Sweetie Belle trotted away from Fluttershy’s cottage, preoccupied with thoughts of her day’s work. Although her twisted spirits were lifted by how successful her careful planning had been, somehow she still wasn’t satisfied.
She was tired, and her back strained from lugging around her heavy saddlebags, but it was plain that sleep would not come until she rid her subconscious of whatever dissatisfaction was plaguing her. Something wasn’t quite right, and she was determined to find out what.
A smile crossed her lips as she entered the town proper. Normally at this time of day, ponies would be awaking to the lovely sounds of morning birds singing their merry tunes. Only a month prior she would probably have been singing along; a bittersweet memory, perhaps, but nothing to sour the joy she garnered from this simple, dead silence. With the air carrying no sounds to compete with her own hoof beats echoing off the houses and shops around her, it was as if the world was clapping for her, congratulation for her accomplishment.
But the sound of others’ hoof beats pulled her from her reverie, and she hid behind a nearby bale of hay to avoid suspicion. Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie galloped into view at an incredible pace; the former was as concerned and preoccupied with her own thoughts as ever, the latter looked entirely unlike herself. She looked sad, terrified, like a pony who may never be compelled to laugh again. This change in character excited Sweetie Belle even more than the activities of her morning so far. She considered how simple it would have been to end their run, Pinkie’s companion slumping unexpectedly into a lifeless heap beside her. Oh, to see the expression she would make then! To watch the tears stream unabated from her eyes, to hear her shriek and cry! But no, Twilight was still useful, it wasn’t yet her time.
The two distracted mares didn’t notice the filly watching them, and the filly herself didn’t pursue. She was quite aware of their target, and wasn’t foolish enough to linger there. But her thoughts of this exciting new Pinkie Pie were bringing tantalizing ideas to her mind. Perhaps, she concluded, her dissatisfaction with the day’s work was because she hadn’t taken a more hoofs-on approach. A situation easily settled.
Rainbow Dash was in one of her particularly preferred napping trees, at the edge of the Everfree Forest and not too far from Sweet Apple Acres, Fluttershy’s cottage or her own home. In spite of being well out of town, it was very central to everypony she cared about, and in such uncertain times she felt the need to be near her friends.
Usually she used the comfort of her own cloud beds for sleeping through the night, but the falling of this night had been so calm and silent, she continued to sleep peacefully in her favorite tree. Morning had already broken when a piercing scream brought an end to that comfort. She jolted to a stand, smacking her head against a tree branch in the process and, consequentially, falling out of the tree in a stunned daze.
“That was Pinkie Pie!”
Leaping from the ground without a second thought, she bolted in the direction of the noise. Zooming nimbly around tree branches and crags, it took her little time to determine that Zecora’s hut was her destination. Terrible possibilities raced through her mind, driving her wings until they stiffened under the strain. Was Pinkie Pie alright? Was Zecora? Could it be that Zecora had – no, Zecora was a friend; Rainbow pushed the worst of these speculations from her thoughts and rocketed onwards.
As she was fond to say, they called her “Dash” for a reason. It took her under a minute to reach the hut, and she landed with a skid at its open door.
“Pinkie! What’s–” The sight before her robbed her of her words. Zecora – or some assortment of putrid matter that was once Zecora – lay motionless but for the occasional burst of blistered flesh. Much of her skeleton was exposed now, bleached a brilliant ivory that shone in stark contrast to the puddles of brown muck that had once been the zebra’s soft tissue. Pinkie Pie had stopped screaming, but now stared numbly, mouth agape. Twilight was present as well, and just as engrossed as her pink companion, but her expression was entirely unreadable. She was staring as much into herself as at the floor.
Realizing that the gazes of her two friends were not in fact locked on Zecora’s remains, Rainbow traced them to another spot on the ground.
“That’s …” she stuttered, voice cracking in defiance as she tried to speak, “… Fluttershy!”
She snatched the wing between her hooves, spun, and took to the sky once more.
A window of Sugarcube Corner, just over the staircase, was open. The smoke from a batch of overcooked muffins wafted past, but that was of no concern to Sweetie Belle. She had her way in, and she knew what to do.
She crept over the windowsill, landing softly on a wooden stair below. With a quick glance to determine that nopony had seen or heard her enter, she began her way up the stairs, carefully testing each step for creaks and cracks. The hallway at the top was dark, having only one small window facing tangentially to the rising sun, but the glint of the light entering from below was enough to illuminate two doors at opposite ends. One was decorated in bright pink streamers, and had clearly been painted pink some years ago, though its bright veneer was now fading and peeling, revealing the plain oak door below. The other door was unadorned, and so Sweetie Belle made her way towards it.
The room faced east, and at the time its large window perfectly framed the sun. An open and disorganized blue dresser spilling tiny clothes was at one end, a neatly packed and locked toy box was at the other. But these objects merely framed the target of the filly’s interest, the cribs.
Reaching as far as her stubby white legs could manage, she flung a hoof wildly at the hook that held aloft one wall of one of the cribs. Standing on one hind leg, she bit her tongue, trying to maintain her balance and silence, and also not to laugh at just how silly her position was. She wobbled gracelessly, but didn’t tumble. With a dainty flick of the wrist, she unhooked the crib wall, causing the wooden bars to slide down with a loud crash. She tensed at this sound, a chill crawling up her spine. The loose joints of the crib tilted and creaked, heightening the already-concerning din.
She stood frozen, the skin of her back tightening uncomfortably in a cruel attempt to faze her. She still balanced carefully on one hoof, hoping that the residents below had not heard the noises. The complications if they had, Sweetie Belle was sure, would not be worth it.
Her nose twitched slightly. Of all the times to have an itch …
“Rainbow Dash! Wait!”
The impossibly-fast pegasus’ trademark rainbow trail vanishing into the distant trees made it quite clear that she had no intention of doing so. Her pursuer had received detailed instructions from the princess on how to handle the situation that another murder occurred: Remain stoic, be detached, examine everything objectively, and most importantly, never, ever remove any evidence from the scene of a crime until the context has been analyzed thoroughly. Removing a severed wing from the scene and flying it halfway across Ponyville was, she was sure, an improper procedure for handling evidence. To make matters worse, she was in no condition to be chasing anypony.
Luckily, Pinkie Pie’s severe mood was not enough to prevent her usual physics-defying antics, and she poised herself in the very tree in which Rainbow Dash had recently been sleeping, ready to catch the mare as she flew by.
Rainbow screeched to a midair halt to avoid a colorful kerfuffle, and glared at the pink roadblock. Both were aflame with the bitterest of passions, fear and anxiety and anger flowing freely between them in the daunting silence. The usually cheery blue of Pinkie’s eyes was ensconced within a red sheath, and darkened tracks ran down her cheeks. Rainbow turned her sight to the treasure she held carefully between her hooves, and found it blurring from her vision, while cold tears ran slowly down her forelegs.
“Dash … let’s just wait for Twilight. OK?” Pinkie pooled what strength she had left into sounding calm and convincing. “She’ll know what to do.”
The pegasus nodded, slowly. She didn’t look up.
Four … five … who sneezes six times in a row? Sweetie Belle was sure that her presence would be prematurely known, but continued to hold out hope to the contrary, balancing carefully and listening for movement.
Ten seconds. Fifteen. Thirty seconds. A minute. The silence was so pervasive, she thought she could hear the sun rising. At this point she was no longer sure why she was being so careful; instead, she treated it like a game. Who would make noise first? With the Ponyville champion of the game of Shhhh disqualified (if not vying for an Equestria record), Sweetie Belle was sure she would win. Two minutes. Three.
A gentle coo from a waking unicorn foal sounded like a klaxon and alarm bells against the void, and caused her to swing back instantly to alertness. Who wanted to be the champion of Shhhh anyway? With a quickness fueled by new instinct, she pulled an axe from her saddlebag and tossed it glibly into the air.
The alarming noise ceased with a light spatter.
Sweetie Belle lifted herself into the crib to assess the damage. The blade was longer than Pumpkin Cake’s body, and had cleaved it entirely in twain, her bright blue eyes now staring inanimately in opposite directions. The aggressor’s curiosity at the site of the tiny, partially-developed organs got the better of her, and, tossing the axe aside, she quickly was wrist-deep in entrails. This was a much better learning tool, she was finding, than Ms. Cheerilee’s biology homework. A stomach, half a liver, … something small, green and shaped like a pea that she couldn’t identify. Such intricate systems are so easy to disrupt with the right tools. Small intestines, large intestines, something that might have been a kidney. She was reminded of one of the few school moments she found interesting, and began hunting for the Shimmer’s organ. It was a structure, as she recalled, which only unicorns possessed, widely believed to be somehow associated with their magical abilities.
She poked around in the opened chest cavity, crushing the tiny lungs into a purple mass and snapping the ribcage out of her way effortlessly as she hunted, until she found a small pink orb. In a pony like Twilight Sparkle, the Shimmer’s organ would be the size of an orange or even larger, but in a foal like this, it was like a tiny bead of amethyst. She only noticed it at all by the prismatic effect it had on the light, casting a tiny rainbow into the red muck that served as its nest. It came loose easily from its socket, a bundle of nerves snapping readily as Sweetie Belle pulled it from its vertebral home.
Balancing the treasure carefully in her now-red hooves, she held it to the light. The effect was beautiful, bathing the room in glimmering radiance of all colors. The prismatic effect defied physics, sending rainbows of all sizes shooting in all directions; it was truly a magical gem. She would have allowed herself to be entranced by the dancing hues, but saw that there was another equally interested observer.
“Good morning, Pound Cake,” she whispered, more to herself than to the foal, “your turn.”
She stowed the jewel in a fastening pocket in her saddlebag, retrieved her weapon from its perch, and hopped daintily to the ground. Each step towards the other crib left a sanguine hoof print on the wooden floor; she was still careful to remain silent, but didn’t notice these other small signs she left in her trail. Looking up at the other crib, she considered carefully how she would open it with less noise than her previous attempt.
That consideration became moot very quickly.
“You can fly?!”
Rainbow Dash pounded on the door in desperation, hearing nothing from the other side. The carcasses littering the path to the porch did little to suggest that anything reassuring would be found on the there, and the wing she now held carefully between her teeth provided little comfort either. Twilight spoke forcefully behind her, but she couldn’t hear the unicorn’s words. The tone was stern, but the meaning was lost.
She fell to her haunches, still pummeling the door as its frame cracked and warped under the strain. Again and again she viciously attacked this obstacle, as if its removal would change the nature of the scene it blocked, even as the strain tore her flesh, blood running down her forelegs. Twilight was yelling now. The distraught pegasus still comprehended nothing of her babbling.
With a crash, it finally gave way, revealing blackness behind. All the windows and drapes were closed, and the doorway itself offered little light into the abyss. This didn’t deter Rainbow, who galloped in with no clear destination, almost immediately tripping over something small, fuzzy and damp.
She landed in a cold, sticky puddle, bashing her head painfully into the unforgiving wooden floor. With a wince and small, pained gasp, she realized the essence of the environment she had entered. Death surrounded her; its stench filled her sinuses, its flavor burned her lungs and its silence assaulted her ears. And as she adjusted to the darkness, its image became clear.
Icy, lifeless, teal eyes.
“Wouldja stop flyin’ around like that!” Sweetie Belle was getting frustrated, as Pound Cake amused himself by flitting around the room, nimbly dodging every throw. The walls were riddled with slits where the colorful wallpaper had given way to a blade in lieu of the wily target. The pegasus laughed and cooed, entirely unaware of the danger of his situation. He buzzed to the dresser, embedding himself in a pile of assorted clothing, and became very silent. Although even more frustrated now, Sweetie Belle admitted to herself that she enjoyed a game of hide-and-go-seek as much as any filly.
Cotton and bits of fabric and splintered wood flew threw the air, but no feathers or fur along with them. She wondered how such a tiny foal could be so darned fast. He poked his head out of a lower drawer with a smile and a bright laugh.
The dresser was in shambles, but the foal was unaffected. Now he was buzzing overhead, circling around Sweetie Belle like some odd chimera of a housefly and a vulture, all the while laughing a mocking but gleeful laugh.
The buzzing continued behind her, but quickly dissipated. She twisted, but saw only that the window was now slightly ajar. Pound Cake was nowhere to be seen. She put a hoof to her forehead in consternation, leaving a red streak over her white coat up to her horn. Shaking her head, she trotted around the room, collecting her weapons.
All except for one. The last throw had left an axe embedded in the ceiling. Hop as she may, she couldn’t even get close to it, let alone dislodge it. Dissatisfied with these two proximate failures, she opted to seek a new prey.
Now less concerned with who might hear, she skipped down the stairs and into the main room. The shop’s many shelves were bare, aside from a small bin marked “day olds” on the counter. This was an unusual state to see Sugarcube Corner in, but unsurprising given the hour. Sweetie Belle followed the smell of rising dough into the kitchen, and found Mrs. Cake there, too preoccupied with the content of a mixing bowl to notice her new guest.
“Hiya, Mrs. Cake,” no amount of minor setbacks could dampen Sweetie Belle’s ever-cheery mood, “that smells great!”
The baker jumped, momentarily startled, but recognized the voice, and so allowed her concern to vanish.
“Sweetie Belle, dear, we’re not open yet.”
She turned to show with her wide smile that the unexpected intruder wasn’t an unwanted one, but her expression turned immediately to shock as she saw that much of the filly’s coat was now dyed the same color as her strawberry hair, but by a much fouler means. The little unicorn grinned merrily, now gripping an axe between her hooves. One eye was closed, the other fixated on the cerulean pony’s apron. Cup Cake’s attention followed the red trail of hoof prints back and around the corner, as the tumblers of her mind clicked into place. She bolted for the staircase.
Her shoulder torn open, clavicle shattered, and shoulder blade locked in place by the intruding cold steel, she fell to the ground with a pained scream. She landed on the axe’s handle, pushing the blade further and wrenching bone from bone, leaving her left foreleg attached by little more than dangling sinew. Her blood spilled over the tile below, its deep red a poor complement to the floor’s pale turquoise or her own cyan blue. The pain was beyond anything she’d ever experienced, like her side was being baked along with her pastries; not knowing how else to react, her anguished eyes locked on Sweetie Belle’s.
“Oooh, smells like blueberry muffins, my favorite! Are they ready yet?”
At this time, as the two princesses passed their role from one to the other, they had the rare opportunity to talk openly about the state of their empire. Every morning for days, their topic had been the same; on this morning they sat together on a private balcony, staring down at a small town in the lee of the great mountain upon which Canterlot was built.
“I feel a cold wind this morning, Celestia.” In private counsel with Celestia, Luna was able to restrain her usual vocal tendencies. She spoke with deep purpose, but softly.
“As do I.” The princess of the day spoke vacantly, her thoughts elsewhere.
“Are you confident that Twilight Sparkle was the right choice for this task? I do not doubt her abilities in the art of magic, but in this matter she hath no experience.”
Her sister gazed on, preoccupied. After a moment, she replied with a shake of her head.
Luna breathed heavily, then motioned for a guard to enter. With the skill befitting a royal guard, a pure-alabaster Celestian pegasus glided to her side, and saluted with a stern expression, not daring to speak to the traditionally-minded princess.
She adopted the royal Canterlot voice. “Send thy best cadet to replace–”
“To aid,” Celestia corrected, softly.
“Send thy best cadet to aid Twilight Sparkle in her investigations in Ponyville.”
The guard saluted once more and flew away without a word. The princess of the day sighed, her attention still focused elsewhere.
“I hope that was the right decision, sister.”
Luna considered a response, but instead simply retired to the day’s sleep.
“Rainbow Dash! Rainbow, please listen to me!”
Twilight’s words found inattentive ears. The pegasus was lying nearly as motionless as the other beside her, nestled between the cold, stiff carcasses of a dog and a raccoon. Only her muffled, squeaking and cracking mutters proved that she remained, unlike her surroundings, in the realm of the living.
“… no … no … not Fluttershy …” she babbled repeatedly through teeth still clenched around the yellow wing of her friend.
Pinkie Pie was in no better state, sobbing uncontrollably in a veritable torrent. She pounded her hooves purposelessly into the dirt, poking round holes into the otherwise-smooth path. Giving up on rousing Rainbow, Twilight instead focused on her.
The unicorn, suppressing with great effort her immediate instinct towards grief, begged softly and flatly. “Pinkie Pie, I know this is hard, but we’ll have time for grief later. The princess asked me to investigate these … events, and I need to keep the scene undamaged.”
The flood subdued, the depressed pink earth pony sniffing to pushed back the tears. Trying to adopt her friend’s stoicism, she nodded and backed away, awaiting her friends from the short bridge that connected Fluttershy’s cottage to the rest of Ponyville.
“What’s wrong, dear, I heard a sc–”
Mr. Cake’s words died in his throat, welling into a nauseous lump that sunk deep into his gut. He found himself frozen to the ground, unable to flee or even flinch. His instincts told him to reach his wife, but between him and her stood a filly he’d never found threatening before in his life. Until now.
“Hi, Mr. Cake,” the situation still built up Sweetie Belle’s enthusiasm, which echoed true in her cheerful, almost lyrical voice, “are those blueberry muffins cooking? When’ll they be ready?”
The addressed stallion didn’t hear her, his whole attention was fixated on the state of his dying mate. She used her right foreleg’s hoof to drag herself by excruciating inches, her rose eyes’ inflamed state attesting to each moment’s anguish. But she managed to remain silent, as her attacker’s focus was elsewhere. Her left foreleg dragged weakly to her side, each movement pulling it further, snapping one by one the few remaining tendons by which it was attached. Each split caused a burst of pain to stream through her, and she bit her lip until it bled to avoid shrieking from the experience. Still her husband stared on hopelessly, unsure of how he could possibly help.
“OK, fine, I’ll wait.” The filly was indignant at how one-sided her conversations were turning out to be, but stopped herself short of reciting her teacher’s lessons on politeness. She traced the stunned confectioner’s eyes to the blade. “Oh yeah, my axes! Do you like ‘em?”
“This one,” she indicated to the blade embedded in Mrs. Cake’s irreparable shoulder while tugging it out with little effort, “I let Fluttershy use.” She carefully inspected the spray of stained red across its surface with a small smile, while the weapon’s latest victim, no longer able to pull herself further, groaned in torment. “Well, and Mrs. Cake, too!”
She replaced it with another axe, pulled from her bags, and continued her monologue. “This one is my favorite,” she examined the mottling of Apple Bloom’s blood over the handle, “I just think the pattern is so pretty!”
Realizing that her third was still stuck, she instead moved on to the last of her blades. She held it aloft, showing proudly how it reflected the light, and how its perfectly clean ash handle gleamed. “This is the last clean one I’ve got!”
The oven timer chimed, causing Sweetie Belle’s attention to shift. “Muffins!”
Carrot Cake, acting entirely on instinct, used this moment of distraction to attack. With a powerful lunge, he leapt towards the little white form. She, ever slow on the uptake, did nothing to stop him.
More precisely, she did nothing consciously.
Sweetie Belle held her eyes shut, expecting the worst. Instead she was surprised to be greeted by a pleasant, warm shower of a viscous fluid she immediately recognized even without seeing it. Mr. Cake’s skull was shattered and pulled in two by the formerly-clean axe, which itself was levitated in the air by a bright pink glow. She peered carefully through one eye, then opened both wide, a glowing smile separating her bloodstained lips. She found Mr. Cake’s limp body, swaying slightly as it dangled unstably, hung by a matted lock of orange hair from the telekinetically upheld axe. Bits of brain matter fell to the ground in splattered piles.
“Mrs. Cake! Mrs. Cake! My horn, my magic!” As she turned to see Mrs. Cake’s inappropriately non-adulatory reaction, her concentration was divided, and the floating objects now behind her hit the tile with a thud and clang.
“Rainbow, make sure nobody else goes in, OK?”
The pegasus, whose naturally cyan mane was now mostly colored a dark greyish umber with the drippings of an assortment of dead creatures, was only roused enough to nod understandingly. She didn’t look up from Fluttershy’s body, but at least politely stood outside the door.
Twilight Sparkle’s self control was faltering slightly, and the few tears that she felt drip from her neck felt heavier than the combined burdens of her forced dispassion and extreme exhaustion. Still, she steadfastly refused to fail in following through on the duties assigned to her by the princess.
“Pinkie Pie, I need …” She stopped, noticing something more peculiar in the pink pony than her mood, “Pinkie … your tail.”
Pinkie’s eyes widened in shock, even as her left ear began to wag uncontrollably.
“No, no,” her soft wimper quickly escalated to a cry, “no, no,” she rose to her hooves, wobbling uncomfortably on a twitching hind leg, “nononononono!” She raced away at a high clip.
Twilight recognized the condition, as it had been described to her before, but was incapable of yet another brisk chase. With a glance over her shoulder at Dash, who hadn’t even noticed the exhibition, she began a slow, plodding walk in pursuit.
Sweetie Belle was concentrating intensely, beads of sweat mingling with the mixed blood in her coat. Her horn glowed dully, but very, very slowly gained intensity, eventually becoming a bright pink that matched her mane. Cup Cake could do nothing but watch. She could no longer move herself and was emotionally crushed from the preceding events.
With a final burst of power, another axe had broken through the ceiling, embedding itself into the floor below and spreading fine particulate through the air. Sweetie Belle, properly impressed by her accomplishment, hopped gleefully around the weapon and her victim, laughing gaily and trying to encourage the despondent baker beside to do the same.
“That was pretty good, wasn’t it? I can’t wait to show Rarity!”
She halted her dancing suddenly, lifting her ears towards the front door and listening intently.
“Aww, I hear running, looks like you’ll have company. Gotta go!”
She began to trot away, then thought better of the situation. Pulling the magically summoned axe from the ground, she forced its blade into Mrs. Cake’s mouth, cutting gashes into her cheeks.
“Sorry, but I don’t want you telling anypony my secrets.” Sweetie Belle giggled softly as she twisted the blade, fracturing the blue pony’s mandible and severing her tongue. The battered baker coughed sputum and blood as her aggressor made haste away from Sugarcube Corner.
Momentarily, Pinkie Pie burst through the front door, and what she saw led her to her second ear-shattering screech of the morning. Hearing this, Twilight, who was still slightly out of town, decided to risk a faster approach. She appeared in a magenta flash, and surveyed the scene. In a moment of clarity defying her sleeplessness, she remembered to ask one very important question.
“Mrs. Cake, who did this?” she demanded, voice strained and stumbling.
With her last reserves of energy, unable to speak, Cup Cake swept her usable foreleg across the ground, spreading a trail of her own blood behind it. Then she fell unconscious.
The writing was as clear to Twilight as the morning sun: the letter ‘S’.