushing and sighed. “Well, I do suppose it looks better this way, once it’s actually brushed.” She looked at the clock. “Don’t you have to be on your way to school?”
“Oh, right.” Sweetie Belle grabbed Blueblood’s glass of juice, swigged it down before he could protest, and dashed out of the front door of Carousel Boutique to join her friends waiting outside.
“There you are!” Scootaloo said. “We’ve been waiting, like, forever!”
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. “Just my sister being my sister. Now c’mon, we need to get moving.”
“Says the one making us late,” Applebloom grumbled.
The trio of teenagers trotted off down Ponyville’s main street toward the red schoolhouse and the classes waiting inside. Meanwhile, back inside the Boutique, Rarity used her magic to clean up the spilled juice and wayward toast.
Blueblood got up from his seat at the table and walked over to her.
“Since when does the Ponyville school have music tests?” he said.
Rarity shook her head. “They don’t; this test isn’t from that school.”
Blueblood’s eyes narrowed. “She’s not taking a test for the school I’m thinking of, is she?” When Rarity responded by lowering his eyes to the ground, he sighed. “Do you really think she’s ready for a school like that?”
“She’s my sister; of course I do.”
He nudged against her. “I just hope she knows what she’ll get herself into if she makes it through the test.”
“I do, too . . .” Rarity looked out the window, where she could see Sweetie walking with her friends to school.
When she turned back around, however, her eyes had an angry gleam.
“Now that that’s over,” she said, “what was that about calling Sweetie a knave?”
Blueblood backed up and tried to laugh. “It was just a, uh, slip of the tongue. You know I’m trying not to act like that anymore.”
Rarity nodded. “Oh, I know you’re trying to act better. So you can do that from the couch tonight.”
She walked off to prepare the dresses for the day, while Blueblood blew of stray strand of hair out of his face. “Great.”
Applebloom pulled at the bow wrapped around the red braid that hung down from her mane. “Why do you stay at Rarity’s all the time?” she asked. “The route to school’s shorter if we go from your house.”
“Because I like my sister,” Sweetie Belle said.
Scootaloo snorted. “Or you just like being away from your mom.”
Sweetie Belle glared at her pegasus friend. Scootaloo’s wings, as usual, were tucked tightly to her orange body and only flapped occasionally to help push her along on the scooter she constantly road.
The flaming scooter wheel on her flank spoke about just how fast she could get the little machine to go if she wanted to.
“Why are you two in such a hurry anyway? It’s not like you have anything waiting for you at school,” Sweetie said.
“Well Applejack said I couldn’t go to the Canterlot Rodeo this year if I keep skipping school,” Applebloom said.
Scootaloo nodded. “If my grades get worse, I can’t go to see Rainbow Dash’s show next month.”
Sweetie Belle looked at her two friends in shock. “What about us skipping?”
“We just can’t do that anymore,” Applebloom said. “Besides, you can’t either. You’ve got that big test today, don’t you?”
The three of them moved out of the way and Pinkie Pie bolted down Ponyville’s main path, followed closely by a large cloud of sparrows and Spike, who was dressed like a caterpillar. Without a second glance, the three continued on.
“What kind of test is it, again?” Scootaloo asked once they had passed the outskirts of Ponyville and were in sight of the schoolhouse.
Sweetie Belle sighed. “Just some kind of stupid test for my singing to see if it’s good or not. My sister wants me to take it for some reason. And, ugh, my parents.”
“So are you going to take it?” said Applebloom, who picked again at her bow.
“I guess. I mean, it’s singing, right? That’s not so hard.”
“What song are you gonna use?”
Sweetie Belle tapped her chin. “I don’t know, I was thinking of using some new stuff instead of our, you know, kid songs. There’s this new band called Jenny Eat World—”
The school bell rang and their conversation ceased as the three former members of the Cutie Mark Crusaders bolted toward the red, clapboard building.
Several years before, the growing number of children had forced Ponyville’s citizens to add another wing onto the schoolhouse to accommodate the two age groups of the students. Mrs. Cheerilee kept to her flock in the new wing, while Twilight taught the younger fillies and colts in the old classroom.
Sweetie Belle barely made it to her hard, wooden desk at the very back of the classroom before the bell quit ringing. Even then, Mrs. Cheerilee had already started droning through another lecture, and a few of the students were taking notes.
She made a motion of taking out a pencil and piece of paper, but Sweetie was too focused on other things to actually take notes. Instead, she lifted up the lid of the desk and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper that she used one hoof to flatten out.
The scribbled writing on the document wouldn’t have been legible to the average pony, but Sweetie pored over her writing with a meticulous attention to detail.
She repeated the written words under her breath when she thought nopony could hear. “Hey, don’t write yourself off yet . . .”
“Sweetie Belle!” Mrs Cheerilee called from the front of the room.
Sweetie’s head shot up. “Hmm, wha—?”
The other kids in the room started to snicker, even, to her annoyance, Scootaloo and Applebloom, who sat closer to the front.
Mrs. Cheerilee tapped on her blackboard with a ruler. The surface was covered in a chalk drawing of the Restored Crystal Empire and surrounding territories. “Were you even paying attention?”
“Well, uh, no, not really.”
More laughs. Mrs. Cheerilee fumed and she glared at her pupils until they were quiet, then focused again on Sweetie Belle. “While I thank you for your honesty, Sweetie Belle, I am afraid that I will have to give you another detention.”
Sweetie Belle sighed as Mrs. Cheerilee went back to the lesson. Sweetie tried to pay attention, she really did, but her eyes kept drifting back to the lyrics.
All that history and math that Mrs. Cheerilee taught was boring to the point of tears, but music?
Sweetie smiled as she read over the words she had spent an hour meticulously copying beside Rarity’s record player.
Music was natural.
The bell for lunch eventually rang and all the students filed out to the field outside to eat. Sweetie Belle thought she saw Mrs. Cheerilee roll her eyes when she passed by, but she wasn’t sure.
Then again, her teacher must have figured out by now that the last student who paid her any attention was Sweetie Belle.
Outside, the sun was shining and the air warm except for the occasional cooling breeze. On the grassy field that surrounded the schoolhouse, the foals ate their lunches near the jungle gym, where they would play afterwards. Meanwhile, the older ponies sat around near a small stand of trees to eat.
Sweetie Belle found Applebloom and Scootaloo hanging out near a group of bushes farther away from the red schoolhouse and up the lane closer to Sweet Apple Acres.
Applebloom passed Sweetie Belle a fresh apple as she walked up. “Another detention?”
Sweetie shrugged. “They’re not so bad. Mrs. Sparkle usually lets me write in there, and I come up with a whole bunch of lyric ideas while I’m in there with nothing else to do.”
“Your own lyrics?” Scootaloo asked. She took a bite of bread slathered in zap-apple jam. “I thought you just copied other songs off the radio.”
“I can be original!” Sweetie Belle took a bite out of her apple. “Though it is tempting to just sing covers all the time.”
“Do you think those ponies giving the test will care?” Applebloom asked.
“We usually don’t,” a voice from behind them said.
The three teenagers whirled around to spot a semi-familiar grey mare with a purple treble clef cutie mark. Octavia.
She looked down at Sweetie Belle. “You need to come with me; it’s time you took your test.”
“But it’s still lunchtime!” Sweetie protested. “I’m not ready yet.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Sweetie Belle looked at her friends one last time, waved to them, and followed Octavia back toward the schoolhouse. Her stomach felt heavy with fear. Not just of failure . . . but of success, as well.
Scootaloo and Applebloom watched her go until their friend was inside the building. Applebloom scratched at her bow.
“Do you think she’ll do okay?”
Scootaloo laughed. “Duh, she’ll do fine. I just want to know why we always have to talk about her.”
“Maybe because you’re boring?”
“I am not!”
The two’s conversation dissolved into bickering as the rest of their classmates eating closer to the schoolhouse snickered as they overheard. All, that is, but for Diamond Tiara.
The pink earth pony stared at the door Sweetie Belle had gone through, thoroughly ignoring her lunch.
“Are you okay?” her grey friend, Silver Spoon, asked.
Diamond Tiara turned away and refocused on her previous conversation. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Mrs. Sparkle’s classroom for the fillies and colts had been converted into an impromptu judges’ stage, with a small area on the floor cleared out specifically for Sweetie Belle.
Seated rather uncomfortably at three desks near the front were the judges. Octavia sat in the middle, with Vinyl Scratch on her right and, to Sweetie Belle’s surprise, Twilight Sparkle herself sat on the left. She introduced herself as the Princesses’ representative.
Sweetie Belle walked to her designated area and looked around. They had dragged in a record player and speakers into the room, and the record Sweetie Belle had requested was already on the turntable.
“When do I start?” she asked.
Twilight smiled warmly. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Sweetie gulped and looked at the record player. The knot in her stomach had grown much larger since she got in the room.
She couldn’t do it! How could she even think that she would be able to sing in front of these ponies? Singing in front of her friends was bad enough, but this?
Sweetie backed away from the player a little. She couldn’t do it.
“Hey, what’s the hold up?” Vinyl called.
Octavia elbowed her in the ribs, then turned to Sweetie Belle. “Are you having any trouble? Do you need more time?”
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath and let it out. She wanted to leave, but when she looked at the judges’ faces, especially Mrs. Sparkle, she found herself rooted in place.
Mrs. Sparkle must have seen her looking as well, because she mouthed to her, “You can do it!”
Sweetie nodded and, with the help of her magic, lowered the player’s arm onto the record and turned it on.
As the scratching of glass on vinyl filled the speakers. Sweetie Belle repeated the lyrics in her head: Everything, everything, will be alright . . .
The music started and Sweetie Belle snapped her attention to the music. The guitar led into the song, so Sweetie paused and waited for the lead singer’s voice to come for her to start singing along.*
Hey, don’t write yourself off yet,
It’s only in your head you feel left out, or looked down on.
Just try your best, try everything you can,
And don’t worry what they tell themselves when you’re away.
The raspy, cracking voice that Sweetie Belle had presented the judges almost seemed to melt away as the Jenny Eat World song continued on.
Octavia found herself faintly surprised and looked at both Vinyl and Twilight to see if they were having the same reaction. Vinyl was blinking while Twilight, who had fought to be the representative, looked smug.
Still, Octavia noted, there was one test she’d still have to pass beyond a good singing voice. Her eyes narrowed as Sweetie moved out of the chorus and into the next verse.
Hey, you know they’re all the same,
You know you’re doing better on your own, so don’t buy in.
Live right now, yeah, just be yourself,
It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough for someone else.
Sweetie Belle was lost in the music. The same song she had played over and over in her room after a fight with her mom or another day of getting laughed at by the kids in her class.
She didn’t even have to think. Just feel: feel the music that swelled inside her until it burst out on her voice.
Unbeknownst to the teenage singer, a pink pool of magic had begun to gather around her hooves. The solid magic rippled and flowed to the music, spiking up on high notes and flattening on the low.
Vinyl nudged Octavia on the shoulder when she saw it, but Octavia had been watching the magic closely.
It was time, she decided, for the final test.
When Sweetie Belle reached the final chorus, Octavia was ready. A small, silver blade was held in her hooves as she waited for the teenager to reach her peak.
When she did, Octavia flung the blade through the air towards Sweetie.
It just takes some time,
Little girl you’re in the middle of the ride.
Everything, everything will be just fine,
Everything, everything will be al— aiiiiieee!
Sweetie Belle shrieked as the knife flew toward her. Before she could try to move out of the way, a massive shield of pink light sprang to life in front of her. The shield crashed through the floor and the record player beside her, shattering it into a hundred pieces.
The knife vibrated in place, stuck halfway into the shield. After a moment, Sweetie Belle’s breathing had calmed down a little and the shield disappeared, leaving the blade to sink into the wooden floor with a dull thunk.
Sweetie stared at the weapon, and at the ring in the floor where the shield had been. “Wh-What was that?” she asked.
Octavia stood up from her seat.
“That,” she said, “was you passing the test. You may now leave. Go home; you have been excused from your classes for the rest of the day.”
Sweetie Belle gulped and shakily nodded before backing out of the room, her eyes never leaving the knife.
Outside, she stopped short when she found Diamond Tiara outside on a bench, waiting for her. The former bully looked up at Sweetie, opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it instead.
After a moment, she stood up and walked into Mrs. Sparkle’s room.
Sweetie Belle took her time to get home. Everything else felt numb and unimportant to her anyway.
She had passed! Really, really passed!
Though, her success left her with more questions than answers. Why the knife? What was with the shield?
Sweetie paused underneath a tree and looked at her hooves. Normal . . . all normal. How had she conjured up magic powerful to stop a weapon in midair? Her own magic had never been that good . . . was it the music?
Was music powerful enough to change her magic like that?
By the time she got back to Carousel Boutique to tell her sister, she felt like she was walking in some sort of dream. She slowly edged into the kitchen to be met by a smiling Rarity and Blueblood, standing next to her.
“We heard!” Rarity said, wrapping Sweetie Belle into a hug. “Congratulations!”
Blueblood smiled and nodded. “To pass that test is quite the accomplishment for a girl your age.”
“Yeah, uh, definitely,” Sweetie said. In the back of her mind, she wondered what happened to the ponies that didn’t pass the knife test.
They gave her a few more congratulations and started to talk about going out to dinner with Sweetie and Rarity’s whole family when Blueblood and Rarity, both still facing the door, stopped.
Sweetie Belle turned around to find Octavia standing in the doorway, the wind outside lightly toying with her mane and tail.
“Congratulations, you passed,” she said.
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Yeah, we’re going to go celebrate it tonight . . .”
“Good to hear.” Octavia cleared her throat. “Don’t stay up too late, however. You need to be in front of my house tomorrow morning at eight sharp if you wish to catch the bus.”
Sweetie tilted her head. “Bus to what?”
“Your new school: The Canterlot Music Meister Academy. You start there tomorrow.”
Before Sweetie Belle could ask any more questions, Octavia spun around and departed without another word.
The trio watched her go until Rarity shut the door and tried to put on a smile. “Now, how about that party?”
The party went as well as she could expect, especially with her parents involved. The restaurant had been nice and the food delicious and hard to pronounce.
Still, when Sweetie Belle found herself in her old bed in her mother’s house, she stared up at the ceiling instead of sleeping.
Canterlot Music Meister Academy. A whole new school? How was she going to handle that? All of her friends were in Ponyville, and then to find out in one day that she’d have to give all that up at the drop of a hat was almost too much.
She rolled over in her bed and tucked the covers to her chin. The worst part was that she should have known. The pony in the tweed suit that had come to offer the ponies in her class a chance to take the test had gone on and on about “new opportunities.” Of course there weren’t new opportunities in this stupid place!
As sleep began to take her, she thought about just quitting and refusing to go. She dismissed the idea just as quickly.
She looked down at her hooves. If she didn’t go to the school, then how was she supposed to find out where that shield had come from? How could she accept a life in boring Ponyville listening to Mrs. Cheerilee now that she knew what she could do?
But . . .
From where Sweetie lay, she could see the picture that always stood on her dresser. It was the three of them on the day of the second talent show: the day they had gained their cutie marks.
Sweetie Belle sighed as she remembered the day, and pressed a hoof to the frame. “We are the Cutie Mark Crusaders, on a quest to find out who we are . . .” she sang.
Suddenly, though, a pink spark of magic lashed out and cracked the glass on the photo, right where Sweetie’s head in the picture was. The real Sweetie cried out and tried to rub at it in a vain attempt to remove the crack, but to no avail.
When that didn’t work, Sweetie settled for hugging the picture to her chest and lying back on the bed. It was going to hurt leaving her friends, but it would hurt worse if she stayed.
Besides, she was still a Crusader, wasn’t she? And until she knew just what this new magic was, she wasn’t done with her cutie mark quest. Even if her quest took her away from her friends for a little while, they would always be Crusaders.
By the time sleep took her a few minutes later, with the picture still clutched against her, she had made her decision, for better or worse.
She was going.
A light, early morning fog had settled over Ponyville. Sweetie Belle cut her way through it as she made her way across the town to Octavia’s house.
She looked down at the watch Rarity had given her: five minutes to eight. She had plenty of time. A chill wind blew across the boulevard she walked along and Sweetie pulled her dark jacket just a little tighter around herself.
Sweetie rubbed at her eyes and yawned as she followed the path she and Rarity had practiced the night before to get ready. Leave it to Octavia to live on the complete other side of the town. Worse, it wasn’t far from her mother’s house.
When she finally arrived, she found Octavia waiting for her outside the thatch and wood house, sipping at a cup of coffee. She wore a bright blue saddlebag with a black beamed note on it.
A pony with a coat the same color and identical cutie mark, who Sweetie Belle recognized as Octavia’s roommate, Vinyl Scratch, leaned against the front door, chatting idly with the grey mare. They both quieted down as Sweetie approached.
Octavia pulled out a silver pocketwatch with the symbol of a treble clef carved into the lid. She looked at it and snapped it shut.
“You’re on time,” she said.
Sweetie Belle stopped in front of her. “Did you expect me to be late?”
“Well no, not really.”
Vinyl snorted. “Liar.”
Octavia glared at her roommate, took a deep breath, and turned back to Sweetie Belle. “It’s a good thing you arrived on time, though. You’re going to have to get used to it: the bus waits for nopony.”
“Yeah, about that . . .” Sweetie Belle rubbed the back of her head. “What bus are you talking about? I’ve never even seen or heard of a bus coming through Ponyville.”
Octavia wordlessly pointed up toward the sky behind Sweetie Belle. When the teenaged singer turned, she saw a metal box framed against the morning sun rapidly descending toward her.
As it drew closer, a few features began to appear. It was a large compartment painted blue and lined with large windows on the side, about as large as a small house. The box was pulled by a small team of pegasi stallions, done up in Royal Guard regalia.
The “bus” circled Octavia’s house once before coming to a gentle landing in front of the gathered trio. A door on the side whooshed open to reveal a large compartment with a dozen rows of lumpy, leather seats and an aged driver at the helm.
“This is our ride,” Octavia said.
She moved forward to get on while Vinyl gave her a peck on the cheek and waved. “Bye, honey!” she called in a sing-song voice.
Sweetie Belle’s face flushed and she looked away. “Oh, uh, I didn’t know you two were like that,” she said softly.
Octavia glowered at Vinyl and shook her head. “We’re not. Vinyl just likes to play with that because she knows I find it annoying.”
Behind her, where Octavia couldn’t see, Vinyl mouthed silently: “It’s totally like that!”
Sweetie Belle giggled a little as she followed Octavia onto the bus while Vinyl waved them goodbye. The pegasi in the front checked around them and then took to the air, lifting the bus off behind them. Soon, they were circling Ponyville and flying off toward Canterlot, far in the distance.
Sweetie Belle took a window seat in the back, and sat heavily against it. Octavia, after a moment of hesitation, sat beside her.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Octavia said slowly. “Most new students do.”
Sweetie nodded. “Yeah, I’ve got one.”
“And what would that be?”
“Well . . . why are we alone on this bus?”
Octavia coughed. “Well, um, usually the questions are more about the school, but okay. This bus is a special one that allows me to commute to the school in a relatively short amount of time without having to live in Canterlot. Your sister, and more to the point, Prince Blueblood, were able to get you a seat on this bus.”
“So you’re important enough to have a bus like this all to yourself?” Sweetie asked.
“That’s about right, yes.”
“Wow.” Sweetie Belle looked out the window and watched fields and trees pass by beneath them. Ponies were out and about, already at their jobs, so the countryside buzzed with work.
“Do you have any other questions?” Octavia asked.
Sweetie shrugged. “I’ll find out most of the stuff about the school when I get there, won’t I?”
“Well I suppose—”
“But I do have one thing to ask: What’s with this magic and why hasn’t it happened until I started singing in front of you?”
Octavia smiled. “I was wondering when you would ask that.”
Sweetie Belle slowly nodded and looked down at her hooves. “I mean, I’ve been singing since I was a foal . . . heck, I didn’t get my cutie mark until I sang at a talent show! Nothing’s ever happened like yesterday before.”
“It’s called harmonic resonance,” Octavia said. “It’s what happens when you use the beat and harmony of music to move to the ‘beat’ of your magic. It’s what can creates shields, like you saw yesterday. If you learn to use it correctly, you can do many things with it.”
Sweetie gulped. “Well, okay . . . but why haven’t I ever seen it before?”
“Usually when a pony activates that type of magic for the first time, it’s under a combined amount of pressure, stress, and calm. It’s not easy to replicate this, but we try in our trial examinations.”
“So what was the knife for, then?”
Octavia draped one hoof over the other on her lap. “I was working on a hunch, and you proved me right. We tailor each test according to the subject, though; you don’t need to worry about me doing it to the other subjects.”
Sweetie nodded and leaned back in her seat. Her mind spun as she tried to take it all in. The test, the power, and the fact that she was on her way to a school all about that.
“So about this, uh, Canterlot Music Meister Academy,” Sweetie said. “It’ll teach me how to control that magic?”
“That’s mostly what it’s for, yes.”
Sweetie put on hoof on her flank, right over the cutie mark. “Good; I’m ready.”
A little while later, just about half past eight, the bus drew within sight of the towering ivory spires of Canterlot. The capital city of Equestria glittered in the morning sun as it woke to another day.
Banners flapped in the breeze from towers that the bus passed around, slowly circling the city toward its eventual landing area. Sweetie Belle pressed her face against the glass of the window to watch the city pass by.
Princess Celestia’s castle passed by, and the bus dove down to a platform under and a little away from the main city. Built into the rocky platform was another large building complete with the spires and gold regalia, though they looked more uniform than decorative to Sweetie Belle.
There were three main towers—the center being the largest—and they all connected to a large, squat building built out of ivory bricks. Banners hung down over it, though none that Sweetie Belle had seen before. Instead of the usual standard with the symbol of Equestria, one of the three pony races, or the princesses, these banners were all colored green and displayed a white music note on them.
“Is that it?” Sweetie Belle asked.
Octavia nodded. “Welcome to the Canterlot Music Meister Academy, Sweetie Belle. You’re one of the lucky few who will ever get to walk its halls as a student.”
“Yeah,” the teenaged singer mumbled, “lucky.”
The bus came in to a touched down gently upon a landing pad jutting out from the main building. The door whooshed open again, and Octavia led Sweetie Belle out to the plaza in front of the main building. A large section of wide stairs led up to the front doors.
“Come on, we need to get you checked in,” Octavia told the young singer.
They walked up the front steps together and through the cavernous front entrance into a more modern interior than implied by the outside. They were in a large hall that split off in three directions, all of which continued far off in the distance. Octavia took Sweetie Belle right a few steps until coming into a small office.
Octavia left Sweetie Belle in the front room with a secretary sitting in a large chair with its back turned behind a big grey desk. She nodded to whoever was in the seat, then disappeared behind an inner door. The door had the word: “Administration” stenciled on it.
The teenager sighed as she waited in an uncomfortable chair set against the opposite wall from the desk. She was consoling herself with waiting when the large leather chair turned around to reveal its occupant.
A massive and muscled minotaur sat in the seat with a phone in one hand while hefting a large dumbbell in the other. His nose ring may have been gone and the points of his horns ground down, but Sweetie Belle had no problem recognizing Iron Will.
He was heavily engaged on the conversation he was having on the phone. “Listen girl,” he said, “you need to tell him to take a hike; find somepony you really like!”
Sweetie Belle’s rubbed at her eyes to see if what she was seeing was real. “You!” she cried.
Iron Will huffed in annoyance before pressing a button on the phone and turning his attention to her. “How can Iron Will help you?” he said.
“What are you doing here?” Sweetie Belle said. “The last time anypony saw you, your stupid program made Fluttershy a jerk! My sister told me you didn’t leave until she refused your service.”
Iron Will nodded. “Yes, after the ‘incident’ in Ponyville, Iron Will was forced to give refunds for many of his programs across Equestria. After I gave them the loot, they showed me the boot! So, I ended up getting a job here. Iron Will’s assertive nature and flexible hands make him the perfect secretary!”
“Right . . .” Sweetie Belle said.
A button began flashing on the phone’s console, and Iron Will tapped it and went back to his work. “Iron Will doesn’t care about your disappointment; you need to schedule an appointment!”
The minotaur promptly went back to ignoring her, so Sweetie Belle tried to find something to occupy her boredom. There were various pictures hanging on the wall and Sweetie Belle decided to focus her attention on those.
One was of Princess Celestia, of course, while the others depicted what were labeled as “teachers”: Sapphire Shores, Octavia, and, surprisingly, Vinyl Scratch. A few more paintings were lined along the wall, but Sweetie Belle didn’t recognize any of them.
What surprised her most, however, was the picture of Princess Luna outlined in gold and hanging over the secretary’s desk. Stranger, the title etched on the frame of the painting labeled her as: “Principal.”
Just then, the inner door opened and Octavia walked out, followed by none other than Princess Luna.
The princess smiled down at Sweetie Belle. “We are delighted that you were accepted into our school,” she said.
Sweetie Belle’s voice cracked as she spoke, “Y-Yeah, I’m glad to be here too. Really glad!”
The princess and Octavia exchanged a look before Luna continued, “I can see you are surprised to see me in this position.”
“Yes, but I didn’t mean—”
“It’s alright.” Luna pointed at the portrait of Princess Celestia on the wall. “When this school was founded to pursue the use of magic in the musical nature, our sister thought that it might be best to have a head of the school who was also skilled in magic. When Twilight Sparkle turned it down, I was asked to take the position.”
Sweetie Belle thought she saw the princess flinch after the last line.
Luna indicated to her own painting. “So here we are.”
“Wow,” Sweetie Belle said.
“I think your exposition was a little lost on our newest student,” Octavia said lightly to the princess.
Luna laughed. “We apologize, Sweetie Belle, we only thought you might want to know, being the sister of the Element of Generosity. We will leave you in the capable hooves of Professor Octavia for your first day of class.”
With that, Princess Luna walked back into her office and shut the door.
Octavia looked down at Sweetie Belle. “Come on, you’re late enough as it is.”
They pushed back out into the hall and started walking farther right. The hall itself had plain white walls arching up to form a seamless ceiling while sitting on top of glossy-black tiles below. The only thing to really look at were the wooden doors placed every ten feet.
As they walked, Octavia reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a sheet of paper. She gave it to Sweetie Belle.
“That’s your class schedule,” Octavia said. “You would do well to memorize it.”
Sweetie Belle looked at the class list. There were two columns marked “Day 1” and “Day 2” and each had four classes under it. Of the eight, four were the normal kind: Math, Literature, Science, and Equestrian History. The others, however . . .
“Some of these classes have funny names,” Sweetie Belle said.
“Oh, they do?” Octavia said in a clipped tone.
“Yeah, there’s Vocal Harmonics, Rhythm Studies, Musical Theory, and Magical Rhythm and Harmony.”
Octavia nodded. “Those are your classes specific to the CMMA. You have one as your first class and one as your last, right after lunch. They factor equally with the more normal classes as far as grades go, but you may find them much more useful overall.”
She stopped in front of a plain wooden door only distinguished from the many other plain wooden doors with a brass set of numbers that read: “23”. Sweetie Belle could hear the dull roar of more teenagers coming from the other side.
“This is my classroom,” Octavia said. “If memory serves, you have my class, well, right now.”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Yeah.”
“Then let’s go in, shall we?”
Octavia pushed open the door and strode into her crowded classroom at a steady, measured pace with her head held high. Sweetie Belle, meanwhile, slunk in behind her and did her best not to be noticed.
The room itself was a fairly normal lecture hall, with rows of desks on platforms above each other. Each platform steadily sloped further down until it met the floor of the classroom, which had a wide plaza-like area in front of the modest teacher’s desk and blackboard.
“Class,” Octavia began as she walked down to the front of the classroom, “I apologize for my own tardiness. I was getting our new student, Sweetie Belle, acquainted to the school.”
Octavia smiled to herself. “Be sure to give her a warm welcome.”
Every teenaged pony in the room turned in their seats to stare at Sweetie Belle until she backed away from the door and put herself into a seat near the very back of the classroom.
The stares continued until the lecture began, and then the class seemed to lose interest in her. This was fine until Sweetie Belle turned in her chair to find exactly who she had chosen to sit next to.
Diamond Tiara stared at Sweetie Belle wordlessly as the two sized each other up.
“You!” Sweetie Belle said at last.
Diamond Tiara recovered from her initial shock to glare at the newcomer. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I thought they only let good musicians into this school?”
“Since when are you into music?” Sweetie Belle said.
“Since my father thought I needed to a better place to focus my talents,” the pink filly answered. “The audition couldn’t have been easier.”
“So you saw the shield?”
Octavia smacked a conveniently placed ruler on her teacher’s desk to get the two teenagers’ attention.
“Girls!” she called. “I know it’s the first day for both of you, so I’ll be lenient this time, but further disruption or ignoring of the class will send you to the Principal’s office!”
Both Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara quickly quieted down and turned their attentions to the lesson Octavia had started to teach. Or at least, that’s what they looked like they were doing.
Diamond Tiara set about doodling in a fancy pink notebook she’d bought the previous day while Sweetie Belle planted her forehead firmly into the desk in front of her.
Octavia droned on about the physical meaning of sound: wavelengths, vibration, pitch, and all that. Sweetie Belle tried to catch some of it, but gave up after a while.
She grumbled a little under her breath about arriving in the middle of a lesson, but stopped caring before long and set about tapping her hoof to a wordless beat on her desk.
“Would you stop that?” Diamond Tiara hissed.
“What was that?” Sweetie Belle said. “I couldn’t hear you.”
“Just stop it,” Diamond Tiara whispered, “I don’t want to get us in trouble.”
Sweetie Belle grinned. “You know, I’m pretty sure I could take a lot more trouble than you. Here, you’re all alone, but Octavia’s friends with my sister, who’s both the Element of Generosity and dating Prince Blueblood.”
Diamond Tiara, outclassed for the first time in her life, bowed her head and went back to her notepad. Her cheeks flushed a little, but she didn’t try to respond to Sweetie Belle’s challenge.
Sweetie herself just smirked. At least one thing was better about her new school.
Octavia’s class eventually ended and Sweetie Belle had to endure two hours of even more boring “normal” classes—Math and Literature—before she was freed for a half-hour lunch period.
The cafeteria was further into the depths of the school and Sweetie Belle got lost on her way there. When she eventually did find the cavernous room filled with the cacophony of dozens of hyperactive teenagers talking to each other, she was by far the last to lunch.
The line to get food wasn’t long, at least, but when Sweetie Belle started looking for a table, her tray held next to her in a field of magic, she only found one empty one.
Or, well, mostly empty.
Sweetie plopped her tray down on the table, and quickly planted herself in the seat farthest from the opposite end of the table.
Sitting there sipping on a juice box was Diamond Tiara. The other Ponyville-ite stared daggers at Sweetie Belle.
“So you mouth off to me in class, but decide to sit next to me at lunch,” Diamond Tiara sneered. “Is this some kind of game you’re trying to play?”
“Hey, lay off,” Sweetie Belle said. “We’re both new here, so you’re the only one I know and the pony with an empty table. Or did you forget?”
Diamond Tiara sighed. “Look, are you just going to spend our time here trying to pay me back for everything I did to you in Ponyville?” She looked away. “If so, just go . . . I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.”
Sweetie Belle didn’t respond, but didn’t move away from the table. Instead, she picked at her food and grumbled to herself.
So now that I show her up, she’s going to act all wounded? Yeah, right.
Sweetie Belle caught a few glances around the room. It wasn’t like there were a lot of openings for a new pony to the school. It was far enough into the year that all the cliques were established and sitting at their respective tables.
With a small sigh, Sweetie Belle kept her head down and choked down the school’s cheap lunch until the period was over.
After lunch, the two begrudgingly walked deeper into the school together, when they found out that they shared the next class. In fact, much to each other’s chagrin, their schedules appeared to be exactly the same.
Sweetie Belle did her best to focus on the tiles ahead of her as she walked and nothing else. Had she looked up, she would have seen Diamond Tiara do the same.
The one thing each had underestimated, however, was how incredibly long the journey to the new professor’s classroom would be. It must have been a full ten minutes until both of them arrived at a wooden door with “223B” etched on it.
They both hesitated, but it was Diamond Tiara who pushed it open first, and they both went inside. The classroom was identical to Octavia’s, albeit with a bit more decoration. The lights seemed darker and more posters hung on the walls depicting bands, songs, and what looked like battles.
The students, of course, all turned to look at the newcomers. However, once they saw that the two were the two new students, they scooted in their desks away from the middle of the room.
Sweetie Belle scratched her head as she watched. Surely they couldn’t all hate newcomers that much?
The professor down near the blackboard turned around slowly. He wore a white frock, which contained a pale blue coat. His jet black mane spilled down to his shoulders, though it rose high on his forehead.
He grinned when he saw Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara.
“New students?” he said. “You two must be . . . Diamond Tiara and Sweetie Belle, yes?”
The two teenagers nodded. Sweetie Belle’s hair bobbed as she did so, threatening to fall over her eyes.
“My name is Naught Note; Professor Note to the two of you,” he called up to them. “Welcome to Magical Rhythm and Harmony.”
With that, he leapt from the bottom floor up to them with a bright flash of light blue magic. Professor Note landed softly just in front of the two new students, with not a single hair or step out of place. He grinned at the two of them.
“This is normally treated as an advanced class, so things work a bit different on the first day,” he informed them.
Naught Note didn’t respond right away. Instead, as if it came from nowhere, the first notes of a song started up. Tendrils of magic snaked out from beneath the professor’s hooves and he nodded sagely to the two girls.
“Every student who is enrolled in my class is required to fight me upon their arrival to the class. You may surrender at any time; most do within twenty seconds. Will you last longer?”
He didn’t give the pair a chance to respond. The tendrils of magic coalesced into three razor-sharp spines. The spines ripped through the air toward Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara.
The attack wasn’t focused, so the two were able to leap out of the way before the spines crashed into the door, making three more marks on the already-battered wood.
“I don’t even have an instrument!” Diamond Tiara cried.
“Then give up,” Professor Note responded. “You don’t have to keep going after the initial attack.”
Diamond Tiara looked at Sweetie Belle briefly, then shook her head.
Professor Note grinned. “Oh, you two have backbone! That’s going to give you a few marks in the gradebook!”
The spines sliced horizontally across the air, one aimed at each of the teenagers. They moved in perfect harmony as they whipped out from the professor. Sweetie Belle dove beneath a desk to avoid the attack while Diamond Tiara simply threw herself on the ground.
Professor Note’s song started up in earnest, as the music pulsed out from his magical spines.*
The professor even started to sing along with it, and the size of the spines tripled. Each was now as wide as a pony, though still wicked sharp.
God money, I’ll do anything for you,
God money, just tell me what you want me to do.
God money, nail me up against the wall,
God money don’t want everything; he wants it all!
Sweetie Belle ran out from beneath the desk just as one of the spines lodged in it. Her heart beat fast and sweat started to pour down her brow. She could just give up now, the professor had said. So why didn’t she want to?
Out of the corner of her eyes, Diamond Tiara deftly rolled away from a spine that smashed on the floor beside her.
Something sparkled in Professor Note’s eye. He grinned and leapt into the air again, using the third spine to support him as he flailed at the girls with the other two.
Head like a hole!
Black as your soul!
I’d rather die, than give you control!
Head like a hole!
Black as your soul!
I’d rather die, than give you control!
The singing had the added effect of turning the pale blue spines into midnight blue javelins of magic that resonated music. Of course, the creepy factor of their professor singing those lyrics was enough to offset both of the teenagers.
Sweetie Belle growled under her breath. In the chaos of the fight, she was having a problem recalling anything to sing.
It didn’t help that the professor’s attacks continued to press them away from the gathered students watching the fight and toward a single corner of the room.
One of the spines slashed at Sweetie Belle’s front hooves, and she had to jump back to dodge it. However, this had the effect of pressing her back to the wall. There was nowhere else to go.
In front of her, Diamond Tiara let out a cry as she tripped while dodging another attack that smashed into the ground beside her. In her fright, the filly found her legs unable to let her up.
The two were trapped in the corner, unable to move away or dodge another attack.
Another tendril of magic raised itself above the frightened Diamond Tiara. The professor made no move to stop himself. Instead, he moved on to the next chorus, which gave Sweetie Belle an idea.
If she couldn’t think up lyrics, why not just use his?
As the javelin-like tendril lashed out, Professor Note sang:
Bow down before the one you serve,
You’re going to get what you deserve.
Bow down before the one you serve,
You’re going to get what you deserve!
Sweetie Belle took her chance and jumped in front of Diamond Tiara and did her best, if squeaky, impression of the professor’s voice.
Head like a hole!
Black as your soul!
I’d rather die, than give you control!
Head like a hole!
Black as your soul!
I’d rather die, than give you control!
Pink magic swirled around the young unicorn as the lancing tendril shot through the air toward the two students.
Just before it could hit, the pink shield returned, blazing to life in front of them. The tendrils sunk into the shield and slowed in their advance. However, they did not stop.
With a mighty burst of magic, the shield popped and the tendrils continued forward.
Sweetie Belle crossed her hooves in front of her face and cried out. However, the expected attack never came.
When she peeked between her hooves, she saw the tendrils had been replaced by Professor Note, standing in front of her.
His smile softened. “Very good.”
The music stopped and the professor’s magic dissipated into thin air.
The professor walked closer to the two teenagers and patted Sweetie Belle on the head. She cringed a little.
“You passed,” he said. “With flying colors, I might add. The two of you lasted far longer than any of this year’s students.”
He abruptly turned around and began walking back toward his desk. “Welcome to my class. Find a seat and take out something to take notes on; we’re about to begin today’s lesson.”
Diamond Tiara and Sweetie Belle exchanged a brief look of bewilderment before finding seats near the back of the room.
When they had sat down and the professor started to drone on in a surprisingly calm voice, Diamond Tiara slowly looked up at Sweetie Belle.
“Uh, thanks,” she said.
“Don’t mention it,” Sweetie Belle said. “If the ponies here are going to be crazy, we have to help each other, right?”
Diamond Tiara paused. “Right.”
The lecture on the combination of musical and lyrical harmony continued unabated, even as the two newcomers from Ponyville stopped listening.
Sweetie Belle found herself looking at the desk and floor with the marks of fights covering them. The professor must have fought dozens of students right on spots like these, but everypony treated that as normal.
Did she really want to be a part of a school like that? Just what kind of place was the CMMA?
Although . . .
She stared down at her hooves. He had popped her shield like it was made of paper. Like it hadn’t even been there.
Somehow that was far worse than her stopping him. Now, he had not only proved that she was weaker than she thought she was, but that she could improve to a much higher point.
Sweetie Belle clenched her hooves together. She would reach that higher point, and her new school was going to be just the place to do that.
Vinyl Scratch wasn’t out front of Octavia’s house the following morning. Sweetie Belle arrived to find Octavia leaning against the side of her house by herself, sipping coffee out of a disposable cup.
“Hey, what happened to Miss Vinyl?” Sweetie Belle asked as she approached.
Her new, pink school bag bounced against her flank as she walked. A gift from her sister to congratulate her on her new school, the bejeweled bag weighed heavily on its strap from the extra school supplies and books Twilight had brought over.
Octavia took another sip. “She decided to go into work today, so she took the transporter circle to the school. She should be there by now.”
Sweetie Belle tilted her head. “If she has an instant way to get to Canterlot, why do you take the bus?”
“It has to be activated by unicorn magic.”
“But I’m a unicorn!”
Octavia smirked. “Teaching staff only.”
The bus came again and landed in front of the pair, just as it had the day before. Octavia crumpled up her cup and threw it on the ground before climbing on, followed closely by Sweetie Belle.
Sweetie Belle felt the metal bus rise under her hooves as she walked, shakily, to the back where Octavia sat.
The grey mare leaned against her seat’s window, looking outside with one hoof on her chin. Her teacher’s bag filled up the rest of the space on the bus bench.
Octavia looked up to see Sweetie Belle standing in the aisle, a look of confusion on her face. The teacher raised an eyebrow. “You’re wanting to sit next to me? I thought you were a teenager.”
“Are you calling me a filly?” Sweetie Belle interjected. “I just wanted to sit in the back seat because it’s, uh, cool.”
“There is literally another back seat right behind you.” Octavia pointed across the aisle.
Sweetie Belle let the bag slide off her sore shoulder and land heavily on the seat. She cautiously lowered herself to the brown leather soon after, though she continued to face the aisle and, of course, Octavia.
The teacher, her job being what it was, was well aware of the young student who kept looking at her. Her plans to enjoy a quiet and peaceful ride like she was used to were ruined, so she sighed and relented, “Is something wrong, Sweetie Belle?”
She coughed. “What? Oh, no, of course not.”
“Then is there a different reason you keep staring at me?”
“Well . . .” Sweetie Belle rubbed the back of her head. “It’s just that, this school isn’t anything like I thought it would be.”
Octavia nodded. “Bad first day?”
“A professor tried to fight me and Diamond Tiara!” Sweetie Belle said.
“Ah, yes, Naught Note,” Octavia said. She smirked. “He spoke pretty well of you and your little shield trick.”
Sweetie Belle smiled. “So does that mean I’m already ahead of the other students?”
Octavia stifled a laugh. “Hardly. Being able to manifest your magic with music is one thing, but effectively controlling it and knowing how it works is something else entirely. You impressed your professor, but you’ve still got a long way to go.”
“Oh.” Sweetie Belle looked down at her hooves.
“Hey,” Octavia said, tapping Sweetie Belle carefully on the shoulder, “just because you’re not the best now doesn’t mean you never will be. That’s what the CMMA is all about.”
“I guess you’re right,” the teenager said, laying back further in her seat and crossing her front hooves over her chest.
Octavia smiled to herself and enjoyed the rest of the ride in peace, watching the fields between Ponyville and Canterlot drop away as the bus rose into the sky.
The bus landed, like before, at the front steps of the school. Octavia and Sweetie Belle walked up the front steps together, but when they came to the split in hallways, they had to go their separate ways.
“I have Miss Vinyl’s class next,” Sweetie said uncertainly to Octavia when they stopped at the hallway crossing.
“Oh, you’ll enjoy her class,” Octavia said, “so long as she stays awake. Trust me; I should know.”
The grey cellist left Sweetie Belle there, who watched the mare go until she was out of sight. Sweetie took a deep breath and continued on to the last hallway that she hadn’t explored.
In most parts, it was exactly like the others, though the lack of it curving around the edge of the school was a little unsettling. It just stretched on and on until it ended in a red door that was barely visible from so far away.
Sweetie Belle found Vinyl Scratch’s room, “42”, but when she pushed the handle to open the door, precisely nothing happened.
Locked? Sweetie started to shake her head. How could it be locked? Miss Octavia had said Miss Vinyl was here today!
When she tried the door handle again, a voice came from behind her, “That’s not gonna work, kid.”
The teenage student turned around to find Vinyl Scratch leaning against a door across the hall from her, playing with her electric blue mane. She had a wide smirk planted on her face, below eyes that Sweetie couldn’t tell if they were red or purple. Maybe something inbetween.
“Miss Vinyl!” Sweetie Belle said. “Why is your door locked?”
Vinyl walked across the hall to her. “Class is cancelled for today for the rest of the students. You, however, get a little extra lesson.”
“Extra lesson?” Sweetie asked, her voice rising to a noticeably higher pitch.
“Yeah, just something that every student goes through their first time here.” Vinyl sighed and looked at a clock that hung in the hall. “We’d get started already if that other newbie from Ponyville would show up already.”
“Her name’s Diamond Tiara, you know.”
Vinyl’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, of course I knew that.” She turned and yelled down the hall, “If Diamond Tiara doesn’t show up in the next twenty seconds, she’s expelled from the school!”
Sure enough, before the echo could even fade, the pink filly with the tiara placed high on her head came running up to Vinyl and Sweetie Belle, panting and out of breath.
“I-I’m sorry, I was late,” Diamond Tiara panted. “Please don’t expel me!”
Vinyl Scratch laughed. “It’s not like an ordinary teacher could expel a student. Celestia knows I’ve tried . . .”
She started walking down the hall toward the red door it ended at. “Come on, we need to get you two properly initiated into this school.”
Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara looked at each other before shaking their heads and following after the music teacher.
The three all came to a stop at the red door at the end of the hall. Unlike all the other very plain and wooden doors, this one was made of metal and securely held shut by a large lock.
Vinyl’s horn glowed and the lock clicked open. With a push of her hoof, the door swung inward to reveal a large, plain concrete room.
It was dark when the students followed their teacher inside, though Vinyl illuminated the room a moment later with the flick of a switch.
The room was bare save for dust and, oddly, a concert speaker in the middle of the room. Other than that, the only interesting feature was a large spiral staircase at the rear of the room that led far down into the darkness.
“Just why exactly did we come here?” Diamond Tiara said. “And what’s with the speaker?”
Vinyl walked over to the amplifier and hefted it onto one shoulder, though it required her to stand on two legs as she did so. Somehow, she kept herself from falling over.
“Well, we came to this room specifically to get my amp, here,” the teacher said. “For the rest, we’ve got to head down to the basement.”
Sweetie Belle looked over the edge at the massive number of stairs and the perceived hour or so of walking just to get down all of them.
“Um, is there another way to get down there?” she asked.
Vinyl smiled a toothy grin. “I was hoping you would say that.”
She smacked the side of the amp and a small compartment on it flipped open. A pair of dj’s shades fell out and landed perfectly over her eyes.
“Okay, stand back,” she said.
At first, there was nothing. Vinyl’s horn glowed faintly and her head bobbed, but nothing accompanied it.
Then, a beat at the edge of hearing started to pick up. It grew louder and louder as bright blue magic pooled itself at Vinyl’s feet. The music settled into a steady tone and the pool began to slide its way across the floor.*
The magic washed over Sweetie Belle like a wave that made her body tingle and warm a little. Then, the wave continued on until it was over the edge of the chasm, in the empty middle of the spiral staircase.
Instead of falling, however, a bright blue disc of solid magic formed. A platform that stood effortlessly in the air.
Diamond Tiara and Sweetie Belle were hesitant to climb on, though Vinyl jumped onto the platform without visible worry, instead choosing to continuously bob her head to the beat.
“You two coming or what?” she yelled over the music pouring from the speaker.
The students reluctantly climbed on and the platform descended into the darkness.
The music boomed and echoed down the hollow chamber as the magical platform fell. The platform itself even moved and thumped to the beat, prompting Sweetie Belle to move closer to the center just so she wouldn’t fall off.
Vinyl’s expression behind her dj glasses was unreadable, and she didn’t offer any explanation as to where they were going.
Sharp blue magic lit the area around the platform, but Sweetie Belle still couldn’t see the bottom of the chamber for several minutes. When she finally did, it rose up to greet them until they landed firmly on the ground.
The music stopped and the magic faded away to nothing. Vinyl threw her glasses back into their compartment and walked calmly into the cavernous room they had arrived at.
Fluorescent lights on the ceiling turned on with the flick of a switch to reveal a sweeping, concrete room filled almost entirely with . . . boxes. Lots and lots of boxes.
Sweetie Belle looked around. The wooden boxes didn’t have any tops, and on closer inspection they were all filled with instruments. The room must have had tons of them!
“So what exactly are we doing down here?” Diamond Tiara asked.
Vinyl smiled. “It’s time you two got assigned your instruments!”
Sweetie Belle looked a shiny, red guitar that had caught her eye. “Wait,” she said, “aren’t we going to have something where we pick whatever instrument, like, calls to us?”
“Nope.” Vinyl laughed. “If we did that, every pony would be going for the awesome guitars, even if they’re no good at them. When you’re evaluated before you come to the school, we select what instrument you would wield best.”
“But what does it matter?” Sweetie Belle said. “It’s just an instrument.”
Vinyl’s eyes lit up. “That’s just what I hoped you would say.”
Her horn glowed and an acoustic guitar rose from a nearby box, flying over the heads of the two students until it rested in the air next to Vinyl. With another touch of magic, some of the strings began to be plucked and move on their own.
A quick and clean song started up and magic again pooled at Vinyl’s hooves. The only difference, however, was that the magic appeared sickly and grey, and the pool didn’t move, but more . . . pooled.
The guitar was put back in its place and Vinyl hefted her amp onto her shoulder again.
“Now, see what you can really do when you use your true instrument,” she said.
Another techno song began to blare out, though no magic was visible everywhere around Vinyl.*
Instead, the music teacher tossed the amp in the air, which began to glow blue from the magic. Out of the bottom of the black amplifier grew a long, black staff. Two large, blue blades grew slid out of each side of the amp, sharpening to a deadly point.
By the time Vinyl caught her amp by the staff, it had been transformed to a giant, music-playing, battle axe. The musician’s hooves glowed with magic as she held her axe and struck a battle pose, complete with the cocky grin.
Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara watched the whole thing wordlessly, their eyes growing wider by the second.
Sweetie Belle gulped. “Woah.”
“Cool, huh?” Vinyl said. She twirled it in the air as she hopped around on her two hind legs.
She used her magic to levitate an empty wooden box in the air and cut it in half with the axe. The blades sliced through the box like it was thin air, and the two pieces fell to the ground in perfect symmetry.
“See, that is what you can do with the right type of instrument.”
The music stopped and the amp returned to its normal form. Vinyl placed it on the ground. “Okay, who wants their instrument first?”
Diamond Tiara immediately stepped forward with a smile on her face. “I’m just sure I’ll get something that fits me,” she said in a haughty tone, placing a hoof on her tiara.
Vinyl rolled her eyes and led the filly to a large box in the middle of the room. The teacher fished around in the container until she produced a new music instrument that made Diamond Tiara’s eyes grow as large as saucers.
In a field of Vinyl’s magic was a violin made of elegant, smooth wood cut in beautiful lines that showed off the instrument’s wonderful curves. The strings were tuned to perfection and the bow in the same quality as the main instrument.
Diamond Tiara took the instrument in her hooves with a mark of reverence and looked down at it.
“Is it really mine?” she whispered.
Vinyl nodded. “As long as you’re enrolled in this school, it’s all yours, kid. Go nuts . . . but if you break it, then only Celestia can help you.”
Diamond Tiara suddenly cradled the violin much more carefully in her hooves.
Vinyl walked up to Sweetie Belle, who was still near the entrance of the room, staring at the ground. She kicked at a stray pebble and sent it bouncing away in the cavernous room.
“You ready?” Vinyl asked.
Sweetie slowly nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”
The box Vinyl led her to was placed near the far wall of the chamber. The little wooden crate was sitting all by itself and, unlike the others, had a lid on it.
Vinyl’s magic popped it open and reached inside, only to produce an instrument that Sweetie Belle had not been expecting in the least.
It was, at its core, a piano. A keyboard, really. However, it was much thinner than a keyboard and smaller; at the end of the keyboard was a small protrusion, almost like a handle. It was also colored a very brilliant pink.
“It’s, uh . . .” Sweetie Belle began. “What exactly is it?”
“It’s called a ‘keytar,’” Vinyl explained. “It’s the instrument that the staff agreed would fit you and your, uh, abilities best.”
The blue magic surrounding the keytar turned to pink as Sweetie Belle accepted the instrument from her teacher. She looked carefully at the keys, and gave them a few hopeful presses, producing an off-balance chord.
“I don’t even know how to play keyboard very well,” she said. “My instrument is my voice.”
“Learn to make do.” Vinyl laughed. “Be glad you’re not one of the Neighponese exchange students. The teachers gave him a block of metal to use.”
“What happened to him?”
“He dealt with it and is back home right now as an exchange program; they call him Hagane over there.”
Sweetie Belle took another look at the keytar, and then carefully slung it over her back via an included strap. It hung across her flank opposite her schoolbag.
She continued to look down at the ground and bite her lip.
Vinyl put a hoof on her shoulder. “Are you alright?” she said. “I know a lot of this can be overwhelming at first.”
“It’s not that, it’s more . . . is my voice not good enough?” Sweetie said. “Why do I need an instrument if I can already do that shield thing with my voice? Am I not good enough?”
Vinyl laughed. “Well of course you’re good enough! You see, with an instrument, you can amplify that further, like—”
Suddenly, a scroll popped into being with a flash of magic right in front, and landed at her hooves. The unicorn picked it up and scanned the parchment, her eyes darting rapidly back and forth. Finally, she tossed it away once she had finished.
“Look, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to go,” she said, “there’s a big problem upstairs, and, well . . .”
She backed away toward the entrance to the chamber, snatching up her amp as she did so. The previous song blared up again, and the platform reappeared.
“You two stay down here!” she called. “We’ve still got more to go over!”
The platform ascended up into the darkness and out of sight, with only the lingering beat of the music to mark that it was there.
Diamond Tiara marched over to Sweetie Belle, still clutching tightly to her fancy new instrument. She wore a smirk on her face under the confirmation that, again, she had something as valuable as she felt herself to be.
Sweetie Belle watched as her fellow classmate approached. “Nice violin you’ve got there,” she said.
Diamond Tiara nodded. “Yes, it’s very nice, of course. It’s only natural I would get something like it.” She looked at Sweetie’s keytar. “And what exactly is that?”
“This?” Sweetie Belle said, looking between the filly’s fancy violin and her own pink abomination. “This is, uh, well . . . only the coolest instrument ever! It’s called the keytar; it’s like a portable piano!”
She gave Diamond Tiara her most convincing smile.
“Right.” Diamond Tiara rolled her eyes.
“Here, I’ll show you,” Sweetie Belle said. She rose up on her two hind legs and held the keytar with her front hooves.
However, the inexperienced filly wobbled and tried to steady herself by pressing her back against the wall behind her. Instead of feeling solid concrete on her back, however, the startled teenager fell right through the wall and landed on a rough stone passageway.
“Ow,” she moaned.
Sweetie Belle looked up to see the wall right where it should have been . . . but she was on the other side of it! She got up and pressed it with her hoof, only for it to go right through again.
“S-Sweetie Belle?” Diamond Tiara called. “What happened?”
“It’s a magic illusion,” Sweetie Belle said, poking her head through, much to Diamond Tiara’s fright. “There is no wall here.”
She turned around and looked down the new hallway. “The question is, what did they want to hide?”
Diamond Tiara’s voice came from the other side, “Do you really need to answer that question?”
“Oh c’mon, where’s your sense of adventure?” Sweetie Belle said.
“At home, safe.”
Sweetie Belle huffed. “Fine, be that way, but that’s not going to stop me.”
She turned around and walked down into the new tunnel, which was, strangely, lit by some sort of glowing substance that covered the walls. Sweetie Belle wrinkled her nose at it, but was thankful for the light.
Her trek wasn’t long, as the tunnel quickly met a right turn and ended in a short chamber carved out of Canterlot Mountain stone. The chiseled rock reached up to form a domed ceiling, under which was a single pedestal up a short flight of stairs.
What really surprised Sweetie Belle, however, was what occupied the pedestal. A single black crystal that seemed to almost float in the air above its perch. Though it gave off no visible signs of activity, the teenage filly could almost feel . . . something emanate from it.
That feeling almost seemed to pull Sweetie Belle closer as her eyes locked on it and she looked at it hungrily. It was so pretty . . . a very precious thing.
She quickly hopped up the steps toward it and reached out to grab it from the pedestal and take it for herself. The only thing that stopped her was a noise so annoying that it broke her concentration on the crystal.
“Sweetie Belle!” Diamond Tiara called. “I-I think Miss Scratch is coming back! You should probably, like, get out of there before you get us both in trouble!”
Sweetie Belle shook her head and blinked a few times. What had just happened?
Without a second thought, she pulled her hoof back away from the crystal, though the crystal wasn’t quite ready to give up so easily.
A tiny spark burst through the gap between the filly’s hoof and the black crystal, and shocked its way into Sweetie Belle.
She let out a shriek and fell down the stairs, clutching her injured hoof. When she looked at it, however, all she could see was the same white coat as ever.
“I’m coming, geez!” she yelled back.
With one last look at the crystal, Sweetie Belle trotted out of the odd chamber, favoring her uninjured hooves over the burnt one.
She appeared on the other side of the illusionary wall just as Vinyl arrived on her platform, music booming from the amp.
“Sorry about that, kids,” she said as she got off. “Had to help Octy will something upstairs. Hope you two didn’t break anything.”
“Of course not!” the two teenagers said in unison.
Vinyl raised an eyebrow. “Okay . . . well, come on, we’re gonna head upstairs and get you two back to class. You won’t want to miss your class with Miss Sapphire Shores on Vocal Harmonics, do you?”
“I thought you said you had more to show us,” Sweetie Belle said.
“It’s called keeping the two of you preoccupied while I’m gone,” Vinyl said. “Now jump on or I’ll leave the two of you down here for the rest of the day.”
The two fillies hopped onto the platform once more with Vinyl Scratch and it rose back up toward the school proper.
Still, as it fell away, Sweetie Belle couldn’t keep her eyes off the wall that wasn’t, and the knowledge of what lay within.
Her hoof tingled.
Naught Note snapped his ruler against his desk. The gathered students in the room immediately stopped talking and turned their attentions toward him. It was late in class on Friday. Everypony was ready to leave, but seemed to know better than to push the issue with their eccentric teacher.
Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara followed suit. They gave each other a weary look, but said nothing. For three days, they had found themselves sitting together in every music class and lunch. Neither was willing to point it out, however, or stop doing so.
The two fidgeted in their seats as Naught Note turned to his blackboard and turned it over. On the other side was . . . nothing. The professor tilted his head, then smacked himself on the forehead and laughed.
“Oh, that’s right, I was supposed to write your weekend assignment on the blackboard, but spent my lunch getting blaz . . . -ing hot coffee from in the city,” he said.
He coughed. “Anyway, today I will be giving out your first major assignment in the field of Magical Rhythm and Harmony. You will have all weekend to complete it, and will present on Monday.”
A few groans rose through the classroom, but one raised hoof from the black-maned professor silenced them. “Now,” he said, “this assignment will focus on the primary tenet of the connection between magic and music. Can anypony tell me what that would be?”
Naught Note chuckled at the sudden flurry of eager hooves swinging in the air among the front row. “I should remind you all that we have not actually learned that tenet yet.”
Hooves lowered as the unicorn turned and began writing on the blackboard with a stray piece of chalk. He wrote one word in large, bold letters and underlined it. “Harmony,” he said, pointing to it. “Harmony is the primary connection between magic and music. In order to sync the rhythms of the two, you must create harmony between the music that flows outward and the magic that flows inward.”
Students began scribbling notes as their teacher began writing, in smaller letters, their assignment on the board. He made sure to keep himself in front of his writing until he was finished. When he was, he stepped out of the way to let them see.
“Your assignment over this weekend is simple,” he told them. “You will be split into pairs that I assign and given one objective: rehearse a song together and perform it on Monday. Your musical presentation should exemplify harmony between not only you and your partner, but between music and magic itself.” He looked at them and smirked a little. “If all of you have been paying attention this semester, this should come as an easy grade. For the rest of you . . . well, A Cup of Joe’s coffee house takes on part-time dropouts starting at sixteen.”
Excited chattering sprang up in the room as Professor Note began to call out pairs of names, starting on the bottom row. Far at the top of the classroom, Diamond Tiara and Sweetie Belle looked at each other in panic.
Both of them at nearly the same time realized that they were, in fact, the last pair of students in the classes. They briefly tried to scoot away from each other, but were quickly stopped by the rising voice of their teacher.
“Miss Diamond Tiara and Miss Sweetie Belle will be our final pair,” Naught Note called. He nodded to his students. “Now that you’re in your pairs, I can better introduce you to the assignment.”
He beckoned up toward the top row. “Sweetie Belle, Diamond Tiara, would you kindly fetch the student who should be standing in the hallway?”
With a wary look to each other, the two teenagers rose from their seats and walked outside, shutting the door behind them. The hall was mostly empty, save for a single pony leaning against the far wall.
He was bound in a dark jacket with bright green buttons and the collars flipped up. A small crest—the same green standard and white musical note—was all that decorated the coat. The pony himself wore a red bandana, tied tightly around his head.
Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened. “Pipsqueak?” she cried.
“Sweetie Belle!” the brown and white colt cried as they ran over to each other.
They skidded to a stop just short of hugging each other, however, and instead settled for an awkward wave after a second of pause. Diamond Tiara shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Hi, Pip,” she muttered.
“Diamond Tiara?” he asked. “You go here too?”
“We both do,” Sweetie Belle said. “Though . . . I guess this is where you went after you left Ponyville?”
Pipsqueak shook his head. “I went back home to Trottingham first,” he said, “but I took their little test and ended up here. That was a year ago; I’m on my second now.”
“So what are you doing for Professor Note?”
“Well, right now I’m—”
A voice came from behind the doors, “Any day now would be lovely, Misses Tiara and Belle!”
Pipsqueak nodded. “Just wait, and you’ll see.”
The three of them walked back into the classroom. While the two fillies took their seats, Pipsqueak continued walking down the row and ended up next to Naught Note, who gleefully and quickly introduced him to the rest of the class.
He cleared his throat. “Mr. Pip here will help me perform a demonstration for the rest of you students. Make sure to pay close attention; we shall only be doing this once.”
Pipsqueak produced an electric-blue guitar and amplifier from behind Naught Note’s chalkboard and hooked them up. The professor himself moved his desk away with a flick of his horn and stood in the empty spot.
“Professor?” Pipsqueak asked, strumming one hoof lightly over the strings.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
The colt began to pluck at a few strings to warm up. Professor Note, meanwhile, caught the attention of his students. “Make sure you pay extra attention to the magic!” he called.
Suddenly, Pipsqueak rammed into the guitar and the song began. It wasn’t like any most of them had heard, and draws began to drop one by one.
The way the chords carried over into the next as Pipsqueak’s hooves slid across the neck of the guitar with practiced grace held the audience in raptured silence. All except one, however. Sweetie Belle, watching closely, grinned to herself.
Smooth Groove & His Del-Tunes’ principle hit came hard and fast through the amplifier. As Sweetie Belle watched, the magic that swirled to life around Pipsqueak wasn’t much different. It was brown, for one, sharp, and blocky. The magic sprang up in pillars around him that pulsed and spiked in time to the music. The pillars spun, and the music grew louder.
Naught Note, meanwhile, brought his spiked tendrils back to life, and rang out the sounds of trumpets and quick piano playing to join in chorus to the guitar.
As the class watched closely, there was a brief flash as the two pools of magic drew closer together. Near the center of the stage, the swirling pillars were tied together by tendrils. One bright flash of light, and the music was pouring out of the combination so hard it shoved the ponies in the front row into the back of their seats.
The song ended in a flourish of guitar and magic that flashed across the stage, then dissipated into thin air. Most of the students began to clap their hooves and the two musicians bowed.
As Pipsqueak began to put away the guitar and amp, Naught Note stepped forward. “There’s your example: I expect your best recreations on Monday.” The bell rang. “Class dismissed.”
Students filed out of the classroom, talking and laughing as they went. It was Friday after all, and they had until tomorrow to worry about the assignment. For now, their day was done save for relaxation and fun.
Two fillies, however, did not follow the rest out. As the classroom emptied, they remained in their seats. Once the final student had bounded out of the doors, Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara ascended the stairs to Naught Note’s desk. He sat there with his hooves crossed over his chest, watching them as Pipsqueak finished packing up the equipment.
“Something I can do for you girls?” Professor Note asked.
Sweetie Belle coughed and Diamond Tiara stepped forward. “How do you expect us to do this assignment?” she said. “We’ve only been in this class for a week, and just got our instruments a few days ago. We can’t do something like this!”
“Oh, you can’t, is that right?” Note picked up a pencil in his magic and twirled it around in the air. “It seems to me the two of you are, perhaps, mistaken.”
“It’s true, though,” Sweetie Belle protested. “How are we supposed to work together if we only just started to use our instruments at all?”
Note raised an eyebrow. “You would not have been selected for this school in the first place if you did not already possess the potential to complete this assignment.” He sighed. “I will relent for the two of you, however. You will still be required to complete the assignment, but you may have some . . . assistance.”
He cleared his throat. “Pipsqueak?” he said.
“Yes?” the colt asked with a hint of hesitation in his voice.
“Would you kindly assist these two students on this assignment? They are new to the class, and may require a little help. Don’t do the whole thing for them, of course.”
Pipsqueak nodded. “Uh, sure, I can do that.”
“Good.” Naught Note smiled. “The music room will be open this Saturday; I cannot tell the three of you what to do, but I would suggest you use that time to practice together in a beneficial environment. Catch my drift?”
The three ponies nodded.
“Then go ahead and get out of here!” Naught Note laughed. “It’s Friday and I need to smoke some more coffee.”
Out in the hall, Pipsqueak bid them farewell and insisted he would show up on Saturday. Diamond Tiara made him look her in the eye as he said it, then let him go once he was done. The colt skidded down the hall and out of sight.
“So what now?” Sweetie Belle asked. “Do we wait until we practice with him tomorrow?”
Diamond Tiara glared at her. “We need to at least get some practice in today, or we’re going to waste all day tomorrow just catching up, and I am not going to waste away my first grade in this school.” She shouldered her violin in its case and starting walking toward the school’s landing platform. “Now come on. If you’re quiet, you can ride with me today.”
Sweetie Belle did the same with her keytar and followed the filly. “You know, I have my own ride home,” she said.
“Yes, but I thought I might as well offer, since we’ll be going in the same direction once we get off.”
“Why offer, though?”
Diamond Tiara paused. “I’m just trying to be nice. You may be surprised by it, but I’m not going to keep being a bully. We’re teenagers now; practically adults. I’m not going to act like a little foal anymore.”
“So does that mean we’re friends?” Sweetie Belle said, jogging up beside her.
“I didn’t say that,” Diamond Tiara said.
“But if we’re not enemies and not friends . . . what are we?”
Diamond Tiara pointed to their instruments. “We’re partners on this assignment; let’s leave it to that. We’ll need to rely on each other for this assignment to work, so that’s it for the moment.”
Sweetie Belle sighed, but was content to follow behind her non-friend out of the school and out onto the landing platform. Her usual bus sat there, along with a smaller vehicle behind it. It was the same shape as the bus—blocky and sharp-edged—but colored bright yellow. The pegasi pulling it had civilian uniforms, too, instead of guard regalia.
She gave a look at Diamond Tiara, then jogged over to Octavia and told her about the assignment. The grey cellist agreed that they should ride home together, and soon the bus was departing without her.
Sweetie Belle watched it go. It looked so strange, leaving without her. Then, she didn’t have much time before Diamond Tiara called her to the cab.
The interior was cramped and Sweetie Belle could feel the metal vibrate under her as they took off. She had to tuck her hindlegs to her chin and let her keytar rest in its case on the floor of the cab.
Her stomach rose as the cab dived down toward Ponyville and away from Canterlot. She held onto her seat as hard as she could.
“You look sick,” Diamond Tiara said.
Sweetie Belle moaned. “The bus usually isn’t this fast.”
“Then you’ve been missing out.”
The cab eventually leveled off into a simple incline and Sweetie Belle was able to take a few breaths and calm down. She turned to Diamond Tiara. “So where are we going for this practice, anyway?”
“Could we go to your house? My father . . . he, uh, doesn’t like it when guests drop in.”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Sure. My parents shouldn’t be home for a while.” She sighed. “Though I don’t even know how we’re supposed to practice today.”
“Play our instruments and hope for the best?”
“That’s what I was planning on.”
Diamond Tiara allowed herself a smile. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
The cab flew in low over the sparkling blue pond just outside Sweetie Belle’s house and came to a rest by the front door. Diamond Tiara passed him a few bits and the two fillies piled out with their instruments in tow. Soon, the yellow taxi was back in the air and flying off to parts unknown.
“Is this it?” Diamond Tiara asked.
“No, I had him land in front of Scootaloo’s house,” Sweetie Belle said. She rolled her eyes. “Of course this is it.”
Diamond Tiara sniffed. “Well excuse me for asking.”
Sweetie Belle shook her head and let them into the house with the key she carried in her instrument case. The house was dark and quiet; her parents were, as they promised, still at work. Good.
The two fillies trotted up the stairs and soon found themselves in Sweetie Belle’s bedroom. She flipped on the lights to reveal the plain room. Gone were her childhood pictures and paintings on the wall, replaced with a tan coat of paint. The only thing that remained of the old look was the pink bed decorated with hearts that her mother refused to replace.
Sweetie Belle threw her instrument case on the bed. “Welcome to my room,” she said. “Probably not as fancy as what you’re used to, but I don’t stick around here more than I have to.”
“I didn’t come here to judge your decorating sense,” Diamond Tiara said.
“Yeah, yeah, I remember.”
The two girls stood in place and looked at each other. Sweetie Belle rubbed one hoof over the other. “So I guess we should start playing?” she asked.
Diamond Tiara nodded. “Sure. Do you want to start?”
Sweetie Belle slid the keytar out of its case. The pink instrument caught the light just right and looked like it was glowing in her hooves. The filly grinned and hooked the strap around herself. The thing was kind of awkward when it hung down her front, but a little practice had gotten her to ignore it.
“I haven’t practiced many songs,” Sweetie Belle warned, “but I can try a simpler one. Then you can show me yours.” She pressed down on a few keys to start the song, but Diamond Tiara stopped her.
“Shouldn’t we be practicing at the same time?” she said.
“Yeah, but that’s really hard,” Sweetie Belle said. “Couldn’t we just practice on our own at first?”
“No, we have to play together,” Diamond Tiara huffed. “Come on, are you even trying? I feel like I’m the only one here that wants to make a good grade on this thing. I’m the one who wanted to practice and took you home and everything!”
Sweetie Belle growled. “Well fine, have it your way, princess.” Her horn glowed and a few keys pressed themselves down on the keytar. “Try to keep up.”*
She began to play even as Diamond Tiara was still getting her violin out of its case. The pink filly held the tender wood of the instrument in her hooves, but did not place it on her shoulder. Instead, she held it in front of her and picked a few of the strings.
Sweetie Belle watched with interest. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“My granny showed me how to play like this,” Diamond Tiara explained. “She taught me a few songs, too.”
She started to pluck the strings with a greater vigor. Soon, the chords developed into an actual tune. It was a jaunty sort of beat, one best played in taverns after the first few rounds.
Diamond Tiara opened her mouth and began to sing, her voice so husky it could have been misinterpreted for a colt’s.*
In the merry month of May,
Left the girls of Tuam so sad and broken hearted,
Saluted father dear, kissed me darling mother,
Drank a pint of beer, me grief and tears to smother,
Then off to reap the corn, leave where I was born,
Cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghosts and goblins;
Bought a pair of brogues rattling o’er the bogs,
And fright’ning all the dogs on the rocky road to Fetlin.
Sweetie Belle struggled to keep up with the beat with her own more modern tone. Diamond Tiara’s notes were rocky and her voice sounded warped, ringing hard in Sweetie’s ears.
Still, the magic flow began to start. Sweetie Belle’s pink pool around her feet flowed and beat with her heart and she could feel it start to flow through her. Diamond Tiara’s, however, refused to coagulate and gathered as a soft violet mist around her violin.
The keys flew as Sweetie Belle’s revved up the beat. To her, the song still felt unfamiliar but overall like it was an easy flow. She watched Diamond Tiara grit her teeth with her own song, however.
“You still think we should try this?” Sweetie Belle yelled over the music.
“Do it!” Diamond Tiara replied.
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath. She wasn’t exactly sure how to combine, so she focused her mind on the thought of the magic flowing together. Sure enough, the pink pool slank its way across the wooden floor of her bedroom over toward the other filly.
Diamond Tiara saw it, gulped, and started on her next verse.
In Mullingar that night I rested limbs so weary,
Started by daylight next morning blithe and early,
Took a drop of pure to keep me heart from sinking;
That’s a Paddy’s cure whenever he’s on drinking.
See the lassies smile, laughing all the while,
At me curious style, ‘twould set your heart a bubblin’
Asked me was I hired, wages I required,
I was almost tired of the rocky road to Fetlin.
Sweetie Belle’s shield roared to life between them, bouncing like a ball on the floor. Diamond Tiara’s mist flowed around it and began to swirl in a ring. Both girls grinned as they watched their efforts rewarded.
However, just as the ball began to expand, it collapsed in on itself with a great explosion of light. Each filly was thrown to opposite sides of the room, their manes and coat singed. The area on the floor where the ball had been was one massive dark spot.
The two picked themselves off the ground and looked at each other, wide eyed. There was a moment of silence before they both began to laugh.
“That was great!” Sweetie Belle said.
Diamond Tiara laughed. “I can’t believed that worked!”
“We have to do that again!”
The two of them picked their instruments back up, a little more careful this time, and began to play again.
A couple hours passed without notice between the two of them. Burn marks began to cover the room. The humming and wailing of instruments pretty much covered the rest. No matter the failures, though, the girls continued to pick themselves off the floor and get at it again.
They would have kept on through the night had the door not opened and interrupted them sometime later.
Scootaloo and Applebloom walked in, curious looks on their faces. Their eyes grew wide as they saw the state of the room and the two fillies in it.
“Uh, what happened here?” Applebloom asked.
“Music!” Sweetie Belle said, picking herself back up. “And a little bit of magic, too.”
“So you blew off our plans today for music?” Scootaloo said.
Sweetie Belle gulped. Of course she’d forgotten that their plans! In the rush of Diamond Tiara and practicing for the assignment, it had slipped her mind. Oh no, Diamond Tiara . . .
Her classmate pulled herself from the other side of the bed and joined the trio by the door. She looked from Sweetie Belle to the others and back again.
“No, no, you blew us off today to spend time with her?” Scootaloo screeched.
“It’s not like that,” Sweetie Belle began.
“Then what is it like?”
“Um, uh . . .” Sweetie Belle tried to back away from the two groups. She could feel all of them staring down at her, forcing her to choose. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I got a big assignment at my new school and had to work on it with Diamond Tiara, guys. It’s just something I had to do. I wouldn’t forget my friends, guys.”
Scootaloo and Applebloom seemed to back down and Diamond Tiara shrank away. She gathered up her violin in its case and slung it over her back.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “We’re just partners, after all. In fact, I was just leaving.” Diamond Tiara headed out the door, but paused at the top of the stairs. She glared back at Sweetie Belle. “Don’t even think about keeping Pipsqueak and I waiting tomorrow, partner.”
With that, she was gone. Her footfalls eventually ceased and the front door slammed behind her. Scootaloo snorted.
“What’s her problem?”
“I, uh, don’t know,” Sweetie Belle said. “Must be the project or something.”
Applebloom stepped between them. “Well now that that’s done, we still have a few hours left today to do something. I heard Zecora’s got a bunch of new potions out in the Everfree Forest.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Scootaloo said. They all bumpbed hooves and ran off to have yet another adventure.
Sweetie Belle followed them, but not before one last look at her keytar, still lying on the bed. She shook her head and ran to catch up with her friends.
Sweetie Belle pulled herself out of bed on Saturday morning. She shivered as her hooves touched the wooden floor beneath her bed. The house was quiet. Good, that meant her parents hadn’t woken quite yet. With any luck, she could leave without them noticing.
Light streamed in to her little room through the blinds. The room looked the same as it had the previous night, though minus the burn marks. Twilight Sparkle had been gracious enough to remove the magic residue as a favor to Sweetie Belle’s sister. Of course, she didn’t without giving the filly a lecture and forcing her to promise not to practice such heavy magic in her house again.
The ivory filly scrambled over to her dresser. She picked up a comb and ran it through her mane in quick, brutal strokes that left her head sore. Still, it would do. She decided to take the scarf that Rarity had given her for her new school. The green silk with the school logo’s embroidered in white wrapped easily around her neck. It was close to November now and winter was coming, so the chill would be biting today.
Her keytar rested against the bed where she had left it after her day exploring the outlying areas of Ponyville with her friends. She slipped it into the flimsy case Octavia had given her and zipped it closed. The strap bit into her shoulder when she put it on, but with a little adjusting it was bearable. Sweetie Belle looked at herself in the mirror. There were bags under her eyes.
Am I really doing this?
After a moment, she walked out of her room and downstairs for breakfast.
Sweetie Belle’s parents had made sure to leave food out for their daugher, lest she try to cook some on her own. A couple of bagels and butter weren’t much, but it was enough to settle the rumble in the filly’s stomach. A glass of orange juice turned into a bad idea, however, as the taste mingled with the odd flavor of rust left in her mouth from sleeping. It made her want to gag.
Sweetie Belle wiped up her mess from the kitchen table, deposited her plate in the sink, and made her way outside. She pulled the door shut behind her with a soft click. An icy wind was there to meet her on the other side, and Sweetie Belle shivered. The scarf helped, but not much. For a second, Sweetie Belle wondered why ponies didn’t wear clothes all the time. Her sister would be overjoyed if that were true, at least.
She looked up at the clock tower just to the right of her parents’ house. It was just around nine, and on a weekend no less. Sweetie Belle yawned. There was something just wrong about waking up this early on a Saturday.
The clock struck the hour, snapping the teenager out of her thoughts. Right on time, a yellow cab cut through the morning air above Ponyville. It swooped over the lake in front of her house, sending waves splashing on the shore.
A team of two pegasi brought the metal cab to a halt just in front of Sweetie Belle. The driver worked the back door open and she climbed in, pulling her keytar in after her.
The driver turn in his seat. “You ready, ma’am?” he asked.
Sweetie Belle perked up at hearing herself being called “ma’am”. She nodded. “I’m great,” she said. “Though, how much is this ride going to be?”
“The school’s already paid,” the driver explained. “Just relax and enjoy the ride.”
The cab lurched up as the pegasi took flight. The carpet seat met Sweetie Belle’s back like a cloud and the filly settled in. She smiled a little. This school definitely had some perks.
Canterlot was only just waking up when the cab glided past it. Shops were starting to open and ponies of the capital had begun to shuffle themselves out of bed, but the streets were empty for the most part. Sweetie Belle supposed that Princess Celestia was up as well, but she didn’t really count, did she?
The taxi flew past the city and down to the school. Here, the school looked dead from the lack of activity. The windows stared out like empty eye sockets and the banners flapped like grave markers. Maybe it was the architecture, but the building gave Sweetie Belle the willies just looking at it. There was always something just wrong about a school on the weekend.
She was let out on the cobblestone landing platform, like a normal morning. Except for the lack of other inbound cabs or pegasi, it didn’t look much different from usual.
Sweetie Belle thanked the driver and the taxi took off again with the driver promising to be back around three like they had been told. The wind that whipped in its wake blew across Sweetie Belle and she shivered again.
She walked up the front steps and found the front doors unlocked, much to her surprise. She pushed them open and stepped into the warm lobby of the school. The lights were on and the machines running. For all intents and purposes, it was like a normal day.
The illusion was aided by the inclusion of Diamond Tiara, leaning against one wall with her violin case at her feet. She looked up when Sweetie Belle came in. There were dark circles under her eyes and her mane had begun to come undone.
“Where have you been?” she huffed.
“I just flew here,” Sweetie Belle said. “What, was I supposed to get here earlier?”
“I’ve been here for an hour!”
“Well sor-ry, I didn’t know there was a time. You kind of left pretty quick yesterday.” Sweetie Belle sighed. “Is Pipsqueak here, at least?”
Diamond Tiara nodded. “He’s back in the music room getting everything set up. He told me to wait out here for you. Now that you’re here, I guess we might as well go tell him we’re ready.”
Sweetie Belle let the haughty pink filly lead her down one hallway, past the classrooms and teacher’s lounge. The hall sloped downward until it ended in a set of metal double doors. They were plain and had no signs on them. Opening them, however, took them to a whole new world.
The music room was less of a room and more like an auditorium with carpet floors. It spread out and away for dozens of feet. Top to bottom it was filled with instruments of every sort, and the amplifiers to go with them. At the far end of the room, where Pipsqueak was, were more machines that Sweetie Belle had never seen before.
Diamond Tiara led her through a row of guitars, and Sweetie Belle had to watch her step so her keytar case wouldn’t knock any of the shiny instruments off their racks.
They found Pipsqueak bent over some machine in the middle of a cleared, circular area that had a bunch of flashing lights around it. Sweetie Belle noticed that his mane was longer than she had last seen him, and he had grown taller too. Looking at Diamond Tiara, she could tell she wasn’t the only one.
Diamond Tiara coughed and Pipsqueak looked up with a start. “Oh, there you two are,” he greeted them. He patted the machine. “Well, what do you think?”
“It’s . . . big,” Diamond Tiara said.
Sweetie Belle tilted her head. “I really like its lights?”
Pipsqueak placed a hoof on his forehead. “Right, you two are not only new, but first-years.” He tapped the machine and it squawked in return. “This here’s a machine that the older students get to use to measure magical wavelength.”
Sweetie Belle’s eyes lit up. “You mean like it could tell us if we’re doing it right or not?”
“Does it hurt?” Diamond Tiara asked.
Pipsqueak chuckled. “Maybe the way some of the students used it, but it’s never been bad for me. Heck, using this is so easy it might even qualify as cheating on this assignment of yours. Then again, since you two are so new, I don’t think Professor Note will care.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Why, are you two scared?”
The two fillies looked at eachother, then shook their heads. “No, of course not!” Diamond Tiara said.
“Right, who would be scared of a little machine?” Sweetie Belle added.
“Then get on the metal pads and ready your instruments,” Pipsqueak told them.
Sweetie Belle gulped and dragged her keytar over to a raised metal circle that branched out from the central machine. It had a bunch of blinking lights and wires all over it. In the middle of the platform, under a pane of glass, was a glowing pink crystal.
The keytar slid out of its case and Sweetie Belle hooked it around her neck. She tapped a few chords with her magic to test it out. To her surprise, the sound reverberated across the platform so loud that it sounded like a boom in her ears.
“Sorry about that!” Sweetie Belle yelled over the noise.
Diamond Tiara raised an eyebrow. “Sorry about what?”
Pipsqueak laughed. “The platforms are each built to be like a small recording studio. You’ll hear your own music like it’s at full blast, but nopony else will hear anything but a little music. It’s pretty cool.”
Sweetie Belle felt her face start to flush, so she just nodded and went back to testing out her keytar. The thing seemed to be working, as far as she could tell. She was still getting used to it, though, so she made sure to be careful with the pink thing.
Meanwhile, she watched Diamond Tiara climb onto the platform opposite of the machine from her. She adjusted the tiara on her head before pulling out her violin. The pink filly rose on her hind legs and wobbled a bit before righting herself and placing the violin on her top shoulder.
Sweetie Belle, after a moment’s hesitation, did the same, though kept her keytar slung around her middle. She looked at Pipsqueak. “So what now?” she asked.
“Oh, right.” He trotted over to the central machine and flicked some switches. Sweetie Belle felt a tingling underhoof as the machine warmed up.
“You’ll each have to play a little to sync up with the machine,” Pipsqueak explained. “After that, you’ll need to play together to test your resonance.” He nodded to Sweetie Belle. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath and began to play the funky tune she had tested out yesterday. It featured a lot of sliding around on the keys, but she liked the sound so was willing to learn it. The music beat rose and swirled around her and she found herself swaying her hips to the beat.
A short time later, a green light lit up on the machine and it went ding! Below it, a small screen glowed with a green check mark. Sweetie Belle grinned and pumped her hoof.
“Not bad,” Pipsqueak said. “Almost as good a time as mine.”
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. “Sure.”
The colt turned to Diamond Tiara. “Your turn,” he said.
She nodded and raised her bow to the strings to play and the machine blinked back to its ready mode. Diamond Tiara began to glide her bow across the delicate strings and the music whispered out.
Sweetie Belle couldn’t hear all of it, but from Diamond Tiara’s expression what was coming out wasn’t what she had imagined. The filly continued to play even as the indicator light on the machine remained red. Sweetie Belle could see her grit her teeth and try to play faster. The bow flew across the strings even as the machine kept steadfast.
Just when Sweetie Belle thought Diamond Tiara might quit, the light finally switched to green.
“Sync complete,” Pipsqueak said. “You two can now hear each other and link your music through the machine.”
“What do we play?” Diamond Tiara asked.
Sweetie Belle shrugged her shoulders, then realized that the other filly probably wasn’t looking. “I don’t know,” she said. “You have a song in mind?”
“One, but do you think you can follow my lead?”
Diamond Tiara snorted. “Well try to keep up, then.”
She set the bow again and started to play. Sweetie Belle fumbled for her keytar as the violin music filled her ears. It was a much faster tempo than yesterday, and she was slow to catch up.*
When she did, though, Sweetie Belle’s magic flew across the ivory keys as she matched her tune to Diamond Tiara’s. Instead of try to follow note for note, she experimented with backing up the violin’s chords with a beat of her own that wasn’t quite the same but together the song sounded . . . fuller. *
Sweetie Belle found herself, to her surprise, having a bit of fun. So much fun, in fact, she didn’t notice when her own pace began to outshine Diamond Tiara’s own, who was wobbling as she tried to keep up.
The pink magic returned, flowing around Sweetie Belle’s feet in small little waves. It picked itself up and crept up her hooves until it had gathered around the keytar. With a little flourish on the keys, her shield roared to life.
Across from her, Diamond Tiara’s magic was struggling to come to life. It still congealed only as a loose mist that gathered around her midsection and refused to budge. When Sweetie Belle’s shield began dispersing through the machine to join the partner’s in the center, the mist only half-complied.
Sweetie Belle was able to watch as the two met, but instead of forming together the mist just kind of fizzled against the shield and disappeared. The green lights on the machine glowed red and tinny alarm bell came to life.
Both of them quit playing and clutched at their ears while Pipsqueak ran to shut the machine off. It died with a hum, taking the alarm with it.
Pipsqueak sighed. “Synchronization lost,” he said. “The machine couldn’t keep up.”
“What happened?” Sweetie Belle asked.
Diamond Tiara stomped off of her platform and tossed her very old and undoubtedly expensive violin on the ground. It landed with a thud but didn’t seem to be broken.
“It’s because of me,” she growled, stomping at the ground.
“What are you talking about?” Sweetie Belle said.
“Don’t you see?” Diamond Tiara snapped. “You can play just fine because you are Miss Perfect here! Your magic works just fine, but oh, I can’t do anything with mine!” The filly’s eyes had started to glisten as she talked, though nothing came out . . . yet.
“I’m not perfect,” Sweetie Belle said, fighting the urge to laugh. “I mean, we both passed the test to come here and all that so we’re pretty much the same—”
“But I didn’t pass it!”
Pipsqueak stepped forward. “Say what?” he asked.
Diamond Tiara sighed and kicked at the ground. “I didn’t pass it, okay? My dad wanted me to go here so here so he paid off the committee to let me in.” She glared at the violin. “Same with the instrument . . . I don’t even like the violin!”
“Then what instrument do you like?”
“I don’t know, okay?!” Diamond Tiara slammed a hoof against the ground, then seemed to wilt in on herself. “I don’t have any musical talent . . . I’m not like the two of you. I wasn’t meant to be a musician.”
She began to stomp off toward the other end of the store, toward the drums and the recording equipment.
“Diamond Tiara, wait!” Pipsqueak called, holding out a hoof. When she didn’t turned around, however, he sighed and lowered it.
The colt in the red bandana turned back to Sweetie Belle. She had watched the whole thing still on her platform, unsure of what to do or say. Her stomach felt like it was tied in knots.
“Since when did she get like this?” Pipsqueak asked. “The Diamond Tiara I remember was . . . different.”
“I don’t know; she’s been testy about this whole thing since she left yesterday,” Sweetie Belle said. “She’s not usually like this.”
She got off the platform and slung the keytar over her shoulder. She looked at the machine. It looked almost sinister when it was turned off. Just a big machine waiting to judge you. She shivered.
“What do you think we should tell her?” Pipsqueak asked. “To calm her down, I mean.”
Sweetie Belle shrugged. “It’s not like you have to do anything. She’s my partner, after all.” She sighed. “I guess this means we won’t be getting a very good score on the project.”
Pipsqueak stepped forward. “I still think we should go talk to her.”
“She’s Diamond Tiara,” Sweetie Belle protested. “Since when does she need anypony’s help?”
“I’m guessing right about now,” Pipsqueak said. With that, he began walking over toward where Diamond Tiara had last been seen.
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes and trotted after him to catch up.
They found Diamond Tiara seated on a drum stool, her head stooped low and hooves hanging by her side. The drum set she sat in front of looked unused though still in good condition. It was a simple set with the basic drums and cymbals, though lacking anything such as double pedals or a crash cymbal.
Diamond Tiara didn’t look up until they were right next to her. When she did, her expression didn’t change much. “Go away,” she told them.
“We just want to help,” Pipsqueak said.
“I don’t need your help,” Diamond Tiara snapped. “I’m just fine on my own. You two can go back and do your music stuff and just leave the rest of us alone.”
Sweetie Belle looked at Pipsqueak, but he just shook his head. She took a deep breath and approached her partner. “You’re still just as much as a musician as I am, Diamond Tiara,” she said.
The pink filly snorted. “Right, sure, keep telling me that.”
“You learned how to play that violin, didn’t you?”
“That’s different!” Diamond Tiara sighed. “Yeah, I can play a little bit, but the magic just isn’t there. I can teach myself a hundred instruments but I won’t have the magic you two have.”
“You had that mist thing-y,” Sweetie Belle said.
“Just a fluke.”
Pipsqueak stepped forward. “But what if it wasn’t?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” Diamond Tiara asked.
He shrugged. “Well, I mean, that magic had to come from somewhere,” he said. “And you said that you were forced to use the violin, right?”
“Yeah, but I’ve been playing for years,” Diamond Tiara said. “I didn’t just start playing my instrument just this week like somepony else here.”
Sweetie Belle’s face reddened a little. Pipsqueak shook his head. “That isn’t what I said, though,” he continued. “Professor Note explained it to our class last year, sort of. Like, when you get an instrument, it isn’t really random.”
He picked up a guitar hanging on a nearby rack and brought it back over to them. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s like, ponies have different souls with music. You can practice one instrument all of your life, but if you’re meant for another one then you’ll never reach your full potential.” The colt strummed a few strings on the guitar and it almost seemed to come to life. “Like with me and the guitar, it’s what I was supposed to do.”
“Oh, that’s just great,” Diamond Tiara said. “So you’re saying the instrument my dad made me take lessons over for years is useless to me?”
“That’s not what I—”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it means,” Sweetie Belle said, stepping forward. “But that’s a good thing, isn’t it? You were forced to play it by your dad, but now’s your chance to start over and do whatever you want!” She smiled. “Come on, I know we’ve had our differences, but haven’t you wanted to rebel against your dad? Be different?”
Diamond Tiara hesitated to answer, then shook her head. “Sure, I guess,” she said. “But what exactly would I play?”
Pipsqueak laughed. “You came over to the drums, didn’t you? Why not try a little?”
Diamond Tiara looked at the drums and began to raise a hoof toward them, but then pulled it back. “No, I really shouldn’t . . .”
“I just . . .”
Pipsqueak looked her in the eyes and smiled. “Come on, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Just don’t expect me to play anything good,” she said at last. Diamond Tiara took a deep breath and turned around in the chair to look at the unfamiliar instrument. She tapped one of the drums and kicked at the pedal. She looked back at Pipsqueak, but he smiled and edged her on.
She took one of her hooves and tapped it against several of the drums in quick succession. Then did it again a few times, alternating the order between them. When she found a sequence she liked, she played it a few times in a faster tempo.
Sweetie Belle watched as Pipsqueak’s ears perked up. “That right there,” he asked Diamond Tiara. “Did you just make that up?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Why?”
He took out his guitar and strummed it a bit. Even without the chords, the thing somehow sounded like it was plugged into an amp. “Play that again to start,” Pipsqueak instructed, “then try to follow me, okay?”
“I just did this at random . . .”
Pipsqueak smiled at her again and she quieted down. “It’ll be fun,” he assured.
“Well, uh, alright.”
“Now, Sweetie Belle,” Pipsqueak said, “take your keytar out and follow along with us.”
She complied and for a moment they all stood there, instruments at the ready and eyes shut to prepare for the coming song. Then Pipsqueak counted, “1, 2, 3, 4 . . .” and they began.*
Diamond Tiara hit the drums in the same beat and Pipsqueak followed her in with his guitar. Sweetie Belle came in last and before she knew it, they were playing a song. What surprised her more was when Pipsqueak began to sing. He did it as he locked eyes with Diamond Tiara and together they kept the beat.
I got my head checked,
By a jumbo jet.
It wasn't easy,
But nothing i-is.
He leaned across to Diamond Tiara and led her through the song as they went, her steadying against him the whole way. Sweetie Belle, meanwhile, just struggled to keep up with her keytar alone, though she could already start to feel the now-familiar tingling in her hooves.
When I feel heavy-metal,
And I'm pins and I'm needles!
Well I lie and I'm easy,
All the time but I am never sure,
Why I need you.
Pleased to meet you!
Between the chorus and the verse a funny thing happened. A purple sort of magic came to life around Diamond Tiara, but like none she or anypony else had seen before. Instead of a loose mist, it was a solid ring of magic that pulsed and thumped along to the song. Sweetie Belle’s shield followed it and Pipsqueak’s pillars come into their own. Soon, three magics mixed and amplified their song.
I got my head down,
When I was young.
It's not my problem,
It's not my prob-lem!
With that, the three magics condensed in a fiery mix in the middle of them, flashing light and sparkling against the instruments. Sweetie Belle’s shield rolled into a ball that was ringed by Pipsqueak’s pillar and tied together by Diamond Tiara’s ring. The contraption roared and sparked like an angry storm and the three could feel power emanating from it.
Then, just as they laid into the next chorus, something else joined it. Something else no one saw but Sweetie Belle. A little black spark that snuck its way into the shield from out of the filly herself. Even that little spark was enough to make the combination triple in size and engulf the three players in a fury of energy and magic. For the rest of the song, their power was amplified, and though they did not see it, sent waves of the magic crashing through the room, out the door, and into the wide world around them to parts unknown.
Oh . . . yeah!
The three of them faded out and the magic finally dissipated, leaving three tired, sweaty, and smiling teenagers in its wake.
“I think I could get used to this,” Diamond Tiara said.
They made plans to meet the following day and practice more songs that Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara could actually play together without Pipsqueak. Even then, though, the colt seemed fine with playing a little more with them if they so choose. Most of his attention was kept on Diamond Tiara, though.
It was just as well. While the two of them chatted it up, Sweetie Belle looked at her hooves. She could swear that she could almost see the black sparks moving inside. What had that been? She had seen some of the magic waves that had pulsed out from them, and the black had been there too.
What was going on?
The meeting room was cast in an orange glow from the dim lamps that surrounded the long table. There was space enough for fifty ponies around the table in a normal meeting, but today it held only three.
Octavia sat at the head of the table in Princess Luna’s seat in her stead. Vinyl Scratch was beside her and quiet for once. Down the table, by himself, was Naught Note. The light blue stallion leaned against the glossy tabletop with one hoof under his chin. His copper eyes stared down Octavia’s violet irises.
The cellist cleared her throat. “We have dire news from Manehattan,” she said.
“Oh, I assumed you called me into this ominous meeting room to tell me what a good job I’ve been doing,” Naught said.
“This is serious!” Octavia snapped. She nodded to Vinyl. “Give him your report.”
Vinyl stood up and leaned on the oak table. “There was a large movement of dark crystal users out of the city over the weekend. Some of their more visited bureaus were empty this morning.”
“Well, where are they moving?” Naught asked.
“By all accounts from our scouts, they’re moving toward the Ponyville-slash-Canterlot area.”
Naught’s nostrils flared. “They wouldn’t dare.”
“The recovered bodies of several scouts would beg otherwise,” Octavia said. “Something has changed, and it’s enough that they would risk the journey to the heart of Equestria and pure magic for whatever it is.”
Naught thought for a moment. “We noticed that the crystal has been acting strangely.”
“Perhaps.” Octavia drummed her hoof on the table. “That is not for us to decide at the moment, however. Your assignment for the moment will be to go to the last location these . . . monsters . . . were seen and find out all you can about their movements. Your classes will be taught by a substitute until your return.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Naught asked. “I am the only teacher able to teach the combat arts, and with recent events perhaps it is time we brought them back.”
Octavia shook her head. “For the moment, we seek a quick and decisive end to this conflict before it even starts. We do not wish to involve any of the students.”
Naught nodded. “Right then, I guess I’ll be on my way.”
“May your search be quick and fruitful,” Octavia said, nodding her head.
Sweetie Belle poked at her sandwich. Lettuce and daffodils wedged between two pieces of bread didn’t look very appetizing sitting on the dirty cafeteria table. Not that she could have eaten it anyway. Her stomach was tied up in knots and all she could manage were long gulps of juice from a flask Rarity had packed her.
Diamond Tiara plopped a lunch tray across from her, snapping Sweetie Belle’s head up. The pink filly watched her for a moment then sat down. Her tray consisted of gloops of different colors. The blue one was alleged to taste different than the red, but Sweetie Belle wasn’t so sure. After her first taste of the cafeteria food, she had brought her lunch everyday.
“You look pale,” Diamond Tiara said between bites. “Well, I mean, pale-er than usual. Since you’re white. Your coat.”
“Yeah, I got it.” Sweetie Belle pushed her sandwich away. “Just nervous, I guess.”
“About the presentation?”
“Duh. We’re supposed to go up there in front of everypony and play a song we only had two days to learn, and do it perfectly while syncing our magic at the same time!” Sweetie Belle threw up her hooves. “How can you not be nervous?”
Diamond Tiara wagged a spoon at her. “Because being nervous won’t do you any good. My daddy says that before a big meeting he just thinks of everything that makes him nervous and reminds himself that it either won’t be noticed or won’t matter in ten years. It works for me too.”
“So, what, are you saying this doesn’t matter?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“You’re crazy.” Sweetie Belle thumped her head down on the table. “This is so stressful! Since when did music school have to be hard?” She groaned. “Stupid poster lied to me . . .”
Diamond Tiara watched it all, shook her head, and kept on eating. Unlike Sweetie Belle, and almost every student in the school, she didn’t have a music case with her. She had turned in her violin that morning, but had been told she’d have to make do with one of the classroom drum sets until they could get her one of her own.
She looked up halfway through her lunch to see Pipsqueak ambling toward them. They were sitting at the far end of the cafeteria, so it wasn’t hard to figure out where he was going. She waved to him and indicated for him to sit next to her.
He slammed a lunch tray down and placed his guitar case between himself and Diamond Tiara. He grinned at her and was surprised when Sweetie Belle glared in return. He looked at Diamond Tiara.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.
“Stress!” Sweetie Belle said, her voice muffled by the table.
“She’s worried about the presentation,” Diamond Tiara explained.
Pipsqueak raised an eyebrow. “You two practiced all weekend,” he said. “You got the song down I don’t know how many times, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Worry?” Sweetie Belle raised her head up. “If we don’t do good on this, then we’ll have a bad test grade which will lead to more bad test grades and I’ll drop out of this school and have to go all the way back to Ponyville and instead of being a singer I’ll be a music teacher!” She shuddered and set her head back down. “This is so crazy!”
“Is she always like this?” Pipsqueak asked.
“You ask me like I’ve talked to her much before this,” Diamond Tiara said.
“Right . . . you two didn’t get along very well, did you?”
“We had a few . . . problems . . . when we were younger. Mostly about cutie marks.”
Pipsqueak nodded. “I remember. Are two still like that?”
Diamond Tiara shook her head and held up her hooves. “No, no, of course not! I’m much more mature now. Making fun of fillies is for, like, babies.”
“Uh huh.” Pipsqueak bit into his lunch and stared at Sweetie Belle who had started to thump her head into the table in a steady rhythm. It made an almost visible bonk sound.
“So . . .” Diamond Tiara began, “how come you’re sitting with us today? I mean, it’s not like we don’t want you to be here, it’s just that I would have thought you’d have other ponies to sit with. Not that you’re not popular, I mean—”
Pipsqueak laughed. “Most of the ponies here are wet blankets anyway. Just because we’re at a music school doesn’t mean we have to talk about music all the time.”
“Right, of course,” Diamond Tiara said.
The bell rang not long after and Sweetie Belle dragged herself from her seat and walked with Diamond Tiara out of the lunchroom and down the hall toward Naught Note’s class. The pink filly, however, kept her eyes on Pipsqueak, who trotted down toward the library for “study hall”.
Sweetie Belle raised an eyebrow. “You know, you don’t have to make it so obvious,” she said.
“Make what obvious?” Diamond Tiara asked.
“You know you . . . and Pipsqueak . . . together.” When Diamond Tiara just stared at her, Sweetie Belle puckered her lips and made a kissing noise.
“Oh just shut up and worry about the presentation,” Diamond Tiara growled.
Sweetie Belle edged into the classroom just as the bell rang. Diamond Tiara huffed and pushed her toward their seats toward the back. They sat at their desks and both were ready to be greeted by the usual half-profanity of Naught Note, but found . . . nothing.
It was then Sweetie Belle realized that the rest of the students were chattering among each other about their missing teacher. Then again, it wasn’t like she paid attention to the other students much anyway.
Before panic could set in on the newfound anarchy, a sharp voice rose over the crowd. “Children, chil-dren!” it called. “Quiet down, quiet down and let me explain.”
Sapphire Shores walked down the row of desks to the teacher’s desk at the bottom. She had on a snappy white dress and her aqua mane was in curls. She smiled at the gaping students as she walked. The classroom was silent while the pop star made it to the chalkboard and turned around.
“Now, I know you’re all surprised to see me,” she said, “but Naught is a gr-eat friend of mine, and I knew I just couldn’t turn this chance down. Princess Luna said I could take over the class for him until he returns from a short leave.”
The students began to smile and Sweetie Belle slumped in her seat. A sigh escaped her lips and she wiped her brow with one hoof. “Thank Celestia,” she mumbled. “Now to just relax . . .”
“You will, however, still have an assignment to complete,” Sapphire continued, to a chorus of groans. “Now pipe down, it isn’t all that bad. You’re all to do a little research into musical magic in the library and then write a song with what you’ve learned. You can write some music to go with the lyrics too, but Naught put that down as optional.”
She smiled. “So come on, let’s all head to the library for some studying!”
Sweetie Belle filed out of the room with the rest of the students. She scratched at her mane that she had started to let grow long. Write a song?
The library was a sweeping room that took up most of the back half of the school. Its domed roof extended far up toward Canterlot, which could be seen through the overhead windows. Fine mahogany bookshelves lined up in rows and were filled with pulp novels and ancient tomes alike. There was a central area with bunches of tables and couches, above that a small alcove on the second story with most of the lights turned down.
Diamond Tiara, of course, started heading there first. Sweetie Belle took one look at Sapphire Shores, then trotted after her.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To the balcony, of course,” Diamond Tiara said.
She huffed. “To find Pipsqueak, duh!”
“But . . .” Sweetie Belle paused, then hurried to catch up. “How do you know he’s up there?”
“Because it’s dark up there and he’s, like, dark and brooding and stuff.”
Diamond Tiara didn’t answer and instead bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes and followed. Her keytar case bounced against her flank as she went. By the time they had reached the balcony, Sweetie Belle wanted to throw the thing off the top.
There were a couple more tables in the upstairs alcove, complete with their own set of short bookcases. Most of them were covered in dust and the wood had begun to warp. That wasn’t the focus of Diamond Tiara’s attention, though.
Sure enough, Pipsqueak sat at one of the tables, his leaning against one hoof while he wrote in a notebook. When he spied the two, he snapped the book closed and put on a smile.
“What are you two, ah, doing here?” he said.
“Naught Note is out for today and the sub told us to come here and do research then write a song about it,” Diamond Tiara said in one breath. “We thought we’d come and find you.”
“Yes, well, that’s just great, then,” Pipsqueak said.
“And what were you doing up here by yourself?” Sweetie Belle asked, taking the seat opposite of the colt. Diamond Tiara, meanwhile, planted herself next to Pipsqueak.
“Well, I come up here to write music,” Pipsqueak said.
“Oh, let me see!” Diamond Tiara cried. She grabbed the notebook and flipped it open, but her brow furrowed as she started to read. “You write . . . notation?”
Pipsqueak shook his head. “Not exactly; it’s more like a shortened kind. It’s called tabbing, and I write it for all of my guitar parts in the songs I think up.” He sighed. “Too bad it’s easier to come up with notes than lyrics.”
Diamond Tiara almost jumped. “Maybe we can help each other!” she said.
“Didn’t your teacher say you had to do research first?”
“Yeah, but she didn’t count on us having the help of an experienced student.” She turned to Sweetie Belle. “Isn’t that right?”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Oh, um, yeah. It is.”
“See?” Diamond Tiara said. “I told you.”
Pipsqueak sighed. “I guess it would help me to bounce ideas off of somepony else.”
He opened the notebook and picked up a pencil from the table in his mouth. He scrawled a few lines, then squinted at it. “Hey, what’s that thing dragons have instead of hooves?” he asked.
“Claws?” Sweetie Belle suggested.
“No, not that?”
Diamond Tiara sprang up. “Hands!’ she said.
“Right, yes, that’s the one,” Pipsqueak said. “Turn forever, hand in hand . . . sound good?”
“Oh, definitely,” Diamond Tiara said. “Now you can help me with my own, of course?”
“Uh, sure. What did you have in mind?”
Diamond Tiara paused. “I don’t know, but you can help me figure it out!”
Sweetie Belle tuned them out after a few minutes of the back and forth. She sat her head down on the desk and let her mane splay out in every direction. She could hear them prattle on about lyrics and sheep like it was the most interesting thing in the world. Though, in this school, she supposed it was.
Her eyes drifted over to the bookshelves in the corner of the alcove. They looked so lonely, standing all alone . . . like castaways from the expanse downstairs. Like they’d been told to leave by their sister and only got to stay in the corner because their parents spoke to their sister. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Stupid bookshelves.
“That’s the old magic section,” Pipsqueak said, throwing Sweetie Belle out of her reverie.
“What do you mean, ‘old magic?’” Sweetie Belle asked.
Pipsqueak shrugged. “That’s what they told me.”
“Hey, maybe you could write a song,” Diamond Tiara said, though her smile belied the look she gave Sweetie Belle. The look of get out!
Sweetie Belle took the hint and dragged herself over from table to a little space between the squat shelves. Her hooves kicked up dust where she walked. She may have been the first pony to walk among these shelves since they were installed. For a moment, a swell of adventure blossomed in her chest and she smiled. Cutie Mark Crusaders Book Adventurers!
Then her eyes fell on a book as dark as night and her heart stopped a little bit. It was like she was drawn to it . . . like it was a very precious thing. She found herself in front of the bookshelf it rested on—no, allowed itself to be held up by—and then just as quickly it was in her hooves.
She turned the cover and it opened without a sound. The inside page was blank. She flipped it over to find only a picture of a black crystal. There was one on every page and not much else.
Sweetie Belle kept flipping the pages until she got to the end. Blank! But how could that be? She could feel the power emanating from it. Like she held a beating heart in her hooves. She looked down again at the crystal drawn on every page and got an idea.
Looking left and right, Sweetie Belle pressed her hoof to one of the crystals. Like a switch had been pulled, magic sparks flowed through her and erupted inside her body like a lightning storm set off in her head. She fought to keep her eyes open, but was able to see letters and words form on the page her hoof was on.
Before she could start to read it, though, the magic proved too much for her. She yanked her hoof away and the feelings subsided. Even after, though, it felt like she could hear a ringing in her head . . . like a record scratching over and over.
The thought of returning the book back to its shelf didn’t even occur to her. She clutched the book to her chest and walked back over to the table where Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak were in a heated conversation. Diamond Tiara was scribbling her pencil across a page from Pipsqueak’s notebook while the colt tried to counsel her. It wasn’t working, as far as Sweetie Belle could tell.
They both looked up when she arrived. Diamond Tiara stared at the book. “Where’d you get that?” she asked.
“And what’s with your eyes?” Pipsqueak added.
Sweetie Belle took a step back and blinked a few times, then shook her head. “I got the book from over at the bookshelves. I thought it might help me write a song. And what do you mean my eyes?”
Pipsqueak stared at her again, then smiled. “Nope, nothing. Sorry, for a second there, well, I thought I saw something.”
“Right.” Diamond Tiara sniffed. “Anyway, Sweetie Belle, we managed to make some progress on lyrics and wanted to hear if you like them.”
“What do you mean we?” Pipsqueak began, but was silenced with a hoof to the mouth.
Sweetie Belle plopped back down in her chair. “Sure, go ahead.”
Diamond Tiara cleared her throat. “Hello again, friend of a friend, I knew you when . . . our common goal was waiting for the world to end.”
“Is that it?”
“It’s a work in progress,” Diamond Tiara huffed. “It takes time to make true art, you know.”
“Well at least you have something.” Sweetie Belle looked down at the blank desk in front of her. “Class is nearly over and I haven’t even started yet.”
“What about that book?”
“It can help me, I think . . . but not right now.”
Pipsqueak ripped a page out of the notebook and slid it to her with a smile. “Here, just try something,” he said. “It can be anything at all. This is supposed to be fun, you know.”
Sweetie Belle smiled a little and levitated a spare pencil over to herself. She looked down at the blank page and groaned. Sure, it was supposed to be fun, but blank pages were the worst. Still, with Pipsqueak watching . . .
She placed the pencil to the paper and started writing. At first, it was hard to think, but then her thoughts just seemed to mesh together. Words exploded out of the nothingness of her mind with bursts of color and light that just screamed for her to use. A story, in an abstract way, found its way onto the paper.
It was like the words began to find themselves and she was only serving as their caretaker until they were on the page. The ringing in her ears returned.
When she stopped writing for a moment and looked down at the paper, her heart skipped a beat. She had almost written an entire song in, what, minutes? How was that even possible?
The ringing was gone and her mind felt just as heavy as ever. She stared at the words on the page and read them to herself. The faster we’re falling . . . we’re stopping and stalling . . . we’re running in circles again.
“You have something?” Pipsqueak asked.
Diamond Tiara chimed in, “Already?”
“No, it’s really not—”
“And what are you three doing up here?” Sapphire Shores’ voice carried over the three of them like a wave. They all spun toward the pop star standing at the top of the stairs. She was glaring at them.
“We were just studying,” Diamond Tiara said. “Not doing anything bad, promise.”
“I’m under strict orders from Princess Luna to not let anypony up here,” Sapphire said. “You three will have to come down with the other students. Come on, let’s move it!”
Sweetie Belle jammed the book and paper into her keytar case while Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak passed in front of her. She brought up the rear while they walked back toward the other students.
One last time, she looked back at the bookshelves, sitting by themselves.
The bell rang and students all over the school ran out of class to escape and head home. Sweetie Belle walked behind Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak as they wound their way out the school and onto the landing pad. The pair didn’t seem to stop talking now, but Sweetie Belle was more than willing to let them be. Her thoughts were consumed with a desire to open the book, like an itch she couldn’t scratch. Or, rather, scratch in only one way . . .
“So do you want to?” Diamond Tiara asked.
The pink filly sighed. “I knew you weren’t listening. Pipsqueak asked us if we wanted to come to a party for students going on tonight in Canterlot.”
“He invited us?” Sweetie Belle asked.
Pipsqueak nodded. “I thought you two might like to see more of the student body than just on the campus. We can be a lot more exciting away from school, you know.”
Sweetie Belle already knew what Rarity and her parents would say. Absolutely not! How could you even think of going to a party with two ponies you barely know?
“So what’ll it be?” Diamond Tiara asked. “Come on, we don’t have all day.”
Sweetie Belle smiled. “Count me in.”
There was a pizza parlor a few blocks away from the club where the party would be held. Pipsqueak had told them that it wouldn’t begin until later, then led them to the restaurant to wait. He and Diamond Tiara sat together, of course, while Sweetie Belle sunk into the plush bench on the other side of the wooden table from them.
A waiter in a funny hat plopped a steaming hot plate of pizza in front of them. Sweetie Belle grabbed a particularly cheesy piece and let it flop onto her plate. They sat next to a large plate glass window that afforded them an excellent look at Canterlot as the sun began to dip down.
The city had grown since she had visited a few years back. Construction crews were raising new buildings all over the city, most of them far less ornate than the stone and marble buildings that decorated the area around the castle. Lights twinkled on as the sky turned various shades of magenta and violet.
She picked up the slice of pizza and took a big bite, smacking the cheese and bread in her mouth while Diamond Tiara watched, mortified. She didn’t notice and just kept staring out the window toward the club. It was called the RockIt, according to Pipsqueak, and was supposed to be some big musical venue in Canterlot. It also made a natural place for music students to go hang out.
“How come you eat with your hooves?” Pipsqueak asked her.
Sweetie Belle’s turned and eyed him. “Huh?”
“You eat your pizza with your hooves.” He pointed to her horn. “You have one of those, you know.”
“Oh, that.” Sweetie Belle sighed and rubbed the base of her horn. “I can use it for music things, but trying to use spells that I’m no good at makes my head hurt, especially lately. Twilight and Rarity can do them just fine . . . but not me.”
“So you can, like, make a shield and do all the music stuff but you can’t levitate a piece of pizza?” Diamond Tiara asked.
“Well, I mean, yeah . . .”
The pink filly sank back in her seat. “Wow.”
Sweetie Belle looked away while a silent moment passed between the trio. She ran a hoof through her matted pink and purple curls that had started to get far longer than she had ever kept them.
Pipsqueak coughed after a moment. “So I take it you two don’t come to Canterlot often?”
Diamond Tiara shook her head. “No, not really. My daddy likes to stay around Ponyville or Manehattan, and our family is from far away.”
“Same here,” Sweetie Belle muttered.
“Isn’t your sister dating a prince?” Pipsqueak asked.
Sweetie Belle sighed and recited, “My sister and Prince Blueblood met at the last Grand Galloping Gala and decided that if they were going to be together, it would be in Ponyville and not in Canterlot so Blueblood could prove that he’s not just royalty.”
“So she’s got him on a leash,” Diamond Tiara said.
“More or less. It’s not like I want him around all the time.”
Pipsqueak laughed. “I imagine. He’s got a reputation for being a jerk around here.”
“No, no, not like that.” Sweetie Belle tapped a hoof against her chin. “He’s more, well, he tries almost too hard to be better, you know?” She shuddered and looked back at the short, scrappy hair that made up her tail. “I only asked him to help comb my tail . . .”
Diamond Tiara laughed, looked around and saw nopony else had joined her, and shut her mouth. “So, Pipsqueak, you live around here now?” she asked. “Do you know any good places to go before we head to that party?”
Pipsqueak grinned and took a big bite of pizza. “What, you don’t like this place?”
“No, I mean, I do, but well . . .”
“We just want to stretch our legs, you know,” Sweetie Belle finished.
“Yeah, what she said.”
Pipsqueak scrunched up his lips. “Well, I guess I know somewhere that we could go. I haven’t been there in a while. Still interested?”
Diamond Tiara was up in a flash. “Sounds great!”
Pipsqueak followed while Sweetie Belle trailed after them, taking the time to approach their waiter. “Just put it on Prince Blueblood’s account,” she said, producing a card from her keytar case. The waiter took one look at it and his eyes widened. He bowed a little to her and took their plates back up without a word.
Sweetie Belle smiled to herself. He was annoying, but being close to royalty certainly had its perks.
Pipsqueak’s spot, as it had turned out, was at the top of a very large hill. Sweetie Belle’s breath came in gasps when she reached the top. Diamond Tiara were already standing at the concrete landing that topped the flight of stairs and looked out over the clearing.
It was a small park, festooned by a ring of trees and bushes. There were some wooden benches spread around a swing set and sandbox as well as other various children’s play places. The moon provided illumination to the space, for the streetlamps didn’t make it that far.
“So your special spot is a park?” Diamond Tiara asked. “Did it really have to be at the top of a hill? I mean really.”
Pipsqueak laughed. “It does if you want a little privacy.”
If he noticed how Diamond Tiara perked up after that, he didn’t show it. Instead he trotted away toward the swing set, his tail flicking behind him. Flicking and flicking and flicking . . .
“Sweetie Belle!” Diamond Tiara hissed.
The teenaged filly shook her head and threw the thoughts as far away as she could. “What?” she said.
“Don’t screw tonight up,” Diamond Tiara said. “If you mess up my time with Pipsqueak I swear to Celestia . . .”
“So you do like him. I wonder what everypony back in Ponyville would think . . .”
Diamond Tiara glared at her. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I wouldn’t . . . for a friend.”
“But we’re not friends,” Diamond Tiara snapped.
Sweetie Belle pouted. “Well fine, but if you don’t want everypony around time to hear that you’ve turned over Pipsqueak’s new leaf, then you have to say it.” She held out a hoof. “Friends?”
Diamond Tiara took a peek at Pipsqueak, who waved to her from the swingset. “If this is for that time I told you about Rumble then . . . never mind. Friends.” She grabbed Sweetie Belle’s hoof and shook once before letting go and running after her crush.
Once she was gone, Sweetie Belle snickered to herself. Somehow, revenge years later was just as sweet. Though Rumble was long gone, her cheeks still burned when she remembered the—forged, as she later found out—love letter on her desk. And then the dress Rarity had made and how she’d stood at the tree for an hour . . .
No, Diamond Tiara may be acting all nice now, but that didn’t mean she was going to treat her like nothing had ever happened.
While the pink filly went over to try to chat up her colt toy, Sweetie Belle walked to a nearby tree and sat down under its spreading branches. The rustled softly in a night breeze that chilled Sweetie Belle even under her coat.
She did her best to ignore it and brought out her keytar case. She snapped it open and produced the sheet of paper and blank book from the library. If there was going to be a more isolated place to look into it, she wasn’t going to find it anytime soon.
As it had been before, the pages of the thick tome were blank. Sweetie Belle grimaced when holding it up to the moonlight didn’t do anything, though she wasn’t surprised. Luna, even in the times of Nightmare Moon, hadn’t been associated with black magic.
Finding her previous page was a futile effort, so she flipped to the very first page in the book. She looked down at the picture of the crystal in the middle of the page. It looked smaller than the rest, perhaps weaker in the amount of magic it would take to view.
Sweetie Belle looked again at Pipsqueak and Diamond Tiara before taking a deep breath and planting her hoof on the crystal. Immediately, black magic snapped and cracked around her hoof and left little welts at the bottom of her hoof. She hissed at the pain, but kept her eyes open.
There were a few blocks of text forming. Not sentences in paragraphs, but slogans. Three at the top of the page and one at the bottom:
PEACE IN UNDERSTANDING
BROTHERHOOD IN FREEDOM
VICTORY IN KNOWLEDGE
THE INFORMED CHOOSE, THE IGNORANT OBEY
Sweetie Belle eyed them for a second more before releasing her hoof from the page. For a second, though, the magic clung to her and it felt like a claw trying to pull her into the pages. It passed, however, and the book snapped shut. Sweetie Belle told herself it was the wind.
Still . . .
She thought back to those slogans. They didn’t seem like the start to a history book, but more like something out of a propaganda book from Prance or Germaneigh. Though she guessed the message sort of fit the school, but not the black magic. So what would a pony using black magic need with a book that talked about knowledge?
Sweetie Belle glanced at the book again and gulped. The black magic had hurt, but yet part of her wanted to open it again and mash her hoof onto one of the crystals. Just read and read and let the black magic flow. She shuddered. There was a part of her that wanted it to hurt.
So, instead, she shoved it back into the case as fast as she could and snapped it shut. She took a deep breath and rested her back against the reassuring bark of the tree above her. It felt so natural and cool . . . a perfect contrast.
Beside her, she spied the loose piece of paper with the song lyrics on it. Sweetie Belle picked it up and turned it over to see again what she had written, but when she did her heart stopped.
The page was blank save for a small picture of a crystal on the middle of the page.
Diamond Tiara growled under her breath on the entire walk of shame from Sweetie Belle to Pipsqueak. How could a filly like that make her feel so bad with just a simple word? Friends. Since when did that sound more like a slur when she said it? Diamond Tiara knew it, of course.
Since you started to think of her as a friend.
She shook her head to clear out one meddlesome teenager and replace it with Pipsqueak who gave her a lopsided grin when she sat on the swing next to him.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“I can’t decide if getting you two to come to a park in the middle of the night is the best or worst idea I’ve ever had,” Pipsqueak answered, pumping his legs in front of him and letting the momentum carry him back and forth.
“Well I wasn’t expecting us to come to a foal’s park,” Diamond Tiara said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .”
Pipsqueak shrugged. “I just come up here for a little peace and quiet. Seeing as Canterlot is the capital, it’s at a premium.” He laughed. “That and swinging never stops being fun.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Aww, c’mon, something on your mind?” Pipsqueak asked.
Diamond Tiara shook her head. “No, it’s not that.”
“I’ve picked up on it, you know,” he said. “I’ve seen all the looks, the way you’ve been talking, and how you’ve been acting tonight.”
If she had been chewing gum, Diamond Tiara would have spit it out. “So you know, do you?”
“Well of course I do.” Pipsqueak smiled. “You’re becoming friends with Sweetie Belle!”
“Oh, so, uh, you caught onto that, did you?” Diamond Tiara stammered.
“Sorry, it was just a little obvious,” he said.
“I-I guess it was.”
Pipsqueak dug his hooves into the dirt and slowed his swinging to a stop. “I thought it was pretty crazy, considering the little rivalry you two seemed to have last time I was in Ponyville.”
“It was just us being stupid kids,” Diamond Tiara said. “I mean, I did some things . . . but I’m sure we’re both past it by now.”
“So maybe you’re trying to make it up to her now?”
Diamond Tiara looked away. “Well, it doesn’t help not knowing anypony in this school. Silver Spoon and I were friends since we were foals.”
“I understand.” Pipsqueak grinned. “Now we can all three be friends, how about that?”
“Yes, that would be . . . great,” Diamond Tiara said.
Pipsqueak laughed and started to swing again. Diamond Tiara, after a moment, joined him. Somehow, having something else to do gave her a little peace of mind. That, and getting to swing next to Pipsqueak and have fun with him, well, that was just a step below dating, right?
Soon, despite herself, Diamond Tiara found herself having a little bit of fun too.
The trip back down the hill was much easier, and the trio were still refreshed by the time they arrived at the RockIt. Outside, it was nothing appealing. It was a squat, gray building with a few bay windows near the top and a wide set of doors down at the bottom. A few posters cluttered around said doors advertising various bands. There were so many, in fact, that it was difficult, if not impossible, to tell who was actually playing that night.
There was a line stretching away from the door and out of sight, but Pipsqueak marched past it and up to the burly stallion who was managing the whole thing. The brute snarled at him until he brought a small pass out of one pocket on his jacket.
The stallion took the pass, looked at it for a second, then stepped away to allow the three of them to pass. When they were inside and away from the guard, Diamond Tiara leaned close and asked, “What was that?”
Pipsqueak smirked. “Second year privileges.”
The interior of the RockIt wasn’t much, but then again, Sweetie Belle figured, it didn’t have to be. Just a stage at one end, a big concert floor, and some tables at the back and on a balcony above. There was a bar, though the trio steered away. Students caught drinking, as a sign informed them, faced expulsion from the CMMA.
Most of the students, then, seemed to be among the crowds or up on the balcony. Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak began to make their way toward the crowd on the stage floor, and a look from the pink filly sent Sweetie Belle in the other direction.
She grumbled and walked over to a smaller bar, away from the main one. It was marked for the students and sold fizzy soda and milkshakes. Not the most adult thing she could have thought of, but a milkshake tasted a lot better than nothing at the moment. She paid for it with a couple bits and walked up the stairs to the balcony to maybe find somewhere to sit and enjoy the music.
The headlining band wasn’t bad, but was definitely a headliner. They were playing a little wailing song while the singer moaned into the microphone:*
I heard Ramona sing,
And I heard everything.
The speed they’re traveling,
They are the only thing.
Sweetie Belle walked toward the back of the balcony. Ponies cleared out of her way as she kept her plastic cup of milkshake close to herself. Her keytar case bumped a few of them, but she didn’t pay attention. Once a small group had cleared out to reveal the back wall, Sweetie Belle didn’t pay attention to much at all.
There, leaning upright against the back wall, was a pegasus. He wore a loose blue hoodie with the insignia of the Wonderbolts on it. His shaggy midnight blue mane fell to his pale aqua shoulders. He was a figure she had seen when she was younger, but not for years . . .
Sweetie Belle did her best to approach him without being noticed. By that, she crashed through a group of fillies, tripped, and slammed into the wall shoulder first, spilling her milkshake on her coat. She cried out as she looked down and saw the damage. She was going to be sticky for days . . .
The situation only got worse when Sweetie Belle looked up. Rumble stood over her, a worried look on his face.
“Are you okay?” he said. “I saw you trip and spill your drink . . .”
“Fine!” Sweetie Belle cried. “Just fine! Peachy! I trip all the time! I mean, uh, not all the time, but like I’m used to it. Oh, I mean—”
Rumble smiled and grabbed a few napkins from one of the tables scattered around the balcony. He offered them to Sweetie Belle. “You might need these,” he said.
Sweetie Belle did her best to smile and took them, then wiped her matted coat as fast as she could, aware of the head radiating from her face the longer she took. After a few minutes, she gave up and tried to pat down her ivory coat until it resembled something presentable.
Rumble watched the whole time, then when she was finished, asked, “Hey, you’re from Ponyville, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” Sweetie Belle said. “I mean, uh, yeah, totally. You used to live there, right?”
“Yep. Me and Thunderlane, my big brother, were there before we moved here,” he said.
“Oh, I remember him! How is Thunderlane doing?”
Rumble’s face darkened. “Dead.”
Sweetie Belle’s heart stopped for a moment. Of all the stupid things she could ask . . . “Uh, well, I’m so sorry to hear that,” she blubbered. “He was such a nice stallion and didn’t deserve whatever happened.”
“He was a criminal who was killed because he didn’t back down peacefully,” Rumble said in monotone.
“Do you want to dance with me?” Sweetie Belle blurted out.
“I mean, well, you don’t seem that happy and I’m still drying out from the milkshake,” Sweetie Belle said.
Rumble raised an eyebrow. “And your solution is to dance with a pony you haven’t met in years?”
“Is there a way to make it not sound crazy?”
“You’re certainly not on that road.” Rumble laughed. “But hey, there’s music and I get to see somepony from back home. Sure, why not?”
Sweetie Belle’s heart kickstarted itself and thumped against her rib cage until she was afraid it would burst out. He said yes! She followed him across the balcony to the area near the edge that was ringed by a cast-iron railing.
The main band was coming on and the lights over the crowd turned down and focused on the stage. Unlike the last band, or many Sweetie Belle had seen before, the one coming on stage did not just have the usual bass-guitar-singer-drummer setup. Instead, there were many other instruments like horns and even a xylophone onstage.
The singer danced her way out, clad in a form-fitting black suit and bowler hat. She waved to the crowd as the band members picked up their instruments.
Ponies on the balcony gathered near Sweetie Belle and Rumble. The filly looked to her older dancing partner and gulped. “So I guess this is the part where we, uh, dance?”
“I assume so,” Rumble said. “I mean, we could not dance, but then that would take away the point, wouldn’t it?”
Sweetie Belle laughed and rubbed one hoof over the other. She tried not to look Rumble’s way until she realized that his hoof was stretched in front of her. She hesitated, then grabbed on to it. Just as she did, the band began to play and singer began her song.*
All the “bad boys” want some brawl, it’s tricky,
And girls enjoy, they feel so lucky.
Laughing at weeds running out the door,
Calling their mom when they lick the floor.
Look how those funky ponies talk and walk in store,
They’re lost, sad and brawny like an apple core.
Who can believe that there will be some gore,
With those wimps like I said before.
Sweetie Belle danced with Rumble, but he kept apart from her, like he almost didn’t want to touch her while they danced. She didn’t ask him about it, though, and instead answered what he wanted to know.
“So you a student of the CMMA now?” he asked.
She nodded. “Just recently, though. Diamond Tiara and I didn’t take the test until this year.”
“Oh, well, good for the two of you.” He tried to smile.
“Why, are you part of the school too? I mean, it’s a big school, so I might not have seen you,” Sweetie Belle said.
“I was, once,” Rumble said. “Not anymore. I’m surprised you are, though.”
It ain’t right, babe, no,
It ain’t right, no no.
Mama, don’t do that you know,
It ain’t right, yeah, boy boy.
It ain’t right, babe, no,
It ain’t right, no no.
Mama don’t do that you know,
It ain’t right, yeah, boy boy.
Rumble didn’t say. Instead, he indicated for Sweetie Belle to take his hooves so they could dance closer. She thought about refusing for approximately no time at all and just about grabbed him.
When she did, though, she felt a small jolt of energy. A little bolt of black lightning passed from her to him and his eyes met hers.
“Are you sure you belong at a school like that?” Rumble asked.
Sweetie Belle looked away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Rumbled pulled her closer until their noses were almost touching. His voice dropped low. “You’ve found your way into the black magic. Very . . . brave . . . for a girl in the CMMA. Though I don’t suppose you know what’s even happening inside yourself, do you?”
“Inside . . . me . . . ?” Sweetie Belle whispered.
“Bad boys” are not so picky,
They ride away and feel so happy.
To fight for girls they do adore,
Snorting like boars rolling on the floor.
With their leather jacket and their rocky voice,
They hit, fight, kick, wreak havoc and rejoice.
Nobody knows what they are looking for,
A kind of battle axe or maybe more.
Rumble twirled Sweetie Belle with one hoof as they kept up their dance, then pulled her close again. “Black magic is dangerous, especially for somepony like you,” he said. “It spreads and its effects are . . . not pleasant.”
Sweetie Belle gulped. She realized that she had begun to sweat, though the club was very cool. “W-What do you mean?”
“You’re in danger, Sweetie,” he said in her ear. “And being at the school won’t help.”
She let him guide her around on their hind legs. They swayed to the beat of the music and in and around the other pairs on the balcony. She wished he would stop talking.
“How do you know so much about this?” she asked.
Rumble sighed and placed one hoof on her chest. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Sweetie Belle watched as black sparks of magic flowed out of her, twirled around him, then dissipated into thin air.
“I’ve run into it before,” he said.
The song ended and they began to drift apart. Sweetie Belle found herself wanting to hang on, and she fought the urge to ask him to stay. But that would have made her sound weird, she thought.
Rumble started for the stairs.
“Wait!” Sweetie Belle called.
She trotted up to him. “So you’re here and know about the black magic and even dance with me . . . was this a setup?”
“Be careful where you go,” Rumble warned, “because there are more ponies than just me who can sense a powerful black magic presence. And they are usually far less kind than I am.”
With that, he disappeared with the crowd heading down the stairs. Sweetie Belle tried to run after him, but everywhere she looked were ponies from the school chatting with each other.
Some time later, Pipsqueak and Diamond Tiara caught up to her. They were smiling and laughing, and didn’t seem to notice Sweetie Belle’s expression. She kept turning Rumble’s words around in her mind. Over and over. The black magic . . . it had seemed so much worse than what she had thought. But what about the book?
“Hey, Equestria to Sweetie Belle,” Diamond Tiara said. “We sharing a taxi or not?”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Oh, yeah, sorry, got a little distracted there.”
“Just try not to in the future,” the pink filly said as she led Sweetie Belle down the street. “You don’t know what could happen.”
The rain that had started over the Everfree Forest earlier in the day continued on through the late afternoon, drenching the wild foliage that grew under the shadow of Canterlot. The forest’s many creatures chose that time to hide in their burrows and nests, so it was a perfect time for Zecora to do a little searching for herbs and roots.
The zebra alchemist darted down a loose trail that was bound on both sides by Poison Joke on her way back to her hut. Her saddlebags hung heavy against her sides as she trotted, filled to the brim with two weeks’ worth of materials for her latest potions and teas. The thought of warm tea spurred her on and soon she was within sight of her little hut.
When she came up to her door, however, Zecora stopped in her tracks. Laying on the ground in front of her hut was the broken and battered form of what had once been a zebra. He wore the tattered remains of a cloak around himself and there appeared to be large gray scales up and down his body. The poor thing moaned softly.
“Oh no, this will not do! What in Equestria happened to you?” Zecora asked, moving over to pick him up. “Come inside and sit with me; I’ll mix a potion brew and a cup of tea.”
The zebra made no protest as she dragged him inside and propped him up on a wooden chair in front of the perpetual fire beneath her potion pot. Zecora tossed a few of the herbs she had gathered into the main pot while setting a kettle of tea to boil on a smaller stove near the back. Her stranger made no attempt to speak or even acknowledge her presence.
“What brings you here so late?” she asked him. “And what has brought you to this terrible state?”
The other zebra, for the first time, seemed to figure out that she was there, but only let out a soft grunt in return. Zecora sighed and didn’t press for more until the tea had finished. She poured it into a cup and brought it to her guest.
“Now, take a sip and you will see, there is more to this drink than simple tea.”
He accepted the cup, brought it to his lips, and drank. Zecora had placed some simple healing herbs inside, nothing much, but enough for him to start recovering quickly. What she hadn’t expected, however, was the reaction.
Her guest groaned and bent over at the waist, forcing himself on the ground. The cup clattered to the ground and spilled the remainder of the tea. Zecora tried to rush to his side, but she was too late. Before she could do anything, a great sparkling of black magic filled the room.
A small dome, starting from the area around the injured zebra and made out of black magic, grew and swallowed Zecora and her entire hut up. Outside, birds cried out and animals came to look at the solid black dome that now occupied the space where the peculiar zebra had once made her home.
Farther down the road, a certain purple unicorn was coming to Zecora for spell advice, unaware of her friend’s predicament. What she would soon find, however, would be much more than she could handle . . .
* * *
Sweetie Belle flopped down on her new bed, exhausted from the day’s work. Well, it wasn’t her new bed, but she had had to drag it into her new room, so it counted. Sweat had gathered on her brow and her hooves felt like they were on fire. She wanted to lay in her bed and not move for the rest of the day, and from the way Rarity had been talking she could probably do just that.
Octavia had come by with an official letter from Princess Luna herself excusing Sweetie Belle from classes “until further notice” and had made it clear that Sweetie was not to leave the new villa that she had been settled into.
It was a nice villa, at least. The little townhouse was settled on a quiet cobblestone street just a few minutes’ walk from the palace itself. Sweetie Belle’s room faced out and away from the mountain, giving her a majestic view of all the lands of Equestria and beyond. In some ways, she almost felt like a princess. A princess trapped in her tower, that is.
“Sweetie?” Rarity called from downstairs. “Are you settled in?”
Sweetie Belle looked around the room once more. Everything was in its right place as far as she could tell; except for a more slanted roof and bright blue walls, the room wasn’t any different from her old one.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she called down.
“Good,” Rarity said. “Blue and I are going out today and wanted to make sure you would be okay. There’s a guard downstairs if you need anything.”
And with that, her sister was gone. As she had mentioned, Princess Luna had sent one of her own guards to keep Sweetie Belle safe as well as keep her inside the house. The white filly sighed and rolled over on her bed, bored out of her mind.
Her eyes alighted on her pink keytar case, resting in the corner. Nopony had bothered to check it, and the magic book was still safe inside. With a tentative gulp, Sweetie Belle slid over to it and grabbed the book from the bottom of the case.
She ran her hooves over the smooth, black covering that was icy cold to the touch, though the room was normal temperature. She stared at the little book for a moment, trying to think of what to do. It wouldn’t be good to risk an incident with a guard downstairs, but she didn’t want to just do nothing . . .
Sweetie Belle smiled when an idea popped into her head. So far, she had been using direct magic to try to control the book . . . but what about indirect magic? The very kind they had been learning at the school in fact.
She opened the book and turned to the front page once again. As before, it was blank. Instead of putting her hoof right on it, however, she placed it a couple inches above the page and began to hum. It was a lyricless tune but it was still technically a song, and she could feel the magic start to build up.
With a little concentration, she forced the magic onto the page and suddenly the words appeared once again, but without the effects of black magic. Sweetie Belle smiled and wanted to do a little celebration dance, but stopped herself.
That was when she noticed her own magic.
It was pouring onto the page from her own hooves alright, but it was also much . . . darker . . . than she had seen it before. It was still pink, but a very dark shade; almost maroon. It looked almost tainted.
There was a sudden knock at her window and Sweetie Belle shoved the book away as quickly as she could. Still shaking a little bit, she walked over to the window and looked down. Standing on the lawn below her room were Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak.
Pipsqueak had another rock in his hoof that he threw up and it smacked at the window again. Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes and opened the glass panes.
“What do you want?” she called down as quietly as she could.
“We heard you were moving to Canterlot and came to see!” Pipsqueak said without any credence for being quiet. “Can we come up?”
“How are you two going to get up here?” she asked.
Pipsqueak pointed to his forehead. “You have a horn, dummy.”
“I can’t use it for that!” Sweetie Belle sighed and walked over to her perfectly-made bed. Her horn glowed and the fabric sprang up and began to tie itself together into a makeshift rope. Her magic could at least do that.
When it was done, Sweetie Belle threw it out the window and let it hang down. She kept one hoof on it when she felt it start to tug and before long Pipsqueak and Diamond Tiara were standing in her room.
“It looks . . . the same,” Diamond Tiara said.
Sweetie Belle shrugged. “I’m not complaining.”
Pipsqueak whistled. “It may be the same size,” he said, “but this one room here in Canterlot probably costs more than your house back in Ponyville. Just be glad you get it for free.”
“Yeah,” Sweetie Belle said, “free . . .”
Diamond Tiara looked at Pipsqueak, then sighed. “We heard about what happened,” she said.
Sweetie Belle perked up and her eyes widened. “Y-You did?”
“Uh-huh. They made an announcement at the school and everything.”
“Well, uh . . .” Sweetie Belle gulped. “I can explain, I swear.”
“Explain what?” Pipsqueak asked. “They told us how those ponies just up and attacked you on your way home and how the school is on high alert now. We’re just glad they didn’t hurt you.”
Sweetie Belle let out a breath she hadn’t known she had been holding. “Oh, right, yeah. I’m glad too; it was really scary.”
They both gave her sympathetic nods and looked all sorts of glum for her. Meanwhile, Sweetie Belle’s heart started to beat again. Octavia had kept it a secret about what had really happened, then, which she could use to her advantage. Somehow. She’d figure that part out later.
“So when are you coming back to school?” Diamond Tiara asked.
“Oh, uh, they haven’t really told me yet,” Sweetie Belle said. “Why?”
Diamond Tiara raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember? Professor Note is holding the concerts tonight to present our group projects; the songs we practiced. It starts in an hour and I can’t go on if you’re not there.”
“Well, there’s a guard downstairs . . .” Sweetie Belle began.
Pipsqueak snorted and indicated to Sweetie Belle and himself. “And you can see how effective he is.”
“So will you?” Diamond Tiara asked with an expectant smile.
Sweetie Belle gulped. On the one hoof, she wanted to help her new, sort-of-quasi-ish, friends, but on the other, how could she guarantee that her playing wouldn’t cause another dark magic spike? A part of her mind reminded her of the trouble that she would get into for leaving the house, but she quickly squelched it. Since when had that stopped her?
“You okay?” Pipsqueak asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll do it, don’t worry. Just let me get my bag.”
Sweetie Belle ran over to her keytar case and carefully took the black book out and hid it behind her dresser. With any luck, that was what had been causing her problems and would let her play without worry.
“Alright, ready to go,” she said.
Pipsqueak nodded and let her slide out the window first, then him, then Diamond Tiara who shut the window after her. They crept over the backyard fence, down an alley between the townhouses, and were safely down the street and away from the guard before he was any the wiser.
Sweetie Belle did her best to smile as she trotted with them down toward the underside of Canterlot and the CMMA.
By the time they got there, the show had already started. Heavy metal music poured from the clamshell-shaped stage at the front of the music hall as the trio crept toward seats near the back.
Down on the stage were two tiny figures obscured by artificial fog and red lights that came from no discernible source. One fat colt played a double electric guitar that looked like . . . the spread legs of a mare. The other, skinnier one sang while the fat one backed him up. Sweetie Belle’s heart jumped as she realized who they were.*
I do not need (he does not need),
A microphone (a microphone)!
My voice is fucking (fucking),
“Since when have Snips and Snails been in our class?” Sweetie Belle whispered.
“Since day one,” Pipsqueak hissed. “You mean you didn’t know? Did you really not see them?”
Sweetie Belle tried to smile as Diamond Tiara shook her head. “No?”
The music grew louder and the physical force of it as magic poured out slammed the trio of teenagers back in their seats as the sound washed over them.
I did not mean (he did not mean),
To blow your mind (to blow your mind)!
But that shit happens to me,
All the time!!
Onstage, Snips and Snails appeared out of the fog wearing even more ridiculous costumes as the music roared on. They had on eyeliner, fishnets, and everything. Somehow, it made the entire thing comedic even as the magic kept beating and roaring.
Now take a look (take a look),
Tell me what you see (tell me what you see)?
We’ve got the Pick . . . of Destiny!!
As the song wrapped up, Sweetie Belle could see a glowing green guitar pick strung around Snips’ neck that, oddly, looked like a skull. She raised an eyebrow and her mind flashed back to the black book. Maybe another musical artifact. Even if it was, though, it didn’t seem to do anything harmful as the song wound down with Snips screaming incoherently.
When it was over, the students clapped and Professor Note came on the stage. He had two of his hooves and his head wrapped in bandages, but he was smiling and cheered for them.
“Fantastic presentation, you two,” he said, then turned to the audience. “Now, next would have been Diamond Tiara and Sweetie Belle, but after the incident on the bus, we cannot expect for the two to—”
“We’re right here, Professor!” Diamond Tiara called, shoving Sweetie Belle with her down the aisle and toward the stage. She didn’t stop until the two of them were standing under the bright lights on the wooden stage. Sweetie Belle noticed a drum set being wheeled out behind them.
Professor Note smiled at them. “Sweetie Belle, back so soon? We all heard about your attack and Princess Luna assured us you wouldn’t return until you had recovered.”
Sweetie Belle gulped. “Well, uh, you see,” she said, “it was more of a suggestion really, and I feel fine now, so how about I go on?”
For a moment, she was afraid the professor wouldn’t buy it, but he just shook his head and said, “Well, who am I to deny a student their love of music? Luna made sure to tell us that you weren’t hurt too bad, so you should be fine.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. Octavia must not have told the rest of the faculty about the black magic yet, so she was in the clear for now. Now to just play and be back before the guard noticed or Rarity got home, and hope Professor Note wasn’t chatty.
Sweetie Belle took out her keytar, looked at Diamond Tiara, then nodded. Professor Note walked off and to the front row while Sweetie Belle stood in the center of the stage while her partner took to the drum set.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Diamond Tiara hissed.
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath and tried to recall all the notes that had come so easily to her just a few days before. Then, her horn began to glow and she smiled as the memories came flooding back.
The keytar’s notes spilled out by themselves with the twinge of a fake horn ringing out through the music hall while Diamond Tiara waited to enter with her drum beats. Sweetie Belle began to sing.*
Something’s tearing me down,
And I can’t help but feel it’s coming from you.
She’s a gunshot bride,
With a trigger cries . . .
I just wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Diamond Tiara came in with the drums before the next note, their sound carrying out with a smooth beat. A pink flow of magic gathered around Sweetie Belle’s hooves and began to jump to life.
In a trail of fire I know we will be free again,
In the end we will be one.
In a trail of fire I’ll burn before you bury me,
Set your sights for the sun . . .
Her shield sprang to life as the beat shifted over to a harder, electronic thumping as the keytar switched gears and Sweetie Belle brought more of her magic to bear. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Diamond Tiara’s own magic ring doing the same and watched as it drifted over to her shield and became one with it.
However, when they met, there was a small black spark. It lasted only for a second, but Sweetie Belle saw it nonetheless. She gulped as she continued into the next verse.
Mind is willing,
This mare cannot be saved,
From the drawn into the fire.
Sweetie Belle almost lost her place as she felt herself lifting off the stage. She looked down and saw that her shield had transformed into a floating ball while Diamond Tiara’s ring swirled around it. Worse, though, was the black sparks crackling on the edges of it. They flashed and sparked around the music hall and, somehow, forced Sweetie Belle to continue on singing.
Mind is willing,
This mare cannot be saved,
From the drawn into the fire.
Bring it on home.
Bring it on home.
Bring it on home.
Bring it on home!
The music and vocals continued and Sweetie Belle felt like she was watching herself singing them. The bubble grew bigger and flashed pink and black alternatively as the sparks scored hits on the auditorium and students fled in panic.
Worse, Sweetie Belle could see down at herself, even as her mouth formed words on its own, that her own coat was being covered in dark and fiendish designs that looked like rotting veins spreading across her body.
At last, they came to the end of the song.
Anything to bring it on hooooooooooome!
The song died out and the shield, instead of collapsing, exploded outward in a burst of magic and light. Sweetie Belle fell to the floor and, when she opened her eyes, saw a smoldering ruin of a music hall lying before her. Diamond Tiara cowered behind a smoking drum set.
Professor Note, however, stood in the middle of it all, unharmed. His gaze locked on Sweetie Belle’s as he shook his head and sighed. “Oh, Sweetie Belle,” he said. “I had hoped for better.”
After hours, the principal’s office looked much more sinister. Then again, it probably didn’t help to see two very angry princesses staring at Sweetie Belle from behind the large desk. On Sweetie Belle’s side stood a blushing Rarity and flustered Prince Blueblood who continued to apologize profusely for her actions. Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak waited outside.
Between the princesses, however, was Twilight Sparkle, who had said nothing the entire time. Instead she just stared at Sweetie Belle with interest.
“She’s just a filly,” Rarity was protesting. “She doesn’t know any better!”
“She may be,” Celestia herself said, “but that does not excuse her actions. Whereas before it could have been excused as stress or self-protection, Sweetie Belle’s actions tonight endangered the lives of my citizens and Luna’s students. For that, her actions are inexcusable.”
“My dear Aunt,” Blueblood said, “I understand that your protests against this action are valid, but finding suitable punishment for her would be . . . difficult. How could we justify the banishment of such a young filly? Or, worse, the alternative?”
Luna shook her head. “Dark magic corruption has never shown to do anything less than its name implies. She may appear to be a simple child, but before long she will be more dangerous than you could imagine, especially with her particular magical potential.”
Sweetie Belle watched desperately as adults haggled over her fate. She wanted to scream or lash out, but what good would that do for her case? Especially in front of the princesses . . .
“Surely you can find a place for Sweetie Belle here,” Rarity said. “There must be a use for somepony with her . . . newfound ability.”
Luna glared at her, a look that could move the stars in the sky. “There is no use for a dark magic user in this kingdom.”
Twilight held up a hoof. “Actually, Princess,” she said, “that’s not entirely true.”
Celestia’s brow furrowed. “Twilight? Explain.”
“It’s the reason why I’m here in Canterlot in the first place,” Twilight began. “Today, at Zecora’s hut, I discovered that a massive black, magical sphere had consumed it and wouldn’t let me though. But, maybe, it would let somepony tainted with black magic inside to save Zecora. Somepony like Sweetie Belle.”
Luna raised an eyebrow. “And if Sweetie Belle were to be consumed by whatever is inside that has taken Zecora hostage?”
“Then I and the rest of the Elements will be waiting outside,” Twilight said, then looked at Sweetie Belle. “Princess, at least allow her a chance to show that she’s not corrupted. I can vouch for her personally that none of this has been on purpose.”
Sweetie Belle bit her lip and Rarity hugged her as Princess Celestia thought for a moment. Then, she smiled at her student and nodded. “Alright, then, it is decided. Sweetie Belle will have one more chance to prove herself by going inside that sphere and confronting whatever lays within.”
Sweetie Belle opened her eyes to find herself lying on her back, her head propped up on a bunch of pillows on her bed. Somepony had placed a warm washcloth around the base of her horn, which ached with a dull fervor.
As her eyes adjusted, Sweetie was relieved to see that she was, once again, home. Her room filled out before her in the darkness: her featureless dresser and walls welcomed her back like old friends. Outside her single window, a gloomy night with no moon had settled over Ponyville. The starlight seemed dull, even as it reflected off the inky black pond outside that lapped against the shore.
There was light coming from downstairs that peeked into the edges of Sweetie Belle’s room. She could hear the sound of hushed voices rumbling below. More than just two or three, even. It sounded like a whole congregation was down there.
Sweetie Belle threw back her flower print covers and swung herself out of bed, placing her hooves on the hard floor as quietly as she could. She grit her teeth when the floorboards creaked under her weight, but if anypony downstairs had heard, they made no indication of it.
She crept across her darkened room and out the door to the little stairwell just outside. Once there, she stalked her way halfway down the stairs and kept low, where nopony could see her between the slats beneath the wooden banister.
Downstairs, in the kitchen across from the stairwell, she spied a group of ponies, her parents not among them. Instead, the ponies gathered there were all from the school, except . . . Twilight Sparkle?
She leaned in as close as she could to listen.
“Are we absolutely sure that this outburst was ‘black magic?’” Twilight asked. She leaned against a stainless kitchen counter.
Octavia and Vinyl sat across from her at the kitchen table. Vinyl, for once, looked worried while Octavia’s face showed little more emotion than seriousness. Rarity stood on the other side of them, in front 0f the bright purple door. She kept looking at the ground, and said nothing.
Octavia nodded to Twilight’s question. “We’ve gone over this before, Twilight. There was no uncertainty in what I saw; Sweetie Belle was using the forbidden magic.”
“But Sweetie Belle?” Twilight asked. “Why would she use black crystal magic? She’s never shown any signs of corruption . . .”
“Few do,” Octavia said. “That’s why it is so dangerous.”
Rarity stepped forward. “Now, I know Sweetie Belle,” she said, “and I have never thought she has even shown the slightest inclination toward corruption! If this is indeed true, it must have happened since she started attending your school.”
“That’s impossible.” Octavia shook her head. “If there were any place that she would be safest from the black crystals, it would be at Canterlot Music Meister Academy.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “So is your staff not counting Question, Thunderlane, Rumble, and the others anymore?”
“She knows what’s she’s talking about,” Vinyl said, speaking up for the first time. “There may be ways to achieve corruption in the school, but not without actively seeking it out first.”
“Sweetie Belle would not seek it out!” Rarity growled, taking another step forward toward Vinyl.
“Maybe you just don’t know much about your sister,” Vinyl shot back.
“Maybe you don’t know much about me,” Rarity threatened.
“Is that a threat?”
“It’s a promise!”
Before the two could come to blow, walls of violet magic sprung up between the two. Twilight, her horn glowing, waved toward the two of them. “Whoa, girls, calm down,” she said. “We aren’t here to fight, but to help Sweetie Belle, remember?”
“I haven’t been getting that impression,” Rarity huffed.
Octavia sighed. “You know the punishment for the use of forbidden magic, Twilight. Better than anypony else here, I’m sure.”
Twilight whirled around and glared at the gray cellist. “Then it may be wise to remember that I could have been a princess. Sweetie Belle will not pay for her crimes as if she were knowingly committing these crimes. As far as we know, this has all been a mistake. The way you described her actions with the bus gives credence to that theory.”
“Fine,” Octavia said, “but even if she’s not, then what do we do with her? The corrupted ponies will not stop coming after her, even if we stopped some of them. They will overwhelm her at some point, and even you cannot protect her every hour of every day.”
Twilight rubbed her hooves against her temples. “I know, I know. I’m swamped as it is with Spike being gone and Cadence calling on me so often now.”
Rarity cleared her throat. “If I might make a suggestion . . .”
The three other mares in the room all turned to her, and she smiled. “What if we move Sweetie to Canterlot? There, we have the Royal Guard, the Academy, and the princesses to protect her. No corrupted ponies would dare come near her.”
“You would suggest just leaving Sweetie Belle there by herself?” Twilight asked.
Rarity shook her head. “No, no, I would come along as well. Blu— er, Prince Blueblood has been seeking to return to his home town for some time now, so perhaps it would be good if all of us made the move there.”
“But what about Carousel Boutique?”
“Oh, Twilight, I thought you knew me better than that.” Rarity smiled. “I can make fashion anywhere I choose. In fact, this might be a chance for me to expand my business and interact more with my sister.”
Octavia stood up from her chair. “This is all well and good, but what about your parents? They must give their consent for this.”
“Royal consent will outweigh them, if necessary,” Rarity said, “but they will agree, I’m sure. They know I can take care of my sister, and that I will do what’s best for Sweetie Belle.”
Octavia looked at Vinyl for a moment, then nodded. “It’s settled, then. I’ll arrange for transport to leave tonight. We want to get her out of here as soon as possible.”
“Rarity, do you want to go tell her?” Twilight asked.
Rarity moved past the group, across the kitchen tiles, and up the stairs toward her sister’s room.
Sweetie Belle, meanwhile, ran and jumped back into her bed just ahead of her sister. Questions swirled in her mind as she recalled Octavia’s words and Rumble’s speech to her at the RockIt. Corruption . . . that had been a big word. A dangerous one, too, if Octavia’s behavior was any indication.
Her bedroom door creaked opened and her sister trotted in. A weary smile decorated the demure face of her sister. There were worry lines starting to form on her face now, though she wasn’t much older than Twilight or any of the other Elements. Sweetie Belle winced whenever she saw them.
Rarity’s horn lit up and the lamp on a stand beside Sweetie’s bed came to life, bathing the room in a small orange glow that met and swirled with the blue light coming from the night outside.
“Hey there,” Rarity whispered as she approached the bed. “Are you feeling better?”
Sweetie Belle turned over and nodded her head, shaking her bangs everywhere. “I’m fine,” she said.
Rarity looked away. “Your teacher, Octavia, told me about what happened today.”
“It was an accident, I swear!” Sweetie Belle cried. “I didn’t mean to—”
Before she could finish, Sweetie Belle was swept up in her sister’s hooves as Rarity leaned over the bed and pulled her into a hug. “No, no, nopony blames you,” she said into her sister’s ear. “Don’t you ever blame yourself.”
To her surprise, the teenager found herself leaning into her sister in a desperate embrace. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she cried. “I didn’t ask for this! Octavia was talking about treason and I . . . I didn’t know what to do!”
Rarity hugged her tighter. “What you did was dangerous, but I know you would not do such a thing for bad. My sister is the kindest and most wholehearted student at that school. No one is going to say anything else, I promise.”
Sweetie Belle sniffled a little and hoped her sister didn’t hear. “Thanks, Rarity,” she said.
Her sister stood back and smiled. “You know it’s no problem, little sister.” She sighed. “I’m afraid things aren’t quite so easy with everypony else, though.”
Sweetie Belle leaned back into her pillows. “We can’t stay in Ponyville with all those ponies coming after me, can we?”
Rarity shook her head. “No, but we get to go to Canterlot and live there all the time! I’m sure you’ll love it and be able to hang out with all of your new friends.”
“Sure,” Sweetie Belle muttered.
Rarity sat on the edge of the bed. “Hey, it will be all right,” she assured her. “And it’s only going to be temporary. You don’t even have to pack anything but your school materials.”
“Really?” Sweetie Belle asked.
Rarity smiled. “Really. But you better start, because we have to leave tonight.”
Sweetie Belle did her best to smile and got out of bed once again to begin gathering her school bag and keytar from where they lay by her dresser. She noticed Rarity keep her own grin plastered on her face. For that, they were still sisters, at least.
The pale moonlight curled around the rocky landscape in the foothills beneath Canterlot. Scraggly trees and stunted bushes grew in the blasted landscape and little else. Once the home of hydras and dragons, the land was now empty after the Royal Guard had cleaned them out a thousand years before. Now they only stood as a quiet reminder of pony dominance in the area.
Naught Note stood on top of one of the rocky outcroppings, his jet black mane whipping in the light wind that blew across the emptiness. He had his eyes closed and his breath came in soft whispers. He was waiting.
The sound of hooves crunching on rock came to his ears. It started as a soft noise, but grew louder and louder as the pony came closer. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped.
Naught Note opened his eyes.
On top of a massive boulder a dozen feet in front of him was another pony. His dark eyes were offset by a pure white coat and mane to match. A midnight black question mark decorated his flank and he had a golden guitar strapped to his back. He did not move or make a sound, only stared.
“Question,” Naught said at last. “I was hoping you would come. Very predictable as usual.”
The stallion, Question, made no move to say anything.
Naught sighed. “How long has it been? Five years? Since the last insurgency, I’m sure. You were at the school, then. Such a shame we couldn’t have kept you around; you were always such a lovely guitar player.”
Still not a word.
“You weren’t especially confident, though,” Naught continued. “I remember how you fretted over every little thing; couldn’t handle the slightest criticism. But I suppose that’s part of why you left us for the other side, isn’t it? The power of the crystals . . . perfection!”
Question, at last, made a noise. It was a laugh, high and shrill that came from the nose. It echoed across the rocky landscape and bit into Naught’s ears. When the stallion had stopped, his eyes had taken on a green tint.
“After all this time that is how you greet me,” Question barked. “You treat me no better than trash, cast my kind out, and then have the nerve to pretend it was my fault.”
“Oh, and the attack on Canterlot was just a misunderstanding, then?”
Question surged forward and a purple haze surrounded his head. “You misunderstood us! We tried to make peace and you just hunted us down. But that won’t happen anymore . . . our numbers have grown and there is a massive source of dark magic right in Canterlot. We’ll be all over you soon enough.”
Naught narrowed his eyes. “Not if I can help it.”
“What, are you going to stop me with more of that whiny teenager music you ‘entertain’ your students with?” Question snapped.
Tendrils of inky black magic uncurled and swept out from around Naught Note. “No, I save the good stuff for my enemies, Question. It’s a pity you are one of them. Leave now, and no harm will come to you.”
Question stood on his hind legs and brought out his golden guitar. “I’ll take my chances.”
Naught Note sighed, then inhaled and let music flow from the spiked tendrils around him. He didn’t have to like it, but letting Question near Canterlot wasn’t an option.
A heavy guitar riff exploded out from from the tendrils as they blasted forward toward Question. The stallion let them surround him as they spiraled up and formed a massive, pitch-black dome filled the bursting rhythms of guitar.*
Then, Naught begin to sing soft lyrics as the darkness crept in and swallowed them both whole.
I am the one who walks alone,
And when I’m walking a dark road,
At night or strolling through the park . . .
Near the top of the dome, above Question’s head, spikes thudded into place inward as the darkness bound the stallion in place. He made no move to fight back.
Meanwhile, Naught stepped forward on his outcropping and continued to softly whisper the lyrics to the quiet guitar riffs.
When the lights begin to change,
I sometimes feel a little strange,
A little anxious when it’s dark.
Spiked columns exploded out from the roof of the dome and thudded around Question. He didn’t flinch as they came within inches of slicing him in half. After a moment, he was surrounded by the pillars that sparked with music magic. Naught smiled.
Fear of the dark, fear of the dark,
I have a constant fear that something’s
Fear of the dark, fear of the dark,
I have a phobia that someone’s
The pillars exploded as the guitar and drums roared back into existence. They shook the dome and Naught cried out. But when he looked, however, Question was gone.
Then, he had to cover his eyes as a bright explosion tore through the dome and Naught’s tendrils collapsed. When he looked again, Question was floating in the air, tearing through riffs on his guitar.*
Little white balls of light flew out of the guitar, separated into five pieces, and exploded in the air around Naught, who had to bring his remaining tendrils up to protect himself.
They kept coming, however, as Question continued to hammer out notes and began to sing.
Spineless from the start, sucked into the part!
Circus comes to town, you play the lead clown!
Spreading his disease, living by his story!
Falling to your knees, suffer for his glory!
You will . . .
The balls of light exploded around Naught, but he was back on his hooves and jumping from rock to rock to avoid them as they pounded the crags to bits. He gathered his music back up, and it screamed into life.
Have you run your hoof down,
And have you felt your neck skin crawl,
When you’re searching for the light?
Sometimes when you’re scared,
To take a look,
At the corner of the room.
You’ve sensed that something’s,
Inky black spike met exploding white light in the air between the two stallions. Each maneuvered around and cast larger and larger attacks in an attempt to gain leverage over the other. The sounds of their battle filled the rocky chasm as they pounded the landscape down with magic attacks.
Bound to your leper messiah!
Fear of the dark, fear of the dark!
The battle continued on, long after the songs had actually ended. No music filled the air, just explosions and cries of anger and anguish. It went on for hours unabated until, at last, both combatants fell to their original positions, exhausted.
“I see you’ve lost your touch,” Question sneered. “In your old days, you could have beaten me without much effort. You’ve gotten weak.”
Naught panted and coughed. “Or maybe I’m just not filled with crazy magic.”
“I have perhaps gotten stronger, yes. You have not yet seen what I can do with true dark magic.”
“Then why not do it now?” Naught growled. “I can go all night.”
Question laughed. “I didn’t come here just to parry blows. No, you see, this was a warm up . . . and a warning to you and the rest of the CMMA. We are coming and we are everywhere. Enjoy your power while it lasts.”
Moving faster than Naught had ever seen a normal pony move, Question was gone, lost in what remained of the rock fields. Once he was sure the stallion was gone, Naught sagged to his knees and started to wheeze.
The boy had been stronger than he had ever seen, and had been holding back. Naught wearily climbed to his feet and stared up at Canterlot, just above him. How much longer would they be safe up there?
Without a word, he started back to report in.
* * *
Sweetie Belle looked around her room. The moving stallions had already cleared out all of her furniture and knick-knacks, leaving only a bare wooden floor and whitewashed walls. It felt . . . empty.
Not just empty because of no furniture, but devoid of life. Devoid of emotion. She had spent her life in this room and now it was like that part of her wasn’t even there anymore. It was just four walls, a ceiling, and a floor now. Same as it had always been.
Sweetie Belle walked out of her room one final time and closed the door behind her. She marched down the wood steps whose edges had been worn by her hooves going up and down them countless times. The bannister was much the same.
The rest of her house was left unchanged, however. Her mom and dad had decided to stay put and let Rarity take care of Sweetie Belle for the time being, as they said it was better for an Element of Harmony to be with her than just them. Sweetie Belle sighed when she thought about that. Now they’re just my parents.
She’d never been their biggest fans, but hadn’t wanted it like this.
They were waiting for her outside, next to the Royal Coach that would take her, Rarity, and Prince Blueblood back up to Canterlot. Scootaloo and Applebloom were there too.
“We’re so proud of you Sweetie Belle,” her father said when she hugged him. “You’ll do great things at this school. I know it.”
Her mother smiled and warned, “But remember to be safe, too.”
When Sweetie Belle came to Scootaloo and Applebloom, there wasn’t much more to say. The friendship that had lasted for years was coming to a rapid close and the three didn’t know what to say as the ember died out.
“We’ll miss you,” Scootaloo said finally.
“Yeah, and just remember to write,” Applebloom added.
Sweetie Belle smiled and hugged them both. “I promise I’ll be back soon,” she said. “We’ll be back to normal in no time.”
When she said that, at the time, she was sure she meant it. But by the time she had boarded the coach and it had taken off, she wasn’t so sure. Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak waited for her in Canterlot, along with the CMMA. Would she get used to her new life?
“Are you ready, Sweetie Belle?” Rarity asked. “This is a big step.”
She was sitting in the front of the glorified bus, next to Blueblood. The stallion prince did his best to smile and nod to the teenager. “You’ll love your new home in Canterlot. It’s in the Royal District and usually a backup house for visiting ambassadors. You’ll be getting the royal treatment.”
Rarity may have swooned over that thought, but Sweetie Belle just glumly nodded and settled back in her seat and looked out the window once again. Ponyville fell away and got smaller and smaller until she couldn’t even see it and the carriage rose above the clouds.
Canterlot awaited her, but she wasn’t sure that was a good thing.
The rough dirt road to Ponyville through the Everfree Forest was quiet. No birds sang, no bugs chirped, and the wind was very still. The only object moving, in fact, was the dark figure who trotted along the path.
He had the shape of a pony, but it was a guise that was twisted and misshapen. The stripes that he had once worn proudly up and down his body were all but diminished by what looked like thick, gray scales. His eyes focused unwavering on the path ahead.
Small bits of black magic crackled around him as he moved. Out of the corners of his eyes was a small green glow, and had he opened them more, he would have revealed cold, reptilian eyes.
His hoof smashed over the ground and made a racket, but he did not care. His mind was focused on one thing and one thing alone: feed. There was more for him to feed on ahead, he knew, and it was only a matter of time before he would catch it.
Something to his right went crashing through the forest. He paid it no heed until it revealed itself to be another pony who lept out into the middle of the path.
She wore a black hoodie over her mint green form. She had a small horn on her forehead, just forward of a white and green mane. She looked up at him and grinned.
“Sup?” she asked.
The former zebra snarled. “Move. Now.”
The unicorn laughed. “You act like you ain’t never seen a unicorn before.”
“That is none of your business,” the zebra growled. “Whoever you are—”
“You don’t know who I am?” The unicorn laughed. “Seriously?”
“That is of no concern of mine.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. You see, my name is . . .” The unicorn pulled a small microphone from the pocket in her hoodie whose handle extended outward into a thin blade. “Slim Shady.”
The classroom bell rang. Students rose from their seats around the large lecture hall, packed their books into saddlebags and backpacks, and filed out of the classroom to return home.
Sweetie Belle was shaken from her information-induced reverie and began packing up her own bejeweled bag with what little books she still bothered to take with her.
Sure, in theory, listening to Miss Sapphire Shores half-sing, half-lecture about how vocal rhythms interact with magic variance was supposed to be interesting. At the very least, it was better than Professor Note’s lectures. The problem was, no matter who taught the lesson, it was still boring to Sweetie Belle.
By the time she got up from her seat at the back of the classroom, she was the last to leave.
“Have a nice day,” Miss Shores called in a sing-song voice.
“You too!” Sweetie said back before hurrying out into the hallway.
The school cleared out quickly following the end of classes, and Sweetie Belle found herself trailing on the steps of the other teenagers as she exited the school out onto the front landing pad.
Here, pegasi students leapt off the side and climbed toward their homes in the soaring towers of Canterlot or among the clouds and rainbows of Cloudsdale. A few unicorn or earth pony students got into local, pegasus-driven taxis that took them up the mountain.
As usual, the crowd thinned out pony by pony until just Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara were left on the edge of the platform, looking out at the sloping valleys below and the quiet little village that lay therein.
The wind that whipped around the lower reaches of Canterlot was cold. Sweetie Belle wished she had brought a jacket.
The week had passed by in a blur as Sweetie Belle, Diamond Tiara, and Pipsqueak had spent the days after school together, slumming around Canterlot and practicing a new musical piece. It was one of Pipsqueak’s selections, and not really her style, but Sweetie Belle had been happy to have something to do. Laughing and working with friends again had made her week seem, for the first time since joining the school, almost normal.
Sweetie Belle sat down and tucked her forelegs around her chest to keep warm as she was reminded of her dance with Rumble. Almost.
Diamond Tiara had on a fluffy coat stuffed with duck feathers tied snugly around her and a matching cap to go with it that fit under her tiara. While Sweetie Belle kept her keytar in its case around her back, Diamond Tiara had nothing. She had turned in her violin already, but found it would be awhile before she could get a drum set from the school.
The two refused to stand together, but neither did they keep far apart. The week had gotten them together, and though Sweetie Belle hadn’t been expecting for them to be friends so soon, it still stung a little to see her partner keep her distance. However, Diamond Tiara’s fancy cab to Ponyville and Sweetie Belle’s bus arrived at the same time, so their choice was either avoid each other or wait it out in silence.
They chose the latter.
Sweetie Belle shifted from hoof to hoof. Did the bus always take so long, or was it just her? She considered taking out her keytar and trying to practice a little before she was met with more chores at home, but decided against it.
She’d been practicing on her own even before last weekend, sure, but playing the thing recently for more than a few minutes always seemed to give her a headache, not even to mention what happened once she really started to get into a song . . .
She shook her head. No, just singing for now. Definitely not in front of Diamond Tiara, though.
The welcoming sight of the bus rounding away from the other side of the school and down toward them saved her from thinking too much more about instruments or music for the day.
Diamond Tiara’s cab rose up beside the bus and both landed at about the same time, touching down on the cobblestone. The pegasi driving them both eyed each other, but said nothing.
Sweetie Belle and Diamond Tiara gave each other a look before getting into their respective vehicles and forgetting about the other until the next day.
The bus, as usual, was only occupied by Octavia in the very back, right seat. Sweetie Belle took the seat across the aisle. She sat with her keytar next to her and her school bag on her lap.
“How’d it go?” the teacher asked without looking away from her window. Her own bag was in the seat beside her. A violin poked out the top of it.
“Good, just good,” Sweetie Belle answered. “Just a, uh, normal day and all.”
Octavia chuckled. “Only your second week here and you’re already considering a day at a school for magical musicians normal? You’re fitting in already.”
“It helps that I didn’t have Professor Note’s class today. He scares me.”
“He scares everyone, Sweetie Belle,” Octavia said. “Just keep from insulting his choice of music and you’ll do fine.”
Sweetie Belle didn’t have much to add after that. She was content to, like normal, let herself sink in the bus seat and feel the rumble of the wind as it whipped around the bus.
Octavia watched Canterlot Mountain sink into the distance as they rose into the clouds. Another boring day.
The thunderhead rumbled under the pegasus’ hooves. It was angry. Weather teams from Cloudsdale had kept it raging all day for a night storm sometime around midnight. Until then, it made perfect cover for the pegasus and his comrades.
He looked at them all. They had had names at one point, but nopony remembered theirs or anypony else’s by now. It was better that way. Even their shapes, too, were different. Darker, meaner, and colored some form or dark or grey.
They all sat on the top of the thunderhead, waiting with bared teeth for his command to attack the bus down below.
The pegasus could understand their impatience. Just looking at the little metal box made him want to lick his lips. They could all feel it, of course. The power that emanated from it. It drew them like a lightning rod to its presence.
Something or someone inside that bus had a great amount of dark magic inside them just waiting to be devoured.
The black crystal inside the pegasus throbbed. It wanted it. Needed it. The electricity building below the pegasus’ hooves in the thunderhead only served to excite him further. He just had to wait a little more. Just until the bus disappeared beneath another cloudbank. The pegasi pulling the thing wouldn’t even see them coming.
The pegasus gripped the edge of the cloud and watched, shaking, as the bus finally passed out of sight.
“Alright, time to go!” he growled to his subordinates. “Get the black magic, and get out! We’re too close to Canterlot to stay for long.”
The other pegasi eagerly nodded their heads. Their eyes already began to glow green as the black magic flowed through all of them. Their leader did the same. It felt like a great tingling sensation that spread through his entire body.
Power. So much power that it was almost pouring out of him as he spread his wings and dove toward the bus below. His mouth screwed itself into a sick grin. He had a meal to catch.
Sweetie Belle had drifted off into a state that wasn’t asleep, nor awake. The gentle thrum of the bus as the pegasi pulled it through the clouds was enough to let her thoughts of the day ease up.
Octavia, across the aisle, had surrendered to the same condition. A peaceful ride home from work was just what she needed right now. Through half-lidded eyes, she watched the clouds pass by around them.
They came through another cloudbank and out the other side. Octavia was about to close her eyes for a catnap when she spotted dark figures among the sky with them. They were not alone.
She squinted to get a better look at them. They were ponies, that was for sure, and heading right toward them. Octavia figured they were just ponies from the Cloudsdale Weather Patrol making sure they kept away from the gathering thunderhead.
Then the bus’ front window burst apart and the driver fell silent at the reigns. The pegasi at the head of the bus let out cries of pain and anger as the concentrated dark magic fell on them. Octavia couldn’t see what was happening, but could guess it was nothing good from their yelling.
The bus began to drop rapidly and it’s nose pointed almost straight down. Octavia was pressed against the back of her seat from the force. The sudden change also woke up the drowsy Sweetie Belle.
“What’s going on?” she yelled, her voice cracking in panic.
“It would seem,” Octavia grunted as another bolt of magic collided with the bus, “that we’re under attack.”
The bus shook as a hole was torn in the roof. A dark pegasus pony with a twisted face landed inside and sneered at the two ponies with in. Sweetie Belle tried to press herself further into her seat.
Octavia’s heart was racing and sweat gathered on her brow. One look at Sweetie Belle, though, and she stepped into the aisle in front of the student.
She pulled the violin out of her bag and faced her new opponent. He was tapping his hooves against the floor of the bus at an impatient pace, and black magic swirled around him.
“Out of the way,” he said in a raspy voice. “We have no use for you. We want the source of the black magic!”
“You’ll find none of that here!” Octavia said.
“You lie!” the pegasus shot back. “We can see the source right behind you!”
Octavia turned her head to see Sweetie Belle still cowering in the seat. She clutched the keytar to her chest and her eyes bored down on the pegasus who leered at her. He grinned and she turned away.
Octavia shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you and your friends would be wise to leave now before things get any worse for you.”
The pegasus looked around at the falling bus. “Hah, good one.”
He grinned and began to build up the dark magic around him. It snapped and twisted in the air around him and he appeared to revel in its influence.
Octavia didn’t hesitate to put the violin to her shoulder and begin playing. The music swelled around her. Deep purple magic swirled around her hooves in response to the dark magic the pegasus so proudly displayed.
“One last chance,” the teacher said. The magic swirled in streams around her. “Leave us alone.”
The stallion snarled at her and leapt off his feet toward her, dark magic crackling around him. It struck out like a viper toward the cellist, snapping and crackling toward her. Octavia, however, didn’t blink as she sidestepped in the narrow confines of the bus and let the magic fly past her. It struck the rear of the bus and punched a hole right through.
The pegasus kept coming and Octavia didn’t stop moving. She dug in with her hind legs and tackled him in his midsection, sending them both sprawling across the aisle.
Before the pegasus could recover, Octavia had her bow out. It was covered in violet magic that connected with the stallion’s back and sent him flying up and out the hole he had torn in the roof. Octavia let go of the breath she had been holding and managed to slump against one seat.
Her relaxation didn’t last long. The bus began to pitch forward, its nose edging toward the ground. Only one pegasi was still driving the carriage, and he was fighting to free himself from the straps. Octavia gulped.
“Sweetie Belle,” she said, turning to the filly, “we’re going to need you to use your shield.”
The filly’s face was ashen and her eyes stared straight ahead, or rather, down as the bus continued to tip toward the ground. She didn’t respond.
“Sweetie Belle!” Octavia yelled. “Shield! Now!”
Sweetie Belle slowly shook her head. She tried to speak, but nothing came out. Her gaze was fixed on the ground as it rose up to meet her.
Octavia ran to her side. “Sweetie Belle,” she cried, “I know this is hard, but I need you to perform your shield! If you don’t, we are going to die!”
Sweetie Belle looked up at her, her lip quivering. “I . . . I can’t.”
Octavia sighed. The ground was getting closer and at a more rapid pace. “Grab your instrument and hold on to me,” she said. The filly replied and Octavia drew out her bow.
She ran down the bus’s aisle and jumped through the air toward glass front window. In one swift motion, she arced her bow and a violet blade sliced through the glass and they flew out. Octavia followed through and cut the reins holding the final pegasus driver to the bus and grabbed on to the loose end.
The pegasus, now free, flew them away from the falling bus and on toward Ponyville. They didn’t make it very far, however, before the rest of the attacking pegasi were on them.
“Get us to the ground!” Octavia shouted to the guard pulling them along.
“I think that’s not going to be the problem!” he shouted back. “It just depends how fast you get there!”
Bolts of dark magic blew past them and Octavia swung them around on the reins to dodge. Sweetie Belle clenched herself around Octavia and hugged her head into the teacher’s coat. She was shaking.
The two parties traded blows until at last Octavia was able to let go of the rope and plant her hooves on a small grassy plain just outside of Ponyville. She took a moment before the dark pegasi arrived to catch her breath.
Sweetie Belle still kept close to her teacher, staring up at the pegasi that were descending upon them.
Octavia grabbed her by the shoulders and looked at her. “Sweetie Belle, you’re going to have to stay with me,” she said. “You’re going to have to form your shield now.” She pointed to the pegasi driver. “You don’t have to fight, but I can’t protect you and him while fighting the bad guys off, okay?”
“I don’t have any music for—”
“It doesn’t matter.” Octavia shook her head. “Any music will do. Just play whatever feels natural and raise that shield!”
The pegasi were almost upon them now and Octavia shoved the filly toward the driver and stood her ground. A magic blade sprang to life from her violin bow as music began to play. Instead of a simple blade, however, the violet magic took the form of an axe head.
She grit her teeth. She was ready.
Sweetie Belle watched her teacher prepare to fight like she was in a trance. The world swirled around her and everything slowed. Somehow, she fumbled her keytar’s case open and got it around her neck. Her hooves didn’t meet the keys, though. Her magic didn’t activate.
Instead, all she could feel like doing was sitting there and watching the battle unfold. The pegasi swirled around Octavia. They sent their lightning thundering down at her, kicking up great clouds of dirt from the ground.
Octavia herself swung her magical halberd in an arc and a stream of magic snapped up and engulfed two of the pegasi, sending them tumbling to the ground. Despite her small victories, however, she was still outnumbered four-to-one.
One of them, however, noticed Sweetie Belle standing by herself. With a wicked grin, he began to advance on her. Lighting shot out from under him and burned the grass in front of Sweetie Belle’s hooves. She began to back up.
Octavia turned around. “Sweetie Belle, the shield! Now!”
While she was distracted, the other three pegasi took advantage and tackled her to the ground. Two had her forelegs and the other got her hindlegs. They kicked her bow away.
“Sweetie Belle!” Octavia cried in desperation.
There was no time to raise the keytar. No time to think about her magic. All she could do was sing. So, her voice began to wail out the first thing that came to her head as the dark pegasus trotted toward her.*
You’re weird, in tears, too near and too far away,
He said, saw red, went home stayed in bed all day.
Your t’shirt, dish dirt,
Always love the one you hurt.
Her voice started out low and slow, but rose in pitch and speed as the magic came to her. Urgency aided her as her eyes remained fixed on the enemies in front of her. Perhaps it was the stress, but it felt like the music took over. She almost didn’t notice the instruments wailing out from the magic itself to aid her.
The shield blazed up and caught the advancing pegasus by surprise. He began to bang on it and cracks formed. Sweetie Belle sang louder.
It’s a crack, I’m back, yeah, standing,
On the rooftops shouting out,
Baby I’m ready to go!
I’m back and ready to go!
From the rooftops shout it out,
It’s a crack, I’m back, yeah, standing,
On the rooftops having it,
Baby I’m ready to go!
I’m back and ready to go!
From the rooftops shout it out, shout it out . . .
The cracks retreated back into the magic and filled themselves in. However, Sweetie Belle’s heart skipped a beat when she saw the rest of the pegasi join the first. Their dark lightning bolts smashed against the shield with a renewed fervor. Sweetie Belle stopped the song and covered her head as the whole thing began coming down around her.
This was it . . . she had failed.
Right as the pegasi cracked open the shield, however, something else happened.
It got bigger.
Black streams of magic radiated out of Sweetie Belle as the music continued to swell even though she did not sing. They met the shield and the whole magic transformed. The pegasi were thrown away as spike-like protrusions spawned across the shield’s surface.
It wasn’t done, though. Black claws threw themselves at the pegasi and slammed into them. They were picked up and thrown against the ground where they finally lay still. Sweetie Belle opened her eyes and watched as the magic drained away back into her. Worse, though, was the magic from the dark pegasi.
Little strands of black lightning flowed out of them, across the ground, and into Sweetie Belle’s hooves. As the filly watched, her hooves became black as night for a few seconds before returning to normal again.
She shuddered. The magic that had come out from her had been the exact same as the pegasi chasing her. And then that same magic had shrugged off all four of them like it was nothing. She hadn’t even had to think about it and had won the battle. Sweetie Belle gulped. What kind of power was that?
She looked up to see Octavia and the carriage driver standing over her. While the driver just looked worried, her teacher looked angry. Furious, even.
“You and I are going to have a talk,” she whispered. “And what I hear better be the truth.”
Sweetie Belle gulped. “W-Why?”
“Because, if you just did what I think you did, you will be held for treason against the Throne of Equestria.”
Treason. Sweetie Belle looked down at her hooves again. The black magic, used only by the most evil of ponies. But she wasn’t like them, was she? They had been crazy and their eyes green. She was still the same filly she had always been.
But what if she wasn’t? What if, inside, she was just as bad as those stallions? What if . . . what if she was evil now?
Sweetie Belle’s mind began to tumble back and forth while Octavia’s stare got harder and harder. The little filly began to feel dizzy and when her mind was so burdened she did the only thing she could do in that situation. Sweetie Belle fainted.
Diamond Tiara leaned forward on the drum stool and rested her front hooves against the drumheads in front of her. After their little fiasco in the gym, some guards from the palace had taken her and Pipsqueak down to the school’s music room and Sweetie Belle up to the principal’s office.
Pipsqueak himself was nearby, leaning against a stack of amps still in their boxes and plucking idly at a guitar he had picked up. It was bright blue with a rounded head and nice, thick strings that he fiddled with.
“How do you play that thing with hooves?” Diamond Tiara asked.
Pipsqueak plucked a few of the strings, playing a little melody. “You love doing something enough and you figure out how to make it happen.”
“Sure.” Diamond Tiara sighed and took her signature tiara off her head, letting her mane fall down in an unorganized mess. “When did you learn to play that thing, anyway? You didn’t play it back in Ponyville.”
“So you say,” Pipsqueak said, “but maybe the bully just wasn’t paying attention?”
Diamond Tiara looked away. “I said I was sorry, okay?”
Pipsqueak grinned and strummed the guitar. “Profusely, in fact. It’s just fun to see you blush.” He stuck his tongue out the corner of his mouth and went back to tuning a guitar he had found.
“I am not blushing!” Diamond Tiara lied.
“But no, I didn’t know it back in Ponyville,” Pipsqueak said. “When we moved back to Manehattan, though, I started to pick it up. The other kids there didn’t like me much, so I just kind of used it to escape. I guess I got pretty good at it, so I auditioned for this school. Rest is history.”
Diamond Tiara shrugged. “Better than my story, at least. Daddy wants me to learn violin and be in a more ‘constructive’ environment, so here I am.”
“Can’t be all bad,” Pipsqueak said. “I mean, you’ve got me and Sweetie Belle here. We’re almost a band now . . . sort of.”
Diamond Tiara picked up a pair of drumsticks and beat them against the snare in a slow rhythm. She let her eyes close a little and the beat settle her mind. “I guess we’re all friends, kind of, but don’t you think we’ve been getting in a whole lot of trouble compared to the average student here? I mean, Sweetie Belle’s practically on trial for that black magic stuff!”
“Oh yeah, well, she’s one of us,” Pipsqueak said.
“Is she?” Diamond Tiara snapped back. “She brought the entire school down on her because of that forbidden magic stuff and now she’s dragged us in too.”
Pipsqueak sighed. “That may be, but the black magic doesn’t stop at her.”
“What do you mean?”
“A big surge like tonight doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. If what we saw was true, she’s been bottling up that dark magic for a while now, and we’ve been playing with her the whole time.”
Diamond Tiara gulped. “So?”
“Hold out your hoof,” Pipsqueak said. “Just trust me.”
The pink filly looked at him for a moment, but did as he said. She held her hoof out until it was almost touching the young colt’s. He smiled and nodded.
“You want to see why we should be worried too?” he asked.
Without waiting for an answer, he closed his eyes and stretched out his own hoof to meet Diamond Tiara’s. There was a moment of silence as Pipsqueak shut his eyes and wrinkled his nose, but then Diamond Tiara’s attention was drawn to her own hoof.
Dancing across the pink appendage, and with a match on Pipsqueak’s hoof, was a small bolt of black magic. It whirled and sparked in the air around her hoof and she could feel it push against her. It felt as if she were holding onto a live wire, the way the sensation spread to her heart and brain.
Instead of letting go, however, Pipsqueak closed the gap between the hooves, grabbing on to her. Diamond Tiara yelped as the electric sensation sparked and built higher inside of her.
She watched, fascinated, as the ends of her hooves almost seemed to distort. A small field of magic surrounded them like water moving through air, coursing and moving in an unnatural way. Yet, to her, it felt as if she was holding . . . drumsticks?
“Wh-What’s going on?” she stammered.
“I found this out the night after we played with Sweetie Belle down here,” Pipsqueak said. “It’s a . . . side effect, I guess.”
“What’s it doing to my hooves?”
Pipsqueak nodded to the guitar that sat beside him, which was glowing as well. “I tried it out and I think . . . it amplifies our music somehow. But it’s stronger when all the instruments are connected instead of separate.”
Diamond Tiara grinned. “So us holding hooves makes us stronger?”
“Well, uh, maybe, I don’t know.” Pipsqueak coughed. “Could you repeat the question?”
The two stared at each other before yanking their hooves away and trying not to look the other in the eye. Diamond Tiara, instead, stared at her hoof and tapped it against the nearby snare drum. It made the same sound as ever.
“So what does this mean for us?” she asked.
“It means,” Pipsqueak began, picking up his new guitar, “that’s we’re stuck with Sweetie Belle, for better or worse. We either go with her or we’ll get tried for treason too, and neither of us is related to anypony famous.”
The doors at the back of the music hall burst open and two stallions from the Royal Guard marched in. They scanned the room until they saw the two teenagers, then motioned for them to come over.
“The two of you have been cleared and free to go,” one guard said.
“What’s going to happen to Sweetie Belle?” Diamond Tiara asked, walking up to the two.
“She will be taken back to Ponyville at the Princesses’ discretion,” he said. “I can give you no further information.” He turned to Pipsqueak. “Hey, did you have that guitar when you came in here?”
Pipsqueak gulped. “Uh . . . yes?”
Before the guards could say anything else, a couple more yelled from down the hall about them needing to move out. The two gave the teenagers one last look before galloping to catch up with their cohorts.
Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak made their own way out and emerged from the school’s back entrance near Canterlot Castle just in time to see a transport take off from the CMMA and head down toward the valley.
“They’re gone. So what now?” Diamond Tiara asked.
Pipsqueak put a hoof to his chin. “Whatever reason they’re taking Sweetie Belle to Ponyville for, it can’t be good. And from the look of it, she can’t handle her black magic very well. If she gets worse, they won’t hesitate to . . . well, you know.”
Diamond Tiara’s eyes widened. “They wouldn’t!”
“The Princesses are very paranoid and Sweetie Belle doesn’t know how to control herself.”
“But does anypony know how to control the black magic?” Diamond Tiara asked.
“There . . . used to be a student that went here,” Pipsqueak said. “His brother got caught using it and was exterminated, so he dropped out. There was a rumor that he knew black magic too, but was good at hiding it.”
“What was his name?”
“Rumble, and I might just know where to find him.”
The bus soared over the valley between Canterlot and Ponyville. An entire platoon of guards flew alongside the bus for extra security. Sweetie Belle wasn’t sure if it was because Celestia wanted to keep her safe, or if they were there to keep everypony else safe from her. Her hooves were unchained for the moment, though she felt afraid to move so much as a muscle with the way the guards looked at her.
Sweetie Belle’s keyboard sat on her lap, and its weight felt heavier than it had before. It was the weight of the responsibility that had been heaped so suddenly upon her, the kind that tugged her heart into the pit of her stomach. She gulped.
She knew that, far below in the Everfree Forest, whatever nameless terror that had created that black shield was waiting for her, and it would be up to her and her alone to fight it. Her hooves began to tap against the keyboard, and she bit her lip.
Sweetie Belle had never been in a real fight before, not one where anypony truly got hurt. Twilight and the others hadn’t specifically said what she was supposed to do with whoever was inside the shield, but she could guess. She wondered how exactly they expected a teenage filly to do that, especially when her magic seemed to consist of making shields.
A flock of birds flew past the bus, screeching and looking curious as to what a big hunk of metal was doing in the sky. Sweetie Belle envied them. They were free. She was being forced to fight some unknown horror or face death or exile if she didn’t comply. It wasn’t hard to wish she had wings that she could use to just jump out of the bus and fly away on.
There was a loud groan as the bus descended toward the Everfree Forest. The wind above the wild trees wasn’t tamed by any Pegasi, so the path was difficult and unpredictable. The guards grunted and strained to keep the bus upright, and the platoon flying alongside was getting thrown all over the place.
The air seemed to fester with dark thoughts and feelings, like a haze that hung over the forest. Sweetie Belle scrunched up her nose and wondered if it was always that way, or if whatever she was going to fight was causing it. She shivered.
As suddenly as it had come, the winds stopped and the bus circled around its landing zone: a small patch of grass beside the entrance to the forest. Sweetie Belle could see several ponies standing down below, waiting for her.
They stared up at her as the bus landed with a dull thump and the pegasi guards formed up outside the door. With a heavy sigh, Sweetie Belle got up and walked to the front of the bus, then stepped out onto the grass. The blue sky above and warm fall weather felt strange to her, hardly like the grim looks on all the ponies around her.
Besides the pegasi, the ponies were mostly who she expected: Twilight Sparkle, Octavia, and her sister, Rarity, all stood near the entrance to Everfree Forest, waiting for her. Oddly, though, Lyra Heartstrings was with them as well, somepony who she had seen around Ponyville a few times, but hadn’t expected to see gathered with others. Even stranger, she was dressed in a dark hoodie and was carrying a microphone.
Rarity ran over to Sweetie Belle, worry knitting wrinkles onto her face. “Oh, Sweetie Belle, you’re here!”
“Yeah, unfortunately,” Sweetie Belle said while being squeezed into a tight hug. Rarity at least seemed to be self-aware, and released her shortly after. “What is everypony else doing here?”
“We’re your backup,” Twilight said.
“In case you, well . . .”
Lyra stepped forward. “In case you don’t come back.” Rarity glared at her, but she just shrugged.
“Is that what everypony thinks?” Sweetie Belle looked at all three of them. “THat I won’t make it?”
“No, of course not, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said. “It’s just a precaution. Besides, things are not as bad as we thought. Lyra, tell her.”
The mint green unicorn stood on two legs and puffed out her chest. “I already hit him good for you, Sweetie Belle. I think he limped backed to Zecora’s to recover. If you get on him now, you can knock him flat like it’s nothing.”
“You fought him?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“Heck yeah, I did!” Lyra said. “What do you think I do when I’m not around Ponyville? Octavia here contracts me out to find baddies and mess them up.”
Octavia, who up to that point had remained silent, nodded and spoke up. “She weakened him for you, yes, but the pony inside that shield is gathering power. If you do not attack him now, he will be too powerful for you to defeat, and with that black magic he can spread all across the Everfree Forest, corrupting everything in his path.”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “I understand.”
“Then go. We will be behind you, ready to help how we can.”
A cold wind whipped out from inside the forest, and Sweetie Belle shivered. She took a deep breath, slung her keyboard over one shoulder, and took a step forward. Putting one hoof in front of the other, consciously fighting the urge to run away, Sweetie Belle walked into the forest.
The path through Canterlot had been winding and confusing for Diamond Tiara to follow, but Pipsqueak had seemed to know where he was going, so she kept close to him and tried to to stray too far. The Equestrian capital wasn’t much like how her father had described Los Pegasus and Manehattan—cities that apparently never slept—but instead had pretty much shut down by nighttime. Only a few ponies roamed the streets, and they weren’t the kind that Diamond Tiara would have wanted to find herself alone in an alley with.
They kept walking further and further down the mountain, and the smooth cobblestone path got steeper as they went. Diamond Tiara wondered how Pipsqueak managed to stay balanced with the guitar on his back. All she had were her pair of drumsticks, but she still had trouble keeping up.
Eventually, though, the street smoothed out as it wound around the mountain. The buildings of Canterlot were behind them, and the only thing in front of them was a road lit by a few magic lampposts.
“Are you sure this is where we should be going?” she asked. “I mean, how do you know for sure that Rumble is even still here?”
“This is the only place he’d be,” Pipsqueak said.
“How sure are you?”
“And if you’re not right?”
He shrugged. “Then we hope for the best.”
Diamond Tiara didn’t know how to respond to that besides following him further down, so she did just that. They at least didn’t have much farther to walk. There was a large outcropping that jutted out of the mountain to the side of the path, and Pipsqueak jumped onto it.
It wasn’t far down, but it took Diamond Tiara a few seconds to gather the courage to follow him. Once she was down, though, she could see a cave that had been dug out below the road, and was currently lit by a small fire on the inside. Sitting around that fire, she could see, was a blue-gray pegasus.
He looked up once he noticed the two of them there, but didn’t show any surprise or fear. He simply stoked his fire and watched them walk into his little cave. “I don’t remember inviting you, Pipsqueak,” he said.
“This is a special occasion,” Pipsqueak said.
“I thought you’d be smart enough to stay away. You’re lucky I even let you know where I am. It was only because of . . . Thunderlane . . . and I don’t want you to hurt that trust.” He glared at Diamond Tiara. “Which you seem to have already broken by bringing her here.”
“Hey, we’re only here because we need your help!” Diamond Tiara said, trotting forward. “We’re not even doing this for ourselves anyway, so you can drop the act.”
Rumble chuckled. “Oh? And who exactly are you here for?”
Like a switch had been flipped, his expression both soured and softened at the same time. He kicked dust and gravel over the fire until it had been put out and stood up. He walked past Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak until he was outside the cave, standing on the ledge of the outcropping. A cool night wind blew past them, and he looked down into the valley below.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.
“Both of the princesses know about her black magic,” Pipsqueak said. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but I heard them talk about sending her to Ponyville for something. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.”
He shook his head. “So you came to me?”
“You’re the only pony around that knows anything at all about black magic. We’re desperate, alright?”
“I can see that.”
Diamond Tiara glared at him. “So will you help us or not? Because if we don’t figure this whole black magic thing out, it’s not just Sweetie Belle that’s in danger.”
She glared at him when, to her surprise, he started to laugh. Rumble he kept looking at them and bending over, laughing like a hyena. “You . . . you two played with her, didn’t you? Got the black magic touch, right?”
“Yeah, we did, but I don’t see what’s so funny about it,” Pipsqueak said.
“Oh, no, no, I guess it’s not, but . . .” Rumble calmed down a little. “Just the two of you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, and it’s been so long since I’ve met anypony new to black magic that it’s just ridiculous.”
“So will you help us or not?”
He smiled. “That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“On what I get out of it. Sweetie Belle is a nice girl, but if she’s managed to attract the attention of the princesses there’s only so much I can do. If I help you all, I’m going to be sticking my neck very far out, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put it back again.”
“She might die,” Diamond Tiara said, surprising herself in how much her voice cracked. “We can’t let that happen. I haven’t done things that I’ve liked in the past either, but this matters.”
Rumble sighed and paced around the edge of the outcropping. His mouth turned down, then up again. Finally, he gave them a simple nod. “Alright, but I’m going to need an instrument. Just in case this whole thing turns into a fight.”
“And that means . . . we have to walk back,” Diamond Tiara said with a sigh.
“I’ll fly you to the school. Come on.”
The Everfree Forest was, at night, a much creepier place than Sweetie Belle had thought. She had never been dumb enough to venture in so late before, and for good reason. Branches stuck out at odd angles to snatch her up, and malicious shadows hid themselves in the bushes. It was all she could do to not run back.
Sweetie Belle looked behind her, and could no longer see Ocatvia and the rest. She sighed and kept going, more aware than ever of how alone she was. She wished she had taken the time to learn some sort of light spell from Twilight so her horn wouldn’t just sit there and do nothing.
A full moon overhead lit the path in front of her enough so she could see. Not that she quite needed it, anyway. She knew the way to Zecora’s hut like the back of her hoof. Then again, she was glad for a little light to chase away the night.
Sweetie Belle noticed that the closer she got to the hut, the colder the air became. That same feeling she had had when flying over the forest returned, and got stronger the farther she went. Her stomach felt awful and she had to bend over and dry retch into a bush before she could go on.
Still, she kept going. Every time she wanted to turn back, all she could see was the look on Rarity’s face when her sister was banished . . . or worse. Sweetie Belle shook her head and hummed a few chords under her breath.
To her surprise and joy, her horn lit up with pink light, the same as her shield. The darkness on the path scurried away, and even the feeling in her stomach subsided. With a smile, Sweetie Belle kept humming, letting the glow from her horn grow brighter until the trees around her were bathed in pink light.
Just as she was beginning to almost forget about what awaited her, Sweetie Belle rounded the bend to Zecora’s house. She looked at it and gasped. The entire hut and a vast amount of the clearing around it was covered in a large dome even darker than the night. It was pitch black, and she could feel herself almost drawn toward what she knew was black magic.
The air, for a moment, grew still. Her heart started to race, and she knew what lay inside was going to change her. She didn’t know how, and she didn’t know what would happen after, but she knew that she had to face it.
Before Octavia and the rest could catch up to her to stop her, Sweetie Belle took a deep breath and stepped forward. Her body was encased inside black magic for a moment, then she disappeared inside.
The inside of the dome was nothing like what Sweetie Belle would have thought. She had expected some sort of horror land, plagued by visions of death and despair that she had come to associate with the idea of black magic. Instead, she found herself stepping from the dark Everfree Forest into a wide open plain that seemed to stretch in every direction forever. The sky above was blue and spotted with soft, white clouds while green grass brushed against the bottom of her stomach. A breeze whipped past her, blowing through her mane and over her coat before continuing on into eternity.
Sweetie Belle felt apprehensive when she couldn’t see any sign of Zecora’s hut. All she could see was the figure of somepony laying down, out in the middle of the field.
With a sigh, she walked out toward it, her keytar held in front of her and ready to play. She didn’t know what she was going to do about the dark magic pony, or how she was even supposed to kill him. In Ponyville, she had never even thought about killing another pony, and now they expected her to figure it out on her own. Her heartbeat rose to her throat, and she could hear each thump.
She had intended to sneak up on the pony that waited for her and slice him up before he could strike at her, but her plan was ruined when he began to stir before she could get within fifty feet. The pony stood up and shook himself off, revealing a zebra’s coat that was tainted with scars and black marks all across it. His eyes opened and locked onto Sweetie Belle.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” he asked. His voice was icy cold, like a winter storm. “You’re not one of Question’s stallions, but if you’re here, you’re not one of those purer-than-thou students from the school.” He smiled. “Or are you?”
“I’m nobody,” Sweetie Belle said. “Just a pony who doesn’t like bullies.”
The zebra chuckled. “Well, nicely met, Nobody, you can call me Nameless. Though I must ask, what is a Nobody doing with an Academy instrument? Did you . . . steal it?”
“It doesn’t matter how I got it.” Sweetie Belle widened her stance. “What matters is what you did to Zecora and her hut. Where is she?”
“Oh, you mean my zebra compatriot? She’s nice and safe a few miles south of here. Don’t worr, this little land of mine has her safe . . . she’s not what matters in here.”
“Then what does?”
Nameless chuckled and paced back and forth in the grass. He towered over her like a giant. His eyes were blood red with pupils as dark as coal. “You tell me, Nobody,” he said. “Or should I say, Sweetie Belle?”
She took a step back. “How did you—”
“I was on my way to fetch you for Question when I was ambushed by that ridiculous mint green unicorn. If not for her, you would already be on your way to the Wastes.”
“Then why the pleasantries?”
Nameless smiled and threw back his head. “Let’s just say I like to play with my food, Miss Belle. Unfortunately for you, you have managed to take in far more black magic than we thought.”
“What are you talking about?” Sweetie Belle took a step back and gulped. “I’m not your food! I won’t be!”
“I’m ‘fraid that’s true, dear.” He walked toward her. “With as much dark magic as you’ve ingested, your body is . . . no longer necessary. At this point, you’re a black magic soul in a meatsuit, and the vessel is useless to us compared to what’s inside.”
“Y-You want to take my soul?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
Sweetie Belle tried to hold up her keytar, or put a smirk on her face to look brave. Her mind raced to find the right music to play. The problem was, nothing came to mind. She kept stealing glances behind her, wondering if she could make it back to Octavia. Then Nameless stepped forward and Sweetie Belle screamed.
She turned and ran, desperately trying to get back to the edge of the dome. Her breath came in short, quick gasps while she ran. Her heart felt like it was pounding its way out of her chest. She had faced danger before, sure, but never something that deliberately wanted to kill her.
There was no time to think about Nameless chasing her. She reached what she thought was the dome’s edge and dove for the exit, but only fell onto yet more grass. When Sweetie Belle climbed to her feet, Nameless was standing in front of her, sneering.
“Ah, I see you’ve found out my little trick,” he said. “A pity that you won’t be able to learn how to manipulate black magic as I can, or especially Question. Your soul will be put to good use, at least.”
Nameless closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again, they were pitch black, like the center of a black hole. He grinned, and a bright, sparkling blanket of magic coalesced around him, springing from the ground around his hooves. It sparked and flashed like a lighting storm, and wicked tendrils grew out of it, covered in spikes.
They scrambled for Sweetie Belle, snapping and clawing their way to her, to rip her open and grab what was inside. She screamed and fell to the ground, one hoof covering her face in a desperate attempt to ward away the tendrils from taking her.
As the vines reached for her, she closed her eyes and grit her teeth. She would not scream or beg, she was sure of that. At the least, she didn’t want her final moments to be pathetic.
However, as those moments ticked by, she began to wonder what was taking so long. Grimly, she wanted Nameless to just get on with it already. She dared to open one eye and peak out, and what she found brought a smile to her face.
Wrapping around her on all sides was a pink magic shield interlaced with spiderwebs of black magic. Nameless looked at her with a sneer, and pounded his vines on her shield, slamming against it over and over. Blow after blow crashed into the surface, creating sparks of black magic that burned the grass around her, but still the shield held.
Nameless backed up and glared at her. Sweetie Belle grinned as she watched him start to pace around her shield. Occasionally, he would swipe at it, but to no avail. To Sweetie Belle, the respite gave her a time to finally rest and gather herself.
First and foremost, she knew that had to defeat him or he would “defeat” her as soon as she let her guard down. The problem was, to her, how she would do it. The shield could only do so much, and she had never really used it to consciously attack anypony.
Her mind recalled the incident with the ponies and the bus, but Sweetie Belle still had no idea how she had even done that. Still . . . She looked at Nameless, at the eyes that stared at her like she was a nice patch of grass. It was kill or be killed with him, she knew.
Sweetie Belle swung her keytar around from her back and rested her hooves against the ivory keyes. She wondered what to play, but then the fog in her mind parted and she knew. The song that had come to her almost on a whim back at the library stood out clear in her mind. It had no part that needed a keyboard, and yet she felt the need to play anyway. It was like an itch that only playing could scratch.
She started to smile as she reared up on her hind legs to balance with the keyboard in her front hooves. The shield grew progressively darker with black magic, as did her own hooves, but Sweetie Belle didn’t pay it any mind. All the anger, regret, and resentment over the past few days washed away from her and into the pony outside. He was evil. He was hurting her. It was him who would die, not her.
In the back of her mind, a small voice told Sweetie Belle that something might not be right with her, but she pushed it down. It was do or die.
Nameless seemed to be aware that something was happening, as he began to gather black magic around himself into a ball. Sweetie Belle didn’t let him get that far. Thick lines of black magic snaked up her body and encircled her head as the shield exploded outward, throwing Nameless to the ground a dozen feet away.
Sweetie Belle smiled and walked out to him. She flexed one of her hooves and grinned, feeling the power coursing through herself. The black magic was like both ice and fire in her veins, creating an odd symbiosis of power inside of her. With that in mind, before Nameless could get back up, she began to play.*
Somehow, pressing keys on her keyboard caused the sound of a guitar and drums to come out, but she pushed the question of how that was possible away. The important thing was the tendrils of black magic—tinged with pink—gathered around her.
The faster we’re falling,
We’re stopping and stalling.
We’re running in circles again!
Her legs flexed and Sweetie Belle propelled herself through the air toward Nameless. His eyes widened as spiked tendrils reached out for him, for his throat and his heart. It wasn’t until the last second that he sidestepped and Sweetie Belle flew past him, hit the ground, and spun around to face him.
Just as things were looking up,
You said I wasn’t good enough.
But still we’re trying one more time!
The words felt like lightning flashing off her tongue, and Sweetie Belle yelled as she leaped at Nameless again and again. He sidestepped her every time, like he was mocking her. Sweetie Belle yelled louder as she screamed out the chorus, the tendrils flaring in rage.
Cause I’m in too deep, and I’m trying to keep,
Up above in my head, instead of going under!
Cause I’m in too deep, and I’m trying to keep,
Up above in my head, instead of going under!
Instead of going under!!
One of her blows finally connected with Nameless, and Sweetie Belle grinned. She threw her full weight at him, pummeling him over and over with her black magic tendrils, trying to rip him apart.
Instead, however, Nameless only laughed as the music died. He looked up at her, completely unharmed. “What? Did you think using black magic against a black magic user would hurt me?” he asked, standing up. “You see . . . for us to hurt ponies like you, we have to dip into normal magic enhanced by our . . . gifts. Using it in its pure form against each other is useless.”
He gave her a cruel grin. “My turn.”
One of the zebra’s hooves extended, and Sweetie Belle felt like she a house had punched her in the chest. She flew up in the air and landed hard on the ground, which suddenly didn’t feel so much like soft grass.
Nameless took his time walking over to her, his magic congealing into cylinders as hard as concrete that pummeled Sweetie Belle over and over. Her nose gushed blood, and one eye started to swell shut.
She curled into a ball around her keytar and tried to will the magic back again, but it was useless. Any time she managed to get the black magic up, his attacks pierced right through it. Her shield wouldn’t respond when she called it, leaving her bare to his attacks.
I’m going to die, she thought with a sudden feeling of certainty.
Her body felt broken. His attacks lashed her stomach, raking long lines in the skin beneath her coat, drawing blood. She wailed when the tip of one of her ears was sliced off, though little blood spouted from it. Her horn sputtered pitifully in protest, and she was afraid it would be cracked off next.
Then, like a dying wind, his blows stopped. Sweetie Belle feared looking up, for she was sure it would only invite more of his wrath. He had mastery over her at this point anyway, so she was choosing the path of least resistance to that point.
Curiosity got the better of her, however, and she stared up at the false sky as Nameless did. Nothing. Bitterly, she sighed and thought that the stallion was only playing with her, goading her into some sort of game. His eyes must have seen something she couldn’t, because he broke into a run a few moments after. He sprinted out across the grass from her, his task of taking her soul seemingly forgotten.
It didn’t take long to figure out why. The top of the black magic dome opened to let another of the CMMA’s buses through. It was covered in black magic tendrils and steered itself through the air, directly toward Nameless.
He tried to run, but the bus was falling too fast. The ground shook and heaved from an explosion of corrupt magic where the two objects had collided. All that was left in their wake was smoke and remains of the bus.
Sweetie Belle tried to stand up, but her legs betrayed her and she flopped on the ground. She couldn’t stand, but she could smile. She cheered the wreckage wordlessly and prayed that it was the end of Nameless. Her blood ran hot in her veins and her heart swelled with joy and relief. She was safe.
The top of the black dome parted again, and three more objects fell. Two of them clung to the first as they descended. Sweetie Belle was able to make out the figures of Pipsqueak, Diamond Tiara, and, to her surprise, Rumble as they flew to her, covered in a field of magic.
Diamond Tiara was letting out a high-pitched wail even as they touched down on the grass, her face buried in Rumble’s neck. The look on Rumble’s face was enough to let Sweetie Belle know how long she had been screaming.
When they noticed her, the trio galloped to her, the grass parting before them in their rush. Sweetie Belle lay back and let out a groan. She saw the faces of all three approach her out of the corner of her eye. To her, they seemed like gods looking down on high to her. She hadn’t been very pious, she had to admit.
“Look what he did to her,” said Pipsqueak to Diamond Tiara. “That . . . that thing ripped her apart!”
“Is she alright?” Diamond Tiara asked.
“How am I supposed to know?”
It was only Rumble, hard-faced and grim as a gargoyle, who waited to speak. He leaned down to Sweetie Belle and traced a hoof across her stomach, where a black magic spiral had taken root.
“The magic’s taken a hold on her,” he said. “If we don’t do something soon, she’ll be as far gone as that zebra.”
Pipsqueak turned to Rumble. “What do we do?”
“First, we need to get her out of here, then we can—”
Shrapnel from bus spiraled through the air and embedded itself ten feet from Diamond Tiara, who dove behind Pipsqueak. Another concussive boom came from the remains of the vehicle, followed by what sounded like a clap of thunder.
Sweetie Belle sat up to peer across the field while Rumble and the rest took up a defensive stance around her. For the first time since meeting them, she saw their instruments on their backs, though Diamond Tiara’s was only two drumsticks.
A howl echoed across the field, followed by the black form of the zebra sprinting toward them. His hooves clawed the grass and unearthly screams spewed from his mouth. He no longer so much resembled a zebra as a cruel mockery of one, baked out of unholy clay. Where the flesh ended and the magic began it was impossible to tell, only that Nameless was approaching the group, and fast.
Diamond Tiara spun and knelt beside Sweetie Belle. “You have to get up!” she pleaded, tugging at Sweetie Belle’s shoulder. “Rumble said you’re the only pony who can kill him! C’mon, just get up . . .”
The corrupted Nameless was almost upon them, so Rumble pulled her back into line. “Alright, just follow my lead,” he said. “For now, the black magic keeps us playing in sync. Just try not to think about it, and you can play whatever I can.”
“How does that even work?” Pipsqueak asked.
“It’s probably best if we don’t discuss that at the moment, you think?”
They spread into a semicircle around Sweetie Belle with Rumble at the head, Pipsqueak on his right, and Diamond Tiara on his left. Nameless continued to run toward them, his form rolling over the ground as if he were riding it.
Sweetie Belle struggled to climb to her hooves. They burned like hot coals were being shoved into them, and she bit her lip so hard it drew blood. With a cry, she fell back to the ground and lay there, panting.
Four lone, mournful notes from Pipsqueak’s guitar rang in her ears. It faded into the background and continued to play by magic alone as the colt’s strokes grew stronger, his hooves flying across the electric guitar. Rumble joined in with a bass guitar that sparkled metallic blue in the sunlight and had a neck almost as long as he was.
After a moment of hesitation, Diamond Tiara started to drum. Her drumsticks swung at open air, but hit something that flashed for a moment before disappearing. The sure sounds of a drum set followed with every stroke in the air she made, though for only but the briefest moments she appeared to be playing on thin air. *
This indecision's got me climbing up the walls,
The music washed over Sweetie Belle in a scalding wave. The notes themselves felt like white-hot pokers pressing into her. The black magic was burning, but it was trying to take Sweetie Belle with it.
I've been cheating gravity and waiting on the falls,
She had to get up. Nameless was charging the group out of the corner of her eye. In a few seconds he would be on top of them, and without her the three didn’t have a shield. Without me, they’re dead. I have to get up.
How did this come over me, I thought I was above it all?
Have to get up. Nameless was only a few feet from them. His tendrils were outstretched, knives snapping and slicing the air in a lust to tear at her friends. Have to get up, have to get up, have to get up!
Our hope's gone up in smoke, swallow your crown . . .
Have to get up!
Choke! On a kiss, I thought I'd save my breath for you,
Choke! On a kiss, I thought I'd save my breath for you!
Nameless was in the air and falling toward the group. A snarl was plastered on his face, but it twisted into a smile as he saw the fear with which the band looked up at him. He was so focused on it that he never saw Sweetie Belle. She threw herself at his midsection and plowed into him like a wrecking ball, sending them both tumbling end over end, a tangle of light and dark magic that exploded in her fury.
Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm hanging on you,
Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm pulling for you now!
Give me some rope I'm coming out of my head, into the clear,
When you go I come loose . . .
Sweetie Belle shot back to her hooves. The last of the black magic covering her died away with the music. Only steam rose up from her coat. Where it had been, she felt a new power, one that told her that she was going to win.
Nameless’ tendrils reached out to her. Left. Right. Duck. Her body was one fluid motion as it twisted and turned, never letting even one of his attacks touch her. She glowed pink like her shield. To Sweetie Belle, Nameless moved in slow motion, like he was attacking her underwater.
These premonitions got me crying up a storm,
Leave your condition, this position does no harm.
Choke! On a kiss, I thought I'd save my breath for you,
Choke! On a kiss, I thought I'd save my breath for you . . .
Sweetie Belle raised her keytar and batted away one of the black tendrils that sliced at her. She smiled when she realized what she had done, and shifted her stance. I’m done dodging. More attacks whipped at her, but each one felt the sting of plastic and magic from the keytar, and Nameless backed up, one hoof after the other.
“Come on, why don’t you fight me yourself?” she taunted.
The zebra roared and black magic surged out of him in one angry wave. It tossed Sweetie Belle back, but she flipped in the air and landed on her hooves.
Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm hanging on you,
Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm pulling for you now!
Give me some rope I'm coming out of my head, into the clear ,
When you go I come loose . . .
She sprinted at Nameless on two legs, her hooves cutting through the grass. The other two held the keytar above her head. It pulsed with energy fed to her from Pipsqueak and the rest, and the entire instrument was consumed in pink light.
Music thrummed in her ears, and all she could see before her was Nameless. He had tried to kill her. It was only right of her to return the favor.
With an angry cry, they leapt through the air toward each other, light magic and dark magic spiraling through blue sky to lash and strangle each other, to fight and die . . .
Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm hanging on you,
Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm pulling for you now!
Give me some hope I'm coming through, I'm counting on you,
Give me some rope I'm coming out of my head, into the clear!
The keyboard glowed brighter, and surged outward. Its plastic reformed and stretched into a curved metal blade its handle elongating into a black staff. Within the blade glowed black piano keys, their cutting edges as razor sharp as a sword.
Her new scythe sliced through the air while Sweetie Belle closed her eyes and screamed, her body falling to collide with Nameless.
When you go I come . . .
Sweetie Belle fell to the ground, rolled, and popped up on one knee. Her breath came in ragged gasps, and the scythe clattered to the ground below her. It glowed for a second, then reformed into a keytar, plain and plastic as always.
She looked behind her for Nameless. Where his body might have been, however, was a black crystal. It glowed and hovered above the ground, pulsating with dark life. Pipsqueak, Rumble, and Diamond Tiara only stared at it as their song ended, but Sweetie Belle trotted over.
It called to her like the book and crystal beneath the school had, but this time it seemed . . . softer. She could hear her friends yelling not to touch it, but they weren’t gaining her attention. It was all focused on the crystal.
She did, one white hoof pressing against the surface. It felt cold as ice. Nothing happened for a moment, then a sharp pain enveloped her right foreleg, and she let out a sharp cry, her breath hissing in pain. As she watched, however, the pain was only black magic moving its way down her leg and into her hoof, where it entered the crystal.
The object could only take so much, but for a few seconds it took on some of the black magic in Sweetie Belle’s body before it pulsed once and disappeared in a puff of acrid smoke.
By then, her friends had reached her, and stood around her, staring where the crystal had been.
“What happened?” Diamond Tiara asked.
“I think . . .” Sweetie Belle said, “we won.”
Sweetie Belle rubbed the fuzz on the back of her head where her mane used to be. The clippers Octavia had insisted on took everything off below the bottoms of her ears. It felt like a part of her was missing. Whenever the winter air touched it, she was reminded of what she had lost.
She raised her head. The night made it hard for her to see, but she could make out three dark shapes racing across the Hoofington rooftops toward her. Suburban houses had nice, tiled rooftops that were easy to run across, and soon the trio had reached her. Sweetie Belle had chosen a flat-topped grocery store to wait for them.
Pipsqueak reached her first, sliding to a stop beside her. He wore a blue bandana around his head and a cherry red guitar strapped to his back. Diamond Tiara bounded up behind him while Rumble flew the rest of the way.
“Still there?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“For now,” Pipsqueak said. “It’s just like Vinyl said: two mares and a stallion. We almost got seen, but they shouldn’t know we’re coming otherwise.”
She gave him a crisp nod. “Alright, let’s do this. Just like we trained. You and Diamond Tiara give me backup, and I’ll take the two stallions. Rumble, you’ve got the mare.”
“Are you reminding us or yourself?” Diamond Tiara asked. “Just because only you and Rumble can do the weapon thing—”
She stopped when Pipsqueak laid a hoof on her shoulder. He gave her a pregnant look, but she only grunted in return and took two drumsticks out of her saddlebag.
Sweetie Belle took his hoof and pressed it against her own. Diamond Tiara grappled onto Pipsqueak and completed the chain. The air crackled and grew hot from the magic flowing between the four of them. It stunk of ozone.
Sweetie Belle closed her eyes and concentrated. She could feel her heart beating in concert with her friends, and the black magic concentrated inside her. Each of her friends became a part of herself in turn. When it was done, they opened their eyes at once.
Words would have only slowed them down. Sweetie Belle backed up, then sprinted forward until she reached the edge of the roof and jumped.
For a moment, her hooves scrambled on empty air, but then she found purchase on the next house over and skidded into a landing. Two thumps behind her and the sound of fluttering wings told Sweetie Belle her friends had made it.
After the first jump, the next was easier, and the one after that even more. Sweetie Belle flew over the sloped roofs. Her hooves only paused for a moment on each before she moved on to the next. Empty asphalt streets buzzed past below her.
Reaching out to her connection with Pipsqueak, she could see in her mind’s eye where their targets waited. Left. Right. Over the chimney, roll, keep going.
The ponies were gathered up ahead, placed around a narrow alleyway. Pipsqueak—and by extension, Sweetie Belle—didn’t know why they were there, but that didn’t matter. Luna wanted Hoofington cleared, and if it got rid of some more of the black magic, well, Sweetie Belle didn’t mind.
When they neared the alley, Sweetie Belle nodded to Pipsqueak. He swung his guitar around on the next jump, and began to play as the three of them came down toward the alleyway.*
Sweetie Belle had her keytar out, and the stallions only had their ears pricked up. They turned to her as one. Their eyes glowed black, and massive magical thorns tunneled up from the ground toward Sweetie Belle. She swung her keytar and smacked a razor-sharp point away from her belly.
She landed on the smooth body of the thorn, then leapt away just as another filled the space she had just occupied. A smile made its way onto her face. She landed against one wall, dropped to the ground, rolled, and came up singing.
Day by day,
We have lost our edge.
Don't you know?
Forgotten is the life we led.
Now it seems,
You don't care what the risk is.
The peaceful times have made us blind.
One of the stallions was only a few feet in front of her, but every inch between them was filled with sharp vines. His partner was climbing up one of the thorns, his horn glowing.
Sweetie Belle gathered magic on the bottoms of her hooves. She ran up the side of the nearest wall, seconds ahead of the vines that lashed out to meet her. The keytar was enough to slap them away, and it had already started to transform.
Can't look back,
They will not come back.
Can't be afraid,
It's time after time.
I'm hiding in my room.
The peaceful times have made us blind.
The scythe grew out of her keytar; it radiated pink magic, matching her own. She leapt through a gap in the thorns toward the second stallion. Sweetie Belle grimaced as he smiled at her, and only had time to call her magic shield to life before she was assaulted from all sides.
Acid sprayed from the surface of the vines. It splashed against her shield and steamed on contact. The corrupt magic began to eat its way through to Sweetie Belle, so she let the magic drop and flew on, straight through the gap and at the stallion.
So you can't fly if you never try.
You told me,
Oh, long ago.
But you left the wall,
Outside the gate.
So more than ever, It's real.
The stallion still had a dumb grin on his face when the scythe cut him in half. Sweetie Belle turned her head away while he exploded into a cloud of black magic. She focused on his comrade on the ground. He stared up at her and screamed, sending more vines racing up at her.
Sweetie Belle’s scythe split them apart, one after another. She grunted in frustration when, after every thorn she sliced, another seemed to take its place. The narrow alley was quickly filling up. All she could do was keep slicing, even as thin cuts appeared all over her hooves and back.
It was like a nightmare,
It's painful for me!
Because nobody wants to die too fast!
Remember the day of grief,
Now it's strange for me,
I could see your face!
I could hear your voice!
More vines, more thorns, more acid. One eye was swollen shut after some of the gunk had landed in it, and the other one closed to keep it from happening again. She screamed the lyrics, slashing back and forth like a white reaper, too afraid to stop or look if she was making any progress.
Remember the day we met,
It's painful for me!
Because nobody wants to die too fast!
Remember a day we dreamt,
It's painful for me,
I could see your face!
I could hear your voice!
The vines closed in on her. Couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe . . . Then, just as quickly, the pressure was gone. Her scythe hit empty air, and she fell to the ground.
Sweetie Belle reached out with her magic and landed on a small shield. She slid down to the ground, and opened her good eye. Rumble stood where the dark stallion had, a broadsword covered in guitar strings in his teeth. On the ground in front of him was a black crystal.
Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak landed next to him, and they all looked at Sweetie Belle. She turned away and walked to the first crystal to dump her black magic. Even facing away, she could feel their eyes on her.
“I’ll be fine!” she told them.
“Are you reminding us or yourself?” Diamond Tiara asked.
Sweetie Belle sat at the back of the armored bus. The guards that stood in the center aisle had been reluctant to let her, but she’d shoved her way past them. It was worth it for the view the back window afforded. Only one window of five were open instead of covered in steel armor, and the back ones were the largest.
Outside, the CMMA rose from beneath Canterlot like an angry stone beehive. Guards flittered about, swarming all over the towers and ramparts of the school. Half a dozen flew up to meet their bus, and it was another few minutes of looking it over before they were allowed to land.
When they had sat on the landing pad for a full minute, the doors opened and the guards disembarked, and at last the students could as well. Sweetie let her friends go first, and took up the rear. She swung her keytar onto her back and staggered on her hooves, fighting the urge to rub at her swollen eye.
She could feel the gaze of every guard in the school on her when she stepped out. They were waiting for her to snap, she knew. Once she did, they could pounce on her and be rid of one more risk forever. It almost flattered her that they hadn’t attacked yet.
Octavia was waiting for them just outside the front entrance. She gazed at them with heavy-lidded eyes, almost like their appearance bored her. “I trust your mission was a success?” she asked.
Pipsqueak nodded. “We got ‘em, sure enough. Sweetie Belle, uh, took a few hits.”
Sweetie Belle stopped to let the teacher look her over. She wanted to just keep walking, but she’d have to stop inside the door anyway. Octavia tsked while her hooves patted Sweetie Belle’s scars and even pressed against the swollen, angry flesh covering her eye.
“You’re taking too many risks, Sweetie Belle,” she said. “That’s the third time this month you’ve come back with more scars than you already had. If you keep this up, we’ll have to put you on probation.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Sweetie Belle muttered. If Octavia heard, the snark was lost on her, who only waved them past.
Inside the doors, they were stopped within a newly-erected room. White concrete walls inlaid with glowing runes greeted them. There was a door at the opposite end, and a slot on wall beneath a sign that read “INSTRUMENT CHECK IN” in big, blocky letters.
Once Sweetie Belle slid her keytar into the slot, she stood in the middle of the room with the others. The runes began to glow, and she closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. She hated this part. It started as just a tickle against her coat, but soon the magic radiation was a torrent of sharp spikes beating against her like a wave crashing on a cliff.
She bit her lip as hard as she dared, determined not to scream. Diamond Tiara cried out beside her, but that was all the sound anypony made. Sweetie Belle focused on trying to recite the newest lyrics she had been writing in her head to take her mind off the pain.
“The world is a vampire, sent to drain . . . secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames . . .”
The pain ebbed, then stopped altogether. When Sweetie Belle opened her eyes, the swelling had ceased around the left eye, and her cuts had turned into thin scars. She ran a hoof over her chest and winced. It was more scar tissue than skin now.
The door at the other end of the room swung open, and Sweetie Belle led the way out. Nopony was there to greet them, but the four already knew the drill. Without hesitating, they turned right and walked toward Luna’s office.
Despite it being in the middle of a school day, the halls were almost completely empty. Even most of the classrooms were locked with the lights off. The few students who walked the halls did so with their heads bent low and instruments on their backs.
The gentle slope of the hallway made it seem like they were walking straight forward when, in fact, their path took them down into the mountain. Princess Luna’s office had been relocated, along with all the essential teaching staff. Posters advertising martial arts and weapons training covered the walls.
Sweetie Belle looked at her friends. Pipsqueak was practically dragging his guitar, and his eyes were ringed by heavy, dark circles. Diamond Tiara clung to him, and looked no better. Her mane was thin and frayed, and her coat had patches of new hair and skin where it had been burnt off and regrown. Rumble who caught her eye, and he smiled. His eyes were red, though, and his wings jutted out at odd angles.
She felt a slug of pain in her chest just looking at her friends. Or were they even that? Three long months had changed a lot, and she wasn’t sure what was going on anymore. Her limbs still twitched and flowed with dark magic, no matter how much she dumped out. All that was consistent were all the faces of the ponies she sliced in half and the scars they gave her.
At last, they reached Luna’s office. The four piled inside, into a small waiting room with bars on the windows and seats bolted to the ground. Iron Will sat at the front desk, typing away. At the very least, he looked normal; as normal as the school got, anyway. When he saw them, he pressed a button and spoke: “I’ve got four students here waiting, so it’s time to stop deliberating!”
Sweetie Belle wondered how he got to talk to the Princess as he did, but Luna appeared soon enough. She swept her gaze over the four of them. Her royal features looked the same as ever, but her eyes seemed like they were a thousand years older.
She beckoned them forward, but when Sweetie Belle got up, Iron Will reached out a hand to stop her. “Whoa, you’re gonna have to learn, if you want to see the princess you better wait your turn.”
Luna nodded, and Sweetie Belle lowered herself back to her chair. She watched Rumble, Pipsqueak, and Diamond Tiara all look at her in turn before disappearing inside the room. Luna closed the heavy wooden door. Sweetie Belle could still hear them talking, but their voices were muffled.
Diamond Tiara was yelling, that was for sure. Sweetie Belle couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. The filly had been on edge lately and yelled about everything to everypony but Pipsqueak. Never to Pipsqueak. She heard his voice joined Tiara’s, and even Rumble added to the conversation. Sweetie Belle winced.
They were talking about her, of course. Who else would their conversation be about? Sweetie Belle picked at the new scars on her hooves. They were thin and not very deep, but they were everywhere. Rarity had wanted Twilight to scrub the scars away, and Sweetie Belle was almost tempted to accept this time. She shook her head. No, she needed to remember them.
There was a pause, then the door swung open. Her friends filed out, and Luna nodded to Sweetie Belle. Her turn. She got out of her chair and trotted in the room, afraid to look any of her friends in the eye.
The office walls were smooth and featureless, and her desk had nothing on it that wasn’t held down. Nothing to grab with magic, Sweetie Belle supposed. In her chair, Luna towered like a giant over her.
“You’ve been a busy filly,” Luna said. “The Canterlot Music Meister Academy and all of Equestria cannot thank you enough for that.”
Sweetie Belle shrugged. “Only a mission or two per week. Octavia’s been on more, and she still teaches. Thank her, not me.”
“She is also an adult, and does not possess your . . . abilities.”
“The black magic.”
“Yes.” Luna sighed. “We’ve done our best to work around your disability, Sweetie Belle. When you used that zebra to drain some of the black magic from you, we thought that we could syphon all of it out, but . . .”
Say it, Sweetie Belle thought. Just say it.
“. . . it’s not working. Your friends have reported every time, no matter how many crystals you drain into, there is always more. Worse, they say it is making you lose your edge.” She looked over Sweetie Belle’s scars. “It hasn’t served you well.”
“I know,” Sweetie Belle mumbled. “What can I do? If I don’t keep fighting and draining the black magic, I’ll go crazy.”
She looked up at the Princess, and her heart beat faster. Luna had the power to wipe her out, right then and there, if she wanted to. If there was any threat Sweetie Belle presented, she knew she wouldn’t last long. Her knees started to shake.
“B-But I can, uh, keep it up. I really can, Princess,” she said. “As long as I keep fighting, I can keep the levels as low as possible. I won’t become one of them.”
“And how sure are you of that? I seem to recall Rumble’s brother saying the same thing to me about learning black magic.”
“That’s why I have my friends around,” Sweetie Belle said. “They can keep me from turning. As long as we’re linked, I can’t go all crazy. I promise, Princess.” She knew she sounded desperate, but, well, she was. A large part of her wished she had at least Rumble to back her up.
Luna’s face fell, and so did Sweetie Belle’s heart. “Sweetie Belle, that is why I called you in here today. Your friends . . . they are afraid. This morning, you nearly sliced Diamond Tiara in half. They’re afraid they can’t control you.”
So that was it. Sweat gathered on Sweetie Belle’s hooves, and what remained of her mane felt matted to her head. Luna was going to finish her off; her friends had failed. No, actually, she had failed.
“Which is why I’ve decided that you need more . . . advanced . . . field instruction,” Luna continued.
“The current method of trying to keep you under control via three unexperienced teenagers has proved lacking. Therefore, these methods must be revised.”
“You mean, you’re not going to fail me or anything?” Sweetie Belle asked cautiously.
Luna shook her head. “You’re too valuable to us, Sweetie Belle. You and your friends have cleared out more dark magic users than we could hope for, and all of Equestria is thankful for it. Now, we just have to improve before one of you gets hurt.”
The Princess walked out from behind her desk. She seemed to tower above Sweetie Belle. Luna only nodded to her before continuing past, evidently expecting the younger student to follow. Sweetie Belle, with no other choice, complied and tried to keep up with the Princess.
They walked through the school halls together, Sweetie Belle clinging to her side. The walls didn’t seem so overbearing and the darkened classrooms not as imposing when the Princess was beside her. Sweetie Belle’s friends were nowhere to be seen, so she assumed they had gone somewhere else.
A few students passed them, bowing to the Princess every time. Sweetie Belle grinned as they did and stuck her nose up in the air. Most of the students, like her and her friends, traveled in close groups. She wondered if they went out on missions, too. They refused to tell her, but she had to assume that at least a few students went out to fight. That, and she thought a few students had been missing lately . . .
Luna stopped in front of two wide double doors. They guarded the entrance to the school’s auditorium, which Sweetie Belle had only been in once. She shivered when she recalled the memory. It had been the last time the dark magic had taken hold of her that everypony had seen, and she never wanted to go through it again.
She found her friends sitting in the front row of the auditorium. Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak were close together, of course, while Rumble was off to the side. He perked up as Sweetie Belle trotted in. Walking down the center aisle with Luna, she saw that the stage at the front of the auditorium was lit up by spotlights, but otherwise empty.
“Sit,” Luna commanded, and so Sweetie Belle planted her flank right next to Rumble.
The Princess continued on up to the stage. She didn’t even bother with a microphone, since the auditorium was empty besides the five of them. Instead, she stared down at the students with a long, cold gaze.
“It took several meetings with my sister for us to decide what to do with you four,” she began, then smiled. “You’re all quite famous around Canterlot, if it pleases you to know. Even Celestia knows who you are.”
She cleared her throat, then continued, “You have racked up fifteen kills between the four of you since the last phase of your training, a fact that we here at the CMMA are proud of.” Her face hardened. “However, it is not good enough. Dark magic ponies are turning up in larger and larger numbers. Celestia herself has had to intervene, but they still continue to come. If we do not stop the tide, we will be overwhelmed. And so, we have come up with a solution.”
Behind Luna, three ponies walked onto the stage. Sweetie Belle struggled to see who they were, but the lights obscured her view. She sighed and continued to listen to Luna’s speech.
“The decision has been made that the four of you, in addition to the rest of the school, are in need of further instruction. Currently, out of all the students, only Rumble and Sweetie Belle are able to use their music magic to create true weapons. This needs to change,” Luna said. “For once you students have reached a suitable level, we will join forces with Celestia’s Royal Guard. Together, we will go on the offensive into the lands outside Equestria and strike at the heart of the black magicians. That offense starts here, today.”
The lights dimmed to reveal the identity of the three ponies who had been shrouded in brightness. Sweetie Belle wasn’t sure to be surprised or not. On the far left stood that pony from Ponyville, Lyra, in a stark white jacket with the hood over her head. In the middle was Octavia, with her nose in the air as always, and to her right sat Naught Note, regarding them with a neutral gaze.
Luna stepped forward. “For now, the three of you must be split up before you can work as a team again. When you come back together, you will be stronger than ever before.” She pointed to each of them in turn. “Diamond Tiara and Pipsqueak, your place will be with Miss Octavia. She will instruct you in the ways of using your instruments as weapons. We can only hope the best for you.
“Rumble, even though you still do not technically attend this school, you have been a valuable asset to us. If you would accept, you and your old teacher, Naught Note, will help train more students up to your level in preparation for the coming fight.”
At last, she turned to Sweetie Belle. “And for you, Sweetie Belle, somepony who can teach you to control what is inside you. If you work hard, you will be our most valuable asset. If not, you may turn out to be our worst enemy. I wish you the best of luck with your new teacher: Lyra Heartstrings.”