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by Bitera

Starlight paced back and forth in front of the mirror, going over her plan again and again. She only had one chance at this. At best if she failed, she would be banished from that realm forever, access blocked to the most potent magic of Fate.

Even if her own magic was far purer than that from any fallen realm. Her connection to the true Arcadia was clean, but just a trickle of pure water wasn’t enough to change the flow of the entire river. If she wanted to do that, she would have to redirect some sewage.

The mage resolved herself, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Her robe was spotless even here in these dusty ruins, and she stood proudly on her own two feet. She would show that archmage who called herself “Twilight”. As if she hadn’t taken enough from her, she practically had stollen her shadow name too.

She ran a hand through her hair. The dye had faded in her months on the run, but the blue stripe still stood out from her black hair. Well, it was now or never.

Starlight stepped forward, into her reflection. She passed through herself, across the threshold, and into another world.

She expected to fall. As she passed fully into the mirror, she thought there would be some… transition. Instead, her hoof hit the ground like she had taken any other step. She blinked as the sun filtered through the trees above her, the breeze passing over her naked fur.

Starlight froze. She looked down to her hands, finding hooves planted firmly on the cobblestone path below her. Hesitantly she turned her head to look further down her body. Her clothes were gone, replaced with a body of light purple fur and a cloak that parodied her mage robes but seemed to be nothing more than decorative.

“What in the name of Atropos…” There seemed to be a symbol on her side, near her back legs. A falling kite? No, stupid. It’s probably some faerie branding. They don’t care about your childish hobbies. It was in the right place for a brand, though it seemed to be natural fur and not burned into her skin. Still, she couldn’t help worry the threshold had turned her into some kind of fae livestock.

This wasn’t part of the plan. There was a glimmering behind her. No mirror, but the threshold must still be there. She could go back now. Rethink trying to court a lord of fallen Arcadia. “No,” she said out loud. It helped to hear her own voice, even if it sounded distorted in this body. She couldn’t be sure if it was because of the short muzzle she could see her face had become, or the ears she could feel flicking around at every sound.

But she had come this far. She needed to press forward. What else could she do? Flee at the first fae trick, only to return to a world where she would forever be fated to be alone?

So she pressed forward along the cobblestone path. The trees loomed above her, further than felt natural. On either side dark vines twisted into an impassible hedge, forcing her to follow the path. She found walking came easy, though the nakedness made her feel awkward. Her tail pressed flat to her body, the long hair there making her blush but at least preserving her modesty to some degree. It wasn’t like there was anyone here anyways, right?

“Hi there!” a voice called from beside her.

Starlight jumped, preparing a spell to defend herself. Oddly, though her magic seemed to come to her just as easily as it had in her world, instead of the normal warmth in her chest, it concentrated in her forehead.

That was where the creature focused too as she turned on it. At least, as far as she could tell. Those eyes weren’t human, they were like a bug’s. In fact, that was what this creature most reminded her of. Despite being shaped like the body she had been forced into, it was covered in a black ant-like shell instead of fur. It had clear insect-like wings spread to either side as well. It bore fangs as well, though the creature didn’t seem to be aggressive. It was trembling before her.

“Who are you?” Starlight demanded. She cleared the spell from her mind. If it tried to attack, she would be able to cast it quickly still. Lifting a hand… hoof to her forehead, she found something hard and cylindrical. No, conical. A horn?

The creature seemed to relax with her own magic. “The name’s Hobble, sacred traveler. I’m here on the behest of my queen. We wish to guide you safely through the maze.” Its voice was strange. It echoed like something hollow. Maybe it was, based on the holes it had in its legs.

Starlight glanced forward down the path, seeing the crossroads ahead. Of course, it wasn’t just a hedge, it was a hedge maze. She should’ve known that it wouldn’t be straightforward. Did every path to power have to involve a goddamn puzzle?

“Your queen? You mean the ruler of this realm! The fae lord, or I suppose fae lady.”

The creature, Hobble nodded. “The rightful ruler of the Hedge, Her Majesty Queen Chrysalis.”

“And you’ll take me right to her? Seems like that defeats the purpose of having a puzzle between the threshold and her in the first place.” Starlight stepped closer to the alien creature, watching it suspiciously.

Was that hesitation? She couldn’t read the creature’s expressions, and it responded only a second later. “The maze is for those who have yet to prove themselves. The Queen sees your potential clearly, sacred one.”

It still sounded too good to be true, but Starlight wasn’t defenseless. And besides, she had come here to speak to the ruler of the realm. It was hardly the first risk she had taken getting this far. “Alright. Lead the way Hobble.”

Despite his name, the bug was quick on his hooves. It probably helped that he could take large strides with his wings buzzing. Starlight struggled to keep up, but he made sure never to get out of sight as he took her down several turns of the maze.

“This is a dead-end,” Starlight said as he finally came to a stop. Her tail flicked in annoyance behind her, which just made her feel self-conscious again. “If you lied to me…”

“I didn’t! The Queen is just through here, I promise. You can’t break a promise in Arcadia.” He turned toward the wall of gnarled vines in front of them, then with his usual deftness pushed through. He squirmed his way through until she lost sight of him, though he left behind an obvious disturbance in the hedge.

The mage considered for a moment. She had been transformed and led through a maze of thorns until her little horse body was panting. Now she was expected to just… cheat?

Starlight didn’t turn back.

But she wasn’t stupid. As much as her physical body ached, she still had all her mana. She cast a spell. Once again, she felt the magic emanate from her forehead, from the horn that sat there. A brief use of Forces magic, and she had a shield in front of her that pushed the vines out of her way.

It put more of a strain on her than she expected, like the simple thorns were wearing at her shield like an attack. By the time she saw light again, she could barely manage to keep the thorns an inch from her body. Finally tumbling back into the open, she felt a sharp pain in her back leg.

She stifled a scream, twisting awkwardly to look back at her leg. Her eyes widened at the side of the gash there. But instead of the gush of blood she would’ve expected, there was only a blackness inside and along the edge of the wound. Was that… the same chitinous material as…

But she couldn’t get a good enough look. She forced herself back to her hooves, ignoring the pain from her wound. It was hard to tell, but it felt like something else was wrong. She wasn’t just physically injured. The thorn had cut at something altogether more important. Her soul? Her magical sense told her that she had lost something that made her… her.

Was it a trap after all? She looked around, searching for Hobble. She only found an empty garden. Or what looked to be a garden in structure. The plants growing in the perfect rows showed no sign of matching. It didn’t even look like they were all in season. Some wilted and decayed while others were just starting to bloom.

She continued on the path, towards a greenhouse in the distance. Except every panel was a different color of stained glass. What kind of person was this Queen? Not a person she supposed.

“Come out, whoever you are! Queen Chrysalis? I come to make a deal with the lord of this realm!”

“A deal you say?” The voice was feminine, with that same echoing quality that Hobble’s had.

A creature emerged, flying down from above. She looked similar to Hobble, but she towered over Starlight. Her eyes were more like a predator’s than an insect's, and she had hair of otherworldly green.

“Queen Chrysalis, I presume?” Starlight lowered her head in a respectful bow. “I am known as Starlight, Acanthus Mage from the realm of man.”

“I see…” the queen replied. She sounded disappointed. “You’re stronger than I expected. Few make it through the hedge so intact.”

Starlight looked up immediately. “Excuse me? You… sent for me, didn’t you? Had Hobble guide me safely?”

“Indeed. We couldn’t very well have you find your way to the end of the maze. Hobble was perhaps a little too eager. It’s been so long since he’s gotten to leave this realm. Perhaps he still may. I can give you my power indeed, if you vow to serve me and my swarm.” She smiled, a row of too sharp teeth. “Perhaps with your power, we can do more than live in the threshold between realms.”

Starlight backed away. “Wait… you… I’m not in Arcadia. I’m still in the threshold. So you’re not the true fae I seek?”

“And why would you want to, ensouled? They are tyrants, who care about their rules more than any individual person. Why else would they brand us as “Oathbreakers” and let the hedge rip away our souls until we’re husks? But if you gave your soul to me, I could do great things…”

The queen, if she truly was, lunged at her. But Starlight was ready. And she never backed down.

Magic blasted from the horn on her forehead towards the bug monster. Not a blast of Force, or Death, or even Prime. She wasn’t strong enough with any of those. But Starlight knew Fate. What happened when you gave a past to a creature that no longer had one?

Chrysalis was gone. Starlight hadn’t put much thought into the spell. But whatever had happened to the creature, their meeting had no longer happened.

Someone clapped behind her. Starlight turned. She wouldn’t have enough energy to cast another spell so soon, but she could hide that.

There was a man there, sitting on a garden chair with a lemonade on the table next to him. His clothing was a mess of styles and patches. His hair, though gray, seemed somehow parted in three different ways. “Excellent, excellent! Could I hire you as an exterminator full-time? I’ve been trying to get those bugs out of my back garden for ages!”

“Who are you?” Starlight demanded, not acknowledging his comment.

The man grinned a crooked smile, then stood up. “Why Starlight, I’m the man you came all this way to see. The true lord at the end of that maze. Some call me Chaos, others Entropy. There’s some other creative and less creative names, but I’ve always preferred…”

His body expanded, twisting as it elongated. His features shifted through several different animals, without a single one settling as something matching. When it was finally over, he had become what she could best describe as a dragon, though none like she had ever seen depicted.