Restoration of Equestria (Complete) [Slave anon, Twilight]

May 17th, 2018 (edited)
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  1. Sequel to Alone in the Dark (https://pastebin.com/F22UeM1B)
  3. >Thump.
  4. >Something hard and heavy hit the floor.
  5. >The crowd milling behind Twilight Sparkle fell quiet.
  6. >Twilight suppressed the urge to glance behind herself at the hundreds of pairs of eyes now fixed on the porch of the town hall.
  7. >The seeds of the uneasy feeling that was now growing inside her were sown by the announcement of the speech she was about to hear from that morning's paper.
  8. >It was not like Princess Celestia to use the front pages of several newspapers to announce a speech.
  9. >Much less one 'about the future of the nation' in Ponyville's city hall.
  10. >It was not like her to go quiet either – it'd been a month since the last time Twilight had got a response to a letter.
  11. >The hardship that Equestria was going through meant it hadn't always come soon, but she'd always got a response.
  13. >Thump.
  14. >The crowd remained remarkably quiet.
  15. >Despite most of Ponyville being right behind her, she could hear a new sound: faint, rhythmical hoofsteps coming from inside the city hall.
  16. >She found herself holding her breath as the sound became louder and came closer to the door.
  17. >Click.
  18. >The door opened a tiny bit.
  19. >Twilight's heart suddenly beat a lot faster.
  20. >An earth pony mare with gray mane and tail, Mayor Mare, slipped out.
  21. >There was a twitchy smile on her face and her eyes shot around the crowd as the door clicked shut behind her.
  22. >”I...”
  23. >Her voice was high-pitched and shrill, and she brought a hoof to her mouth.
  24. >”Ahem. I was sent to tell you that the Princess will be ready in a short while. Please, stay where you are.”
  25. >After clearing her throat, she sounded and acted almost like her usual self, only slightly more nervous.
  26. >Mayor trotted off the porch with an uncharacteristic stiffness to her gait and sat among the crowd.
  27. >A faint murmur filled the air as expectant ponies started whispering to each other.
  29. >THUMP!
  30. >This time it was far louder than before and sounded like it came from right beside the door.
  31. >The murmur died out instantaneously.
  32. >Every single pair of eyes was fixed on the porch.
  33. >Twilight could tell without looking.
  34. >For a few seconds, the silence was absolute.
  35. >Even the wind died down.
  36. >A magical glow enveloped the door.
  37. >In the sliver of an instant, a terrible premonition filled Twilight's mind.
  38. >The glow was orange, not gold.
  39. >But her mind couldn't process the bit of information any further before the door swung open.
  41. >All of a sudden, time itself came to a standstill.
  42. >Fire burst out of the door.
  43. >Through the flames, Twilight saw a nightmare.
  44. >She wore a helmet, chest piece and shoes made of red metal.
  45. >Her coat was white, but with a hint of orange to it.
  46. >She had a mane and tail made of living inferno.
  47. >There was a tall, grooved horn on her head and a pair of wings on her back.
  48. >The “whites” of eyes were dark red, the irises were a bright orange.
  49. >The inferno that burned inside her shone through the slits she had for pupils.
  50. >But the worst part was the expression on her face.
  51. >How her lips were curled into a twisted smile.
  52. >The way she looked at the crowd down her snout like it was a swarm of pest.
  54. >Yet none of that was what caused Twilight's insides to turn into a vortex of despair and hopelessness.
  55. >That was caused by the part of her brain that instantly recognized the living horror.
  56. >Those long hooves and slender body, the flawlessly smooth cheeks and perfectly proportioned muzzle.
  57. >They belonged to Princess Celestia.
  59. >”Greetings, my little ponies.”
  60. >The moment had passed.
  61. >Twilight stared wordlessly at the being in front of her.
  62. >It spoke with a dry and harsh voice that reminded her so much of the warm and caring one she'd learned to love.
  63. >She was the same, yet so different.
  64. >Even the way she waved her hoof in a grand arc to emphasize her own words was so near to what Celestia would do.
  65. >But Celestia didn't need to emphasize her words.
  66. >Her words had all the weight they needed to have even without such frivolities.
  68. >”I am here to bring you magnificent news!”
  69. >Something flashed inside Twilight.
  70. >She felt a sudden urge to stand up and challenge the alicorn before her.
  71. >But she couldn't do it.
  72. >Something about the being that was both so much like and unlike Princess Celestia made her wait.
  73. >Twilight wasn't sure if she imagined it or not, but she felt like the voice still had a bit of her mentor in it and that the way she moved, stood and acted wasn't completely malevolent.
  74. >In front of her was not Nightmare Moon or something purely evil.
  75. >It was more feeling than deduction, but she could tell that in front of her was something very much like Equestria was right now: something shattered, torn and broken; something that had seen too much.
  77. >”I am here to tell you that the war is over!”
  78. >The words brought Twilight back to the present.
  79. >She blinked and stared.
  80. >It was...
  81. >It was over?
  82. >”Our great nation is victorious!”
  83. >The pony that used to be Celestia paused for a second and let her gaze roll over the crowd.
  84. >Twilight felt a twinge of pure joy in her, then a sudden sadness, then exhilaration...
  85. >A surge of conflicting feelings overwhelmed her and she felt tears rise in the corners of her eyes.
  86. >Peace.
  87. >She could see Rainbow Dash again!
  88. >And Rarity!
  89. >And Fluttershy!
  90. >It'd been so long since they had all been together that she missed the antics of Rainbow Dash and arguing about what she should wear with Rarity.
  91. >And Fluttershy, it just wasn't the same without Fluttershy.
  92. >She'd have to arrange a picnic, maybe even a sleepover with all six of them together.
  93. >”There is no longer a single human being left in our world!”
  94. >Or maybe she'd just ask Pinkie to throw the best party ever.
  95. >Or a picnic, then a party culminating with a sleepover?
  97. >”Actually, that was a lie. There is one.”
  98. >The sudden change in tone brought Twilight back to the moment once more.
  99. >There was a mischievous smile on the lips of the pony who used to be Princess Celestia, and she was looking at Twilight.
  100. >”May I ask my fellow princess to step up?”
  101. >Twilight sat there, blinking in confusion, as a hoof clad in a red horseshoe was extended towards her.
  102. >She pushed herself onto her hooves and trotted up the steps onto the porch.
  104. >”Now, behold!”
  105. >Twilight cringed at the loudness of the alicorn next to her.
  106. >Princess Celestia never made her feel like that and her voice was always just loud enough to be heard but never too loud.
  107. >There was a flash of orange, then a flash of flames.
  108. >Fwoomph!
  109. >A cage made of thick metal bars appeared between the two alicorns.
  110. >Inside it...
  111. >Twilight gasped for air as she realized what was inside.
  113. >Inside the cage was a living, breathing human: the enemy, destruction incarnate.
  114. >But this one looked different from the posters she'd seen.
  115. >He was not wearing a camouflage uniform, he was naked.
  116. >And he was not posing while decimating something, he was lying limply on the bottom of the cage with a wooden clamp holding his hands in place.
  117. >Bruises of various sizes speckled his body and his hair, both on his head and on his body, was caked with coagulated blood.
  118. >His ribs were clearly visible, breathing was shallow and he stared ahead with blank, unseeing eyes.
  119. >He was an image of misery, nothing like the propaganda.
  121. >”I can think of only one way to drive home to you how utter and complete our victory was!”
  122. >The hooves of the alicorn with a mane of fire thumped on the wood of the porch as she turned towards Twilight.
  123. >”Princess Twilight! I present you a gift: the last human in Equestria. I ask that you have him work to mend the damage he and his kin have caused.”
  125. >”Now, there are a few thing you should remember when dealing with him.”
  126. >The former Princess Celestia strutted around the human prisoner.
  127. >She had asked Twilight to join her inside the city hall after her speech, and they were now in the waiting room.
  128. >”His species is highly intelligent – almost on par with ours – and he can understand what we're saying, and can speak if he so wishes.”
  129. >Twilight's ears were perked upright and followed the other alicorn, but her eyes were fixed on the human.
  130. >He'd been let out of the cage and was now lying on the floor, on his side.
  131. >He hadn't reacted to his release in any way: he was still staring straight ahead with a blank face.
  132. >”You should keep in mind that he is quite a bit stronger and far more agile than he looks.”
  133. >An orange glow enveloped the human's hand.
  134. >His head slowly craned towards the hand as it was lifted off the floor.
  135. >As he saw the magic, his eyes went wide and his whole body tensed up.
  136. >”Be especially mindful around his hands: he can move them faster than your eye can see, and they are far more dexterous than anything you've seen before. Although, you should find the results quite... pleasing if you put them to proper use.”
  137. >He was afraid.
  138. >No, he was terrified and completely frozen in fear.
  139. >Twilight both did and didn't want to know what had happened between the two that'd made him react like that.
  140. >”But I believe you are more than capable of keeping him in check.”
  141. >The horn of the mare with a mane of fire flashed orange.
  142. >Twilight flinched away as a small gout of flames appeared near her head.
  143. >The flames turned into a sealed letter, with the words 'To the medical professional treating the last human' on the envelope.
  145. >”I have somewhere else to be. Do you have any questions, Twilight?”
  146. >Twilight gasped for breath, and her mind was immediately flooded.
  147. >What has happened to you? What have you done to him? Is Luna okay? What's happened to Canterlot?
  148. >But there was one question that rose above all others.
  149. ”Who are you?”
  150. >Twilight spread her forehooves a slight bit wider and weaved the raw magic around her into a ready-for-release shield spell.
  151. “What happened to Princess Celestia?”
  152. >The fiery alicorn took half a step away from Twilight.
  153. >She pulled her head up high into the air...
  154. >And stopped.
  155. >Her eyes narrowed for a split second as she studied Twilight.
  156. >”Twilight.”
  157. >There was a touch of softness to her voice.
  158. >”I may have changed, but I still have the best of Equestria in my heart.”
  159. >Clip. Clop.
  160. >The sound of her shod hooves on the wood of the floor rang out in the room as she took a few steps towards Twilight.
  161. >No.
  162. >She couldn't.
  163. >Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and released the shield spell.
  165. >”I'm sorry.”
  166. >There was a crack, and a fwoosh.
  167. >Twilight cracked her eyes open.
  168. >She was gone.
  169. >Everything looked violet thanks to the magical barrier surrounding Twilight, but the flaming alicorn had vanished.
  170. >There was only Twilight and the human.
  171. >He was looking up at her from the floor, with his lips parted just enough for his front teeth to peek through the gap.
  173. “Uh, hello.”
  174. >Twilight let go of the fabric of magic and the barrier disintegrated into nothingness.
  175. “My name is Twilight Sparkle and... and you'll be living with me now!”
  176. >She put on the friendliest smile she could muster and trotted closer.
  177. >But the human slapped his hands and feet onto the floor and pushed himself away from her.
  178. >Twilight froze in place mid-step.
  179. “I'm not going to hurt you.”
  180. >His body was all tensed up, his eyes were wide open and kept shooting between her and the door.
  181. “OK, so... how about I take you home and... give you something to eat? Can you walk?”
  182. >Twilight felt the corners of her mouth quiver from strain of the forced smile.
  183. >The human said nothing, but pushed himself off the floor and onto his feet.
  184. “Just follow me, okay?”
  186. >Twilight slipped the sealed letter she'd been given under her wing, gulped loudly, and steeled her mind.
  187. >The groan of the hinges echoed in the crystalline hallways of her castle as she pushed the front doors open with her magic.
  188. >Nopony was in the hall to welcome her back.
  189. >That'd make the explaining a little easier.
  190. >She trotted in and looked back to confirm the human still followed her.
  191. >His posture was still slumped and he still stared at his feet with a blank expression on his face, but he was still behind her.
  192. >Spike would understand.
  193. >But how would she explain this to her mother?
  194. >Or Starlight?
  196. “Spike!”
  197. >The echoes of Twilight's shout were soon replaced with the pitter-patter of two tiny scaled feet.
  198. >”Coming!”
  199. >Her draconid companion soon appeared at the top of the stairs.
  200. >He didn't say a word as he hopped down the steps, but stared at the human the whole way down.
  201. “Uh, could you fetch my parents and Starlight... and prepare to take three letters?”
  202. >Twilight tried putting on her best smile, but knew it was just a nervous grin on her face.
  203. >”Got some explaining to do?”
  204. >Thankfully, he didn't say anything else, only turned around and hopped back up the stairs.
  206. “Uh, yes. I have some good news and some bad news.”
  207. >Twilight glanced around the hall and the ponies who Spike had brought there.
  208. >They were all staring at the being behind her.
  209. >Her father had narrowed his eyes and had tilted his horn towards the human.
  210. >Her mother had her brows furrowed and had cocked her head slightly to the side.
  211. >Starlight just stared at him with a blank expression on her face.
  212. “The good news is that the war is over.”
  213. >Three pairs of eyes moved from the human to Twilight.
  214. >Three smiles overtook three faces.
  215. >”Oh, that's wonderful news, honey!”
  216. >Velvet threw her hooves around Night Light's neck and hugged him tightly.
  217. >”That means they'll lift the evacuation order soon and we can go back home!”
  218. >Then she pulled back a little, placed a peck of a kiss on his cheek, and returned her hooves to the floor.
  219. >“Yes, dear... assuming our house is still standing.”
  220. >Night Light leaned in and repaid the kiss with his own, on the cheek as well.
  221. >”That's some great news, but you said you have good and bad news. What's the bad ones, Twilight?”
  222. >Starlight returned her eyes to Twilight from the couple, and arced a brow.
  223. “Welll...”
  224. >Twilight told them how the human had been assigned to Twilight, and how Celestia was different now.
  226. “...and that's how I ended up here with him.”
  227. >Twilight's parents had followed her through the monologue, occasionally glancing at each other.
  228. >But Starlight was frozen in place, her gaze on the floor in front of her own hooves.
  229. >”Daybreaker.”
  230. >Three pairs of eyes fixed on her.
  231. “What did you say?”
  232. >Starlight looked up and straight at Twilight.
  233. >Her mouth was a thin line and her eyes were full of determination.
  234. >”Her name is Daybreaker. I've seen her before, when I swapped their cutie marks and Celestia tried to tame my nightmare.”
  235. >The short silence as she paused for breath was thick enough to be cut with a knife.
  236. >”Celestia said that 'she has never existed and never would' but looked like she had seen Daybreaker before.”
  237. >Twilight wasn't entirely sure what to think.
  238. >It did remind her of Nightmare Moon.
  239. >But she felt – she knew – there was still a piece of Celestia in there.
  240. >Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of two scaly feet.
  241. >”Hey Twilight- am I interrupting?”
  242. >Spike arrived, with a small stack of paper, a quill and a bottle of ink.
  243. >Twilight looked at him for a short moment.
  244. >She knew what to do.
  245. >Applejack and Pinkie Pie were in Ponyville, but Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were helping with the war effort.
  246. “Spike, I'm going to need you to write three letters.”
  247. >And they weren't going to be about a party and a sleepover.
  249. >Twilight slipped three envelopes under her wing.
  250. “Thanks Spike.”
  251. >She flashed a smile at the little dragon and pranced in place to turn around.
  252. >The human was behind her, still staring at his own feet.
  253. “Oh.”
  254. >She'd forgotten about him while dictating the letters.
  255. “I'll show you to the kitchen, follow me.”
  256. >He lifted his gaze from his feet.
  257. >Their eyes met.
  258. >The way the corners of his mouth drooped, and something about his eyes made Twilight feel a deep sadness.
  259. >It was like a shadow in her soul, suffocating any other feelings that tried to sprout through.
  260. >She couldn't take it.
  261. >Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and turned away.
  263. >She glanced behind herself.
  264. >The human was there, trailing her by a few paces.
  265. >Despite how close he was, Twilight couldn't hear him.
  266. >He moved soundlessly, with the balls of his feet hitting the floor before he put weight on the foot.
  267. >It made her feel uneasy as the words of Princess-
  268. >As the words of Daybreaker echoed in her mind.
  269. >Intelligent. Dexterous. Agile.
  270. >Quiet as a whisper.
  271. >Her guts churned.
  272. >Was it really a good idea to have him walk behind her?
  273. >But there was something about him that made him not feel threatening.
  274. >It was how he barely reacted to what was happening around him.
  275. >No animal, much less a sapient being, acted like that.
  276. >Twilight's curiosity was roused.
  277. >What had made him be like that?
  278. >She had to know.
  280. >Twilight trotted through the doorway into the kitchen.
  281. “I'll get something for you, just wait a moment.”
  282. >She used her magic to make a cupboard open and peeked in.
  283. >A loaf of bread?
  284. >Close enough.
  285. >It was enveloped in a lavender glow, floated out of the cupboard and onto the table in the middle of the room.
  286. “There you go, -”
  287. >She froze mid-sentence as she suddenly realized she'd never asked the human's name.
  288. >She was supposed to be the Princess of Friendship and she'd forgot basic manners!
  289. >The human didn't appear to care about it, though.
  290. >He was too busy staring at the bread to notice how the corners Twilight's mouth twitched or how she awkwardly shuffled around.
  291. “Hey, I just realized I never caught your name. Heh heh.”
  292. >She was painfully aware of the high pitch of her voice.
  293. >He glanced at her, then looked back at the bread.
  294. “Uh, you can eat it if you want, but can't you tell me your name first?”
  295. >For a second, nothing happened.
  296. >Then the human leaped forwards, snatched the bread into his hands and tore a large chunk off it.
  298. >Suddenly, his face contorted in pain.
  299. >He dropped the pieces of bread and clutched his right shoulder.
  300. >A pained grunt escaped his mouth as he clenched his teeth together and winced.
  301. >Twilight caught a glimpse of his canines.
  302. >Another shiver traveled down her spine, conflicting with the worry for him that his pain had cultivated.
  303. “Are you okay?”
  304. >He shut his eyes for a second, drew his lungs full of air, and looked at Twilight.
  305. >He stared right into her eyes while he bent his knees and snatched the smaller of the dropped bits of bread with his left hand, brought it up to his mouth, bit down and ripped a chunk off with his teeth.
  306. >Twilight found her tail curled around her leg.
  307. >She was sure he could've done the same to a slab of meat, or to a small animal.
  309. >Twilight shut her eyes and concentrated.
  310. >The image of a list materialized in her mind.
  311. >Pinkie and Applejack?
  312. >At Sugar Cube Corner and Sweet Apple Acres; check.
  313. >The letters for Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy?
  314. >Safely under her wing; check.
  315. >Daybreaker's letter?
  316. >Safely under her other wing; check.
  317. >The human, who remained nameless for the time being?
  318. >Fed and following behind her; check.
  319. >She let go of the mental image, opened her eyes and glanced behind herself.
  320. >Yep, he was there, still-
  321. >Actually, he was looking at one of the crystals lining the hall and not at his feet.
  322. >But he still had the same blank expression on him.
  324. “Okay, just follow me, I'm going to take you to the vet. She should be the one most qualified to see if there's anything wrong with you.”
  325. >The door swung open before them as Twilight's magic took hold of it.
  326. >She trotted out into the open.
  327. >A breeze ruffled her mane and made the tip of her tail sway back and forth.
  328. >The air was heavy with pollen and carried a hint of dust with it.
  329. >The sun, high in the cloudless sky, baked the land in a scorching heat.
  330. >If not for the wind, it would have been a blisteringly hot noon.
  331. >Twilight glanced behind herself.
  332. >The anonymous human stepped through the doorway and squinted his eyes in the sunlight as she made the door slam shut behind him.
  334. >He gathered looks.
  335. >And few of the pleasant kind.
  336. >Ponies fell silent and turned to stare as he passed by.
  337. >Most of the onlookers wrinkled their snouts or narrowed their eyes.
  338. >Thankfully, they stopped short of insulting him.
  339. >Twilight guessed that was because most of them were at Daybreaker's speech and knew he was Twilight's charge.
  340. >They knew of Twilight's past deeds and how she'd helped reform many former enemies.
  342. >A small bell rung above the door Twilight pushed open.
  343. >The mailmare on duty lifted her eyes from the book she was reading.
  344. >The post office was as quiet as one could expect it to be near the end of the month.
  345. >Because of the war, there was a monthly quota on how much mail one could send since most of the mail ponies were now serving in the military.
  346. >Princesses were, of course, exempt.
  347. >”Twilight! How can-”
  348. >The mailmare fell quiet as the human stepped through the door.
  349. >Her eyes went wide with surprise, then narrowed in hatred.
  350. “Long story, but he's with me. Don't worry.”
  351. >Twilight spread one of her wings, and caught the three letters that fell from under it with her magic.
  352. “Anyways, I came here because of these. I need them delivered to Rarity, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash.”
  353. >The letters floated onto the counter and the magical glow surrounding them vanished.
  354. “Royal priority.”
  355. >The mare behind the counter drew breath and opened her mouth.
  356. >She glared at Twilight like she was going to snap about something, then her eyes wandered down to Twilight's wings.
  357. >”Right away, Princess.”
  358. >She scampered onto her hooves, then snatched the letters and one of the mail bags that were hanging on a row of hooks next to her.
  359. >Being a princess had its perks, even if Twilight didn't like ordering ponies around.
  361. >A thick plume of dust followed Twilight as she trotted along the bone-dry streets of Ponyville.
  362. >The wind had died down and the sun was merciless.
  363. >She found herself dreaming of the veterinary clinic's water cooler.
  364. >But she was doing well compared to the human who was trodding along behind her.
  365. >His entire body was slick with sweat, and was turning brown from walking in the dust trail left behind by Twilight.
  366. >Despite this, he still had a determined look on his face.
  368. >The vet's waiting room was deserted.
  369. “Hello? Doctor Fauna?”
  370. >For a short moment, the tiny room was filled with nothing but muffled chirps, meows, hoots and hisses coming from the multitude of animals inside the other rooms of the clinic.
  371. >”Just a second!”
  372. >Twilight was thankful for the short break, and glanced around the room.
  373. >There was just the door, a counter in front of another door opposite to it, two chairs on one wall and a water cooler on another.
  374. >The human was standing at the door, looking at his feet once more.
  375. >Since it was going to take a while, Twilight thought she could as well fulfill the dream from earlier.
  376. >She yanked one of the plastic cups from the dispenser, floated it below the tap and twisted the handle.
  377. >Water purled into the cup.
  378. >Twilight noticed the human staring at the cup.
  379. “You can have it if you want.”
  380. >She made the now filled cup float over to him.
  381. >But he didn't take it.
  382. >Instead, he threw Twilight a sideways glance and stepped over to the water cooler himself.
  383. >He reached over to the dispenser with his left hand, corrected the positioning of his fingers, and yanked.
  384. >Two cups were left in his hand.
  385. >Something about him looked awkward as he put the cups under the tap and hovered his hand over them for a second before twisting the handle.
  387. >The door behind the counter clicked open and swung inwards.
  388. >”Sorry it took a while- Oh.”
  389. >Doctor Fauna trotted into the waiting room.
  390. >Her eyes passed over Twilight and fixed on the human.
  391. >For a second, she studied him in silence.
  392. >”Hm, yes. I thought you'd end up here soon enough. But, how can I help you, Twilight?”
  393. >Twilight set down her third cup of water and spread a wing.
  394. >She caught the letter in her magic before it fell to the floor.
  395. “Hi! I... was given this letter and thought you would be the one best suited to the task.”
  396. >The letter floated onto the counter, and the aura surrounding it vanished.
  397. >”I've never treated a human before, but- Oh, you don't get to open letters with the Royal Seal on them every day.”
  398. >The sound of tearing paper filled the room as Fauna ripped open the envelope.
  399. >Twilight had to force herself to look away from the letter as she waited for the doctor to read it.
  401. >”Unusual. Why would the Princess go out of her way to... Well, I guess that doesn't matter.”
  402. >Fauna trotted out from behind the counter and had another look at the human.
  403. “Do you think you'll be fine with him without me? I'd like to go see Pinkie and Applejack and I'd prefer to...”
  404. >Twilight didn't dare to say she'd prefer to do it without the human overhearing what they were going to talk about.
  405. >The doctor glanced at her, then looked up into the human's eyes for a while.
  406. >”I think I'll be fine. Judging from how he is, this is going to take a quite a while.”
  407. >Opting to believe the veterinarian's professional opinion over her own prejudices, Twilight twirled around and nearly got to the door before her curiosity got the best of her.
  408. “Do you think I could...”
  409. >She looked back at the counter and the letter on it.
  410. >Fauna's lips curled into an amused smile as she saw the battle between willpower and curiosity in Twilight's eyes.
  411. >”Go ahead, there's nothing confidential on it.”
  412. >A lavender glow enveloped the letter as it floated to the alicorn.
  413. >It was short.
  414. >Twilight's stomach twisted uncomfortably as she read it.
  415. >'In accordance to the Critically Endangered Species Act §7, the state treasury will fully reimburse any expenses caused by the treatment and/or rehabilitation of the last human.'
  417. >Twilight left the clinic while lost deep in thought.
  418. >She paid no heed to the scorching heat or how the ground produced a small puff of dust each time she took a step.
  419. >Why would Daybreaker cite the Critically Endangered Species act on the human?
  420. >The clause 7 in particular, it was meant for species whose extinction was unavoidable.
  421. >Like those where all remaining specimen were of the same gender.
  422. >But humans were the dominant species of their world.
  423. >They were not facing extinction.
  424. >One part of Twilight wanted to believe that it was because the human was the last of his kind in Equestria and his species was thus beyond any hope of recovery in this world.
  425. >The lawmakers certainly hadn't intended the law to be used like that, but it did follow the letter of the law.
  426. >The other part of her was worried that something had happened beyond the Rift.
  427. >She remembered the debates that'd occurred soon after it had opened, before the war.
  428. >Renowned magicians and theorists had claimed that the Rift had enough energy in it to completely annihilate either, or both, sides of it.
  429. >Crossing it proved safe and it hadn't show any signs of instability, but there hadn't been any news of it ever since the war broke out.
  430. >Surely, Daybreaker couldn't mean...?
  432. >Ding-a-ling!
  433. >The tiny bell attached to Sugar Cube Corner's door rang brightly as Twilight trotted in.
  434. >”Hi Twilight!”
  435. >Pinkie Pie looked up from the bowl of batter she was mixing on the counter.
  436. “Hi Pinkie.”
  437. >Twilight came to a halt and met her friend's eyes.
  438. >Pinkie's face was full of excitement and joy, and Twilight felt some of it catching on as the corners of her own mouth crept upwards.
  439. >She then glanced behind herself to make sure the door closed behind her, to not let any of the wonderfully cool conditioned air out.
  440. >”You know, I thought it'd be a great idea to arrange a welcoming surprise for your new friend but then Applejack said we should give you some time alone since he didn't look like he's too fond of ponies and- Where is he, by the way?”
  441. >Pinkie let go of the bowl and hopped out from behind the counter.
  442. “I left him with Doctor Fauna, she's going to do a check-up on him. Anyways, about the speech earlier to-”
  443. >”You whaaaat!?”
  444. >Pinkie somehow stopped mid-hop, threw her forehooves up in the air and made an over-exaggeratedly shocked face.
  446. >”Did you just say you left a human who isn't too comfortable around ponies alone with a vet who's going to poke and test and feel and prod him?”
  447. >She returned her forehooves to the floor and hopped right next to Twilight.
  448. >”Because that's definitely not going to make him be your friend.”
  449. >Twilight stood there with her mouth left hanging open for a short moment.
  450. >She had considered that, but the Daybreaker issue was far more important.
  451. “But... Princess Celestia needs our help, she's turned into-”
  452. >Pinkie shoved a hoof onto Twilight's mouth to quiet her.
  453. >”That. Can wait.”
  454. >The pink mare let her hoof fall back to the floor before zooming back behind the counter.
  455. >”But it's going to take a long time to-”
  456. >She ducked behind the counter, and Twilight heard some cooking utensils clank against each other as they were pushed around.
  457. >”-to make him trust you- ah, there it is.”
  458. >Pinkie popped back up, with a beaming smile on her face and a blueberry muffin in one hoof.
  459. “Pinkie, Equestria is at war and Princess Celestia has turned into some twisted reflection of herself. I understand you want to get to know the human, but isn't there something more important to do?”
  460. >Twilight did her best to sound serious, and even shuffled her wings in an attempt to emphasize it.
  461. >”Of course I know that, silly. I was at the speech. But what are we going to do about that without Rainbow Dash, Fluttersy and Rarity?”
  462. >She... was right.
  463. >Rainbow Dash could get there before nightfall, but Fluttershy and Rarity wouldn't make in until the next evening at the earliest.
  464. >Arrhythmic hoofsteps filled the room as Pinkie walked to Twilight on three hooves, still holding the muffin.
  465. >She offered it to the alicorn.
  466. >”Here, take this to him and hope he'll forgive you.”
  467. >Twilight took the pastry into her magic grasp.
  468. “Thanks, Pinkie. I wasn't thinking straight.”
  469. >She shook her head promptly, then looked back at her friend who was grinning from ear to ear.
  470. >”That's what friends are for, right?”
  472. “Doctor Fauna?”
  473. >The clinic's door slammed shut behind her.
  474. >”Twilight? Did you forget something?”
  475. >Twilight trotted behind the counter, then stopped for a moment to let her breathing slow down from the frantic panting it was.
  476. >She'd galloped all the way from Sugar Cube Corner.
  477. >Her coat was slick with sweat, and caked with brown dust.
  478. “No! I mean, yes!”
  479. >She pushed open the door in front of her.
  480. >It opened into the main room of the clinic.
  481. >Sunlight streamed in through a large window on one wall.
  482. >Low cupboards with table space on top of them lined the room on all sides.
  483. >Occupying the space was a plethora of conflicting items: a stethoscope next to a bag of bird seed, an injection needle in an empty terrarium, a low steel bowl with small bits of raw meat in it along with other such oddities.
  485. >In the middle of everything lay the human on his back, on a sturdy wooden table, with Doctor Fauna standing right beside his head.
  486. >The human appeared to be ignoring the veterinarian completely, and was staring at the ceiling with a blank expression.
  487. >Fauna had a hoof on his scalp and was leaning in for a closer look, but was now looking at Twilight with an arced brow.
  489. “Uhmm...”
  490. >Twilight suddenly realized her mind was blank, devoid of anything to say.
  491. >She couldn't just tell them what Pinkie had said, the Princess of Friendship shouldn't need such advice.
  492. >Then again...
  493. “A friend helped me realize there's someone who needs me right now.”
  494. >...the first lesson of friendship was to listen to your friends.
  495. >Fauna let her brow relax as a gentle smile crept onto her face.
  496. >She had, no doubt, heard and seen something similar before.
  497. >Twilight made the muffin, which she was still levitating with her magic, float to the human.
  498. “Here, I got this for you. I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive me, I didn't mean to-”
  499. >She fell silent as the human suddenly heaved his head.
  500. >Doctor Fauna scrambled backwards as he placed his left hand on the table and pushed himself up to a sitting position.
  501. >He craned his head to look at Twilight.
  502. >Only, differently from before.
  503. >Earlier it had been like he had looked in Twilight's direction without really seeing anything.
  504. >But now, there was some spark of recognition in his eyes as he studied the alicorn's features.
  506. >What should she do?
  507. >Twilight wasn't sure.
  508. >She didn't even know what she'd done.
  509. >It was the first time the human had responded in any way, other than by doing what she'd told him to do.
  510. >She couldn't let the opportunity pass by.
  511. “Um, hi?”
  512. >He did not respond.
  513. >Twilight felt a bead of cold sweat trickle down the side of her neck.
  514. >She wished to tell him that it was rude to stare and that he was making her feel nervous.
  515. “Do you... like muffins? I got one for you.”
  516. >The best she could do was to force a nervous grin onto her face and make said pastry swing next to his face.
  517. >His eyes shifted from Twilight to the muffin as his pupils dilated.
  518. >His breathing suddenly got heavy and audible.
  519. >He leaned backwards, away from the sweet treat, and placed his right hand behind himself for support.
  520. >Then he yelped.
  521. >In the next instant, his face contorted in pain as he began falling onto his back while clutching his right shoulder.
  522. >Twilight enveloped him in her magic and stopped his fall so he wouldn't hurt himself further.
  524. >He froze.
  525. >On his face was a look of terror, his eyes wide with fear and mouth hanging open.
  526. >He didn't even breathe as Twilight set him down on his back, on the table.
  527. >Was it something she said?
  528. >Was he allergic to muffins?
  529. >She hoped he could tell her as she took a step closer.
  530. “Hey, what's wrong?”
  531. >But her hope was in vain.
  532. >He lay there, stiff as a plank and completely still.
  533. >Well, nearly.
  534. >There was a spot on his chest, beneath his left breast, that was moving a little bit.
  535. >Up-down, up-down, up-down...
  536. >The pace was steady and rapid.
  537. >Twilight realized she was looking at his heartbeat.
  538. >It made her feel a bit sick.
  539. >That was not something supposed to be seen; it was hidden, it was taboo.
  541. >”Now that was... something.”
  542. >Fauna's words shocked Twilight out of staring at the human's chest.
  543. >The two mares looked at each other, Twilight feeling her bewilderment sneaking onto her face.
  544. “But... why? I didn't do anything to him.”
  545. >”Twilight, I think he's afraid of your magic.”
  546. >The doctor smiled.
  547. >It was not a friendly smile, but the practiced smile of a professional telling something uncomfortable.
  548. >”He remained calm until you came in, tried to move away from the treat you levitated to him and froze when you stopped him from falling over.”
  549. >But...
  550. >Magic was a part of Twilight.
  551. “What am I supposed to do, then? I can't just stop using magic.”
  552. >It was second nature to her, something that came as naturally as breathing.
  553. >”Well, if he was a simple animal, I'd suggest you do something small with magic around him while giving him treats, but...”
  554. >Fauna let out a long, drawn out breath.
  555. >”I'm afraid his mental workings are beyond my expertise. You'll have to figure out something yourself.”
  557. >Twilight sat on the floor right next to the table and watched the doctor finish her examination.
  558. >The human remained still, but relaxed his body and did whatever Fauna asked him to do.
  559. >He opened his mouth and spread out his arms when told to, but didn't respond to Twilight's or Fauna's questions.
  560. >Eventually, the veterinarian was done.
  562. >”He has three fractured ribs, one on the left and two on the right, there's a torn ligament in his shoulder, hoof-shaped bruises all over his body and he's showing early signs of malnutrition.”
  563. >Fauna tapped her hoof on two of the three x-ray images hanging on a mobile light board as she spoke.
  564. >The first one showed the human's ribcage, the second his right shoulder and the third his hips – which were, thankfully, intact.
  565. >”He does not have any lice or mites and does not show any symptoms telling of intestinal parasites, other than the malnutrition.”
  566. >The human in question sat cross-legged on the table and was absentmindedly staring at his knees.
  567. >Twilight, still sitting right on the floor next to the table, had placed the muffin in front of him by hoof but he hadn't touched it.
  568. >”I suggest you take him to the hospital where they're better equipped to attempt surgery on his shoulder. Beyond that, don't let him lift anything heavy for a month to let his ribs heal, make sure he has a plentiful and varied diet... And give him some clothes to wear so he doesn't get sunburned.”
  569. >The doctor pulled open one of the cupboards lining the walls and took out a large envelope.
  570. >Twilight wished she'd taken some paper with her so she could make notes to ensure she wouldn't forget anything.
  571. >”I suggest something light and airy for his clothes. And foods with liver or blood in them, omnivores like him often develop iron deficiency when put on a plant-based diet.”
  572. >Fauna yanked the x-rays off the board and slid them into the envelope as Twilight watched with her mouth agape.
  573. >Food with blood in it?
  574. >She'd known humans ate meat, but blood?
  575. >Her stomach roiled at the thought of it.
  576. >”Here, take this to the hospital so they won't have to radiate him again.”
  577. >Fauna offered the envelope to the alicorn.
  578. “T-thanks?”
  579. >A bemused smile rose onto the veterinarian's lips as their eyes met.
  580. >”You're welcome. And Twilight?”
  581. >Fauna cocked her head slightly and Twilight got the feeling she'd practiced the motion before.
  582. >”Remember that he's not a pony and shouldn't be judged by pony standards.”
  584. >Twilight stared at a shelf filled with bolts of cloth.
  585. >Her stomach growled and reminded her that it was lunchtime.
  586. >She'd heard that the shop she was in, the Nut and Bolt, was where Rarity got her material.
  587. >That did not help her choose.
  588. >Silk, satin, velvet, cotton, wool, linen...
  589. >One's as good as the other, right?
  590. >She picked one of the lighter colored ones at random.
  591. >Lifting a corner for a closer look, she determined it didn't look too thick - to her anyways.
  592. >If only Rarity was there, she'd have a set of clothes done in the flick of a tail.
  593. >But as things stood, Twilight would have to ask her dad to make something for the next day or two.
  594. >He'd dabbled in tailoring in his younger days, before he'd met Twilight's mother.
  595. >Or so he'd said.
  597. “Spike!”
  598. >Twilight's voice echoed in the interior of her castle.
  599. >It was delightfully shady and cool compared to the sun-baked streets of Ponyville.
  600. >She really hoped she wasn't late for lunch.
  601. >Not because re-heated food was bad, but because she'd miss eating together with her parents, Spike, and Starlight.
  602. >Even if it was mostly Twilight's mother recounting the reckless antics of her own youth.
  603. >”Coming!”
  604. >Shining and Cadence had their hooves full with keeping the Crystal Heart infused with enough love despite all the bad news, but if the war was all but over?
  605. >Maybe they could come over for a much-needed vacation.
  606. >Relaxing in the shade of a tree, with a basket full of pies and melon, with nothing to worry about...
  608. >”What did you need, Twilight?”
  609. >Spike was standing right next to her, with his head cocked and a brow arched.
  610. “Oh.”
  611. >She may have got a little carried away with planning a family picnic.
  612. “Uh, I got these for you.”
  613. >Twilight chucked one of the bags she was levitating at her companion.
  614. >In addition to the bolt of cloth, she'd bought a bag of nuts for each of the castle's current residents.
  615. >Pistachios for Spike, his favorite, cashews for herself and Starlight, peanuts for her mom and dad, and almonds for the human.
  616. >”Hey, thanks!”
  617. “No problem. When's lunch, by the way?”
  618. >Twilight's smile turned a little too wide as her stomach chose just the wrong moment to grumble.
  619. >”I was just about to start.”
  621. >Daybreaker called him dexterous, yet he was anything but.
  622. >He'd figured out that he was allowed to eat what was placed in front of him.
  623. >The fork was causing him some real trouble.
  624. >First he tried scooping up multiple bits of the steamed roots that Spike had made, but he couldn't get them onto the fork for long enough to get them into his mouth.
  625. >Then he tried to use his knife to help with it, but as soon as he lifted his right hand onto the table, he drew a sharp breath as his face scrunched up and the fork clattered on the plate.
  626. >His hand fell back to his side and he let out a deep sigh as he stared at his meal.
  627. >Eventually, he settled on skewering the bits one by one.
  628. >The egg Spike had fried for him sat forgotten on the edge of his plate, the only thing he couldn't eat without cutting it into smaller pieces first.
  630. >”I can't watch.”
  631. >Twilight Velvet's chair scraped the floor as she pushed herself away from the table.
  632. >The clip-clop of her hooves and the clinking of the human's fork were the only sounds in the room while she trotted around the table.
  633. >Four pairs of eyes were fixed on her as she came to a halt next to the human.
  634. >”Let me help you with that.”
  635. >He ignored her entirely, popping a bit of food into his mouth like she wasn't there.
  636. >Velvet was not discouraged by this: she lifted a hoof off the floor and prodded the human's thigh.
  637. >This time, she was not ignored.
  638. >He left a forkful hanging halfway between the plate and his mouth, and turned his head to look at her.
  639. >There was a blank look on his face, but his eyes narrowed slightly as they fixed on Velvet's horn.
  640. “Mom, remember that he's-”
  641. >Twilight couldn't finish the sentence before Velvet's horn lit up with magic.
  642. >The human flinched away from it and his fork clattered onto his plate once again as he brought his functioning hand between him and the magic.
  643. >The backrest of his seat creaked as he pushed himself into it.
  644. “...afraid of magic.”
  645. >His eyes were fixed on his knife, which Velvet was levitating, as it deftly cut his fried egg into small pieces.
  647. >”That wasn't so bad now was it, dear?”
  648. >The knife set itself gently on the edge of the plate.
  649. >”Remember that you can always ask for help.”
  650. >The human was strangely calm despite the situation.
  651. >He was still holding his hand between him and Velvet, but his brow was furrowed as he studied the unicorn next to him.
  652. >Twilight realized the spark of recognition was in his eyes again.
  653. >Something about the way they moved from one feature to another in a logical sequence told her that.
  654. >Horn, eyes, snout, lips, mane...
  655. >It was definitely not him looking in the direction of Velvet while barely registering her existence.
  656. >But Twilight did not dare to speak.
  657. >She had squandered one opportunity already.
  658. >She couldn't risk another.
  660. >”Hello, dear.”
  661. >Velvet's voice wavered as her rear hoof rose off the floor.
  662. >”I'm Twilight Velvet. Who are you?”
  663. >Her tail wrapped around the hoof as her eyes shot from the human to the door.
  664. >She tore her gaze from the door and forced herself to look back at him.
  665. >The human drew in a breath...
  666. >...then bowed his head and closed his eyes.
  667. >Twilight was not familiar with human body language, but wagered it was a sign of submission.
  668. >The reason he would do that for was beyond her, though.
  669. >His fear was understandable; the ponies who captured him must've roughed him up.
  670. >And he'd seen too much before before being taken prisoner, which would explain his, in the lack of better words, absence.
  671. >But this?
  672. >Twilight's eyes happened upon his shoulder blade.
  673. >There was a large bruise on it that was starting to turn yellow.
  674. >It was definitely in the shape of a hoof.
  675. >Poor thing, he-
  676. >Her brow furrowed.
  677. >It was too big.
  679. “Hold on.”
  680. >Twilight spread her wings and hopped off her chair.
  681. >A few rapid beats brought her to a hover next to the human.
  682. >She felt a tingle in her stomach as she very gently placed her forehoof over the bruise.
  683. >”Twilight, what are you doing?”
  684. >She ignored Starlight, because she'd just proven the uncomfortable hunch she'd had.
  685. >The bruise was far larger than her hoof.
  686. >Only Big Mac had hooves big enough to cause something like that.
  687. >Big Mac, and Princess Celestia.
  688. >Twilight let herself fall back to the floor with four loud clops.
  689. “How many ponies do you know who have hooves far larger than mine?”
  690. >She looked at Starlight across the table.
  691. >”Well, there's Big Mac and...”
  692. >Starlight's voice trailed off.
  693. >Her lips remained parted as the hint of a smile that'd been on her face turned into a look of sudden realization.
  694. >”The Princess? But she'd never...”
  695. >There was disbelief in Velvet's voice.
  696. >She sought out one of the more complete bruises on the human and put her hoof over it.
  697. >It was larger than her hoof, but the difference was not as great as with the one her daughter had used to ascertain herself.
  698. >”Twilight, dear.”
  699. >Worry seeped into Velvet's voice.
  700. >”Have you heard anything of Princess Luna?”
  701. “No, why'd you-”
  702. >Twilight saw where her mother's hoof was.
  703. >She realized that the faint glimmer of hope she'd held in her heart was in vain.
  704. “Nightmare Moon.”
  706. >Twilight trotted back and forth in her room.
  707. >The list she'd attempted to make to calm herself down lay forgotten on her desk.
  708. >Was Princess Celestia truly gone?
  709. >She thought she'd seen a fragment of her inside Daybreaker.
  710. >But Celestia would never allow torture, she would have sacrificed herself if it meant avoiding such despicable acts.
  711. >And Luna?
  712. >Had she truly given in to the darkness again?
  713. >She knew first hoof that the powers it offered came at a cost far too great.
  714. >Twilight had too many questions and no answers.
  715. >She wanted to fly to Canterlot.
  716. >But what could she do on her own?
  717. “Gah!”
  718. >She cried out in frustration.
  719. >Her powerlessness was aggravating.
  720. >If only her friends were there already.
  721. >The Elements of Harmony would return everything back to normal.
  722. >Twilight froze mid-step.
  723. >...almost everything.
  724. >Her heart sank as the memory returned.
  725. >She looked down at her forehooves.
  726. >There was somepony she had neglected for far too long.
  727. >She'd have to visit Canterlot soon.
  729. >A hoof tapped on wood three times.
  730. >There was no answer.
  731. >Hinges groaned as the seldom-used door was pushed open.
  732. “Hey, how are you feeling?”
  733. >Twilight peeked into the room she'd given to the human.
  734. >He lay on his back in his bed, with one hand beneath the back of his head and the other resting on his stomach.
  735. >He lifted his head off his hand and looked at the alicorn.
  736. “My dad's making some clothes for you.”
  737. >Twilight trotted into the room, leaving the door open behind her.
  738. “He's never worked with linen before but he said it wouldn't be a problem.”
  739. >The human pushed himself to the edge of the bed and swung his legs off it.
  740. >His movements were awkward and off-balance, far from the grace and efficiency humans were said to possess.
  741. “But I went ahead and visited the hospital. They're ready to fix your shoulder.”
  742. >If he was listening to her, he gave no sign of it.
  743. “Come, follow me.”
  745. >”Turns out the torn ligament isn't the only issue with his shoulder.”
  746. >Redheart's voice was muffled by the surgical mask she was wearing.
  747. >”The nerve has also been damaged, we're going to do what we can about it but it's looking like he'll never regain full use of his arm.”
  748. >It'd been about half an hour since Twilight had said goodbye to the human as the anesthetics had taken over.
  749. >”You can wait if you want, but I can tell this is going to take a while.”
  750. “Thanks for telling me.”
  751. >Twilight let out a sigh as the nurse headed back to the operating room.
  752. >She got on her hooves, shuffled her wings and headed out.
  753. >Even if the surgery had gone as planned, the anesthetics would keep the human out cold for hours and out of his mind until morning.
  754. >And there was something Twilight had to do.
  755. >In Canterlot.
  757. >Twilight's wings split the air as her hooves grazed the treetops below.
  758. >The sun was a few hours past its highest point and the wind was starting to pick up, but it was still blisteringly hot.
  759. >A few quick, strong beats brought Twilight well clear of the trees.
  760. >She peered downwards, seeking a clearing.
  761. >Soon she angled her wings and dove downwards, coming to a dramatic stop with wings spread out just barely above the ground.
  762. >The dead leaves matting the soil beneath her hooves crumbled into dust as she landed, a reminder that the only thing separating the bone-dry forest from a raging wildfire was a single spark.
  763. >A thin trickle of a stream purled just in front of her hooves, and above her, some ten minutes' flight away, loomed Canterlot.
  764. >She dipped her forehooves in the crisp water and sprinkled it over herself for a momentary relief from the oppressive heat.
  765. >The droplets mixed with her sweat as they trickled down her skin.
  766. >That turned them from refreshment into a reminder how much she wanted a long, cool shower to get the dust and grime out of her coat.
  768. >On both sides of the stream grew long-stemmed plants with small white flowers.
  769. >Twilight lit her horn with magic and gathered some, then weaved their stems together and turned them into a rudimentary wreath.
  770. >Both Pinkie and Applejack could have made something far better, but at least her creation was roughly circular and held together.
  771. >She set the wreath on her head, spread out her wings, and let out a sigh.
  772. >This was something she had to do.
  773. >Hopefully, Daybreaker wouldn't notice her – but Twilight was prepared to face her.
  774. >She leafed through a spellbook in her mind, rehearsing the spells she thought would be useful.
  775. >Looking ahead at Canterlot, she steeled her mind and took flight.
  777. >Twilight set herself down gently on the cobblestone covering a back alley.
  778. >Behind her was a shoulder-high wall and a sheer drop down to the base of the mountain the city was built on.
  779. >In front of her was a row of slightly run-down houses with shuttered windows.
  780. >The tiny splotches of lawn between them were a shade of brown, long dead from lack of rain.
  781. >Twilight looked around herself, from one end of the alley to the other, but couldn't find anything damaged.
  782. >Even the flowerpots somepony had left next to their front door were still intact – though the same couldn't be said of the flowers in them.
  783. >It was her first time in Canterlot after its evacuation, and while she'd known about the siege, she hadn't been told the details.
  784. >She wished she could take flight and ascend over the city for a good look.
  786. >The silence was eerie.
  787. >She dashed across one of the busiest streets and the only sound was that of her hooves.
  788. >There was no babble of hundreds of ponies, no clatter of thousands of hooves on stone, no ringing of registers, nopony trying to sell the Canterlot Courier.
  789. >There was only silence.
  790. >Twilight kept herself to the alleys and backstreets, paranoid about being seen or heard.
  791. >To her, each step made a sound like a bolt of lightning and there was somepony peering through the blinds in every building, ready to report her to Daybreaker and Nightmare Moon.
  793. >Twilight stopped on the edge of a crater.
  794. >She looked down into the hole before her, at the mix of loose rocks and soil.
  795. >The street was littered with shards of glass, cobblestones pried loose by the explosion were strewn about and a one of the buildings had burned down.
  796. >What was once somepony's home was now a pile of charred and splintered wood, a half-burnt armchair and a single wall left standing.
  797. >Why?
  798. >She wanted to know.
  799. >Why this family had to suffer?
  800. >Why did they have to come home to a ruin?
  801. >What had they done to deserve it?
  802. >But sifting through the ashes gave her no answers.
  803. >The only thing she found was a photo frame.
  804. >The glass had shattered and the picture was stained with soot, but she could tell it depicted a young colt who was five or six.
  805. >She left the frame next to the sole wall.
  807. >Gravel rattled under Twilight's hooves and a steady wind shuffled the leaves of the ancient oaks lining the path.
  808. >It had been nearly two months since her last visit.
  809. >But the place never changed.
  810. >The only difference was the color of the grass, it was now all brown instead of a deep green.
  811. >She took a sharp left and trotted off the path.
  812. >There was a somber smile on her face as she sat down in front of the stone.
  813. >Dry and hard blades of grass pricked her behind.
  814. >She floated the wreath of flowers she'd made earlier off her head and set it on the stone.
  816. >Senseless.
  817. >It was the foremost thought in her mind as she shut her eyes, bowed her head and pressed a hoof on the stone.
  818. >It was still warm to the touch, storing the heat of sunlight, though it was now in the shade of one of the oaks.
  819. >As warm as her hugs.
  820. >Twilight felt dampness in the corners of her eyes.
  821. >It just didn't make any sense.
  822. >She ran her hoof on the polished surface of the hourglass-shaped stone and felt the text carved into it.
  823. >'Here lies Minuette, beloved daughter and friend, taken from us before her time.'
  824. >'May your laughter guide you in the eternity ahead.'
  825. >Why did it have to be Minuette?
  826. >Why so soon after they had reconnected?
  827. “I hope you're doing fine.”
  828. >When Twilight could remember how the first thing she did was asking Spike to take a picture of them.
  829. >How she'd seemed like someone only interested in the fame of being with a princess with how she'd asked Twilight to fluff up her wings.
  830. >'Like, really fluff them up.'
  831. >Even the tone of her voice came back.
  832. >Twilight felt tears running down her cheeks and her throat felt like there was something stuck in it.
  834. >Something made a thump behind Twilight.
  835. “Knowing...”
  836. >The word came out all high-pitched and stuffy.
  837. >Twilight had to pause to sniffle, and to wipe the tears off her face with a fetlock.
  838. “Knowing you, you've already made new friends.”
  839. >It wasn't fair.
  840. >The only thing Minuette did was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  841. >She'd been one of those researching the Rift when the invasion came.
  842. >Why?
  843. >Why her?
  844. >She hadn't done anything.
  845. >Thud.
  846. >Twilight's forehead hit the edge of the stone.
  847. >She'd forced a wince onto her face, but even that couldn't hold back the tears.
  848. >Droplets spattered onto the dry grass below.
  849. >She sniffled again, and a low, quiet howl escaped her.
  850. “I- I didn't even g-get to... to...”
  851. >Sniffle.
  852. “k-keep my promise of a... a girl's night...”
  853. >Sob.
  854. “I'm sorryyyyyy!”
  855. >Twilight let herself fall to the ground and buried her face in her hooves.
  857. >Eventually, the tears dried up and the sobs died down.
  858. >Twilight wiped the tears off her face one last time just before she heard some rustling form behind.
  859. >She craned her head to look.
  860. >It was Daybreaker.
  861. >The flaming alicorn stood some twenty paces from her, with a serious look on her.
  862. >”Are you done?”
  863. >Twilight scrambled onto her hooves and knitted the raw magic around her into a stun ray waiting for release.
  864. >”Don't be ashamed of your grief, Twilight. It is an important step on the path to acceptance.”
  865. >Daybreaker glanced down at the ground in front of her, then shuffled her wings.
  866. >A sad smile crept onto her face.
  867. >”Each one of us has lost something dear in this terrible war.”
  868. >Twilight felt curious.
  869. >What was the pony in front of her after?
  870. >Why hadn't she attacked Twilight?
  871. >Did she not feel the charging of offensive magic?
  872. >”Come, let me show you something.”
  873. >Daybreaker turned away and headed off towards the center of the cemetery.
  874. >Twilight let the spell she'd prepared fizzle away into nothingness.
  875. >She trotted off behind the other alicorn.
  877. >The only sound was the rustling of dry grass beneath their hooves.
  878. >Twilight was led to the base of a statue.
  879. >It was carved out of granite, depicted a rearing stallion and was twice as tall as a living pony would have been.
  880. >On its base was a copper placard with a bit of text and a lot of empty space on it.
  881. >'In honor of the Unknown Soldier'
  882. >”This is a monument to those who went missing while defending Equestria from the human menace.”
  883. >Daybreaker looked up at the face of the statue.
  884. >Twilight thought she saw the tiniest bit of shakiness in her smile.
  885. >”I have a list of names for it, but...”
  886. >The other alicorn squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her head.
  887. >”...but I want to be certain they're all gone before I have it carved onto it.”
  888. >Her voice dropped in tone as emotion seeped into it.
  889. >As she reopened her eyes, they were clearly watery.
  890. >Something cracked next to Twilight, and a scroll appeared out of nowhere.
  891. >”I have ascertained the rest, but these... Please, bring peace to their families.”
  893. >Why would she act like that?
  894. >Twilight was puzzled as she took a look at the scroll.
  895. >It had some thirty names on it, none of whi-
  896. >There.
  897. >Near the end.
  898. >That would explain why she felt so strongly about it.
  899. >'Raven Inkwell, last known location: Twin Rivers'
  900. >Twin Rivers was the village closest to the Rift.
  901. “I- I'm sorry, I didn't know...”
  902. >Apologizing felt like the right thing to do, though Twilight wasn't sure why.
  903. >A short moment passed in silence.
  904. >Wind rustled the dead grass at their hooves.
  905. >”You don't have to apologize. It isn't your fault.”
  906. >Daybreaker's voice was back to normal.
  907. >”I would do it myself, but it turns out the humans are capable of diplomacy after all and I have some negotiations to attend – which reminds me...”
  908. >She turned to look at Twilight.
  909. >”I know I gifted the human to you, but I would like to borrow him for a while. My knowledge of beyond the Rift is limited and he could prove useful.”
  911. ---
  913. Chapter 2
  915. >”This way Princess.”
  916. >Princess Celestia pretended not to notice how Nurse Redheart's eyes avoided hers at first, finding the window behind her instead.
  917. “I trust the operation was successful?”
  918. >Those not used to her had always been nervous in her presence.
  919. >”Uh, yes! I mean... Nothing went wrong, but...”
  920. >But it was no longer just an aura of nervousness she carried, the nurse trotting in front of her being a prime example.
  921. >”...it didn't exactly go as planned, either.”
  922. >Difficulty concentrating, slight redness of the skin, hastened breathing and a light sweat.
  923. >”Turns out the nerve is damaged. There wasn't much we could do about that and we're not certain how well he'll recover.”
  924. >Though, as the nurse had demonstrated, it wasn't impossible to overcome in the correct circumstances.
  925. >Like when talking about something the pony is good at.
  926. >And Celestia knew how to subtly manipulate those around her, and how to redirect conversations.
  927. >She was far better at it than she would've liked to be.
  929. >The building echoed with the sound of metalshod hooves.
  930. >The hospital's corridors would have been deserted if not for Celestia and Redheart.
  931. >Every medical establishment in Equestria was running with bare minimum staff as every single doctor and nurse who wasn't absolutely crucial had been drafted into the war effort.
  932. >Though, if Celestia's plan were to be successful, demobilization would mean that Ponyville Hospital, and all the others, would soon be back to normal.
  933. >The threat had relinquished for the time being, but there was no guarantee they wouldn't return with even greater force, with one too great for even her and her sister.
  934. >Which was why she had to deal with the threat at its source – once and for all.
  936. >”In here, Princess.”
  937. >The nurse tapped her hoof on a door.
  938. >”Come in.”
  939. >That voice.
  940. >It shocked Celestia back to the present from her plans.
  941. >She was here?
  942. >The door was pushed open, and revealed Princess Twilight Sparkle sitting on the floor next to a hospital bed.
  943. >The human was lying in the bed and had his right arm in a sling.
  944. >Both of them looked at Celestia, Twilight with the look of someone getting caught with their hoof in a cookie jar on her face.
  945. >The human froze in place.
  946. “Twilight, I did not think I would see you here.”
  947. >At least she was alone, which meant she couldn't stop Celestia.
  948. >”I wanted to tell him what's going to happen, that's all.”
  949. >There was a tinge of hostility in Twilight's voice, and a hint of it on her face as well.
  950. >She hid it well, though.
  951. >Celestia stepped into the room and stopped to give them a moment as the door closed behind her.
  952. >Her protege turned to look at the human, who had started breathing again.
  953. >His eyes were still fixed on the flaming alicorn.
  954. >”I'm sorry about giving you back to her after what she's done to you.”
  955. >Celestia glanced at the human, at the bruises and his arm.
  956. >He was a living reminder of Equestria's victory.
  957. >His wounds were out of necessity, she couldn't have risked him turning rebellious.
  958. >Or hurting Twilight.
  959. >Though, Celestia couldn't deny deriving some pleasure out of him and his torture.
  960. >The only thing she was not happy with was his hand.
  961. >His fingers had some real magic to them, and his off-hand just hadn't been the same.
  962. >“I made her promise she wouldn't hurt you again.”
  964. “You sound like you doubt my word, Twilight.”
  965. >Of course, Celestia didn't have to ask.
  966. >Twilight's narrowed eyes and a build-up of magic in her horn was enough of a sign.
  967. >”You're the one to talk, Daybreaker! Especially after you destroyed his life!”
  968. >There was a crack and a pop as Twilight flashed and vanished.
  969. >Daybreaker...?
  970. >The name sounded familiar, but-
  971. >Oh, of course.
  972. >The memory returned to her.
  973. >Starlight Glimmer.
  974. >Of course she'd told the tale to Twilight.
  975. “My, my.”
  976. >It was brazen to tattle on somepony else's dreams.
  977. >But Starlight was no Dreamwalker, she wouldn't know the unspoken rules of the craft.
  979. “You.”
  980. >Celestia turned her attention to the human.
  981. >He was still staring at her, but the fear on his face had morphed into the look of someone who's facing something that both disgusts and fascinates them.
  982. “Can you stand?”
  983. >There was no reply.
  984. >He kept staring at her in silence.
  985. >Celestia felt a flash of anger inside her just as the human threw the covers off himself and hopped onto his feet.
  986. “When I ask a question, I expect an answer.”
  987. >She bowed her head so her horn was pointed at him, and narrowed her eyes.
  988. >The human flinched and lifted his functioning hand in front of his chest.
  989. “But, your owner was not lying. I have promised to return you in the same condition I got you in... if you behave.”
  990. >She had no intention to break him; he was, after all, no longer hers.
  991. >Although, she was not going to deny herself the pleasure of watching him suffer should he be disobedient.
  992. “I'll ask you again: can you stand?”
  993. >Celestia lifted her head high up into the air and glared at the human down her snout.
  994. >He moved his gaze from her to the floor between them.
  995. >”Yes.”
  996. >The alicorn's lips curled into a satisfied smile.
  997. “Good. Now, follow me.”
  999. >Equestria slowly rolled by beneath them as two pegasi of Celestia's personal guard, in their ceremonial gilded armor instead of military camouflage, drew their carriage towards the Rift.
  1000. “Tell me of your government. What is the title of your head of state?”
  1001. >The human had sat down as soon as they'd taken off, and was now sitting cross legged as far from the edge of the carriage as he could.
  1002. >They'd made a quick stop at Twilight's castle to pick up the set of clothes Night Light had made.
  1003. >It didn't look too flattering with how ill-fitting it was, but the human seemed more comfortable with it than without.
  1004. >”It is president. Our government is based on separation of power into legislative, judicatory and executive powers, which are...”
  1005. >He droned on about the subject with a monotone voice.
  1006. >The only thing that drew Celestia's attention was how terrible a speaker he was.
  1007. >He kept getting sidetracked and clearly wasn't interested in what he was saying.
  1008. >But he described a world divided into states and blocks, each of which vied for more power.
  1009. >A world already divided suited her excellently.
  1010. >She only had to pit them against one another, and the human problem would solve itself.
  1011. >But she was getting ahead of herself.
  1013. >The Rift.
  1014. >A physiomagical phenomenon that connected two worlds.
  1015. >It was a rift in the space/magic continuum itself, a tear in the very fabric of reality, about a hundred paces wide and half as tall.
  1016. >The cause remained unknown.
  1017. >But it never failed to impress.
  1018. >Its surface shimmered like a thin coat of oil on a puddle.
  1019. >Beneath the surface was... something.
  1020. >It resembled billowing purple mist, but there were no words to describe it properly.
  1021. >The longer one looked at it, the less sense it made.
  1022. >And then, below all of that, was another world.
  1023. >The human world.
  1025. >Around it was a zone of desolation.
  1026. >The trees had turned to ash, the ground had turned to fine black powder, the research equipment into puddles of plastic and metal.
  1027. >A multitude of tracks from both wheeled and tracked vehicles led to it.
  1028. >The primary cause of the desolation stood in the middle of it in a carriage.
  1029. >Celestia looked around herself, an absent look on her face, then hopped off the wagon.
  1030. “You two can return to the castle.”
  1031. >She remembered the first time she'd been there.
  1032. >This place used to be a meadow, full of flowers, trees, birds and bugs.
  1033. >The humans had looked just as bewildered as the ponies who found them.
  1034. >They had a lot to learn of each other.
  1035. >It had looked like the start of a prosperous relationship, the dawn of a golden age of sharing the secrets of technology and magic between species.
  1036. >But it was not to last.
  1037. >No, they wanted it all for themselves.
  1039. >Celestia looked at the human.
  1040. >He was mesmerized by the smoke in the Rift.
  1041. >Or appeared that way with how he gazed at it.
  1042. “While we're there, you are to refer to me as 'Princess.' Is that clear?”
  1043. >She trotted between the human and the anomaly to get his attention.
  1044. >For a second, he stood there as if nothing had happened.
  1045. >Then his eyes came to focus and he drew breath like he'd just remembered he was alive.
  1046. >”What'd you say?”
  1047. >Celestia shook her head and made a tsk-tsk sound.
  1048. “I said: You are to refer to me as 'Princess' while we're in your world. Is that clear?”
  1049. >”Yes, Princess.”
  1050. >He bowed his head and shut his eyes.
  1051. >She found it mildly amusing, and a bemused smile overtook her lips.
  1052. “Good. Now, I'll be right behind you so don't even dream of trying anything.”
  1053. >Celestia gave a gentle nudge to the human's left shoulder with her magic.
  1054. >He took a step forward, then stopped to glance upwards.
  1055. >She could hear him gulp loudly before he took to a light jog with his eyes firmly squeezed shut.
  1056. >The surface of the Rift rippled as he passed through.
  1057. >Celestia closed her own eyes and settled to a brisk canter.
  1058. >It felt like passing through a film of lukewarm water.
  1060. >She was seen.
  1061. >She was heard.
  1062. >She was felt.
  1064. >The nothingness saw her.
  1065. >The nothingness heard her.
  1066. >The nothingness whispered in her ears.
  1067. >It was aware of her situation and promised success.
  1068. >It was aware of her fear and promised acceptance.
  1069. >It was aware of her desire and promised security.
  1070. >But in return, it wanted humility.
  1071. >But in return, it wanted service.
  1072. >But in return, it wanted obedience.
  1074. >Celestia gasped for breath.
  1075. >She forced her eyes open and shook the tendrils of smoke off of herself.
  1076. >They writhed and tried to grasp her, but dissipated in the wind as a sudden gust blew across the open field she found herself in.
  1077. >There was bare dirt in every direction, nearly as far as eye could see, only turning into a coniferous forest near the horizon.
  1078. >Tire and track marks crisscrossed everywhere, leading to and from the Rift behind her.
  1079. >The only animal in sight was the human.
  1080. >He was gazing at the horizon in a direction where there was a gap in the forest, marking the place where a road led out from the field they were in.
  1081. “You'd think they'd leave something to guard this place.”
  1082. >Sure, they had sent a letter with an invitation to negotiations.
  1083. >But were they really that confident that there wouldn't be a counterattack?
  1084. >She absentmindedly kicked some dirt at the human.
  1085. >Or had they just walked into a trap?
  1086. >Using negotiations to lure her in for an assassination attempt certainly wasn't beneath them.
  1087. “So, which way to the capital?”
  1088. >But it was a risk she was ready to take.
  1089. >It was highly unlikely the attempt would be successful, after all.
  1091. >If it was a trap, it was a very elaborate one.
  1092. >Birds sang in the forest around her and gravel rattled beneath her hooves as Celestia and the human walked along the road side by side.
  1093. >It was wide and well-made, but the moss covering the forest floor at the edge of the embankments had not yet given way to wild grass.
  1094. “How far away are we from a major road or a town?”
  1095. >She glanced at the human, who'd remained quiet after they left the field behind some fifteen minutes ago.
  1096. >She then looked ahead at the road that curved off into the forest ahead of them.
  1097. >He was already breathing heavy despite their slow pace, and the armpits of his shirt were getting damp.
  1098. >”It took some... some fifteen minutes of driving after turning off a paved road.”
  1099. >The rhythmic sound of his crudely made shoes treading gravel stopped.
  1100. >”I'm not sure how fast we were going, but I'd wager it'll take us an hour or two on foot.”
  1101. >Celestia looked behind herself and saw him wipe sweat off his brow with his good hand.
  1102. “We're not stopping yet, keep going.”
  1103. >He met her gaze for a second, gulped down a bit of saliva and started moving his feet again.
  1105. >She entertained herself with the thought of teleporting the two of them.
  1106. >But she knew neither the terrain nor the flow of magic of the human world, and it would be risky since they could end up appearing inside something.
  1107. >Additionally, the very essence of magic felt different.
  1108. >If Equestrian magic was predictable and light like water, the magic around her now was like quicksilver, dense and opaque.
  1109. >To top it off, she'd taught enough classes about the very unpleasant consequences of failed teleportation.
  1110. >The mental image of the human falling through the air after an attempt that ended up high in the air amused her somewhat.
  1111. “Hold on for a moment.”
  1112. >Her curiosity had been piqued.
  1114. >She shut her eyes and concentrated.
  1115. >She pushed her focus into her horn, feeling the magic around her.
  1116. >It was like a planet-sized orb of perfectly still quicksilver just beneath her hooves.
  1117. >There wasn't even the slightest ripple on its surface, and absolutely nothing moved inside it.
  1118. >But it responded.
  1119. >Her horn lit up in an orange glow and the magic beneath her stirred as she reached far above.
  1120. >She spread her forehooves wider and threw her head back.
  1121. >The stillness turned into a maelstrom of magic with her in the eye as she reached further out into space.
  1122. >It was different.
  1123. >It was heavy.
  1124. >It had been untouched for millennia.
  1125. >It didn't want to.
  1127. >But it did.
  1128. >A silvery strand of raw magic climbed up from beneath her and connected with her horn.
  1129. >Suddenly, she felt it.
  1130. >The world of humans.
  1131. >The oceans that covered vast majority of the surface.
  1132. >The immense masses of ice above both poles.
  1133. >The jungles growing near the equator.
  1134. >The rolling deserts at the tropics.
  1135. >But all that was irrelevant to her.
  1136. >She dismissed the feelings and weaved the magic into a spell.
  1137. >Far above them, the great fiery disc of the sun began to move towards the horizon.
  1138. >It moved its own width in the sky before coming to a stop.
  1140. >A bead of sweat rolled down Celestia's neck as her lips curled into a grin.
  1141. >It was different, but no less powerful.
  1142. >The possibilities were endless.
  1143. >Baking one half of the planet in eternal sunlight while the other half froze...
  1144. >She could end the human civilization herself.
  1145. >But that would make her no better than them.
  1146. >She glanced at the human, who was looking at her with an arched brow.
  1147. >His skin was slick with sweat and he was holding his right shoulder with his left hand.
  1148. “Keep moving.”
  1149. >An orange glow shoved him in the back, and he returned to plodding onwards.
  1151. >She had to pause to wait for the human once again.
  1152. >It'd been an hour since they'd left the Rift behind.
  1153. >The longer they walked, the slower he'd got.
  1154. >Sweat dripped off his chin and his breathing had turned into heavy panting.
  1155. >His eyes were barely open and he kept looking at his own feet.
  1156. >”Can we... Can we keep a... a short break?”
  1157. >He had to pause between words to gasp for air.
  1158. >”I don't... feel... too good.”
  1159. >He bent his knees and reached downwards with his good hand, then sat down on the ground.
  1160. “We had one not five minutes ago.”
  1161. >Celestia had not expected the human to be this pathetic.
  1162. >She considered leaving him behind, but the memory of Twilight resurfaced in her mind.
  1163. >It was exceptionally rude to lose somepony else's toys.
  1164. “Get up. We have to keep moving.”
  1165. >He glared at her from underneath his brow.
  1166. >Anger flashed inside Celestia.
  1167. “I said get UP!”
  1168. >Her horn flashed orange, and the human was pulled onto his feet.
  1169. >His legs were shaky, but he started moving again.
  1170. >Celestia blew some air out her nose and shook her head.
  1171. >Truly pathetic.
  1173. >It was not five minutes before she heard a loud thump from behind.
  1174. “What now?”
  1175. >She stopped once more and turned around.
  1176. >The human had collapsed.
  1177. >He was lying on the ground with his eyes closed.
  1178. >His clothes were drenched in sweat, he was holding his shoulder and his lips moved like he was talking, but no sound came out of him.
  1179. “Get up, I told you we can't have a break yet.”
  1180. >He did not react.
  1181. >Celestia rolled her eyes and let out a drawn-out sigh before trotting closer for a better look.
  1182. >As she got closer, she realized he was whispering something.
  1183. >”Thirteen...” Mumble. “Dusty...” Mutter. “Tried to...” Murmur.
  1184. >Stomp!
  1185. >She kicked the ground right next to his head, but he still did not react.
  1186. “Fine, you win, we can have a break.”
  1187. >Nothing.
  1188. >He remained still.
  1189. >Celestia's brow furrowed.
  1190. >She lifted a hoof off the ground and tried the human's forehead with it.
  1191. >It was burning hot.
  1192. >She rolled her eyes again and let out another sigh.
  1193. >It was very, very tempting to just leave him there.
  1195. >Princess Celestia, reduced to a lowly pack mule – for a human!
  1196. >She could see the yellow press headlines already.
  1197. >She'd tried lifting the human back onto his feet, but he fell back to the ground and lost the little bit of consciousness he still had.
  1198. >As he was too heavy to carry while flying, she'd lifted him with her magic.
  1199. >Only the memory of Twilight's pleading voice had stopped her from leaving him behind.
  1200. >'After you battered him, tortured him and nearly tore him to pieces? I'll NEVER let you touch him again!'
  1201. >She'd been far more passionate about him than Celestia could've foreseen.
  1202. >It'd taken her a good while of convincing, talking about all the lives that could be saved if he could help prevent another invasion, to convince her.
  1203. >But when Twilight had finally rolled her eyes in the very specific way she often did, Celestia knew she'd done it.
  1204. >'Gah! Fine. But only if you Pinkie promise to not hurt him.'
  1205. >Thus, Celestia was honor-bound to not harm him.
  1206. >She wasn't going to let that stop her from treating the insect for the filth he was, though.
  1208. >The human's feet thumped onto the gravel before Celestia set the rest of him down gently.
  1209. >The orange glow enveloping him dissipated.
  1210. >He shivered.
  1211. >Celestia glared at him down her snout.
  1212. >Such a miserable, weak being...
  1213. >She felt a sting in her heart.
  1214. >He was suffering.
  1215. >And would be of no use in his current state.
  1216. >She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
  1217. >Her wings shot out to the sides with a loud *fwam*
  1218. >She bent all four of her hooves and dropped close to the ground.
  1219. >Her wings kicked up a billowing cloud of dust as she shot upwards like a cannonball.
  1221. >The way her mane streamed behind her like a flag in a storm felt immensely liberating.
  1222. >Every beat of her wings brought her higher, and closer to the mat of gray clouds looming above.
  1223. >She was giving it her all, and knew only the very best of the Wonderbolts could keep up with her.
  1224. >The road below rapidly shrunk into a gray ribbon in a sea of green.
  1225. >She angled her wings and brought herself upside down before doing half a loop and coming to a stop just under the clouds.
  1226. >Forest.
  1227. >It was what she saw below.
  1228. >Pines and spruces dotted with the occasional birch.
  1229. >Off to one side was the field of dirt where the Rift was.
  1230. >And there, close to where she'd took off from, the gray ribbon that was the road intersected with another, wider one.
  1231. >She saw some kind of a vehicle moving on the wider road.
  1232. >Humans, no doubt.
  1233. >As much as she despised the thought, she'd have to ask for directions.
  1234. >Or commandeer a vehicle.
  1236. >The human floated behind her like some macabre life-sized puppet.
  1237. >Her hooves beat gravel as she cantered towards the intersection that lied somewhere ahead.
  1238. >At last, some real progress.
  1239. >He'd been frustratingly slow, so carrying him had its benefits despite how humiliating it was.
  1240. >It took just a short moment for her to reach the spot where trees had been cut from a wide area and the gravel road intersected with a paved one.
  1241. >She looked left, and she looked right.
  1242. >Neither way had any signs telling of civilization.
  1243. >Just the road in a canyon of evergreens.
  1244. >Thus, she sat down and waited for something to come by.
  1245. >As the minutes passed by, Celestia's mind returned to Equestria and to the fateful day when it all began.
  1247. >”Princess, the report from the anomaly crew on its medium term effects arrived earlier today. I've prepared an abstract of it for you.”
  1248. >Raven Inkwell was waiting for her in the throne room, levitating a pile of reports from all around Equestria.
  1249. >”There's also been a suspected dragon sighting near Appleoosa. I already sent a request for confirmation to the sheriff.”
  1250. >She tagged to Celestia's side as the princess trotted past.
  1251. >”It's a single sighting and likely false, there haven't been any dragons in those parts for centuries.”
  1252. “Thank you, Raven.”
  1253. >Celestia floated the topmost paper from the stack to herself and read a few lines as she headed towards her sister's room.
  1254. >The Rift appeared stable and nopony had reported anything alarming in its vicinity.
  1255. >Some of the researchers were worried about possible long-term effects since one of their colleagues had been caught staring mindlessly at the anomaly more than a few times.
  1256. >The humans had resumed their activities, occasionally crossing to the Equestrian side, but their numbers remained low and visits short.
  1257. >”The report had quite a bit of detail to it, but it looks like there's no danger from the anomaly nor from the inhabitants of the other world.”
  1258. “Go tell them to prepare for an expedition to the other side. I got the impression that we have a lot to learn of these 'humans' when I met them.”
  1259. >The princess made the abstract float back to her secretary.
  1260. >”Yes, Princess.”
  1261. >Raven nodded at her and shuffled the pile of paper she was holding.
  1262. >Celestia rolled her eyes while the unicorn was searching for the next piece on her list.
  1263. “I'm going to go wake up Luna and spend some time with her. Remember: no disruptions, for any reason.”
  1264. >The princess had grown very fond of the moments she'd dedicated to her sibling, and did not want any more delays – especially since the second most important thing was somepony thinking they may have seen something that most likely wasn't dangerous.
  1266. >The approaching sound of an engine brought Celestia back to the present.
  1267. >She looked at the direction the sound came from, but saw nothing but the road, spruces, and pines.
  1268. >If only she had worded her order to Raven differently.
  1269. >Why had she interpreted it the way she had and gone there herself?
  1270. >The sound grew louder and a red car curved from behind the trees.
  1271. >It looked different from the ones she'd seen.
  1272. >It was smaller, had far less ground clearance and no armor whatsoever; a civilian model no doubt.
  1273. >Celestia waved her forehoof in a wide arc to get the driver's attention.
  1274. >The driver did notice her.
  1275. >The engine roared and whined as the human behind the wheel accelerated, a terrified look on its face.
  1276. >Whoosh.
  1277. >The car shot past them.
  1278. >Celestia's horn lit up as a sudden bout of rage rose inside her.
  1279. >She would NOT be treated like that!
  1280. >The entire car was enveloped in an orange glow.
  1281. >The princess' hooves dug into the asphalt as the car's inertia was transferred into her magically reinforced body.
  1282. >She was dragged a good few paces, leaving behind four deep gashes in the pavement.
  1283. >But the vehicle did come to a halt and was lifted into the air.
  1284. >The car's suspension creaked after it fell the last hoof's width in freefall when Celestia dropped it in front of her.
  1286. >Terror.
  1287. >It emanated from the driver as Celestia closed the distance between her and the car.
  1288. >The insect tried to scamper away, but forgot it had belted itself into its seat.
  1289. >It managed to find the belt's release switch just as Celestia swung the door open.
  1290. “Greetings, earthworm.”
  1291. >The stench of human wafted from the car.
  1292. >Celestia wrinkled her snout in disgust as she enveloped the pile of excrement in her magic to prevent it from escaping.
  1293. “My guide is in need of aid and you are going to deliver us to the closest settlement so he can get some.”
  1294. >She dragged the wriggling dung beetle out of the vehicle and turned it so it faced the human.
  1295. >For a moment, it was silent as gears slowly turned in its astoundingly slow brain.
  1296. >The alicorn wished it wasn't the greedy sort and she wouldn't have to dig out the purse of bits she had hidden under her chest plate.
  1297. >”OK, OK, OK, just don't hurt me!”
  1298. >Its voice was full of fear.
  1299. >Celestia released her hold and watched it flail in the air and slam into the ground on all fours.
  1300. >She lifted the human into the back seat and squeezed herself in the front.
  1301. >It was uncomfortable and stank of human.
  1302. >But, as the driver accelerated under the princess' watchful eye, it did move.
  1304. >The heap of manure next to Celestia remained quiet.
  1305. >Which was good, because she wasn't feeling chatty.
  1306. >She found her mind wandering back to Canterlot once again as the endless rows of coniferous trees swooshed past them.
  1308. >Soft bristles pulled her head back a little as Luna ran a brush through her mane.
  1309. >”How do you feel about them, sister? About the humans?”
  1310. >Celestia was sitting in her bed, ready to sleep, with her sister lying next to her.
  1311. “I think they are very much like us ponies. The few I've met seemed endlessly curious.”
  1312. >Her lips curled into a smile as she recalled how one of them had gone beet red when she'd caught him staring at her horn.
  1313. >”Indeed, that is how they appear.”
  1314. >Luna was the slightest bit slower with her words than usual, betraying her doubt.
  1315. >The princess of the night ceased her strokes and tapped Celestia's wing with the brush.
  1316. “Is there something you wish to say, sister?”
  1317. >The elder of the two fanned out the limb that'd been tapped.
  1318. >”There is something odd about them. Why are there so few of them in the area?”
  1319. >The sheets shuffled as Luna wriggled in to have a closer look at the wing.
  1320. >”We have let hundreds of curious ponies have a look at the anomaly and the humans, but only some twenty of them have been seen.”
  1321. >Celestia let out a quiet, satisfied moan as she felt her sister's magic straighten crooked and bent feathers.
  1322. “Perhaps they aren't as confident of the Rift's harmlessness as we are.”
  1323. >It was at that moment when they heard the galloping hoofsteps of a guard bearing the fateful message.
  1325. >Asphalt, concrete, aluminum, glass.
  1326. >It was what the human town was built of.
  1327. >It was not hip and trendy like Manehattan, not grand and majestic like Canterlot, not rustic and charming like Ponyville.
  1328. >No, it was soulless and utilitarian.
  1329. >Humans dotted the sidewalks, the roads were crowded with cars, and advertisements were plastered to the buildings and lamp posts.
  1330. >But it all lacked something.
  1331. >Everything was just trudging along, trying to keep itself alive and out of trouble.
  1332. >The pedestrians walked past one another without even looking at each other, and the motorists honked their horns back and forth.
  1333. >There were so many humans Celestia couldn't keep count, yet each one of them looked like they were alone.
  1334. >She felt a little sad for them.
  1335. >Their lives had to be so meaningless and dull.
  1337. >The driver pulled to a stop next to a tall building with the word 'hospital' in big, plastic letters over its entrance.
  1338. >”Uh, this is the...”
  1339. >Celestia pushed open both of the doors on her side with her magic and hopped out of the vehicle, with the human floating behind her.
  1340. >She glanced to her sides and saw humans pointing at her.
  1341. >One of them had dug out its high-tech pocket device and appeared to be filming her.
  1342. >She suppressed the urge to melt the device.
  1343. >”hospi-”
  1344. >Slam.
  1345. >She didn't bother looking behind herself, relieved to be out of the stench of human.
  1346. >Or the worst of it, at least.
  1347. >It was mixed with the smell of exhaust and pollution, but a hint of it remained, even outdoors.
  1348. >She did her best to ignore it as she trotted through the door.
  1350. >She was repulsed by both the sight and the smell that greeted her.
  1351. >Humans, sitting on the rows of benches that filled the hall, all with various ills and aliments.
  1352. >Someone with their leg in a cast, another with dried blood in their hair, one who was sneezing constantly.
  1353. >And a single nurse, clad in bland green, behind a counter at the far end.
  1354. >The quiet murmur of them chatting with each other vanished as Celestia took to a light trot.
  1355. >Each one of them turned to look at her.
  1356. >She trotted past the rows of staring eyes, the only sound being that of her shod hooves.
  1357. >The thought of conjuring a nova to incinerate the filth amused her, but the human floating beside her required service.
  1359. “Good evening.”
  1360. >The nurse stared at Celestia with its mouth left open.
  1361. “Be a dear and call someone to have a look at this one.”
  1362. >She nodded at the human she was holding with her magic.
  1363. “I need him back on his feet by tomorrow.”
  1364. >She forced her lips into smile before looking to the side to make sure she set down the human gently.
  1365. >At first, he stayed in the position she set him in, sitting with his back against the counter.
  1366. >Then he began to lean to the right, and Celestia had to reposition him so he was lying on his back.
  1367. >”Uh.”
  1368. >The cockroach behind the counter had finally found its tongue.
  1369. >”Can you, um, describe your problem to me?”
  1370. >...
  1371. >Celestia craned her head slowly until she was looking at it again.
  1372. “MY problem?”
  1373. >Her surroundings suddenly got brighter as the flames on her mane and tail turned from smoldering orange to bright yellow.
  1374. “My problem is YOUR idiocy, gnat.”
  1375. >She lit her horn and yanked her head backwards.
  1376. >The maggot in green clothing flew out from behind the counter and was suspended mid-air behind her.
  1377. “HE is the one with a problem.”
  1378. >She waved a hoof towards the human, then flung the parasite towards him.
  1379. >It collapsed into a miserable pile of limbs before scrambling back onto its feet and kneeling next to the human.
  1381. >It took them a minute to get a stretcher and carry him away.
  1382. >Security arrived shortly after.
  1383. >Celestia was quite pleased with their timing as she turned to face the two uniformed men approaching her from behind.
  1384. “Ah, good. Does either one of you know the way to a library?”
  1385. >She had intended to head straight to the capital for some persuasive diplomacy, but Twilight's toy getting broken had foiled that plan.
  1386. >The library should have a collection of newspapers she could read to find out humanity's view on the war and on ponies.
  1387. >Some tiny part of her still wanted to believe there was some goodness in them.
  1389. >The pair of guards glanced at each other.
  1390. >”We're here to see you out, miss. I can give you the directions outside.”
  1391. >The one that spoke pointed at the door Celestia had come in through.
  1392. “There won't be any need for directions. You're going to escort me there.”
  1393. >She glanced at the belt one of them had.
  1394. >A baton and something that looked like a canister of pepper spray.
  1395. >No wonder they looked so confident.
  1396. >Humans and their fascination with weapons.
  1397. >If they had some, they acted like the owners of whichever world they were in.
  1398. >But should they be stripped of them...
  1399. >The idea that popped up in her head was far more fascinating than the prospect of poring through piles of old papers.
  1401. >The guards followed behind her as Celestia trotted towards the exit.
  1402. >She'd noticed their sweaty palms and twitchy fingers when she passed them, and they had seen the mischievous smile on her lips.
  1403. >The tiny part of her that still believed in the goodness of mankind deplored her plan.
  1404. >But she would not obey humans.
  1405. >Her horn lit up in orange, and she heard a dual “Hey!” from behind her.
  1406. >A pair of batons and spray cans floated to her.
  1407. >She focused her mind and pushed more magic into her horn.
  1408. >The sound of heavy footsteps stopped when she spun around in place.
  1409. “You two appear to harbor some kind of a misunderstanding about the relative hierarchy of our species.”
  1410. >The guards were within the reach of their arms of her.
  1411. >Their eyes went wide with fear as the safety pins of the spray cans popped out and clinked onto the floor.
  1412. “Would you like them back?”
  1413. >The cans floated closer to the trash behind her.
  1414. >One of them reached out towards its baton and-
  1415. >Hissss!
  1416. >”Aaagh!”
  1417. >Celestia channeled even more magic into the items, enveloping them in an airtight bubble.
  1418. >Fwoomph!
  1419. >The cans turned into fireballs restrained by an orange barrier, and the batons burst in flames.
  1420. >She let the torn and blackened scraps of metal and the ashes fall to the floor.
  1422. >Celestia slammed the door shut behind her and took in a deep breath of the air that was mostly free of the human stench.
  1423. >She needed some time for herself.
  1424. >So, after deciding up was the direction with the least humans in it, she fanned out her wings, bent her hooves and shot upwards.
  1425. >The way the pair of planarians had looked at the remains of their weapons, with their mouths left hanging open and eyes wide with disbelief, had certainly been amusing.
  1426. >But she was not in the mood to deal with the law enforcement that was doubtlessly en route to the hospital she'd just left.
  1427. >Though the idea of immolating a few was somewhat enticing, she had had enough of the lesser beings for now.
  1429. >She set herself down on the roof of the building across the street from the hospital.
  1430. >The roof was populated solely by air vents and was covered by a mat of black, rubbery material.
  1431. >It reminded her of Manehattan.
  1432. >She'd have to visit the city.
  1433. >It'd been spared, just like everything else that wasn't on a direct path between Canterlot and the Rift.
  1434. >The invading blight must have heard of Celestia and Luna, the eternal rulers of Equestria, and thought that a swift decapitating strike at the capital would've led to a short and easy war.
  1435. >They had been half correct.
  1436. >It certainly led to a short war.
  1437. >It'd only lasted six months.
  1438. >But it'd been anything but easy.
  1439. >Their initial expeditionary force had been defeated by the Guard's swift and ferocious counterattack.
  1440. >The main force had arrived three days later, giving the ponies just barely enough time to bury the few who died in the initial assault.
  1441. >Most of those who were at the Rift when the fighting began were never found.
  1442. >Celestia, after seeing the strength of the main force, gave orders to retreat and to delay the invaders with ambushes, traps and sabotage.
  1443. >It bought Equestria enough time to mobilize, yet even that was not enough.
  1444. >She did everything to save as many lives as she could, always choosing to give ground rather than sacrifice soldiers.
  1445. >But in the end, when they were sieging Canterlot, she and Luna were faced with a terrible choice.
  1447. >Sirens blared in the street below.
  1448. >Celestia trotted to the edge of the roof and looked down.
  1449. >Five cars with flashing lights on top of them and the word 'police' in mirror writing on their bonnets had driven to the hospital she'd been in.
  1450. >Uniformed trash got out of the cars.
  1451. >She thought about just flying off, but then thought of the human she'd left behind.
  1452. >How would they treat him?
  1453. >Would they torture him like the ponies they'd captured in the war?
  1454. >She knew she and Luna had taken him to the edge and beyond, anything more would shatter him completely.
  1455. >And Twilight would not like that.
  1456. >She leaped off the roof, spread her wings and glided over the entrance before folding her wings again.
  1457. >Wham!
  1458. >She slammed into the ground and turned to face the refuse in uniforms.
  1459. “Were you looking for me?”
  1460. >A maniacal grin found its way onto her face.
  1461. >The things she could do with them...
  1463. >Celestia woke up to the sound of sheets rustling in the bed next to her.
  1464. >The sun shone through a window and directly on the alicorn's covers.
  1465. >It'd shine straight in her eyes in an hour or so.
  1466. >She knew because it'd already done so earlier, before she'd made it set again to get some more sleep.
  1467. >The walls of the hospital room she was in glimmered in shades of orange and red.
  1468. >She let out a groan and shook her head to get rid of the lingering tiredness before hopping off the metal-framed and wheeled bed she'd slept in.
  1469. >The human watched her as she stretched her rear hoof by pushing it as far back as she could.
  1470. >He had a needle stuck into his good arm with a plastic tube connecting it to a bag of saline solution that hung off a metal stand next to his bed.
  1471. >The bag was nearly empty, thanks to Celestia's barrier that'd prevented the nurses from changing it.
  1472. >He remained quiet while she stretched her other rear hoof.
  1473. “Nnh. How are you feeling?”
  1474. >The barrier may have interfered with his treatment, but she hadn't wanted to risk one of them sneaking in at night and slipping a dagger between her ribs.
  1475. >”Thirsty.”
  1476. >His voice was raspy.
  1477. “Good.”
  1478. >He was fine if thirst was his worst problem.
  1479. >Celestia trotted to the nearest wall and bowed her head so her horn touched it.
  1480. >There was a faint tingling sound and the shimmering colors faded from the walls.
  1482. >The door opened with a creak.
  1483. >”Good morning Princess.”
  1484. >Celestia immediately was greeted by the annoyingly high-pitched voice of the government official.
  1485. >She'd stated her title last night, but the alicorn hadn't been paying attention.
  1486. >Hunting down the snipers of the special weapons team had worn her out.
  1487. >By the time the blight had decided to send something to negotiate, Celestia hadn't been in the most receptive of moods.
  1488. “Have you been there all night?”
  1489. >She glanced at the tunic-clad female piece of junk.
  1490. >Its eyes reflected the princess' flaming mane.
  1491. >If it was afraid, it did a very good job at hiding it.
  1492. >Or maybe it was just because Celestia didn't know how to read female members of the vile species.
  1493. >”I slept a few hours before sunrise... well, the first one.”
  1494. “How charming. Now go fetch some water, we're both thirsty.”
  1495. >The amoeba drew breath like it was about to say something, but remained quiet and turned on its heels before heading off.
  1497. >Celestia downed the water in the plastic cup in one big gulp.
  1498. “Haah.”
  1499. >Better.
  1500. >Now if only she could find something edible to fill her grumbling stomach with.
  1501. >She doubted the despicable beings had discovered proper food.
  1502. “You.”
  1503. >She chucked the cup at the tunic-clad thing.
  1504. >It bounced off its back, and it turned away from the human to look at Celestia.
  1505. >It still kept the other cup it'd brought on his lips.
  1506. “Arrange transportation to the capital for us, we're leaving. And something to eat.”
  1507. >The alicorn narrowed her eyes and focused.
  1508. >Her horn lit up in orange, and the needle in the human's arm slowly slid out.
  1509. >”O-ok...”
  1510. >The rotten hunk's eyes went wide and some water splattered out of the cup it was holding.
  1511. >”I mean, there's already a car waiting for you at the entrance. I'll go tell the driver to get ready.”
  1513. “Can you walk?”
  1514. >The human swung his legs off his bed and hopped onto the floor.
  1515. >”Maybe.”
  1516. >He didn't look shaky, but kept his good hand on the frame of the bed.
  1517. >Then he took a step forward and let go.
  1518. >And nearly fell over.
  1519. >Celestia caught him with her magic and trotted to him.
  1520. “You really are as worthless as you look. Here, let me help.”
  1521. >She ignored how he'd frozen in place and placed his left hand on her back.
  1522. “Now limp along, we've got places to be.”
  1523. >She gave him a little push before letting her magic fade.
  1524. >Five fingers dug into the coat between her wings.
  1525. >”Thank you.”
  1526. >It was Celestia's turn to freeze.
  1527. >She felt her eyes go wide as she stared dead ahead for a second.
  1528. >Why would he be thankful?
  1529. >After everything she'd done?
  1530. “Try not to get used of it.”
  1531. >She took a tentative step forward and felt the human's hand press more heavily into her as he followed suit.
  1533. >”What...?”
  1534. >The human stopped in his tracks as he saw the scene outside the hospital.
  1535. >The asphalt had bubbled up and melted in large patches, and replacing it were solidified splotches of once molten metal.
  1536. >There were the charred remnants of two burnt police cars in the middle of the street.
  1537. >An acrid smell still hung in the air, half a day later.
  1538. >He slowly craned his head to look at Celestia.
  1539. >She thought he looked silly with his mouth left hanging open.
  1540. “What?”
  1541. >He stared at her in silence for a short while.
  1542. >”You did this? But...”
  1543. >He looked at what used to be a puddle of molten, glowing metal.
  1544. >Celestia remembered the confused shouts as she'd yanked the guns out of their hands and floated them all into one large pile.
  1545. “Don't worry, I went out of my way to make sure none of the loathsome creatures were harmed.”
  1546. >The cars were collateral damage, she hadn't meant to destroy them.
  1547. >But when one heats something until it glows bright white and then lets it flow freely on the ground, unexpected fires may occur.
  1549. >The car the rubbish in a tunic mentioned was waiting for them a dozen paces down the street.
  1550. >The vehicle was black and had fully opaque windows
  1551. >The driver had a black suit and was wearing dark shades.
  1552. >Celestia assumed it was supposed to look impressive.
  1553. >She found it distasteful.
  1554. >White with gold highlights would have looked so much more regal.
  1555. >But, she was a guest and complaining about transportation provided by her hosts would have been inconsiderate.
  1556. “You are here to take us to the capital, am I correct?”
  1557. >The stone-faced driver said nothing.
  1558. >It just nodded and opened the back door for her.
  1559. >That was until Celestia grabbed him by the collar with her magic and forced him to bend down so his face was right in front of hers.
  1560. “When I ask a question, I expect you to say 'Yes, Princess' or 'No, Princess.'”
  1561. >She gritted her teeth and nudged its shades so they fell to the ground.
  1562. >Its wide open eyes betrayed its fear.
  1563. “Am I making myself clear?”
  1564. >”Y-yes, Princess.”
  1565. >Celestia felt pleased with herself as it knelt in front of her to pick up its shades.
  1566. “Good.”
  1568. >A steady hum filled the car as the driver took them towards the airport.
  1569. >At least that was what the mollusc in the tunic, who sat in the front seat, told them.
  1570. >”Princess, can I ask you something?”
  1571. >It was the human, who was on the back seat with Celestia, who spoke.
  1572. >She turned to look at him.
  1573. >He was staring out of the window, but his eyes didn't follow any of the buildings, cars or trees they passed by.
  1574. “Go ahead.”
  1575. >”How am I still alive?”
  1576. >The expression on his face was something Celestia couldn't read.
  1577. >She drew breath, then paused for a second.
  1578. “What do you mean?”
  1579. >Sure, Luna had nearly torn him into pieces, but neither of the two sisters had had any desire to kill him.
  1580. >”My last memory before being woken up by you in the cell was...”
  1581. >He trailed off as the words got stuck in his throat.
  1582. >A hit of dampness appeared in the corners of his eyes as he gulped down a bit of saliva.
  1583. >”...was me trying to blow my brains out.”
  1584. >The last bit came out quietly, just barely loud enough for Celestia to make it out.
  1586. >She did remember how they found him.
  1587. >In an act of desperation, she had sent a plea for aid to the changelings.
  1588. >There never was an official response, but the invading army did some inexplicable things soon after.
  1589. >Celestia and a regiment of the Guard assaulted a village after the invading disease had fired a massive artillery barrage at it – even though their own troops had conquered it a few days prior.
  1590. >They met no resistance.
  1591. >Only ruins and death.
  1592. >Buildings collapsed into piles of rubble, humans with their limbs blown off, ponies who had bled out while waiting for aid that came too late.
  1593. >Earth ponies, pegasi and unicorns; mares and stallions; fillies and colts.
  1594. >Of the over one hundred who once lived in the village, fifteen survived.
  1595. >There had been little left for the Guard to do but count the dead and console the living.
  1596. >It was when Celestia was sifting through the rubble to find the bodies of those who were missing when she made the discovery.
  1597. >A lone human inside a collapsed building, trapped beneath two walls that'd fallen on one another and formed a tiny alcove.
  1598. >He was alive, though only barely.
  1599. >Celestia had felt pity for him, and took him prisoner so he could be used in an exchange.
  1601. “The building you were in must have collapsed just before you could do it. We found you in the ruins.”
  1602. >It hadn't been the first decimated village she'd seen.
  1603. >He hadn't been the first prisoner, either.
  1604. >But he was the only one she'd found herself, and the only one kept in the castle.
  1605. >”I see.”
  1606. >And he was the only one who still remained.
  1607. >The rest of them had been the first target of Luna's vengeance after she and Celestia had made their choice.
  1608. >Celestia let out a deep sigh.
  1609. >She and her sister had sacrificed so much to save Equestria.
  1610. >Princess Celestia, once spoken of with reverence and respect.
  1611. >Now feared and loathed.
  1612. >Even Twilight, her personal pupil and best – only – friend beside Luna, had turned against her.
  1613. >Celestia knew she would face the Elements of Harmony soon.
  1614. >She only hoped she wouldn't be stripped of the powers her and her sister's sacrifice had bought before Equestria was safe.
  1616. >”Hey, get the plane ready, we're on our way.”
  1617. >The skank in a tunic had dug out its high-tech pocket device and was holding it to its ear.
  1618. >Another of its kind replied from the other end of the wireless telephone link, but Celestia couldn't make out the words over the hum of the car's tires.
  1619. >”Yeah, you got about half an hour. Be sure you're ready. By- Oh hold on.”
  1620. >It shimmied in its seat to look at the back seat.
  1621. >”What would you two like to eat? We'll get you something for the flight.”
  1622. “I would rather not find out what you leeches consider food.”
  1623. >She glared at it down her muzzle when her stomach reminded her of its emptiness.
  1624. “But I suppose I have little choice. You,-”
  1625. >Celestia jabbed the human's thigh with a hoof.
  1626. “-order something edible for us.”
  1627. >He stared at her for a second while rubbing his thigh.
  1628. >”We'll have ratatouille.”
  1629. >”Okay, we'll get some for you. We'll try to, at least.”
  1630. >It turned back towards the direction they were driving in, and spelled the word into its phone.
  1631. >Apparently, it wasn't smart enough to know how to pronounce it properly.
  1633. >The sound of two idling jet engines made it impossible for Celestia to tell what the living waste talked to each other about.
  1634. >One of them pointed towards a human airship waiting on the vast field of tarmac they were left on.
  1635. >It looked very different from the ones Celestia had seen before.
  1636. >The engines were in pods on the sides of the tail instead of being fused into the body, the wings stuck out to the sides instead of forming a triangular shape, and it carried no weaponry whatsoever.
  1637. >An amused smile crept onto her lips as she recalled the invaders feeble attempt at establishing air superiority.
  1639. >So many cumbersome airships, each turned into scrap by just a few pegasi.
  1640. >The weaponry the human airships carried was formidable, but their inability to do tight turns at high speeds left them completely unable to do anything to stop Equestria's best.
  1641. >While only a couple of Spitfire's chosen were able to keep up with their speed, it was enough.
  1642. >They'd take off with a small charge of explosives, catch up from behind, stick the charge onto some part and then zip back to the ground to watch the fireworks.
  1643. >The pilot's only warning was the small 'plonk' as the magnets caught onto their machine's hull.
  1644. >Coming in groups hadn't helped them: all the Wonderbolts had to do was corner tighter than the airships could, or just stick right next to one of them.
  1645. >Celestia had taken a few down personally, too.
  1646. >She'd preferred flying next to the cockpit and remotely activating the ejection seat with her magic.
  1647. >Eventually, they'd given up on using aerial vehicles and stuck to ground forces.
  1649. >”Welcome aboard, Princess!”
  1650. >It had a funny cap, with a badge that had wings on it in the center over the gleaming black visor.
  1651. >And a fancy blue uniform with lots of badges on it.
  1652. “Are you trying to make up for something you don't have?”
  1653. >Celestia shuffled her wings to emphasize her point, and would've circled behind it if there were enough room in the cramped passageway between the cockpit and the passenger compartment.
  1654. >The airship was tiny compared to the others she saw as they drove through the airport, and nowhere as roomy as the Equestrian ones.
  1655. >They'd sacrificed comfort for speed, she guessed.
  1656. >”I know the wings aren't as pretty as yours but I hope you will enjoy the flight nevertheless.”
  1657. >It brought a hand to its cap's visor and flashed a smile before stepping into the cockpit.
  1658. >The gall of the thing!
  1659. >Celestia dragged it back to her by its collar.
  1660. “Flattery will get you nowhere, whelp.”
  1661. >She held it so close its nose nearly touched the tip of her muzzle.
  1662. >”Easy now, I'm just here to get you where you need to go, OK?”
  1663. >It held its hands near its head with its palms facing Celestia.
  1664. >She was tempted to chuck it out of the airship and watch it writhe in pain as it hit the pavement, but suppressed the urge.
  1666. >The seat may have been comfortable by human standards.
  1667. >Celestia found the leather unnerving and the shape far from pleasant as she was pushed into it by the airship's acceleration.
  1668. >She found the human method of flight crude and vulgar.
  1669. >It was far from the poise and luxury of Equestrian airliners, was nowhere near as regal as her chariot, and had none of the freedom or excitement of flying herself.
  1670. >She looked out through the window next to her and watched the ground sink away.
  1671. >But it did work.
  1673. >The tunic-clad heap of garbage placed two styrofoam boxes and two pairs of plastic utensils on the narrow table that was between Celestia's and the human's seats.
  1674. >”Here, some rat-a-to-ell. Best they could do in half an hour.”
  1675. >It flashed a smile at them and headed back to the tail of the plane with one hand on the overhead lockers for support.
  1676. >Celestia kept her eyes on it until it passed through the curtain separating the lounge she and the human were in from the seats near the tail.
  1677. >Could they sink low enough to poison her food?
  1678. >She was hungry, but could she risk it?
  1680. >The extremely annoying sound of styrofoam rubbing on itself presented her a solution.
  1681. >The human had lifted the top off the other box and popped a bit of the food inside into his mouth.
  1682. >The food surprised her.
  1683. >It was cubed tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and onions in oil.
  1684. >And garlic, she could smell it even if she couldn't see any.
  1685. >She'd been expecting something like greasy fries and some stale bread, but it at least looked passable.
  1686. “How is it?”
  1687. >He gulped down the bit in his mouth.
  1688. >”Good.”
  1689. >She watched him with one eyebrow raised as he skewered another piece.
  1690. >No sudden choking, nausea, dizziness or death.
  1691. >Good enough, she thought.
  1693. >The taste was...
  1694. >Conflicting?
  1695. >The cooks had clearly known what they were doing, the spices were on point and it'd been prepared well.
  1696. >But the ingredients were of abysmal quality.
  1697. >The tomatoes were raw, and the eggplant and zucchini tasted like wood.
  1698. >It very much tried to be tasty, and was nearly successful.
  1699. >But it left her disappointed.
  1700. >She'd hoped to taste some of the finer examples of human cuisine.
  1701. >In a fancy restaurant, sipping some perfectly aged red wine, at a table with gently glowing candles and actual silverware.
  1702. >Waiting for the head chef to personally deliver his greatest creation.
  1703. >Then feigning disgust when she'd be presented with an exquisite, juicy piece of the finest meat.
  1704. >That's how she'd imagined her first contact with their cooking.
  1705. >Not in an airship, eating mediocre food out of a styrofoam box with a plastic fork.
  1707. >There was no red mat to welcome her.
  1708. >No orchestra to herald her arrival.
  1709. >No honor guard for her to inspect.
  1710. >There was only a light drizzle coming down from a dull gray sky and another completely black car.
  1711. >Celestia stopped as the driver, another useless thing in a black suit wearing dark shades, pulled open the back door for her.
  1712. ”And where will you be taking us this time? To meet the president, I hope?”
  1713. >She glared at it, but it said nothing.
  1714. >”The president is currently holding a press conference on an unexplained astronomical event. The Sun moved in the sky and we don't know... Well, we do know why but not how.”
  1715. >It was the female waste following behind her that answered.
  1716. >Celstia spun around on the spot to face it.
  1717. “Oh. Would it help if I put it back to where it was?”
  1718. >She tilted her head to the side a little bit.
  1719. “Because you're going to take me to the press conference. What I have to say needs to be heard by every single piece of filth on this world.”
  1720. >If the part of her mind that spoke with a warm and friendly voice was correct, a large part of mankind was owed an explanation.
  1722. >Celestia listened to the human drone on about the Roman Empire in his meandering, often sidetracked way as they drove through the city towards the conference.
  1723. >She found the subject interesting because it was not often she heard of something far older than her.
  1724. >Was their civilization older than that of ponies?
  1725. >He made it sound like Rome was the greatest, if not the first, fallen empire.
  1726. >She'd always been fascinated by ancient history, something she hadn't experienced herself.
  1727. >And now she heard of astounding splendor and feats of engineering that had gone unmatched for two thousand years after its fall.
  1728. >Could there have been something similar in Equestria?
  1729. >Civilizations preceding hers, lost to the ages and forgotten, secrets waiting to be discovered?
  1731. >The brake discs screeched as the car pulled to a stop in front of a massive glass-faced building.
  1732. >Two guards in black suits similar to the driver stood at the entrance and stuck their hands out as a sign to stop as Celestia stepped onto the street.
  1733. “Out of my way.”
  1734. >She bowed her head and weaved the raw magic beneath her.
  1735. >Zat!
  1736. >Twin beams shot out from her horn and struck the guards square in their stomachs.
  1737. >They doubled over and collapsed to the ground.
  1738. “Keep up, I have need for both of you.”
  1739. >She stepped over the two unconscious guards, a tinge of regret about blasting them with just a stun ray in the back of her mind.
  1740. >The human and the tunic-clad female of the spiteful species squeezed themselves out of the car and tagged to her side.
  1742. >Celestia shut her eyes and concentrated.
  1743. >She felt heat gather at the base of her horn as power flowed out of her.
  1744. >An infinite number of invisible tendrils shot outwards as a sphere.
  1745. >They felt every surface before burrowing into them, relaying the information about even the slightest of cracks in the concrete to her.
  1746. >First floor, the basement, second floor...
  1747. >She felt everything.
  1748. >And there, in a huge room near the center of the building.
  1749. >Her eyes opened in the same instant she snapped her head in the direction.
  1750. >A wide smile took over her lips.
  1751. >They were not expecting anything.
  1752. >She looked back at the human and pushed even more magic into her horn.
  1753. >There was a flash and the fwoosh of a fireball as the three of them vanished.
  1755. >There was a flash of flames behind the hall's podium.
  1756. >Fwam!
  1757. >Celestia's wings shot out to the sides as she forced yet more of the quicksilver blood of the world through herself.
  1758. >A wide, bright orange beam of pure light shot from her horn to the ceiling.
  1759. >The entire building shook as a liquid shimmering in every color at the same time enveloped the walls.
  1760. >Screams and panic filled the room.
  1761. >Countless chairs clattered as they were pushed over.
  1762. >Celestia let her eyes sweep over the crowd.
  1763. >Those closest to the doors feebly tried to push them open, completely powerless before the barrier.
  1764. >Then her gaze came to the podium and the pack of guards between her and the old man standing behind them.
  1765. “Good evening, my dear host.”
  1767. “I believe you have some explaining to do.”
  1768. >Her horn started to turn red and began glowing faintly as she chucked its guards into the crowd one by one, taking a step forwards for each she threw.
  1769. >The old man hiding behind the guards took a step backwards for each thump and scream.
  1770. “I have questions such as 'Why did you order it?' and 'Are you proud to have the blood of innocents on your hands?'”
  1771. >Bang!
  1772. >A gunshot rang out all of a sudden.
  1773. >Iridescent ripples appeared in the air near Celestia as the bullet was stopped by an extension of the same barrier that had enveloped the room.
  1774. >She made the last guard fly off before slowly craning her head towards the source.
  1775. >It was one of the manlets in black.
  1776. “You should know that it is exceedingly rude to attempt to kill a visiting head of state.”
  1777. >The bullet floated off the ground and began spinning.
  1778. >Then it shot back towards its source faster than eye could see.
  1779. >Thud.
  1780. >Celestia did not bother looking where it hit.
  1781. >Her eyes were back on the president.
  1783. >”Why are you here?”
  1784. >They were its first words.
  1785. >Celestia's ears perked up and swiveled towards it.
  1786. “Perhaps because you invited me?”
  1787. >The letter she'd received floated out from beneath her chest piece, from the same hidden compartment she had a bag of bits in.
  1788. >The paper shuffled as it unfolded and levitated right next to the president.
  1789. >It glanced at it.
  1790. >”I've never seen this before, this isn't even my handwriting.”
  1791. >Distracting her?
  1792. >Did it really thing she wouldn't see through such simplicity?
  1793. “I WILL have answers!”
  1794. >Celestia stomped the floor with a hoof to emphasize her words.
  1795. >It put a finger under its collar, then pulled its tie looser.
  1796. >Its gaze moved from Celestia to the guard that'd shot her, to those she'd chucked off the stage, to the doors, and back.
  1797. >“Okay, I'll talk.”
  1799. “I believe we have not been introduced. I am Princess Celestia, one quarter of the Equestrian crown and the official head of state together with my sister, Princess Luna.”
  1800. >Celestia stood beside the president next to the podium.
  1801. “From the looks on your faces, I can tell that you have been lied to.”
  1802. >It'd taken a good while to calm down the crowd, right the chairs, and get them seated.
  1803. “You do not know of Equestria's existence.”
  1804. >The guards were gathered around their wounded comrade.
  1805. >They'd tried shooting at her, punching her, tackling her, calling for help.
  1806. >But eventually, they gave up.
  1807. “You do not know what your kind has done to our world.”
  1808. >The president had wriggled and squirmed for the grub he was, but had eventually accepted that he was not in control.
  1809. “Fortunately, there is someone here who does.”
  1810. >Celestia pointed a hoof at the human, then beckoned him forth.
  1811. >Taptaptaptap.
  1812. >Countless fingers hit keys on laptop computers as he walked to her.
  1813. “Tell them your name, your rank, your unit and your story.”
  1815. >He did.
  1816. >He told them who he was.
  1817. >He told them what his platoon had done.
  1818. >How they'd been called to duty one day and sent off towards an unknown destination.
  1819. >How they'd spent the day in armored vehicles, trying to guess where were going.
  1820. >How each one of them had heard the whispers when they crossed over.
  1821. >He told them of the glow and flashes on the horizon they saw during their first night.
  1822. >Of the trip towards the columns of smoke.
  1823. >About the booms slowly getting louder.
  1825. >Until they stopped and were told to get out.
  1826. >Their commander pointed at a village on the horizon and told them that those who came before were liberating it.
  1827. >Sporadic gunfire and occasional explosions drowned out the commander's words.
  1828. >But he understood enough.
  1829. >They would move in and secure the village after the initial assault was over.
  1830. >But when they did, they did not see the insurgents they were expecting.
  1831. >They saw little ponies.
  1832. >Little ponies in camouflage, lying in pools of blood.
  1833. >In the first village, they suspected little.
  1834. >But in each one after, their doubt grew.
  1835. >Yet they barely had the chance to confirm their fears before it was too late.
  1836. >It happened before they could do anything with the information.
  1837. >In the last village.
  1838. >The only one with some of the residents left alive.
  1839. >The one where their unit got obliterated by an artillery barrage.
  1840. >The one where he saw too much.
  1841. >The one where he saw both ponies and men get maimed and mangled.
  1842. >The one where his comrades bled out in his arms.
  1843. >The one where his hands were stained so deeply it still hadn't come out.
  1845. >It was deathly quiet.
  1846. >”And then I woke up in a cell. Then...”
  1847. >He squeezed his eyes shut and wiped off the droplet that was trickling down his cheek.
  1848. “Then you were shown the error in your ways. Thank you.”
  1849. >Celestia tapped his good shoulder with a hoof and stepped in front of him.
  1850. “Now, do you have any questions?”
  1851. >Every single pair of eyes was fixed on her.
  1852. >For a second, nothing happened.
  1853. >Then a shaky hand slowly rose up into the air.
  1854. “Go ahead.”
  1855. >”Why weren't we told about any of this?”
  1856. >Celestia's lips curled into a smile as her suspicion was confirmed.
  1857. >She craned her head and looked at the president, and saw him swallow something.
  1858. “Why indeed? Go ahead, tell them.”
  1860. >”We were going to make it public as soon as we got confirmation about the last of our soldiers.”
  1861. >It grasped the edges of the podium with shaky hands.
  1862. >”A good number of brave men are still missing and we did not want to decrease the chances of getting them safely back home.”
  1863. >It looked back at her like it had delivered some kind of a great verbal sword thrust.
  1864. “There are no humans in Equestria.”
  1865. >The slightest hint of a smile on its face turned into a dumbfounded look.
  1866. >”What do you mean? Thousands of men are still missing!”
  1867. >Celestia felt a spark of anger start to grow inside her.
  1868. “Let me rephrase: There are no living humans in Equestria. Every single piece of your filthy kind has been eradicated!”
  1869. >She saw the mane of her reflection in the president's eyes grow brighter.
  1870. “Now, do you have any other excuses? Or are you ready to tell the truth?”
  1871. >She wished to go into the ponies who'd gone missing when the war first broke out, but watching it flounder and squirm gave her too much pleasure.
  1872. >”Uhm, it's...”
  1873. >Its hands shot up to its throat again, this time to adjust the knot of its tie.
  1874. >Celestia's hooves thumped on the floor as she took a few steps towards it and bowed her head so her horn was pointed at its chest.
  1875. “Well?”
  1876. >She channeled a little more magic into her horn, making its glow turn from red to orange.
  1877. >”It's because I wanted to be remembered! It was a solution to all our problems! To overpopulation, increasing cost of natural resources, lack of economy-improving wars, even pollution and climate change. I could have solved those all and had a page in every history book.”
  1878. >It spoke so fast it was difficult to tell the words from one another.
  1879. >It held its breath after it fell quiet again.
  1881. “Now that wasn't so hard, now was it?”
  1882. >Celestia leveled her head again and let the glow fade from her horn.
  1883. >It let out the breath it was holding.
  1884. “FILTH!”
  1885. >Zap.
  1886. >A bright beam shot from her horn and hit it in its thigh.
  1887. >”Aaaaagh!”
  1888. >There was a sizzling sound and the air was filled with the stink of cooking flesh.
  1889. >It doubled over and fell to the ground, holding the wounded part with both hands.
  1890. “Self-absorbed...”
  1891. >Zap.
  1892. >A beam hit its other thigh.
  1893. “...useless...”
  1894. >Zap.
  1895. >This time, on the forearm.
  1896. “...insect!”
  1897. >Zap.
  1898. >The fourth beam hit it square on the back.
  1900. >Celestia stood over the quivering, stinking, wailing pile that was the president.
  1901. >She lit up her horn once more and pulled on its hair so its head was lifted and looked at its miserable face.
  1902. >Tears were running down its cheeks and its eyes were turned over so the only thing visible were the whites.
  1903. >She ignored the guards, who had emptied their magazines on her, and bent down so her muzzle was right next to its ear.
  1904. “Now tell me, what happened to the ponies you captured?”
  1905. >The only response was some incoherent noise.
  1906. “Oh, can you not endure what your kind put my little ponies through?”
  1907. >She concentrated and forced magic through her to cast the same pain dampening spell she and Luna had used on the human.
  1909. >It gasped for air.
  1910. >”Haah!”
  1911. >Its eyes turned to their normal position and focused on Celestia.
  1912. “Tell me what happened to the ponies your expeditionary force captured.”
  1913. >”We... We gave them to the researchers to buy their silence.”
  1914. >She narrowed her eyes and pulled harder on its hair.
  1915. >Its head was wrenched backwards until its neck was strained to its limit.
  1916. “I need names and locations.”
  1917. >She whispered through clenched teeth.
  1918. >”I'll get them for you just let me live, please...”
  1919. >Celestia blew some air out of her nose, making a 'hmph' sound, and let it collapse on the floor.
  1920. “Make sure you do, I won't be as forgiving next time.”
  1921. >She stood up to her full height and let her gaze wander over the dead silent crowd before looking back at Twilight's toy.
  1922. “You. Come, we're leaving.”
  1923. >He took a few steps to close the distance between them.
  1924. >Then there was crack and a flash of flames, and they vanished.
  1926. >Celestia and the human burst back into existence just outside the massive glass-faced building they'd been in.
  1927. >The car was still where it'd been when they'd left, and its driver was squatting next to the pair of guards the princess had hit with stun rays.
  1928. “I have use for you.”
  1929. >Two of the car's doors clicked open, the driver's and back door that was facing the street.
  1930. >The driver flinched as an orange glow enveloped it and lifted it off the pavement.
  1931. >It didn't try to protest, only hung limply in the air and grabbed the steering wheel when Celestia placed it into the driver's seat.
  1932. >Such commendable behavior.
  1933. “You will take us to a hotel with a royal suite.”
  1934. >Celestia turned to look at the human with a raised brow.
  1935. >He glanced at her, then plodded to the car and squeezed into the farther back seat.
  1936. >The alicorn trotted behind him and took the closer of the seats, then made the door slam shut.
  1938. >Celestia's mind was starting to feel dull and her thoughts were getting sluggish from all the effort.
  1939. >It would have been so much easier to let the power inside her flow freely and turn the entire hall into ash.
  1940. >Or to have evaporated the president instead of scorching patches of his skin.
  1941. >But, she thought as she watched the cars and buildings roll past, that would not have got her the answers she needed.
  1942. >As taxing as the fine tuning had been, it had produced the desired results.
  1943. >And it had spared Twilight's toy.
  1944. >She craned her head away from the window and looked to the other side, at the human.
  1945. >He was gazing out of his window, resting his forehead on the glass.
  1946. >He'd played his part, but perhaps he could help her relax.
  1948. >”I'm not sure if they have a royal suite, but this is the best hotel in the city – well, this or another one, depending on who you ask.”
  1949. >The driver pulled to a stop on a curved piece of road in front of a tall, ornamental building.
  1950. >The name of the hotel and five gilded stars were embroidered into the end of the canopy that covered the distance between the entrance and the driveway.
  1951. >A porter, clad in red and gold, had noticed the vehicle and was treading towards them with a practiced smile on its face.
  1952. >Its reaction would most likely be amusing, so Celestia chose not to open the door herself.
  1953. >The blackened window did its job as the porter grabbed the door's handle, unaware of what was inside.
  1954. >It pulled the door open and bowed down in one smooth motion.
  1955. >”Good evening, welcome to the-”
  1956. >Clip.
  1957. >Celestia's hoof hit the pavement, soon followed by the other three.
  1958. >Its eyes went wide with surprise and slowly traveled up her hooves and body as it straightened itself.
  1959. >The princess felt her mouth curl into a light smile as she watched its lower lip quiver.
  1960. >”I- I- I- Eh, who do I have the honor to serve?”
  1961. >Well trained, this one.
  1962. >Kept to the etiquette despite being faced with something as destructive as she was.
  1964. >The car's other back door slammed shut.
  1965. >Both Celestia and the porter glanced that way, and saw that Twilight's toy had got out of the car.
  1966. >He pointed his good hand at her, with the palm facing upwards and fingers held level.
  1967. >”This is Princess Celestia, one quarter of the Equestrian crown and the official head of state together with her sister, Princess Luna. You may refer to her as 'Princess.'”
  1968. >The alicorn felt her eyes go a slight bit wider.
  1969. >She certainly hadn't expected that out of him.
  1970. >”Oh. Well, this way, Princess.”
  1971. >The porter nodded and pointed towards the door, then took a few running steps to stay in front of Celestia.
  1972. >It held the door open for her and the human following behind her, bowing its head as they passed by.
  1974. >The hotel's lobby was grandiose, three stories tall with a floor of polished marble.
  1975. >Massive potted palms and pillars of red granite lined the way to the front desk.
  1976. >The sound of Celestia's shod hooves echoed in the cavernous space as she trotted towards the desk.
  1977. >But the receptionist, clad in clothes very similar to those of the porter, did not notice her.
  1978. >It was looking at a huge flat screen TV that stood in the far corner.
  1979. >A few other humans had gathered around the screen, blocking her view of it, but she had a hunch she knew what was on it.
  1980. >She came to a halt a few paces from the desk and turned to look at the human.
  1981. >He was a bit behind her, and she used the time it took for him to catch up to levitate the pouch of bits she had in her chest piece out of its hiding place.
  1982. “You know how things are done around here, get a suite for us.”
  1983. >His eyes fixed on the floating bag, and he stuck out his good hand out for it.
  1985. >Ring-ding!
  1986. >The bell on the front desk rang brightly as the human slammed his hand on the button on top of it.
  1987. >The receptionist tore its eyes off the TV screen and turned to look at him.
  1988. >”Hello, and wel- AAGH!”
  1989. >Then it noticed Celestia standing a little behind him.
  1990. >Its hands zipped to its chest as it recoiled in terror.
  1991. >The princess tilted her head to the side a little and arched a brow, intrigued by the reaction.
  1992. >Ring-ding!
  1993. >Twilight's toy pressed the button on the bell again to regain its attention.
  1994. >It stared at the alicorn for a little longer, then looked at the human and let its hands fall to its sides.
  1995. >”The princess wishes to have the royal suite for tonight. Could you hand us the keys and tell where it is?”
  1996. >He took his finger off the bell and moved his hand on the pouch of bits he'd set on the desk.
  1997. >”Um, uh...”
  1998. >Its eyes had wandered back to her flaming mane, but snapped back to him as he drummed the desk with his fingers.
  1999. “Yes, yes. Room 601, sixth floor.”
  2000. >It turned around and reached into an open locker with countless key cards in it.
  2001. >The one it took out was in a pocket made of gold-embroidered silk, instead of plastic like the others.
  2002. >It handed the card to him.
  2003. >“Here. Take the elevator to the sixth floor and turn to the right, it's on the end of the corridor.”
  2004. >It pointed to the right towards a set of metal doors.
  2005. >“Do you have any luggage?”
  2006. >The smile on its face was shaky, but it was there.
  2007. “No.”
  2009. >The suite looked nearly as lavish as Celestia and Luna's personal quarters in Canterlot.
  2010. >The mats were real wool, the floors polished and shiny, the taps in the bathroom shone in scratch-free gold.
  2011. >But the paintings on the walls were not by the greatest masters of art, the taps were merely gilded instead of solid gold, and the room was not up high enough for the view to be over the rooftops of the city.
  2012. >But it would have to do.
  2014. “Nnh. Just like that.”
  2015. >Celestia let out a satisfied moan.
  2016. >She was lying on the suite's bed, on her side and with her eyes closed.
  2017. >The human was sitting behind her.
  2018. >He was running the fingers of his functioning hand through the feathers of her wing, straightening the crooked ones and picking out loose down.
  2019. >The bed was exquisitely soft, yet firm and supportive at the same time.
  2020. >It was almost like she was lying on a cloud.
  2021. >His fingertips were even softer, caressing her sensitive primaries with care and precision nearly matching those of Luna's magic.
  2022. >Tiredness weighed heavily on her mind like a blanket of lead.
  2023. >It was almost like she could hear Luna's voice...
  2025. >”Aaa!”
  2026. >She didn't realize she'd fallen asleep before a muffled scream woke her up.
  2027. >It was dark.
  2028. >”Nnnh!”
  2029. >The second muffled scream form the same direction flushed the sleepiness out of her.
  2030. >She hadn't created a barrier around the room, she'd fallen asleep before she could.
  2031. >Would they dare...?
  2032. >”Aaa!”
  2033. >They weren't screams of pain or distress, though.
  2034. >She hopped off the bed and made her way towards the sound with only the glow of her mane and tail for illumination.
  2036. >The human was sleeping on the suite's sofa, covered with a blanket he'd dug up from somewhere.
  2037. >His face had twisted into a mask of terror and his breathing was frantic panting, but he was very much asleep.
  2038. >”Aaaah.”
  2039. >He screamed again.
  2040. >His legs twitched under the blanket like he was running from something in his nightmare.
  2041. >Celestia drew breath, to shout at him to wake him up so she could go back to sleep.
  2042. >But something stopped her.
  2043. >She stood there, with her lips cracked open, and stared at him.
  2044. >At the beads of sweat on his brow, and at the hoof-shaped, nearly healed bruise on his forehead.
  2045. >Did he truly deserve it?
  2046. >Did he truly deserve all the torment he had already gone through, and more?
  2048. “Hey.”
  2049. >Celestia prodded the side of his head with a hoof.
  2050. “Hey, wake up.”
  2051. >She prodded him again, this time on the thigh.
  2052. >His eyes were wide open in an instant, and he gasped for breath.
  2053. >”Eeugh... Wha?”
  2054. >His pupils shrunk and he squinted his eyes despite how Celestia's mane and tail were as dim as they could be.
  2055. “You were screaming in your sleep.”
  2056. >The blanket shuffled as he moved his hand beneath it before pushing himself to a sitting position.
  2057. “What were you dreaming of?”
  2058. >She looked into his eyes and put on a gentle smile.
  2059. >”I...”
  2060. >The words died at his lips as his brow furrowed.
  2061. >They stared at each other for a short moment, his face one of confusion.
  2062. >”I dreamed of Dusty. He was a young colt in the village we took just before... before it happened.”
  2063. >He looked down at his hands.
  2064. >”He's dead now, but keeps haunting me.”
  2065. >There was a deep sadness in his eyes during the heavy silence.
  2066. “I'll ask Luna to give you peace in your sleep once we get home.”
  2067. >He deserved relief.
  2069. >Celestia counted the names on the list one more time as the car she was in turned into the gravel road leading to the Rift.
  2070. >She didn't know any of the names or the addresses, but the amount of them matched that of the list she'd given to Twilight.
  2071. >Thirty two names and addresses.
  2072. >Thirty two missing ponies.
  2073. >She wished to go after them herself, but the manlet in black who had delivered the list also had a message.
  2074. >She and Luna were invited to a United Nations Special Assembly.
  2075. >And from what she'd gathered, it was the perfect place to turn the fragmented nations of the human world against one another.
  2076. >She had power.
  2077. >Luna had even more.
  2078. >Humans respected nothing but power.
  2079. >A promise of aid to one, a whisper in the ear of another...
  2080. >They wouldn't even have to dirty her own hooves.
  2082. >The Rift shimmered in front of them.
  2083. >The smoke inside it formed ephemeral shapes.
  2084. >There was Twilight's cutie mark, there was one of the human's armored battle vehicles, there was Canterlot.
  2085. >Celestia shut her eyes and shook her head to get her mind off it.
  2086. “Are you ready?”
  2087. >She looked at the human standing next to her instead.
  2088. >He was staring at his own feet.
  2089. >”As ready as I will be.”
  2090. >His crude boots tread the dirt they stood on, first slowly, then he took to a run.
  2091. >He disappeared into the purple mist, leaving behind nothing but a ripple on the surface.
  2092. >Celestia steeled her mind in preparation for the whispers, then spread her wings and shot into it.
  2094. >She was seen.
  2095. >She was heard.
  2096. >She was felt.
  2098. >The nothingness saw her.
  2099. >The nothingness heard her.
  2100. >The nothingness whispered in her ears.
  2101. >It was aware of her desire and promised obedience.
  2102. >It was aware of her lust and promised satisfaction.
  2103. >It was aware of her urge and promised annihilation.
  2104. >But in return, it wanted totality.
  2105. >But in return, it wanted absolution.
  2106. >But in return, it wanted perfection.
  2108. >Celestia gasped for breath.
  2109. >”We've been waiting for you, Daybreaker!”
  2110. >That voice.
  2111. >No.
  2112. >She opened her eyes to see Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy standing before her, wearing the Elements of Harmony.
  2113. >Not yet.
  2114. >”You'll return Princess Celestia to us now!”
  2115. >Not before she could remove the threat of humanity.
  2116. >Their eyes began glowing.
  2117. >Celestia's heart beat like a hammer.
  2118. >She could not let this happen now.
  2119. >But there was no escape, the Elements were more powerful than she was even now.
  2120. >A rainbow-colored light shot out from each Element, connecting them to one another.
  2121. >Celestia looked down at her hooves.
  2122. >She had no chance.
  2123. >Equestria would fall to another invasion as soon as humanity heard of her powerlessness.
  2124. >Tendrils of smoke still held on to her.
  2125. >A massive rainbow-colored beam shot up from them.
  2126. >She had no chance, unless...
  2128. ---
  2130. Chapter 3
  2132. >It was deathly quiet.
  2133. >Six ponies stared at the billowing mist inside the Rift.
  2134. >Not a second ago, it'd been hit by a blindingly bright beam of rainbow-colored energy.
  2135. >Now there was just the slightest ripple on the surface.
  2136. >That, and the smoke churned and swirled, far faster and more vigorously than usual.
  2137. >”Where's Daybreaker?”
  2138. >Rainbow Dash took off and zipped close to the Rift's surface.
  2139. >Bits of purple mist ballooned from its surface and reached out towards her.
  2140. >”Whoa!”
  2141. >She did a hairpin turn and put some distance between her and the anomaly.
  2142. >”Is it supposed to do that, Twilight?”
  2143. >Applejack's voice was laced with concern even though the ballooned-out bits were pulled back and re-absorbed.
  2144. “I... don't think so.”
  2145. >Twilight had read the reports on the Rift and they'd all stated that it posed no threat.
  2146. >”I think I saw her go in there just before she was hit... maybe?”
  2147. >If Fluttershy hadn't been right next to Twilight, she wouldn't have heard the pegasus.
  2148. >Despite of how silent it was.
  2150. >”If you're looking for the Princess, I saw her cross over back to the other side.”
  2151. >A voice Twilight had never heard before, a male one, spoke out.
  2152. >She turned to look at its source.
  2153. >It was the human whose name she'd never caught, who'd been entrusted to her.
  2154. >They'd seen him come through and had scrambled to full readiness, and then forgot about him when Daybreaker appeared.
  2155. “You... spoke? But- You never- Why?”
  2156. >What had happened to him while he was with Daybreaker?
  2157. >He didn't appear hurt; had she really got through to him in some way Twilight hadn't?
  2158. >”Yes, Princess, I did. Helping you in any way I can is my role, is it not?”
  2159. >He bowed his head as he spoke.
  2160. “Yes, I mean no, but-”
  2161. >”I know we have not been introduced and I'm terribly sorry to interrupt, but Twilight, are you sure this is the right moment for this?”
  2162. >Rarity tapped Twilight's flank with a hoof and nodded towards the Rift.
  2163. >”Isn't there something more important for us to do at the moment?”
  2164. >The anomaly had slowed down to its normal state, or as close to 'normal' as something like it could ever be.
  2165. “OK girls, lets go get Princess Celestia back.”
  2167. >She was promised certainty.
  2168. >She was promised clarity.
  2169. >She was promised a role.
  2171. >Twilight staggered through to the other side.
  2172. >Her ears were abuzz with static and a wave of nausea welled in her stomach.
  2173. >She managed to stay on her hooves, if only just, and stood still for a moment while looking at the dirt beneath her.
  2174. >Each gasp of cool and damp air she inhaled made her feel a little steadier and less sick.
  2175. >”Ooh, what's that thing?”
  2176. >Pinkie's voice was shortly followed by the creaking of metal springs.
  2177. >Twilight looked up towards the source of the sound.
  2178. >It was some kind of a metal vehicle with four rubber wheels, painted black and with darkened windows, not far from them.
  2179. >”It is a 'car', Pinkie. A form of transportation in this world.”
  2180. >The harsh and dry voice of Daybreaker.
  2181. >”It can help you with the task I have for you.”
  2182. >Daybreaker was standing a few paces to the right of Twilight, and had her forehooves spread a bit wider than usual.
  2183. “You! You're not giving us any tasks, you're giving us Princess Celestia back!”
  2184. >Twilight glanced to her sides, and saw her friends reorient themselves to face the fallen Princess.
  2185. >She calmed her mind and reached deep inside herself for the spark of Friendship...
  2186. >...and nothing happened.
  2188. >A self-confident smile crept onto Daybreaker's lips as Twilight reached for the spark inside her for another try.
  2189. >”The Tree of Harmony's power is vast, but not limitless. We are too far for the Elements to draw from their source.”
  2190. >No.
  2191. >She wouldn't believe her lies.
  2192. >”I cannot let you strip me of my power yet, not before I have secured the future of Equestria.”
  2193. >But it didn't work.
  2194. >No matter how many times she tried, her Element did not respond.
  2196. >Twilight felt the weight of her crown get lifted off her head.
  2197. “Hey!”
  2198. >”Give it back!”
  2199. >”Eep!”
  2200. >An orange glow enveloped all of the Elements and stripped them off their embodiments, despite their protests.
  2201. >Twilight tried to grasp them with her magic, but her horn only lit up for a fraction of a second before fizzling out.
  2202. >”You ain't taking those from us!”
  2203. >”Yeah!”
  2204. >Applejack's and Rainbow Dash's hooves beat the dirt as they charged at Daybreaker.
  2205. >Pinkie hopped behind them.
  2206. >But Twilight knew their efforts would be in vain.
  2207. >Without the Elements and without magic, they stood no chance.
  2209. >A hiss similar to that of water flash-boiling on a hot rock filled the air when Rainbow Dash rammed into the magical orange barrier that Daybreaker summoned around herself.
  2210. >It was shortly followed by another hiss as Applejack hit the same barrier.
  2211. >And a third one when Pinkie jumped onto the magical obstacle.
  2212. >”I have no desire to...”
  2213. >Applejack turned around and shifted her weight onto her forehooves, then bucked the barrier with all the strength she could muster.
  2214. >Hiss.
  2215. >Ripples appeared on the spot she hit, but there was no other damage.
  2216. >”...hurt you, but...”
  2217. >Rainbow Dash backed off a little, then galloped to the barrier and rammed it again.
  2218. >Hiss.
  2219. >More ripples.
  2220. >Daybreaker's right eye twitched.
  2221. >”...I will not let you-”
  2222. >Pinkie leaped as high into the air as she could.
  2223. >Hiss.
  2224. >And landed right on top of the barrier, causing yet more ripples.
  2225. >”CEASE!”
  2226. >A shockwave of magic exploded from Daybreaker's horn and traveled through the air.
  2227. >Everything it hit was slowed to a crawl.
  2229. >The barrier around her vanished with a quiet pop.
  2230. >”I said I cannot let you compromise my plans quite yet.”
  2231. >Daybreaker's voice was loud and she spat out the words like they were something disgusting.
  2232. >Twilight and her friends were suspended in place.
  2233. >They could do nothing but watch as the alicorn with a mane of fire stood and spoke.
  2234. >”Luna and I have been invited to a great meeting of this world's leaders. We will attend this meeting and find out if there is any hope for their despicable species.”
  2235. >Twilight felt the hair on her neck stand up as Daybreker's gaze passed over her.
  2236. >”Regardless of outcome, we will ensure that this world will no longer pose a threat to ours. No matter the cost.”
  2237. >The time manipulation spell was starting to release its grip.
  2238. >Twilight and her friends started moving ever so slowly, even if it was just their chests contracting and expanding with their breathing.
  2239. >”Twilight, I tasked you to find out the fate of the missing ponies.”
  2240. >Daybreaker trotted up to her fellow princess.
  2241. >”They are in this world. Here.”
  2242. >A slip of paper floated out from behind Daybreaker's chest piece and settled on top of Twilight's muzzle.
  2243. >The spell wore out enough for Twilight to move her eyes to look at the paper, and so she could feel humiliated.
  2244. >”Knowing they are safe would give me and Luna clear consciences to do everything we need to do.”
  2245. >Their time was now passing at about an eighth of its normal pace.
  2246. >Enough for them to look at the fallen Princess as she trotted towards the Rift.
  2247. >”I trust you are gifted enough to figure out how to use this world's magic.”
  2248. >She stopped just before the tip of her muzzle touched the surface and looked back.
  2249. >”And remember, you all are still very important to me. Stay safe.”
  2251. >Only a fading-out ripple remained when the six ponies were released from the spell's grasp.
  2252. >Each one of them staggered for a second before regaining their bearings.
  2253. >”After her!”
  2254. >Rainbow Dash was the first to sprint towards the Rift.
  2255. “Wait.”
  2256. >The deepness of Twilight's voice made the hard-headed pegasus come to a screeching halt.
  2257. “As long as we don't have the Elements, it's useless. There's nothing we can do.”
  2258. >She looked down at her hooves and at the piece of paper that had fallen off her snout.
  2259. >”We can't just give up! There's got to be some way.”
  2260. >Twilight ignored Rainbow Dash's waving and turned the slip around with her hoof.
  2261. >It had a list of alien names and addresses on it.
  2262. >”I think Twilight is right.”
  2263. >Fluttershy's voice was loud.
  2264. >Well, as loud as it ever got.
  2265. >”I mean, the only reason we're still standing is because she didn't want to hurt u-”
  2267. >There was a sound from the Rift.
  2268. >The sound of a foot falling on dirt.
  2269. >All six of them turned to look as the human who'd been assigned to Twilight plodded through.
  2270. >He was breathing heavy and tendrils of mist held on to his chest.
  2271. >A grunt escaped his lips as he used his good hand to rip the tentacles off of himself.
  2272. >”What did you do to it? It's so intrusive now.”
  2273. >Twilight glanced at the Rift, which looked as normal as it could, then back at the human.
  2274. “Uh, well...”
  2275. >She scratched the back of her neck with a hoof.
  2276. “...let's just say that it was hit with a lot of harmony.”
  2277. >With how little was known of the Rift, she could only hope that nothing serious would happen.
  2279. >”Is it safe to come out now?”
  2280. >The voice came from the car, which was a short distance from them.
  2281. >Its door was pushed open.
  2282. >A man in a black suit was sitting inside.
  2283. “Oh. Hello! Sorry we didn't notice you earlier. I'm Twilight Sparkle.”
  2284. >The rest of the ponies introduced themselves, as did the man.
  2285. ”So, why are you here?”
  2286. >”I brought Princess Celestia and her servant here from the airport. My orders were to just do that, but I guess I could give you a lift to town if you want.”
  2288. “Keep it up, you almost did it!”
  2289. >Rarity stood in front of Twilight with her forehooves spread and head high in the air.
  2290. >Her horn glowed with her signature blue and beads of sweat dribbled down her neck, barrel and hooves.
  2291. >”Nnngh!”
  2292. >She breathed with labored gasps from the struggle.
  2293. >Twilight could feel the silvery ocean of magic beneath them stirring with the unicorn's effort.
  2294. >The human world's magic was very different from Equestria's.
  2295. >It didn't saturate every living being, from birds to trees to ponies, desiring to be used.
  2296. >No, it sat still in a great, unmoving ocean just beneath the planet's surface.
  2297. >It had to be forced into cooperation.
  2298. >Rarity squeezed her eyes shut.
  2299. >The veins on her body bulged from the effort, clearly visible on her flanks, barrel and neck.
  2300. >”Aaah!”
  2301. >A single strand of silver rose up from beneath.
  2302. >It wormed towards the unicorn.
  2303. >Slowly.
  2304. >Her body quivered and shook.
  2305. >Could she do it?
  2306. >Worry seeped into Twilight.
  2307. >The strand reached further towards her.
  2308. >Closer...
  2309. >”Iiiii caaan't kee-”
  2310. >It touched her.
  2311. >A sudden flash blinded Twilight.
  2312. >She saw a shaky white unicorn with sweat dripping off her chin as her vision returned a second later.
  2313. “You did it!”
  2314. >Twilight jumped at her friend, threw her forehooves around her neck and squeezed her.
  2315. >”I... I did?”
  2316. >Rarity's coat was slick with sweat and her skin was hot to the touch.
  2317. >Her horn lit up again, and this time a small rock was enveloped in her glow and floated off the ground.
  2319. “Okay, so we'll split into three groups. Rainbow Dash and Applejack will be one group, Pinkie, Fluttershy and Rarity another, and me and him-”
  2320. >Twilight nodded at her human.
  2321. “-will be the third one.”
  2322. >She tapped the three pieces of paper floating in front of her with the pen she'd borrowed from the car's driver.
  2323. >Each one of them had a third of the names and addresses on it.
  2324. “Each group will find the ponies on their list and ensure their safe return to Equestria, then return to Ponyville. Any questions?”
  2325. >She looked up form the slips of paper and at her friends gathered around them.
  2326. >“I don't like like the way she talks about her 'plans.' It's like she's getting ready to do something real bad. I still say we oughta go back to Equestria, try and get back the Elements.”
  2327. >Applejack glanced towards the Rift and waved a hoof at it.
  2328. “I didn't like the way she spoke about it either, but I think our best bet is to do what she asks us to and hope she'll return the Elements to us. Besides, these ponies have been missing for half a year. Their families haven't heard anything of them and most likely think they're dead.”
  2329. >Twilight looked at Applejack.
  2330. >The earth pony's face turned solemn and her eyes turned down at the dirt beneath her hooves.
  2331. >“I suppose you're right. Nothin' worse than not knowing what's happened to your loved ones...”
  2333. >”Can't you go any faster? We'd be there already if it was up to me.”
  2334. >Rainbow Dash had her forehooves on the hand rest between the two front seats.
  2335. >She was peering at the road in front of them through the windscreen.
  2336. >”You don't even know where we're goin' and you still wanna rush ahead? Pscht.”
  2337. >Applejack rolled her eyes and gave Rainbow Dash a disapproving look.
  2338. >”Hey! The road's gotta lead somewhere, right? Can't get lost following it.”
  2339. >”Cut it out you two.”
  2340. >Rarity piped in to the conversation.
  2341. >”We're on a grand adventure and you do nothing but argue? Just think of where we are: a whole new world to explore, who knows how many species there are with countless ideas nopony in Equestria has ever even dreamed of!”
  2342. >”Rarity, we're not here to find new ideas, we're here to rescue ponies, remember?”
  2343. >”Oh, hush. Let a mare dream.”
  2345. >Twilight tuned out the voices of her friends and concentrated on what she was seeing.
  2346. >Mixed coniferous trees with a mat of moss and low shrubs covering the forest floor.
  2347. >Taiga, in other words.
  2348. >But there was more to than that to the scenery that swooshed past them.
  2349. >For a short while the trees were tall and spaced far apart, then there was a short bit of young thicket, then another bit where there were just saplings growing in the middle of bushes and wild grass.
  2350. >A large majority of the trees in each patch were of similar age and height, with very few younger ones in between.
  2351. >She was looking at timberland.
  2352. >Perhaps not a tree farm, but forest grown for the explicit purpose of getting timber.
  2353. >And it seemed to stretch on forever.
  2354. >They were moving as fast as Equestrian trains, and it'd been half an hour since they'd turned off the snaky gravel road that led to the Rift.
  2355. >And she'd seen nothing but timberland.
  2356. >In vast stretches, on both sides.
  2357. >Twilight was starting to get a hunch on what sort of a world they were in.
  2359. >The city was vast, at least by Equestrian standards.
  2360. >It started out as single houses with large yards, then turned into suburbs of row houses, before finally becoming a sprawling mass of high-rise flats, vast shopping centers and crowded streets.
  2361. >There were humans everywhere.
  2362. >In the stores lining the streets, in cars similar to the one Twilight and her friends were in, walking on the footpaths, in the upper stories of the buildings.
  2363. >It was almost like one of the few large Equestrian cities, only without ponies.
  2365. “Thanks for the ride!”
  2366. >The driver stuck his hand out from the window and waved as he drove off.
  2367. >He hadn't been of the talkative sort.
  2368. >Twilight and the others had got nothing but short, mostly one-word answers out of him.
  2369. >”The bus station is just across the street. We can get anywhere from there, but it will be neither comfortable nor fast.”
  2370. >The human, standing about a pace from Twilight, pointed at one of the buildings on the other side of the street.
  2371. >The building had the words 'bus station' and, presumably, the name of the city they were in on it in large, plastic letters.
  2372. >As she looked its way, Twilight noticed that many of the humans on the street with them had stopped and turned to stare at her and her friends.
  2373. >Some had dug out some kind of devices from their pockets and were tapping said devices with their fingers.
  2374. >Twilight heard Rainbow Dash next to her draw a rapid breath like she was about to shout.
  2375. >She jabbed her flank with a hoof.
  2376. >”Hey, what did you do that for?”
  2377. >Dash rewarded Twilight with an angry glare.
  2378. “They've never seen ponies before. Let them stare. It's not like it's slowing us down.”
  2380. >“So, Twilight, how do you suppose we actually do this? Just go poke one of 'em-”
  2381. >Applejack nodded at a group of humans that was in the waiting room of the bus station with them.
  2382. >The humans were huddled close together and whispering to one another while occasionally glancing at them.
  2383. >The room was mostly filled with short rows of benches, but there was also a digital screen with departures and arrivals on it and a brightly colored vending machine.
  2384. >”-an' ask for directions?”
  2385. >”Why don't you-”
  2386. >Pinkie was hopping in circles around Twilight's human.
  2387. >”-take a look at the list and help plan routes for us since you know where the cities are and how they are connected.”
  2388. >She jumped high into the air one last time and came to a stop in front of him.
  2389. >”Or maybe we could keep a short break and figure out what those small things they keep tapping do. Because I reeeally want to find out.”
  2390. >And then, all of a sudden, Pinkie was in the middle of the group of humans.
  2391. >Twilight watched each member of the group take a cautious step back before rolling her eyes and looking at her human.
  2392. “Well, she's right, you are the only one of us who knows anything of this world.”
  2393. >”Hi! I'm Pinkie Pie! What's your name?”
  2394. >Pinkie's voice echoed in the room as Twilight dug out the list of names and addresses.
  2396. >”These three are close to each other, and these aren't too far...”
  2397. >He drew an extremely crude number next to one of the names, then let go of the pen Twilight had forgotten to return and looked at his hand.
  2398. >An annoyed grunt escaped his lips.
  2399. >”Gah. If only- Maybe we could go to a library so I can use a computer and put all of these addresses on a map?”
  2400. >A library?
  2401. >Twilight's eyes lost focus as she thought of all the possibilities.
  2402. >She had so many questions she wanted answers for.
  2403. >How did human physiology work?
  2404. >Why were their fingers so nimble and why was there such a massive contrast between their dominant and non-dominant hands?
  2405. >Did humans also have trains or did they just use cars?
  2406. >How did the cars work?
  2407. >They had to have some kind of an engine in them, she'd seen exhaust come out, but what did they run on?
  2408. “Yes! That's a brilliant idea!”
  2409. >Her hooves felt as light as air when she pranced in place to bring herself around.
  2410. >”Oh, come on! We're supposed to be rescuing ponies and now we're going to a library!?”
  2411. >Rainbow Dash took to the air and spread her forehooves out to her sides.
  2412. >”I know you're not too fond of libraries, Rainbow Dash, but it isn't at all a bad idea to find out a little about the world we're in before rushing ahead.”
  2413. >Rarity piped in before craning her head to look at Pinkie.
  2414. >Pinkie had convinced one of the humans to show their pocket device to her and they now sat on one of the benches.
  2415. >”Pinkie, we're leaving.”
  2417. >They had to stop and ask for directions twice.
  2418. >Getting someone to help them wasn't as easy as it could have been: most humans avoided them and rather crossed to the other side of the street than walked past them.
  2419. >But they did eventually arrive at the library.
  2420. >It was a nondescript light-colored building with glass doors.
  2421. >The only reason they knew it was what they were looking for was because the word 'library' was taped on the door.
  2423. >Twilight's human pushed a key on the keyboard and the computer's screen sprang to life and displayed a picture with little icons on it.
  2424. >He put his hand on a small device that was next to the keyboard and moved it.
  2425. >A small cursor appeared on the screen and seeked one of the icons.
  2426. >Click-click.
  2427. >A large box full of pictures, text and colors sprung up on the screen.
  2428. >”Okay, let's see about those addresses.”
  2430. “So. We've redone the division of the names based on their proximity. Applejack and Rainbow Dash are going to tackle this group.”
  2431. >Twilight tapped her hoof on the printed-out map that was on the floor in the middle of the group of ponies.
  2432. “Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Rarity will take this group.”
  2433. >Tap.
  2434. >She tapped another part of the map.
  2435. “And I will take the last group and the stragglers.”
  2436. >Her hoof landed on the last circled group of dots.
  2437. “You said you have some ideas on how to get around in this world?”
  2438. >Twilight looked up from the map and at her human.
  2439. >”Yes. You basically have three options: buses, trains and planes...”
  2440. >He gave them a quick description of each mode of transportation and how to use them.
  2442. >”...so the faster you want to go, the more expensive it is. But, it turns out that the cost is not a problem because your money is both worthless and obscenely valuable at the same time because your 'bits' are made of gold.”
  2443. “Ninety percent gold. The last part is mostly nickel and copper with trace amounts of other metals for strength.”
  2444. >Twilight actually remembered the other metals and their relative quantities as well, but thought it better to not go into too much detail.
  2445. >His human glanced her way and momentarily turned his hand around so his palm faced the ceiling.
  2446. >”Anyways, they're worthless for buying things but you can sell them as gold. Most jewelers will buy them. But you most likely won't need to do that since I was given the leftover money from selling the Princess'-”
  2447. >He stopped mid-sentence and looked down at Twilight, a mask of confusion on his face.
  2448. “Don't worry, we get who you mean. Keep going.”
  2449. >”Anyways, there's quite a bit left over.”
  2450. >He pulled a wad of slips of paper from his pocket.
  2452. “Haah, I'm beat.”
  2453. >Twilight hopped onto the hotel room's bed.
  2454. >The springs of the mattress creaked as she rolled on her back and looked at the ceiling above.
  2455. >They hadn't even left the city.
  2456. >When they thought they were ready, somepony always came up with something that needed doing.
  2457. >First it was something to carry stuff in, so they went to get some bags.
  2458. >But the bags were made for humans, so they had to go get some supplies so Rarity could modify them.
  2459. >Then Fluttershy pointed out that they'd be walking a lot and they should get some water, so they went to get some bottles for water...
  2460. >In the end, it was late in the evening before they were ready to depart.
  2461. >So late they'd decided to find a place to sleep in and leave in the morning instead.
  2463. >”Where should I put this?”
  2464. >Her human presented the newspaper he'd bought for her.
  2465. >It was the last thing she'd thought of, so she'd have something to read while they traveled.
  2466. >The headlines about the president getting attacked by an alien didn't interest her.
  2467. >The picture on the cover was of some old man, so they likely weren't even true.
  2468. >Which was kind of odd since her human had told her that the particular newspaper was known as trustworthy.
  2469. >Nevertheless, it should have some details about the humans and their world in it somewhere.
  2470. “Let me see it.”
  2471. >Mindful of the fact that he was afraid of magic, Twilight rolled off her back and leaped off the bed.
  2472. >She grabbed the rolled-up paper with her teeth and dropped it on the floor before sitting next to it.
  2473. >The second page caught her attention.
  2474. >'Where did the equine alien come from?'
  2475. >”I never had the chance to tell you about that, did I?”
  2476. >Twilight ripped her eyes off the article and looked up at him.
  2477. “Tell me about what?”
  2478. >She couldn't read the expression on his face.
  2479. >”About what we did here.”
  2480. >He told Twilight of what he and Daybreaker – or Princess Celestia as she'd called herself – had done.
  2482. “So, you-”
  2483. >She could hardly believe what she just heard.
  2484. >Not only did most of the world not even know about the existence of ponies, their “first contact” had been Daybreaker?
  2485. >Who had threatened and coerced her way through to the leader of the nation and then attacked him?
  2486. “I...”
  2487. >She'd hadn't assumed the humans would be especially kind to them, but now?
  2488. >It was surprising that the most she'd seen was pointing and whispering.
  2489. “How are we supposed to get around if we're seen as Daybreaker's kin? Won't we be hated and shunned?”
  2490. >They stared at each other in silence for a second.
  2491. >”You could try using the media coverage for you. Call them here and tell them who you are and what your mission is.”
  2492. >Twilight looked back down at the paper in front of her.
  2493. >They could go public.
  2494. >But then they'd risk getting bogged down by all the attention.
  2495. >On the other hoof, there could be some who were sympathetic of their cause and offer to help.
  2496. >But overall...
  2497. >She found her mind drawing a blank.
  2498. >So much had happened already that, as rare as it was, she was feeling overwhelmed.
  2499. “How about we sleep on it?”
  2501. >Twilight let out a satisfied moan as she wiggled her body a little.
  2502. >She wanted to feel the exquisite fabric of the sheets on her skin.
  2503. >Maybe humans made theirs extra soft because they were far heavier than ponies?
  2504. >She looked around the hotel room room.
  2505. >It was tiny, and only had the double bed she was in and a small desk and a lone chair in it.
  2506. >Her human was sitting on the chair at the desk and was reading the newspaper.
  2507. >No, they made their sheets so soft because they didn't have coats.
  2508. “Will you be done soon?”
  2509. >He jerked a little as he heard her voice, then looked up at the curtains covering the window in front of him.
  2510. “Sorry! Didn't mean to interrupt.”
  2511. >Twilight pulled the covers up to her muzzle as her human turned on the seat to look at her.
  2512. >She felt a heat rising on her cheeks for breaking his reading flow.
  2513. >It'd happened to her so many times, and it was always difficult to get back to the state where she felt like she lived in the text.
  2514. >How could she make up for it?
  2515. >”It's odd that there's no mention of me or what I said in here. But you were right to interrupt me, Princess. Don't let me keep you from your sleep.”
  2516. >The chair scraped the floor as he pushed it back from the desk before getting his feet.
  2518. >”I'll just get a blanket and a pillow, I think I saw some in a closet in the corridor just outside.”
  2519. ”What do you mean? The bed's already got everything you need.”
  2520. >Twilight stretched her hoof out from beneath the covers and patted a spot on the other side of the bed.
  2521. >”You want me to sleep with you?”
  2522. >He stopped mid-step and looked at Twilight with his brow furrowed.
  2523. “Where else would you sleep? On the floor?”
  2524. >”I thought the carpet looked comfortable enough. But I will do as you wish, Princess.”
  2525. >She was left with her mouth open.
  2526. >He was so... worthless.
  2527. >Or rather, thought of himself as such.
  2528. >But what could she do about it?
  2529. >She couldn't wrap her hooves around him for a hug because of his broken ribs.
  2530. >Her brain felt like it had turned into a mush with tiny Pinkies hopping around in it.
  2531. >She couldn't come up with anything else.
  2532. “Could we just go to sleep?”
  2533. >Twilight never felt her human slip between the bed's sheets.
  2534. >She fell asleep before he could do so.
  2536. >There was something inside Twilight.
  2537. >It was like a ball of thorns in her stomach, pricking and scratching her organs as she trotted down a corridor in her castle.
  2538. >Her hooves fell on the crystalline floor without making any kind of noise.
  2539. >There were only the whispers.
  2540. >Whispers that sounded like they were created by a million tiny legs skittering somewhere near her.
  2541. >They came from every direction at once.
  2542. >They demanded she turn left when the hallway split in two.
  2543. >She turned right.
  2544. >A blinding pain exploded in her as thorns pierced her insides.
  2545. >She fell onto the floor with a thump and gasped for breath.
  2546. >Left.
  2547. >That's what they told her.
  2549. >There was somepony on her throne.
  2550. >The pony sat deep in the seat so Twilight could see nothing but their hooves.
  2551. >She limped through the open doors, doing her best to ignore the slicing pain inside her, and called out.
  2552. >But no voice came out of her.
  2553. >She screamed as hard as she could, even felt the air flowing out of her lungs.
  2554. >But she could not hear anything.
  2555. >”Twilight Sparkle.”
  2556. >It was her own voice that called for her from her throne.
  2557. >Almost her own voice.
  2558. >It was a tiny bit deeper than hers.
  2559. >Hearing it made a wave of fear well inside her.
  2560. >She did not want to hear.
  2561. >She did not want to see.
  2562. >She did not want to know.
  2564. >Fwam!
  2565. >A figure shot upwards from the throne.
  2566. >Twilight wanted to close her eyes, to close it all out, but she couldn't help looking it.
  2567. >It was purple.
  2568. >The same purple as her.
  2569. >Almost.
  2570. >A bit lighter... and darker at the same time?
  2571. >Wham.
  2572. >The figure planted itself firmly on the floor on all four hooves.
  2573. >Twilight was looking at herself.
  2574. >Only whatever she was looking at had a mane and tail that billowed in an ethereal wind and shimmered in the colors of sunset and sunrise, and a coat that glowed ever so slightly.
  2575. >”I have been waiting for you.”
  2577. >The shoes of purple metal she wore clicked on the floor with each step as the doppelganger circled around Twilight.
  2578. >”Do not be alarmed, I am not your enemy.”
  2579. >Cla-click.
  2580. >The clicks stopped at Twilight's side.
  2581. >Twilight couldn't turn to look, but she felt a hoof fall on her withers.
  2582. >The other Twilight pressed into her side.
  2583. >It felt cool, like a mild wind in the evening.
  2584. >”Although, perhaps not your friend either.”
  2585. >The other pony's hoof pressed more heavily into Twilight's withers as she pointed at the map.
  2587. >An image of Fluttershy appeared in front of them.
  2588. >The pegasus was lying on the ground beneath a thick oak.
  2589. >The tree was nothing but a burnt-out hunk of what it once was, and the air was thick with smoke and ash.
  2590. >A spatter of something red with yellow feathers and hair in it stained the trunk of the tree, and a thin stream of blood trickled from Fluttershy's mouth.
  2591. >She was breathing, but only just.
  2592. >”You and your friends are strong...”
  2593. >The image turned into a blur, and then morphed into a bright white unicorn.
  2594. >Rarity hammered the ground with her hooves to put out the smoldering grass, unable to escape as a dark blue barrier shimmered around her.
  2595. >”...but you are not undefeatable.”
  2596. >Blur.
  2597. >This time it showed Rainbow Dash.
  2598. >Thorny vines held onto her wings and the air was so thick with smoke she was coughing constantly.
  2599. >Blur.
  2600. >Pinkie Pie had climbed up into a tree.
  2601. >Only the tree was all charred and glowing red and orange, and short, intense blue flames surrounded her.
  2602. >Blur.
  2603. >Applejack laid in front of a shady figure.
  2604. >There was a huge gash on her side that was oozing blood.
  2605. >The image dissipated into thin mist.
  2606. >”If you ever need me, you know where to find me.”
  2608. >Skraaat!
  2609. >Twilight's heart skipped a beat.
  2610. >Bright sunlight flooded the room.
  2611. >It blinded her when she opened her eyes.
  2612. >She held up a hoof between her eyes and the window before she could see anything.
  2613. >Her human had just pulled the curtains open.
  2614. “Oh.”
  2615. >A sigh of relief escaped her.
  2616. >Just a dream.
  2617. “Good morning.”
  2618. >Though there was a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that something was different now.
  2619. >Her human let go of the curtain and tugged at the strap of the sling supporting his right arm before turning to look at her.
  2620. >”Good morning, Princess.”
  2621. >His face gave no hint of how his night had been.
  2622. >There was only a forced smile on it, one that did not reach his eyes.
  2624. >”Good mornin' Twilight!”
  2625. >Applejack's voice greeted Twilight as soon as she trotted into the hotel's restaurant for breakfast.
  2626. >The earth pony sat at a round table with Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy.
  2627. >Most of the tables were free, but there were a few humans sitting at the other end of the room.
  2628. >They didn't seem to care about the ponies.
  2629. “Good morning you three.”
  2630. >There were two unoccupied chairs at the table Twilight's friends were at, and she headed towards it.
  2631. >She heard her human's feet thump on the floor as he followed behind her.
  2632. >”Hi Twilight! I was just telling Applejack about how this weird human in all black followed me around this morning when I decided to go see what the city looks like when it's morning.”
  2633. >Pinkie glanced and waved her hoof at Twilight before looking back at Applejack.
  2634. >”So, as I was saying, he didn't know that I knew that he was there so I started going a bit faster to see if he could keep up.”
  2635. >Twilight tuned out Pinkie's voice as she pulled back a chair and sat on it.
  2636. >She glanced at her side and noticed her human had gone to check out the buffet and was now headed her way.
  2638. >Applejack's plate had the shell of an egg on it, along with a half-eaten piece of toast with cheese and cucumber.
  2639. >She also had a small bowl of cereal.
  2640. >Pinkie had a bunch of grapes and a lot of orange peels on hers.
  2641. >Fluttershy's plate was empty, it didn't even have crumbs on it.
  2642. >The pegasus was nibbling on an apple, and her ears had turned backwards and pressed against her skull.
  2643. >She was staring at her own plate, but her eyes were out of focus.
  2644. “Fluttershy, are you okay?”
  2645. >The pegasus' ears swiveled towards Twilight.
  2646. >”Yes. I just...”
  2647. >Words died at her lips and she fell silent.
  2648. >Then she lifted her head and craned her neck to look at the buffet table.
  2649. >She extended a shaky hoof towards it
  2650. >”They have little signs saying 'cow' and 'pig' on the trays that have thin slices of meat on them.”
  2651. >She made a quiet 'eep' sound.
  2652. >”I know they're not ponies and that they eat meat, but it's...”
  2653. >She put her forehooves on the sides of her head and stared straight ahead with her mouth left hanging open for a second.
  2654. >”I'm just not hungry.”
  2655. >Her hooves fell limp to her sides.
  2657. >”Ahem.”
  2658. >Twilight set down her spoon and the kiwifruit she was eating.
  2659. >”Would any of you happen to be Princess Twilight Sparkle?”
  2660. >She turned to look at the member of hotel staff who was standing behind her with his hands behind his back.
  2661. “Yep. That's me.”
  2662. >The smile that crept onto her lips was too wide, and she was painfully aware of it.
  2663. >”We just received a phone call from a journalist looking for talking ponies. I told them there aren't any in here, but I feel like it won't be the last of such calls. What would you prefer us to say if there are any further inquiries?”
  2664. “Um...”
  2665. >Popularity could help them find the ponies.
  2666. >On the other hoof, it could send the humans holding them into hiding.
  2667. “Keep telling them we're not here.”
  2668. >It was safer to remain hidden.
  2669. >Or at least as hidden as they could be.
  2671. >Rarity and Rainbow Dash joined them about half an hour later.
  2672. >Rainbow Dash had her eyelids flagging at half mast as she flopped into the chair with just a single cup of coffee.
  2673. >Her mane was a complete mess and her wings were disheveled and in an awkward half spread position.
  2674. >Rarity was the complete opposite, humming a tune as her perfectly styled mane bobbed along while she picked out fruit and bread from the buffet.
  2675. >”Good morning, how was your night? I don't know if it was the bed that felt like a cloud or the fabulous darkening curtains, but I slept like I was home.”
  2676. >”Bluugh...”
  2677. >The unicorn set her fully laden plate on the table as Rainbow Dash groaned something unintelligible.
  2678. >”I slept well for a change... or at least I can't remember any nightmares.”
  2679. >Twilight's human looked up from his cup of tea.
  2680. >”Oh, glad to hear that...”
  2681. >Rarity let her eyes sweep across the table, looking for somepony to pass the ball to.
  2682. >Twilight thought it better to remain quiet about her dream.
  2683. >”You made it sound like nightmares are not an all too uncommon occurrence for you.”
  2684. >The human nodded his head, but said nothing.
  2686. “Anyways. Since we're all here, why don't we decide on what to do next?”
  2687. >Twilight glanced at the floor next to her chair and realized she'd left her saddlebags in their room.
  2688. >It was not like her to be forgetful, but the nightmare and its doppelganger had pushed everything else off her mind.
  2689. >Its last words still puzzled her.
  2690. >'You know where to find me.'
  2691. “How about we meet in the lobby in half an hour and then decide where each group will head?”
  2692. >What did it mean?
  2693. >And why couldn't she get her mind off it?
  2694. >Besides, it was just a dream.
  2695. >And didn't mean she was going the way Luna and Celestia had gone.
  2696. >Right?
  2698. >Her human was correct.
  2699. >Almost.
  2700. >He was mentioned in the article.
  2701. >'The alien had a beat-up looking, perhaps tortured, human with her.'
  2702. >But there was no mention of what he'd said.
  2703. >Not a word about the war.
  2704. >Not a word about other ponies.
  2705. >Not a word about the Rift.
  2707. “That's odd. There really is no mention of your story. Why wouldn't they mention it?”
  2708. >Twilight looked up from the paper and out of the window in front of her.
  2709. >She watched the cars pass by on the street below as the bed's springs creaked quietly.
  2710. >”They most likely declared it a matter of national security and silenced the press that way.”
  2711. >When they returned to the room and Twilight said she'd read the paper to clear her head, he'd asked for the sport and culture section.
  2712. >She'd given it to him, and he'd sat on the bed to read it.
  2713. >Which was where he was now, probably looking at the back of Twilight's head.
  2714. “That lets them just completely prevent any mention of it?”
  2715. >There were hush-hush matters in Equestria as well, like where the Elements of Harmony were kept.
  2716. >But such issues were kept secret, not suppressed with gag orders.
  2717. >”It doesn't stop them from spreading the story, but it does guarantee that if they do spread it, those responsible for it will be in jail for a very long time.”
  2718. “I see.”
  2719. >She wondered just how different the relationship of the state and the press was in this world, and whether there were any books on the matter.
  2720. >There was a lot of traveling ahead of them and she needed something to read during the trips.
  2722. >Knock, knock, knock!
  2723. “Come in!”
  2724. >Twilight spun around on the chair to see the room's door get pushed open.
  2725. >Applejack squeezed in, then turned around to make sure the door slammed shut behind her.
  2726. >”Heya, Twilight. I noticed you acting a bit odd at breakfast. Forgetting the maps ain't like you.”
  2727. >She glanced at the human as she passed by him.
  2728. “Umm... It's nothing important!”
  2729. >Applejack's deep green eyes fixed on Twilight's as she felt heat spread onto her cheeks.
  2730. >”Ya know ya can trust me, Twilight.”
  2731. >There was no way she could tell her.
  2732. >Not after Luna and Celestia had both given in to the temptation.
  2733. >They'd think Twilight couldn't resist it, either.
  2734. “I- it was just a dream I had. Nothing important.”
  2735. >Her voice came out all high-pitched.
  2736. >Applejack tilted her head to the side a slight bit and arched a brow.
  2737. >Twilight looked down at the floor and let out a drawn-out sigh.
  2738. “Fine. I'll tell you.”
  2740. “...so I'm afraid that whatever happened to Luna and Celestia is happening to me.”
  2741. >Applejack and the human were staring intensely at Twilight.
  2742. >Silence filled the room for a short moment.
  2743. >”I don't think you have to worry about that.”
  2744. >Both of the mares looked at the human.
  2745. >Twilight had forgotten about him while she was telling of her dream.
  2746. >”They only fell when the city was besieged.”
  2747. >He spoke slowly and his voice was deeper than usual.
  2748. >”They said they're sorry and asked me to forgive them before... before it happened.”
  2749. >He looked down at his lap and his right hand.
  2750. >Twilight wasn't sure what the expression on his face meant, but thought it better to not inquire any further.
  2751. >He'd talk about it when he was ready.
  2753. >Applejack's hooves thumped on the mat.
  2754. >”Ya know we'll help ya any way we can, Twilight, even if it's somethin' like this.”
  2755. >She rose up on two hooves, and wrapped her forehooves around Twilight.
  2756. >”There was no reason to not tell us.”
  2757. >Her weight and warmth felt reassuring.
  2758. “Thanks, Applejack. I wasn't thinking straight.”
  2759. >Twilight returned the hug with her own.
  2760. >She noticed the human was looking at them with his brow furrowed and lips cracked apart.
  2761. >She wanted to hug him too, but didn't want to hurt his ribs.
  2762. >There had to be some way to make him not feel left out.
  2763. >Like-
  2765. “Hold on.”
  2766. >Twilight pushed Applejack's hooves off of herself and hopped off the chair.
  2767. >She knew the earth pony would understand, despite the look she received.
  2768. >She looked up at her human with the friendliest smile she could muster on her lips as she leaped onto the bed.
  2769. “I'll take care of you, don't worry.”
  2770. >The hair on his head tickled the frog of Twilight's hoof as she petted him.
  2771. >His brow relaxed and his eyes went wide with surprise.
  2772. “I won't let them do it to you again.”
  2773. >His cheek was warm and soft as Twilight leaned in and nuzzled it with her muzzle.
  2774. >There was no reaction from him.
  2775. >He just sat still and stared at her.
  2777. “OK. So we're all going to go to the bus station and take a bus to the airport. Once there, we'll buy tickets for each group and part ways.”
  2778. >Twilight rolled up her copy of the map and floated it into her makeshift saddlebag.
  2779. “Any questions?”
  2780. >Her friends shook their heads as she let her eyes sweep across the half circle they formed in front of her.
  2781. >Then a pink hoof shot up into the air.
  2782. >”Mememememememe!”
  2783. “Yes, Pinkie.”
  2784. >”What are we supposed to do after we find somepony?”
  2785. >Pinkie's mouth turned into a wide grin as she finally returned her hoof to the floor.
  2786. “You'll ensure their safe return to Equestria.”
  2787. >It was an excellent question, Twilight hadn't really thought of that.
  2788. “You could gather all the ponies in an area and then bring them back home. Getting them to the town closest to the Rift in Equestria should be enough, then you can go for another run.”
  2789. >She felt bad for talking about ponies like they were some kind of cargo they had to deliver.
  2790. >But the faster they got it done, the faster the ponies would get home and the faster they could bring Princess Celestia back.
  2792. >”Twilight.”
  2793. >Fluttershy's soft voice called from behind as they were walking down the street towards the bus station.
  2794. >Twilight slowed her trotting until the pegasus caught up with her.
  2795. >”Applejack told me about how worried you are about the dream you had.”
  2796. >The alicorn's head jerked back a little bit and craned around when she heard the words.
  2797. >They were a little behind the rest of the group and Fluttershy's voice was as quiet as usual.
  2798. “Oh. That's... Well, that's okay.”
  2799. >Nopony else could hear them.
  2800. >”I just want you to know that I will still be your friend, even if you change.”
  2801. >Fluttershy paused for a second to flash a smile.
  2802. >”I'm sure you'd do it for the right reasons, and that you would still be you.”
  2803. >Twilight stared at her friend with her mouth left hanging open.
  2804. “I... I see. Thanks, Fluttershy.”
  2806. >Twilight thought little of what was going on when her human bought them bus tickets.
  2807. >Should she give Daybreaker a chance?
  2808. >Should she try to understand her?
  2809. >Was it right to force her turn back into Princess Celestia?
  2810. >Could it be that Celestia had given in to whatever power she'd received willingly?
  2811. >She certainly wasn't completely out of control like Nightmare Moon.
  2812. >But...
  2813. >Twilight looked at the bus seat next to her and the human sitting on it.
  2814. >His bruises were starting to fade away as they healed, but they were still visible.
  2815. >That was not Celestia's doing.
  2816. >She couldn't accept somepony who tortured a living being.
  2817. >Though she didn't know what had happened and why, no reason in the world justified horrid acts like that.
  2818. >No.
  2819. >Daybreaker had had her chance, and she'd wasted it.
  2820. >There was nothing to be understood.
  2822. >”Passengers of flight YZ 789 please proceed to gate 9 A, boarding will begin momentarily.”
  2823. >A female voice mixed with static made the announcement over the airport's PA system.
  2824. “That's our flight.”
  2825. >Twilight looked down from the loudspeaker in the ceiling and to her friends.
  2826. >They had a corner of the terminal for themselves.
  2827. >As soon as they'd got there the few humans sitting near them got up and left.
  2828. >”Are you certain you'll be fine without us, Twilight?”
  2829. >The lower than usual tone of Rarity's voice revealed her concern.
  2830. “Of course we'll be fine. What's there to be worried of?”
  2831. >If only she could believe her own words.
  2832. >Would they have to deal with the human legal system?
  2833. >Would all of the ponies even want to return?
  2834. >There was plenty to worry about.
  2835. >But she wanted her friends to think of the challenges they would be facing themselves before those of others.
  2836. >”Group hug!”
  2837. >Pinkie had a hoof around her neck before she even realized the earth pony had leaped off her seat.
  2838. >Rainbow Dash's hooves thumped on the mat as she put herself down on the other side of Twilight and put a hoof around her neck as well.
  2839. >Soon it was all six of them in one warm, cuddly pile of hugs and comforting pats.
  2841. >Twilight looked down at the stamp-sized fields far below.
  2842. “Do you always go this high?”
  2843. >She preferred flying lower where it wasn't as cold, and where she could see what ponies below were doing as she passed over them.
  2844. >”Yes. It's the standard cruising height.”
  2845. “But why this specific height? Wouldn't it be more efficient to fly lower where there's no need to pressurize the cabin? Or higher where there's even less drag to slow you down?”
  2846. >As much as she hated to admit, her knowledge of flying didn't really apply to fixed-wing aircraft.
  2847. >She did remember that Rainbow Dash liked to fly high so she could go faster, and that Equestrian airships never went too high because that'd cause unicorns and earth ponies to pass out from lack of oxygen.
  2848. >”I read somewhere that it has something to do with having an optimal fuel/air mixture in the engines at this speed and height. That, and if we'd go much faster, we'd pass the speed of sound. And that radically changes aerodynamics. I don't know the details, though.”
  2849. >Twilight turned away from the window to look at her human and the interior of the plane.
  2850. “But the speed of sound is just a figurative barrier, nothing solid. It isn't until you approach the speed of magic when things start to change.”
  2851. >She exceeded the speed of sound whenever she raced with Rainbow Dash, which was more often than she liked.
  2852. >But winning made Dash happy.
  2853. >Plus it wasn't like the exercise was bad for Twilight.
  2854. >”Speed of magic? What's that?”
  2855. “Oh? You-”
  2856. >Of course.
  2857. >It was a very important constant in Equestria, but since humans didn't use magic, they wouldn't know about it.
  2858. “Let me tell you about it, and of the Sonic Rainboom...”
  2860. >The plane shuddered and creaked as they touched down.
  2861. >Despite the solid lump of fear and worry in Twilight's stomach, it came to a stop without breaking apart and taxied them safely to the terminal.
  2862. >She didn't let staring and pointing humans stop her from navigating the corridors and halls of the maze-like building until she found a way out.
  2864. “Do we just hop on another bus to get to this place? Or do we have to change somewhere?”
  2865. >Twilight held a list of names and addresses in her hooves and pointed at the topmost one.
  2866. >”I'm not sure. I've never been to this city before. But that one says it's going to town. It'd give us a lot of options.”
  2867. >Her human lifted his good hand and pointed at one of the many buses in front of them.
  2868. >There was a dot matrix sign above its windscreen that said 'Downtown.'
  2869. “Okay. Go get tickets for us.”
  2870. >She shoved the list back into her saddlebag before following behind the human.
  2872. >The city looked very much like the first one.
  2873. >The buildings were five to ten stories high and were made of bricks, concrete and glass.
  2874. >The streets were wide and filled with humans going about their business, shopping in the stores that occupied the street level and drinking hot and cold beverages in the various restaurants and cafes.
  2875. >If they hadn't spent several hours in an airplane to get there, she would've thought they were back where they started.
  2877. “Hey there!”
  2878. >Twilight greeted a human who had his eyes on his mobile smart device and earbuds in his ears.
  2879. >She and her human were in the city's main bus station.
  2880. >The waiting room they were in was small and filled with benches.
  2881. >All other humans had headed out as soon as they came in.
  2882. >”You talking to m-”
  2883. >The young man tapped the screen of his device and took the earbuds out of his ears before looking at Twilight.
  2884. >His eyes went wide with surprise as he realized what she was.
  2885. “I'm just looking for some directions, could you help us?”
  2886. >She felt the corners of her mouth twitch as she forced a smile on her face.
  2887. >”Umm...”
  2888. >His lower lip quivered as his gaze shot from Twilight to the door and back.
  2889. >”I guess I can?”
  2891. “Thanks for the help!”
  2892. >She waved a hoof at the young man as she floated the notes he'd written for her out of his hands.
  2893. >”Uh, no problem. Hey, uh... Never mind.”
  2894. >He fell silent when his eyes met those of Twilight's human.
  2895. >”What were you going to ask?”
  2896. >”You're that guy, right? The one who was with the fire horse?”
  2897. >He pointed a finger at Twilight's human for a short second and nodded at him.
  2898. >A silence followed.
  2899. >The man with his arm in a sling arched a brow.
  2900. >”I thought I wasn't mentioned in the news.”
  2901. >”Not on the news, dude, but you're everywhere on the Internet! Like, look at this...”
  2902. >After a bit of shuffling, he pulled out his pocket smart device and tapped it for a few seconds before flipping it over to show its screen.
  2903. >Another silence followed.
  2904. >Twilight wasn't quite sure what to do, but it looked personal to her so she pawed at the hard plastic mat that was the floor and looked away.
  2905. >”Princess, you should come take a look at this.”
  2907. >Twilight paced around in the small space at the rear seat of the bus , occasionally compensating for the vehicle's movement with a flap of her wings.
  2908. “So the official truth is that you never said anything and no war ever happened and that they know nothing of ponies, but it's a public secret that you told your story and everyone knows about it and that there's a few ponies walking among them, but they also don't know about it...”
  2909. >The more she tried to wrap her head around it, the less sense it made.
  2910. >How could something be a secret if it was widely known?
  2911. >”It's a complicated issue. The basics are that what's printed and broadcasted is considered the truth, while what's on the Internet is just someone's opinion with no way to tell if it's true or not. Even if most people know that the news doesn't always tell the whole truth, they still trust them.”
  2912. >If they knew they were being lied to why did they still believe the liars?
  2913. >Or was the Internet, whatever that was, also full of liars?
  2914. >What did those who seeked to keep the information a secret gain of it?
  2915. “Gah.”
  2916. >She stomped a hoof in frustration.
  2917. >She was getting nowhere.
  2918. >There were too many questions, she didn't know which ones to ask.
  2919. >Deciding to change the subject, she hopped onto the seat next to him and looked up at his face.
  2920. “So what's this 'Internet' that you've mentioned a few times?”
  2922. >Eventually, after changing buses and asking for directions once more, they ended up in a sleepy suburb with rows upon rows of nearly identical houses.
  2923. >They were all made of wood and had large yards.
  2924. >The only differences were the colors: some were blue, some red, others yellow.
  2925. “So this is the place? Doesn't look too bad.”
  2926. >A lawn mower rumbled and a dog barked somewhere in the distance.
  2927. >”According to the street sign, yes. Now we have to find number twelve.”
  2928. >Both him and Twilight let their eyes wander along the rows of houses, looking for identification.
  2929. “They have numbers and names on the mailboxes. That's one, and that's two... Looks like we still have a bit of a ways to go.”
  2931. >The name on the door matched the one on the list.
  2932. >Twilight's heart felt like it rose into her throat as she lifted her hoof off the ground and pounded on the door.
  2933. >They hadn't seen anyone on the way from the intersection, would someone be home?
  2934. >How would they react?
  2935. >Would they yell at her and tell her to go away?
  2936. >Or had they been waiting for an opportunity to let the pony home?
  2937. >Thump, thump, thump.
  2938. >A human, the thumps were too heavy for a pony and had the rhythm of a biped.
  2940. >Ka-click!
  2941. >The door swung open, revealing a human female who didn't look too young but not very old either.
  2942. >She had crow's feet at the corners of her eyes and a few wrinkles on her face, but no gray in her hair or drooping skin anywhere.
  2943. >She wore a polite smile on her face.
  2944. >Twilight wasn't sure how age showed on humans so she couldn't guess her age precisely.
  2945. “Hi. Are you...”
  2947. >The woman looked to the left and then to the right, after realizing the man in front of her was not the source of the voice, before looking down at Twilight.
  2948. >The corners of her mouth drooped down and something in her eyes changed too as she saw the mare.
  2949. >”Oh.”
  2950. >Twilight was painfully aware of how her grin left her teeth visible.
  2951. >”You're here for Weaves, aren't you?”
  2952. >The alicorn's ears perked up as she recognized the name.
  2953. >Twin Weaves, one of the ponies who were missing.
  2954. “Yes! We're here to bring him back home. Could we see him?”
  2955. >There was excitement in her voice and she could barely hold still, with two hooves rising off the ground without her even noticing it.
  2956. >”Well...”
  2957. >The woman's left hand rose to her neck and shuffled her hair.
  2958. >Her tone made the giddy feeling in Twilight turn into a terrible suspicion.
  2959. >”...maybe it's better if you see it for yourself. Come in.”
  2961. >Twilight stared at a pot made of fired clay with her mouth left hanging open.
  2962. >She felt her ears flop limply against her skull.
  2963. >No.
  2964. >”He was hurt too bad when he was captured. The vet couldn't do anything.”
  2965. >It couldn't be.
  2966. >”He kept mumbling about home and some other pony so... we had his remains cremated after he passed and hoped someone would come for them.”
  2967. >The woman was standing at the door, with one hand on frame, her eyes squeezed shut and face downcast.
  2968. >Her voice was quiet and deep.
  2969. >”I'm really sorry.”
  2970. >After everything they'd gone through, all that trouble, for nothing?
  2971. “No, it's...”
  2972. >What would she tell Weave's family?
  2973. >She'd imagined herself as a hero, rescuing ponies and bringing joy back to their families.
  2974. >But this?
  2975. “...I don't know what to say.”
  2976. >Ever since the war broke out, she'd always feared she'd get a visit from one of Equestria's military officials.
  2977. >Some older stallion would show up at her door, with his hat held to his chest, and ask if she's Twilight Sparkle.
  2978. >Then he'd say it's about Shining Armor or Rainbow Dash.
  2979. >And now Twilight would have to do that.
  2980. >To bring the worst imaginable message to somepony else.
  2982. >One point of data does not make a trend.
  2983. >”You'll stay for tea, right?”
  2984. >One point of data does not make a trend.
  2985. >”...I guess.”
  2986. >One point of data does not make a trend.
  2987. >”I'll go put the kettle on.”
  2988. >One point of data does not make a trend.
  2989. >”What sort would you like, green or black?”
  2990. >One point of data does not make a trend.
  2991. >”I'll have green, and... she'll have green too.”
  2992. >One point of data does not make a trend.
  2994. >Twilight listened to her spoon clink on the edges of her cup as her magic made it stir the hot tea.
  2995. >The rest of them would be alive, this one was just a weird outlier that told nothing of the others.
  2996. >”So you're a princess, right? I remember seeing one of your kind visit the site back then. I mean, one with both wings and a horn.”
  2997. >The woman, sitting opposite to Twilight, drew circles in the air with the hand that wasn't holding a teacup.
  2998. >”She was far bigger, and her hair was like a flowing rainbow. You know her?”
  2999. >She lifted her teacup, pursed her lips and slurped a bit of its contents.
  3000. “Yeah, that was Princess Celestia. She was my mentor and the ruler of Equestria with her sister, Princess Luna.”
  3001. >She felt something shift uncomfortably in her stomach.
  3002. >The shock of realizing the pony they'd managed to find was dead had made her forget about Daybreaker.
  3003. >She looked down at the bubbles swirling in her cup and let out a defeated sigh.
  3004. >So much was wrong.
  3005. >Countless ponies had already given their lives, Luna and Celestia were all wrong, a good portion of Equestria lied in ruins, and now even those who were missing turned out to be dead.
  3006. >Could she and her friends ever make it all right again?
  3007. >Could they right even some of the wrongs?
  3008. >So far, they'd had no success.
  3009. >Just one pathetic failure.
  3010. >And the current task was turning into a disaster as well.
  3012. >”I know it's not the nicest thing to ask, but...”
  3013. >The woman's left hand shot up to the side of her head and its fingers fiddled with a lock of hair.
  3014. >An uneasy smile crept onto her face.
  3015. >”...I want to know how the war is going. I've heard all kinds of rumors.”
  3016. >Her hand returned to the table and she drummed the surface with her fingers.
  3017. “Well, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that the was is over. The bad news is that it's because Daybreaker and Nightmare Moon killed all of the human invaders.”
  3018. >Twilight's words were met with silence.
  3019. >The woman's fingers had ceased their drumming and the smile had turned into a dead serious expression.
  3020. >”But, there had to be thousands of them. I- I saw the lines when we were forced out of there and...”
  3021. >She fell silent when she saw Twilight's ears droop.
  3022. >”...all of them? Dead?”
  3023. >Twilight felt like there was something stuck in her throat.
  3024. >She simply nodded her head in response.
  3025. >”All but me.”
  3026. >There was a tinge of sadness in her human's voice.
  3027. >It was both deep and quiet.
  3028. >”At least that is what we have been told.”
  3030. >Eventually, the conversation took a turn towards something lighter.
  3031. >Their host told them of her husband, her children and what she'd done after her reassignment.
  3032. >Her husband was at work, her kids at school and she herself was between jobs.
  3033. >Ever since her reassignment it'd been difficult to get hired, and none of the jobs she'd managed to get lasted for long.
  3034. >Twilight talked about life in Ponyville, about what she, Applejack and Pinkie had been doing for the last six months.
  3035. >Getting worried about the news, hearing terrible rumors, being relieved when they turned out to be false, arranging time for ponies to relax and refresh, taking care of the mundane duties Celestia assigned to Twilight while she led the war effort, and so on.
  3036. >While chatting was relaxing, it only delayed the inevitable.
  3038. >”I duct taped the lid on the best I could, but try to keep it upright.”
  3039. >Twilight lifted the tape-covered clay urn out of the woman's hands with her magic.
  3040. >Twin Weaves deserved better treatment.
  3041. >He deserved a casket covered with the Equestrian flag, on a chariot drawn by two royal guards.
  3042. >But getting him home was more important than how it was done.
  3043. >So, after asking his spirit for forgivance in her mind, Twilight slipped the urn in her saddlebag.
  3044. “Okay. When we get to a hotel, I'll ask if there's a safe or something where we could leave this while we look for the others.”
  3045. >A fancy, four or five star hotel would certainly have one.
  3046. >But Twilight hated having somepony serve her, and disliked it when things were too extravagant.
  3047. >So they'd settle for something more mundane.
  3048. >Preferably one with large rooms so they could leave some ponies there while they gathered the rest.
  3049. >”And here's the directions to your next address. I actually remember the guy living there, but we haven't been in touch. Should I call him?”
  3050. “Uh, no. I mean, thanks for the offer, but we'd prefer to keep quiet.”
  3051. >Twilight put on an awkward smile that was too wide as her magic took hold of the paper the woman offered to her.
  3052. >”I see. Best of luck, Princess Twilight. And to you, too.”
  3053. >The humans nodded at each other as Twilight's magic pulled the door open.
  3054. “Just Twilight. Good luck to you and your family as well.”
  3056. >The urn felt unnaturally heavy as it bounced off Twilight's flank with every step she took.
  3057. >They were back in the city center, surrounded by multi-storied buildings on all sides, looking for a hotel that was somewhere on the street they were at.
  3058. >Or was supposed to be, at least, according to a tourist booklet her human had bought from a kiosk.
  3059. >”Hold on.”
  3060. >The human squinted his eyes and peered at the corner of a building that had a street sign bolted to it.
  3061. >”Okay. That's the street the hotel is on.”
  3062. >He waved his good hand and the booklet he held in it at the direction of the sign.
  3063. “Oh, good. I don't want to carry this any longer than I have to, I can't stop thinking about what would happen if I stumbled and fell.”
  3064. >She shuddered at the thought of Weaves' ashes being scattered on some street in the human world, stomped on and driven over countless times.
  3066. “Hello, we're looking for a room for a few nights. Do you happen to have any free right now?”
  3067. >Twilight's wings beat the air as she hovered over the desk so the receptionist could see her.
  3068. >The young woman, clad in black pants and a white shirt with a name tag on it, looked up from her smart device and flinched as she noticed the alicorn.
  3069. >Her device clattered onto the floor as it slipped off her lap.
  3070. >”I- I... Yes, yes we have free rooms! How long will you be staying and what kind of a room do you want?”
  3071. >The pace of her speech slowed and her tone dropped to normal as her training overrode her shock .
  3072. >Twilight's hooves thumped on the wood of the desk as she let herself fall on it.
  3073. >She didn't want to fly any longer than she had to, to not risk the urn tipping over.
  3074. “There's going to be up to five ponies and one human in the room, and we're not quite sure how long we'll stay.”
  3075. >She glanced around the lobby, and after seeing it was just her, her human, and the receptionist in it, quickly explained her mission.
  3077. “...so we'll leave them here while we find the others, before coming back for them and leaving together.”
  3078. >The woman sitting behind the desk nodded at Twilight's story.
  3079. >”I can give you one of our family rooms. Would you like to book it for a day at a time or for a longer period at once? It's a bit more expensive if you want it for a day at a time, and there's a chance that you'll have to change rooms or even hotels if we get a lot of reservations – though it's unlikely since it's the off-season.”
  3080. >Twilight turned to look at her human, who was standing behind her.
  3081. “How much do we have?”
  3082. >He stuck his hand into his pocket.
  3083. >Twilight saw his fingers move through the fabric as they felt the stack of notes he kept in there.
  3084. >”Plenty.”
  3085. “Then we'll take the room for a week. Oh, and do you have a safe? I have something extremely important and valuable beyond measure.”
  3086. >Click-click.
  3087. >The receptionist did something with what Twilight recognized as a computer mouse.
  3088. >”Yes, we can keep your jewelry in our safe. Would you like me to take it there now? And would you like to pay now or as you leave, that'll be...”
  3089. >She named a price.
  3090. >Twilight heard some shuffling from behind as she opened the flap of her saddlebag and took out the urn.
  3091. “It's not jewelry, it's something far more important.”
  3092. >The receptionist stared at the urn as it gently floated down onto the desk.
  3094. >The second address was on the third floor of a slightly run-down apartment complex.
  3095. >Twilight's hoofsteps echoed in the concrete corridor despite the plastic mat.
  3096. >It was just rows of doors with number and name plates and mail slots on both sides of the hall, with short stretches of painted concrete wall in between.
  3097. >She read each name as she passed by.
  3098. “Here it is.”
  3099. >Until she found the name on her list.
  3100. >Her stomach churned with anticipation.
  3101. >One point of data did not make a trend.
  3102. >She gulped down a bit of saliva and lifted her hoof to knock.
  3104. >”Coming!”
  3105. >It was a male voice this time.
  3106. >Human footsteps came from the apartment.
  3107. >Twilight listened very closely, but couldn't hear the sound of hooves.
  3108. >The bottom of her stomach sunk.
  3109. >But, one point of data did not make a trend.
  3110. >She kept reminding herself as the door swung open.
  3111. “Hi. I'm Twilight Sparkle, and I'm looking for a pony that's been given to you.”
  3112. >The man behind the door had a bit of a belly on him, and stubble on his chin, but there was a friendly smile on his face.
  3113. >He looked older than Twilight's human, but she wasn't sure by how much.
  3114. >”Oh, hi. You're looking for Misty Slate? She just went out with the kids.”
  3115. >He wasn't surprised in the least to see the alicorn.
  3116. >His words sent a wave of relief through Twilight.
  3117. >Alive.
  3118. >She was alive.
  3119. >She let out a long, relieved sigh.
  3120. “Haaaaah. I'm here to take her back home, could you tell me where she went?”
  3121. >A sudden burst of joy and happiness made Twilight feel like laughing.
  3122. >Why'd she been so worried?
  3123. >Of course they'd be fine.
  3124. >”The park's just down the street. Turn to the right when you leave the building, you can't miss it. Actually, why don't I take you there?”
  3126. >It was not much of a park, not by Equestrian standards.
  3127. >A patch of grass, some trees and a tiny pond, with gravel path running through it and along the edges.
  3128. >All sandwiched between tall buildings and busy streets.
  3129. >There was also a small playground with swings, a seesaw and some other similar equipment on it.
  3130. >And at that playground were two human children, giggling as they sat in the swing, and one pony who was pushing them.
  3131. >A unicorn mare, with a moss-green coat and faint yellow mane and tail, and a swirl of mist for a cutie mark.
  3132. >”Hey, kids! There's someone I'd like you to meet.”
  3133. >Three pairs of eyes turned to look at the man next to Twilight.
  3134. >Then they all bolted to the alicorn.
  3135. >”Hey, who's that?”
  3136. >”Hi, are you one of those who Misty told us about?”
  3137. >The children's voices were bright and loud.
  3138. >Their feet thumped on the ground as they jumped off the swing without waiting for it to stop.
  3139. >But the unicorn remained silent.
  3140. >She stared at Twilight with her lips cracked open, completely frozen in place.
  3142. >Misty's hooves kicked up plumes of dirt as she took on to a full gallop and practically flew towards Twilight.
  3143. >Thump!
  3144. >The two mares collided and fell onto the ground in one pile.
  3145. >”Princess Twilight! Please tell me I'm not dreaming.”
  3146. >All four of Misty's hooves wrapped around Twilight.
  3147. >The alicorn found herself squeezed into the tightest of hugs with her back pinned to the ground.
  3148. “You... you're not dreaming! I'm really here.”
  3149. >She let out an awkward giggle, then stroked the unicorn's back with a hoof.
  3150. >”Oh, I knew the rumors weren't true! I knew you'd come and get me home!”
  3151. >Misty finally released her grip and both the mares scrambled to their hooves.
  3152. >”Did the map send you? Have you already found the others?”
  3153. “No, I was not sent by the map. And, well...”
  3154. >Twilight's ears drooped as she looked at the grass at her hooves.
  3155. “We've found Twin Weaves. He's... he's dead.”
  3156. >She heard Misty gasp for breath.
  3157. >Then there was silence.
  3159. >A tiny finger poked Twilight's flank.
  3160. >”Miss pony, why do you have wings?”
  3161. >The younger of the two children, just tall enough for the top of his head to reach Twilight's chin, had waddled next to her and stared at her wings.
  3162. >The little girl's eyes were wide with wonder.
  3163. “I have wings because I'm an alicorn.”
  3164. >Twilight shuffled her wings, then reached out with one and grazed the tip of the girl's nose with a primary.
  3165. >”Hee-ha!”
  3166. >The girl giggled, scrunched her face and stuck her tongue out.
  3167. >”Can you fly? I wanna see you fly!”
  3168. “I can, but how about I make you fly instead?”
  3169. >Twilight's horn glowed with magic as a lavender aura enveloped the girl.
  3170. >The child gasped for breath as she was lifted off the ground.
  3171. >A crunch of gravel from behind turned out to be her father taking half a step forward when Twilight glanced that way.
  3172. >”You can... you can use magic?”
  3173. >But it was not the father, nor any other human who was the most amazed by it.
  3174. >It was Misty Slate.
  3175. >She stared at the floating child with her mouth left open.
  3176. “Why wouldn't I- Oh.”
  3177. >Twilight made the giggling child do two laps around the swing set before depositing her into her father's waiting arms.
  3178. “There's plenty of magic in this world, but it's different from Equestrian magic. It doesn't flow into your body by itself, wanting to get used. You have to force it to do what you want. Here, let me show you how...”
  3180. >Ding, ding, di-ding.
  3181. >Misty made her spoon tap a tune on the edge of her coffee cup.
  3182. >”I still can't believe it was just a one-time thing. How didn't I figure it out myself?”
  3183. >They were back in the father's apartment, having something to drink and a quick bite.
  3184. “It took me a while to get it, too, and I got a hint from Daybreaker.”
  3185. >Twilight sipped some of her coffee.
  3186. >It wasn't of the highest quality and more bitter than she liked, but she wasn't about to complain.
  3187. >”I don't think they know who Daybreaker is, Princess. Should I tell them?”
  3188. >She realized her human was right, they couldn't have heard of what happened to Princess Celestia.
  3189. “Yeah, go ahead.”
  3191. >”Good bye!”
  3192. >There was a short silence after Misty's voice said the words.
  3193. >”And bye to you, too! I'll miss you both!”
  3194. >Twilight and her human were standing at the door, waiting for the unicorn.
  3195. >”Why do you have to go?”
  3196. >”Can't you stay for just a bit longer?”
  3197. >Twilight could see the tears on the children's cheeks with her mind's eye.
  3198. >”I have to go home. But I promise I'll never forget you!”
  3199. >The thumps of hooves on a mat were accompanied by sniffles.
  3200. >Misty, with both her ears and the corners of her mouth drooping, trotted to the hall.
  3201. >Twilight offered her best smile to the unicorn as her human pushed the door open.
  3203. >The engine rumbled beneath them as the bus accelerated.
  3204. >Twilight, her human and Misty sat on the rearmost seats.
  3205. >”I can't believe it's over just like that.”
  3206. >Misty's eyes followed the buildings lining the street as the bus drove past them.
  3207. “Do you want to talk about it?”
  3208. >The alicorn wasn't quite sure what to do.
  3209. >She chose to stroke the fur on Misty's back with the frog of her hoof.
  3210. >”I'm... I'm not sure how I feel. I'm so glad I'll finally get back home to my husband, but I'm also sad for the kids. I really liked them.”
  3211. >Tok.
  3212. >The uncorn's horn hit the window as she let her head fall.
  3213. “It's okay, they still have their father, and their friends, and each other.”
  3214. >All of a sudden, Misty turned around on her seat and wrapped her hooves around Twilight.
  3215. >”Thanks.”
  3216. >Twilight felt droplets fall on her back, and nuzzled the side of Misty's neck while petting her back.
  3218. >”Hey Twilight, can I ask you something?”
  3219. >According to Twilight's internal clock, the bus was almost at their hotel when Misty broke the silence that'd followed her emotional outburst.
  3220. “Go ahead!”
  3221. >She felt glad because Misty hadn't called her 'Princess Twilight.'
  3222. >But the happiness gave way to a creeping suspicion as the unicorn leaned closer until her muzzle was right next to Twilight's ear.
  3223. >”Who is that human? Why's he following you around?”
  3224. “Well...”
  3225. >She didn't know his name!
  3226. >They'd gone through so much, and she still didn't know his name!
  3228. “Hey, um...”
  3229. >She turned to face her human.
  3230. “I just realized you still haven't told me your name.”
  3231. >An intense heat rose to her face.
  3232. >Her human watched her reaction for a while, his face a blank mask, then bowed his head.
  3233. >”I do not deserve a name, Princess.”
  3234. >...what?
  3235. >Twilight felt her mouth open, but no sound came out.
  3236. >But why?
  3237. >Why would he feel like that?
  3238. “W-what do you mean? Of course you deserve a name.”
  3239. >If there was something going on in his head, it did not show on his face.
  3240. >”It is what I was taught, Princess. My name is irrelevant and I do not deserve it.”
  3241. >His voice remained steady.
  3242. “But, but who? Who told you that?”
  3243. >She was almost sure she knew the answer to that question.
  3244. >There were only two options.
  3245. >”Can we not talk about it?”
  3246. >This time, his voice wavered and there was a twitch in the corner of his eye.
  3247. >Twilight decided not to push her luck.
  3248. >But she would get to the bottom of it, eventually.
  3249. >So she settled with wrapping a wing around his shoulders.
  3250. “It's okay. You're safe now.”
  3251. >Whatever they did to him, they would recoup in full after the Elements of Harmony turned them back to normal.
  3252. >They would do so as soon as they realized what they'd done.
  3254. >”Sooo...”
  3255. >The awkward silence that followed was broken by Misty Slate when the three of them got to the hotel room.
  3256. >”I understand that you are busy and all, with ponies to rescue, but I'd reeeally like to know what's happened in Equestria while I was gone.”
  3257. >Twilight heaved her head off the pillow and looked at the unicorn.
  3258. >She'd hoped she'd get a few minutes to rest and clear her head.
  3259. “Gah!”
  3260. >But that seemed to be a luxury she could ill afford.
  3261. >She threw a glance at the window and noticed that the clouds covering the sky were aglow with the magnificent oranges, reds and yellows of dusk as the sun lit their undersides..
  3262. >If the sun was setting, then maybe she could get some rest and relaxation after all.
  3263. “Actually, I don't think we have time to get to the next address today. So, for the last six months...”
  3264. >She told of what she'd been doing, much the same story she told to the woman who'd had Twin Weaves.
  3265. >She told of the mundane tasks Celestia had assigned to her and how life in Equestria had been during the war, with the rumors and worrying news.
  3267. “So what has it been like for you, living in the human world for these six months?”
  3268. >Twilight did not bother opening her eyes.
  3269. >She was warm, the bed under her side was soft, and the quiet mumble from the television her human watched only served as soothing background noise.
  3270. >”Oh, it hasn't been too bad. I've missed my husband a lot of course, but I mostly just watched the kids or did the groceries or hung the laundry. Took a while to figure out how to do it without magic, of course.”
  3271. >Misty's voice was but a satisfied purr.
  3272. >Twilight heard the sheets rustle ever so quietly as the unicorn rubbed herself on them.
  3273. “Mmh. I would've loved to have just one week where the laundry was my greatest worry.”
  3274. >Tiredness weighed on her mind and body like a heavy blanket.
  3275. >She was about to give in to sleep when she suddenly felt the depression caused by Misty's weight shift closer to her.
  3276. >”You know, when's the last time that man washed? He's getting pretty ripe.”
  3277. >The tiredness was gone from the unicorn's voice as she whispered into Twilight's ear.
  3278. “I- I'm not sure. I thought they're supposed to smell like that.”
  3279. >It was true that he had a bit of a reek to him.
  3280. >”Well, I saw a fine bath tub in the bathroom. Maybe you should offer to help him since his arm is busted and it'll be hard for him to do it himself.”
  3281. >That was not a half bad idea, actually.
  3282. >As cozy as Twilight was at that moment, a bath sounded tempting.
  3283. >Even if it would be a shared bath.
  3284. >He could scrub her back while she lied in the tub, letting the warmth of the water really soak in to soothe the knots her muscles had developed from all the walking and running she'd done recently.
  3286. >”Whatever you say, Princess.”
  3287. >He was not nearly as excited about the idea as Twilight, or if he was, he didn't let it show.
  3288. >He trodded into the bathroom, leaving the two mares on their own.
  3289. >”So who exactly is he?”
  3290. >...right.
  3291. >She'd got so carried away when she realized she hadn't known his name – and still didn't – that she'd forgotten to tell how Daybreaker assigned him to her.
  3292. >Twilight told the story to Misty, any pauses filled by the purl of water as the bathtub filled.
  3293. >”You made it sound like he's your property.”
  3294. “I did?”
  3295. >Now that she gave it some thought, she really had.
  3296. >And she thought of him as such, too.
  3297. “Um, well, I suppose he technically is since Equestrian law does allow ownership of humans since they're not on the list of sapient species.”
  3298. >She remembered Princess Celestia talking of changing the law to include humans, but the change didn't get approved before the war broke out.
  3299. >And after that, nopony gave any thought to the issue since they had a war to worry about.
  3301. >There was a stack of plushy, plain white towels on a shelf in the bathroom.
  3302. >Twilight made the topmost two float off the stack.
  3303. “Here. Now take your clothes off and get in there, you'll wash my back.”
  3304. >She offered one to her human, and placed hers on top of the toilet seat.
  3305. >”Whatever you say, Princess.”
  3306. >With a swift swing of his arm, he chucked his towel.
  3307. >Frump.
  3308. >It landed in a messy pile on top of Twilight's still neatly folded one.
  3310. >Twilight trotted to the tub and reached over the edge to dip a hoof in the water.
  3311. >Very warm, but not too hot.
  3312. >Just like it should be.
  3313. >She fanned out her wings and gave them a few strong flaps to boost herself over the very high, by pony standards, edge.
  3314. >The water sloshed around her when she slid in.
  3315. >She was submerged up to her neck as she sat on the bottom.
  3316. >Then she drew her lungs full of air, leaned backwards and let the buoyancy float her.
  3317. >Her hooves were splayed out and touched the edges, but she didn't mind that.
  3318. >She had her eyes shut and only cared of how the water caressed her.
  3319. >It enveloped her almost completely, with only her muzzle and navel over the surface, and its warmth seeped into every bit of her skin.
  3320. >The only thing she could hear was a low-pitched hum, everything else was blocked out.
  3321. >It was bliss.
  3322. >Total relaxation.
  3323. >Precisely what she needed.
  3325. >But it was not to last.
  3326. >She soon felt ripples lapping on her snout.
  3327. >With a strong shove off the edge of the tub, she flopped back the right way up and put her hooves to the bottom.
  3328. >”I found us a sponge.”
  3329. >Her human had stripped off his clothes and had one foot in the tub.
  3330. >He had a yellow loofah, still in a plastic wrap, in his good hand.
  3331. >It didn't look like it would be especially comfortable to wash oneself with, but it would have to do.
  3332. “Good.”
  3333. >The water rose up to her chin as the her human stepped into the tub and sat down.
  3334. >His kneecaps poked over the surface as he held his legs close to his chest.
  3335. >His mouth was nearly a straight line, only the corners drooped slightly, and something about his eyes and how the insides of his brows were angled upwards gave Twilight a feeling of immense sadness.
  3337. “Is there something on your mind?”
  3338. >Why would bathing of all things cause such a worrying expression?
  3339. >He looked up from his knees and at Twilight.
  3340. >His lips twitched in the short second he stared at her in silence.
  3341. >”Would you like me to do something for you, Princess?”
  3342. >Plat.
  3343. >He let the sponge fall and float free, then placed his left hand on his knee.
  3344. “Uhh...”
  3345. >What kind of a question was that?
  3346. “I'd like you to... to hand me the sponge and let me wash you. And not get scared of my magic, I'll never hurt you.”
  3347. >She made the loofah levitate in the air.
  3348. >A quick yank ripped the plastic wrap off.
  3349. >His eyes opened up a slight bit more and he drew half a wheezing breath.
  3350. >”Whatever you say, Princess.”
  3351. >Water dribbled off his arm as he lifted it.
  3352. >”You could start with the only part I can't do myself, if it pleases you.”
  3354. >The sponge left a trail of foam on his arm as Twilight ran it over his skin.
  3355. >Why was he suddenly be so forward?
  3356. >He was usually completely passive and never asked for anything.
  3357. >She made the sponge run up to his hand and watched his fingers sink into the soft loofah as they got buried in white foam.
  3358. >She really wanted to find out more about his hands and fingers.
  3359. >They looked so spindly and weak.
  3360. >Yet she'd heard tales of their grip strength, like how a human could hang off a branch with just one hand.
  3361. >And she'd seen him flip the pages of a newspaper with his fingers as easily as she did with magic.
  3362. >Then there was Daybreaker's praise of them.
  3363. >'Be especially mindful around his hands: he can move them faster than your eye can see, and they are far more dexterous than anything you've seen before. Although, you should find the results quite... pleasing if you put them to proper use.'
  3364. >Fast, strong, dexterous, delicate...
  3365. >Everything at once, like they were some perfect instrument.
  3366. >But what had she meant with the last-
  3368. >Twilight's face was suddenly flush with heat.
  3369. >Oh.
  3370. >OH.
  3371. >She watched his fingers relax their grip on the sponge, and how he spread the foam on his chest.
  3372. >His touch was so delicate it did not leave an impression on his skin.
  3373. >Yes, yes, that could be quite pleasing if applied to the proper place.
  3374. >She couldn't help imagining how it would feel.
  3375. >Just the slightest touch, a little grazing to tease...
  3376. >Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head to force the thought out.
  3377. >She would do no such thing.
  3378. >Even if it was him who suggested it.
  3379. >Even if his five fingers could do wonders even magic couldn't.
  3380. >Like tantalizing her rim while flirting with her flower and simultaneously taking guesses at which spot was the one that drove her absolutely wild...
  3381. >No!
  3382. >She shook her head again.
  3383. >She would NOT do it!
  3385. >”Princess?”
  3386. >Hearing his voice made her painfully aware of how flushed her cheeks must have been.
  3387. “Just turn around, I'll wash your back.”
  3388. >And how high-pitched her voice was.
  3389. >But if he noticed, he did not let it show.
  3390. >Twilight quietly thanked the fact that they were in a bath tub.
  3391. >If she'd been sitting anywhere else, she'd most certainly leave behind a damp spot.
  3393. >The water in the tub sloshed as he turned his back to her like instructed.
  3394. >Twilight tried to concentrate on rubbing his back with the sponge.
  3395. >He was hers, so she could do what she wanted.
  3396. >But how would that make him feel?
  3397. >She wasn't sure she'd be fine with it herself either.
  3398. >She'd definitely feel guilty for making him do something.
  3399. >Besides, what had made Daybreaker think of saying that in the first place?
  3400. >Could-
  3401. >The sponge stopped in place.
  3402. >She had.
  3403. >That would explain it.
  3404. “Say. I, uh, know this is a bit out of the blue, but...”
  3405. >But how could she ask about it?
  3406. >'Hey, did you happen to get raped or were you just tortured?'
  3407. “...exactly what did Princess Celestia and Princess Luna do to you?”
  3408. >She really should have stayed quiet.
  3409. >”Are you sure you want to know?”
  3410. >He glanced at her over his shoulder.
  3411. >Twilight nodded.
  3413. >”Well. First, she locked me in a cell and beat me to make me wake up.”
  3414. >The large muscles on his back contracted as he made a 'hmph' sound.
  3415. >”Then she forced me to pleasure her, and locked me alone in the dark when she was done.”
  3416. >He lifted his good arm to let Twilight wash his armpit.
  3417. >”Then the other one came, gave me something to eat, took advantage of me, and left me alone in the dark.”
  3418. >Just how much had he been put through?
  3419. >All the more reason to turn Daybreaker and Nightmare Moon back.
  3420. >”I thought the worst was over when the white one took me out of the pitch black cell and had me wash. But then she raped me and locked me up in a tower where I had to watch the city burn.”
  3421. >Twilight's magic had squeezed the sponge into a tiny fraction of its original size.
  3422. >Daybreaker.
  3423. >She would see justice.
  3424. >”Then- Then I was left alone for a while. When they next came they had, they had changed. The white one was on fire and the dark one...”
  3425. >His voice wavered and he trailed off.
  3426. >Twilight could scarcely believe what she'd heard.
  3427. >That was when they turned?
  3428. >So the beatings and rape he told of happened before they changed?
  3429. >But why?
  3430. >Princess Celestia would never abuse anyone.
  3431. >Neither would Princess Luna.
  3432. >There had to be something he was not telling her.
  3433. >She relaxed her magic, and the sponge immediately popped to its normal size and shape from the tight bundle it'd been.
  3434. >But she knew that now was not the time to pry any further.
  3435. >He needed support, not interrogation.
  3437. “It's okay.”
  3438. >She rose onto her rear hooves and fell towards him, slowing herself with a beat of her wings.
  3439. >Only her sopping wet wings didn't slow her down and he hit his back with a soft, wet smack.
  3440. >Sla-plosh!
  3441. “Sorry! I forgot wings don't work too well when they're wet.”
  3442. >She got no response.
  3443. >He didn't move at all, only staring dead ahead at something that wasn't there.
  3444. “It's okay, I'll never let it happen again.”
  3445. >She wrapped her hooves around his torso and stuck her head over his left shoulder.
  3446. >His cheek felt very soft on hers as she nuzzled it.
  3447. >”As much as I would like to, I cannot change the past.”
  3448. >He remained completely still.
  3449. “What do you mean?”
  3450. >”I cannot bring him back, Princess. I can only try to help those who are left.”
  3451. >A stream of water flowed down his arm and into Twilight's coat as he lifted it out of the water and placed his hand on her head.
  3452. >Twilight flinched as sharp nails dug into the skin behind her ears.
  3453. >Scritch, scritch, scritch.
  3454. “Mmmh. Who are you talking about?”
  3455. >Her voice dropped by an octave, and her ears twitched involuntarily as he scratched the itch she didn't even know she had.
  3456. >”I have caused death, and I can't bring Dusty back. But I can help you bring back those who are still alive.”
  3458. “Would you like to talk about it?”
  3459. >His fingers stopped their scritching.
  3460. >It made the corners of Twilight's mouth droop, she wanted more.
  3461. >”I...”
  3462. >She felt his chest expand and contract a few times without him saying anything.
  3463. >She was still hugging him from behind.
  3464. “It's okay if you don't. You could tell me about what kind of literature you like instead.”
  3465. >Twilight pulled herself off of him and grabbed the sponge with her magic again.
  3467. >Twilight pushed at the mattress with a hoof and turned so she lied on her back, managing to not rustle the sheets too much.
  3468. >How much did she know about Princess Celestia?
  3469. >She knew a benevolent ruler, an idol, a wise teacher and the second kindest pony she'd ever met.
  3470. >She also knew her history, and Equestria had been at war before.
  3471. >Not during Twilight's lifetime, of course.
  3472. >She'd read books with detailed accounts of battles, plentiful notes on troop movements, information on supply lines, even copies of letters to and from the front lines.
  3473. >But none of them told much of Celestia's role.
  3474. >Twilight did remember one book mentioning that she took part in some battles and that she always did her best to avoid casualties, but that was it.
  3475. >It was so dark in the room Twilight couldn't even see her own muzzle, but that didn't stop her from staring at the ceiling.
  3476. >Could there be another side to Equestria's ruler?
  3477. >A cold, calculating monarch who only valued victory and pony lives?
  3478. >No.
  3479. >The gentle and caring Celestia she knew was the one that appeared in all the books as well.
  3480. >Maybe Daybreaker hadn't taken over in an instant, but it had been more gradual.
  3481. >It had to be Daybreaker who did the beating and abusing.
  3482. >It had to.
  3484. >Twilight was standing in an endlessly-wide field.
  3485. >Looming above it was the sun, far larger than normal.
  3486. >So large it filled half the sky with its blinding brightness.
  3487. >Everything else was a dry, dead shade of brown.
  3488. >The grass that crunched beneath her hooves as she trotted towards some unknown destination.
  3489. >The trees that speckled the field, whose skeletal branches reached up towards the sky.
  3490. >Even the soil itself turned into puffs of brown dust on each step.
  3492. >Thirst burned in her throat.
  3493. >Her tongue was like a swab of dry cloth that absorbed any hints of moisture in her mouth.
  3494. >Somewhere ahead was water.
  3495. >She knew it.
  3496. >It was just a question of reaching it.
  3497. >Her hooves ached from the distance she'd already covered, but she forced herself into a canter regardless.
  3498. >Water.
  3499. >She had to find it.
  3500. >Every gasp of air felt like it caused bleeding cracks to form in her throat.
  3501. >The taste of iron and blood filled her mouth.
  3502. >A sudden wave of dizziness passed through her.
  3503. >Her hoof got stuck on something.
  3504. >She fell.
  3505. >And fell.
  3506. >And fell.
  3507. >And fell...
  3509. >”I bring you ill tidings.”
  3510. >Darkness.
  3511. >It was all around her.
  3512. >Above, below, everywhere.
  3513. >It was not absolute blackness, but rather a dark violet.
  3514. >”I have banished the nightmare, Twilight. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
  3515. >Something metallic touched her chin and lifted her head off of her forehooves where it had rested.
  3516. >She didn't remember closing her eyes.
  3517. >But she very much could crack them open.
  3518. >A hoof, dark as coal and clad in a blue horseshoe, held her chin.
  3519. “Nightmare Moon!”
  3520. >In one swift motion, she spread her wings, swung her head and horn and took to the air.
  3521. >A purple arc of magic energy shot at the abomination that'd taken over Princess Luna.
  3522. >Frzzt!
  3523. >It passed through the dark alicorn like she wasn't there.
  3525. >”I admit that my visage does mirror that of hers, but I am not foolish enough to let the darkness into my heart twice.”
  3526. >Her horn flashed in blue, and the purple void turned into the main room of the Golden Oak Library.
  3527. >Twilight stared in awe.
  3528. >Everything was precisely as she remembered it.
  3529. >The books were sorted in the same way they had been when Luna first visited.
  3530. “...How?”
  3531. >With a flap of her wings, she brought herself down on the staircase.
  3532. >”Take a moment, if you wish. But know that it is no more than a memory.”
  3533. >Twilight's hooves tread the stairs she knew so well.
  3534. >She rose to the upper floor as tears welled in her eyes.
  3535. >There was Spike's basket.
  3536. >He wasn't there, but she could see him peacefully snoozing away with her mind's eye, his blanket covering everything but his head.
  3537. >Twilight's bed.
  3538. >Just the way it should be.
  3539. >With a bedspread neatly covering the mess.
  3540. >And there, on the nightstand.
  3541. >A Treatise on the Magical Properties of Gold, by Grimhoof the Fallen.
  3542. >Or Cherry Rock as he was known back then.
  3543. >It was one of the many he wrote before trying to push the boundaries of magic and performing his final, devastating experiment that earned him the name.
  3544. >It was well written and, despite gold being magically inert and immune to any attempts to shape or change it, a surprisingly fascinating read.
  3545. >Even her bookmark, a feather from Philomena, was sandwiched between the pages.
  3547. >”I sometimes dream of the old castle, Twilight. The one that is in ruin, in the Everfree.”
  3548. >The words that came from behind were not quite in Luna's calm and vibrant tone.
  3549. >But they were definitely not in Nightmare Moon's maniacal cackle either.
  3550. >”I remember how we built it and how my sister and I played in the corridors.”
  3551. >The alicorn behind Twilight definitely looked like Nightmare Moon.
  3552. >Coat as dark as coal; horseshoes, helmet and chest plate forged of blue metal; mane and tail made of flowing shadow; cutie mark that was a moon on a purple background.
  3553. >”How do you think it felt like to return to my home and see an overgrown ruin?”
  3554. >Nightmare Moon's shod hooves thumped on the floor of living wood as she tread closer.
  3555. “You felt the same I did. Like all your memories were ripped right out of your heart and cast into fire.”
  3556. >Tirek had shown that to Twilight.
  3557. “But your friends helped you see that home is where your heart is, and your heart is where your friends are.”
  3559. >”Have you seen enough that you will not attack me again?”
  3560. >She stopped a few paces from Twilight.
  3561. “You said you have news?”
  3562. >Twilight wasn't quite sure what she felt.
  3563. >Should she heed the ember of anger inside her?
  3564. >Should she let herself feel the melancholy from seeing the Golden Oak again?
  3565. >Should she give in to her fear of Nightmare Moon?
  3566. >”Yes, and it is grim indeed. There is a terrible blight spreading in the dreams of ponies, threatening to burst into reality.”
  3567. >Twilight felt her eyes go wide.
  3568. >A Tantabus?
  3569. >Again?
  3570. >”Everypony affected dreams of nothing but purple mist that keeps forming shapes which occasionally materialize and attempt to escape the dream. I have lost track of how many timberwolves, dragons, bugbears, grues and humans I have had to banish.”
  3571. >Blood drained from Twilight's face, leaving her pale.
  3572. >No, not a Tantabus.
  3573. >Something far more sinister.
  3574. >”So far, we have managed to contain this infection. But new cases appear every night. It won't be long before it gets out of hoof.”
  3575. >Purple mist that forms shapes.
  3576. >The Rift.
  3577. >And whatever hid between realities.
  3578. >”As such, I tasked myself with finding the source and extinguishing the threat. But even with my power, I cannot hide from it long enough to discover its true nature.”
  3579. >There was enough power in the Rift to annihilate two worlds, and they had fired the Elements of Harmony at it.
  3580. >The most powerful magic in all of Equestria had merely made it angry.
  3581. >”I require a distraction, Twilight, and I will not endanger ponies for it. I would've snatched the first human I saw, but I do not trust that they won't give in to its whispers of power.”
  3582. >What chance did they have?
  3583. >”As regrettable as it is, I must ask for your human. He is the only one of them I have some degree of trust in. Of course, he is yours, and thus so is the decision. May I have him?”
  3585. >The silence snapped Twilight's mind back to the present.
  3586. >Nightmare Moon was looking at her with a forehoof stretched out towards her.
  3587. >”I cannot promise he will not be harmed, but I will promise to do my best to prevent it.”
  3588. >The bath.
  3589. >Twilight's promise.
  3590. >She stared at the outstretched hoof with her mouth left hanging open.
  3591. >She couldn't.
  3592. >But...
  3593. >Was there any other choice?
  3594. >Nightmare Moon's lips curled into a satisfied smile.
  3595. >Their hooves touched softly, without sound.
  3596. >Her horseshoe was warm, like Celestia's or Luna's.
  3597. >”I am already in the human world. Keep doing what you have been doing, Twilight. I will find you soon.”
  3599. >Twilight woke up to find herself covered in sweat.
  3600. >The sheets were damp, as was the blanket.
  3601. >It was still dark, but the tiniest flicker of light peeked from behind the curtains covering the hotel room's window.
  3602. >She could hear the quiet sound of her human breathing next to her.
  3603. >What had she done?
  3605. >The remainder of the night was restless.
  3606. >She managed to fall asleep again, but she woke up what seemed like a few minutes later every time.
  3607. >Each time it happened the room got a slight bit brighter.
  3608. >If she dreamed of something during her short slumbers, she didn't remember any of it.
  3610. >Misty let out a yawn and pushed herself into a sitting position on her bed, long after Twilight had lost count of how many times she'd woken up.
  3611. >”Mmh. If this is a dream, it's the weirdest one I've ever had.”
  3612. >The unicorn swung her forehooves up and pushed them as high into the air as she could.
  3613. >Another yawn escaped her, so wide it made her jaw produce a quiet pop.
  3614. >”Nn. Because I still seem to be dreaming that you came to get me back home, Twilight.”
  3615. >Misty rubbed her face with a fetlock.
  3616. “I wish we could wake up, but I don't think it's possible.”
  3617. >Twilight slipped out from between the sheets and got on her hooves.
  3618. >”What do you mean?”
  3619. >The two mares gazed at each other for a while.
  3620. >Twilight's face was dead serious while Misty's was full of questions.
  3621. “Nightmare Moon brought bad news with her when she visited my dream. Although, there's no need for you to be worried.”
  3622. >There very much was reason for her to be worried.
  3623. >Very worried.
  3624. >But Twilight thought it better to not tell why.
  3626. >Twilight's spoon clinked in her cup as she stirred it to help the sugar dissolve.
  3627. >How would she tell him?
  3628. >How would she tell him that she'd betrayed his trust again?
  3629. >He'd stumble into the restaurant any minute now, still bleary eyed and barely awake.
  3630. >She hadn't had any choice!
  3631. >Unless Nightmare Moon was lying.
  3632. >But why would she bother?
  3633. >If she wanted him, she could just come and take him.
  3634. >Twilight couldn't stop her, not without the Elements.
  3635. >Perhaps she should just tell him what happened and ask him to forgive her.
  3636. >He would understand, right?
  3637. >Or, at least he would say he does.
  3638. >The realization sent a sting of pain straight into Twilight's heart.
  3639. >He was not a bad man.
  3640. >He'd had enough hardship for a lifetime, but he would still accept more.
  3641. >Even if the thing he really deserved was a ticket home.
  3642. >But giving such a thing was not within Twilight's power, not before the two sisters were restored to their real selves.
  3643. >They would stop her, or at least bring him back if she sent him away.
  3645. >She could barely stay still.
  3646. >The chair she was sitting on pressed into her back.
  3647. >But when she shifted to fix that, it started to pinch her flank instead.
  3648. >No matter how much she squirmed, she couldn't find a comfortable position.
  3649. >Misty arched a brow at her, but said nothing.
  3650. >Her human didn't seem to notice.
  3651. >He sipped a bit of his tea and tried to get his eyes to agree about what distance he wanted them to focus at.
  3652. >Regret gnawed at her insides like a hundred tiny insects.
  3653. “Um... Could you give us a moment?”
  3654. >Twilight tried her best, but couldn't help being quiet.
  3655. >But she was loud enough for Misty to hear what she said.
  3656. >The unicorn simply nodded in response and trotted off towards the lobby.
  3657. “There's something I have to tell you. I don't expect you to accept what I did, but at least listen to why I did it.”
  3658. >His brow scrunched as his head slowly craned to face Twilight.
  3659. >For a short second, he looked at some spot behind her before his eyes focused.
  3660. >”Huh?”
  3661. >Oh how she wished she could say she wanted some more ear scritches.
  3662. >But she couldn't.
  3663. >She drew a deep breath, closed her eyes for the second she held it, and then let it out.
  3664. “The Rift is spreading into Equestria's dreams, threatening to break into reality. I promised Nightmare Moon that you would help her find the cause before it is too late.”
  3665. >For a moment, he did nothing.
  3666. >Just stared at her with his blank, just-woke-up look.
  3667. >Then his lower lip quivered.
  3668. >”I see. Whatever you say, Princess.”
  3669. >He bowed his head.
  3671. >Twilight's human said nothing during the short trip from the hotel to the bus station.
  3672. >She'd told him what happened during the night.
  3673. >He'd only listened, not saying a word.
  3674. “Hey.”
  3675. >Twilight only broke the silence when they'd sat down in the back of the bus.
  3676. “Could you... could you do that again? What you did in the bath, with your hand on my head?”
  3677. >She could not undo her mistakes, but perhaps she could give him something to look forward to.
  3678. >His thighs were soft and very warm as she lied down on the seat and rested her head on them.
  3679. >He didn't say anything, but nimble fingers soon dug into Twilight's mane between her ears.
  3680. >They did little circular massaging motions as they pressed into her scalp.
  3681. “Mmm. I should have you brush my mane at some point, I bet you're far better at it than I am.”
  3682. >She shut her eyes and felt very content due to the soothing warmth of his thighs and stress-relieving massaging of his fingertips.
  3683. >”I would be happy to, Princess.”
  3684. >The warmth spread into her heart as she heard his words.
  3685. >It was not his usual emotionless and hopeless voice, but something that sounded far more genuine.
  3687. >”It should be around here somewhere.”
  3688. >The two of them were surrounded by run-down buildings, shuttered windows, spray painted tags, streets littered with trash and cars that made strange clicking or whining noises when they drove by.
  3689. >Instead of cafes, restaurants and stores, the street level was occupied by apartments with their curtains drawn.
  3690. >The few stores she'd seen had metal bars covering their windows.
  3691. >The humans living there wore baggy clothes and were huddled together in small groups near corners instead of walking along the streets.
  3692. >Twilight didn't like they way they looked at her.
  3693. >It was somehow hostile.
  3694. “I hope it isn't far. I don't like this place.”
  3695. >They passed by a group of three men.
  3696. >Three pairs of eyes followed Twilight as her hooves clip-clopped on the tarmac.
  3697. >A shiver passed down her spine.
  3698. >But they only stared.
  3700. >Paint was peeling off the other houses on the same street, and they patchy lawns or sometimes just a stretch of bare dirt for yards.
  3701. >The one in front of them stuck out like a sore hoof.
  3702. >It was a neat, small wooden house surrounded by a vibrantly green garden.
  3703. >Bushes, trees, flowers, grass in neat little patches with tiny gravel paths running in between them, all meticulously pruned and maintained.
  3704. >”This is it.”
  3705. >Twilight let out a drawn-out sigh when she heard the confirmation.
  3706. >Some of the tension melted away from her muscles.
  3707. “Okay, let's get this done. I don't want to be here any longer than I have to.”
  3709. >Knock, knock, knock!
  3710. >Twilight banged the knocker on its base with her magic.
  3711. >The answer was silence.
  3712. “Hello, anyone home?”
  3713. >More silence.
  3714. >Then, a few seconds later, the rustling of grass.
  3715. >It came from the side of the house, from behind a corner.
  3716. “Hello, I'm Twi-”
  3717. >She was left speechless as she saw what rounded the corner.
  3718. >Matted light gray coat, stained with brown, yellow and green splotches and with something dark crusted in it.
  3719. >Disheveled feathers, with a few secondaries missing entirely from both wings.
  3720. >Tangled mane that may have once been creamy white, with twigs, leaves and bits of plastic wrapping sticking out of it.
  3721. >Downcast eyes, and a heavy-looking collar on the neck that'd been fastened so tight it pressed through her coat.
  3722. >”The master is out on some errands. He will be back shortly.”
  3723. >The pegasus mare didn't even look at Twilight.
  3724. >Her voice was flat and deadpan.
  3726. “What's happened to you?”
  3727. >Twilight rushed to the pegasus, her hooves beating the perfectly level grass as she forced them to give their best.
  3728. >The mare's cutie mark was covered with black tape, and as Twilight got closer, she realized the crusted dark stuff was coagulated blood.
  3729. “Who did this? Wh- why?”
  3730. >She could hurt the pegasus if she tried hugging her.
  3731. >The only thing she came up with was lifting her chin with a hoof.
  3732. >For a while, the mares stared at each other in silence.
  3733. >”Is that... Princess Twilight?”
  3734. >Both her muzzle and brow scrunched up in puzzlement.
  3735. “Yes! I'm here to take you home!”
  3736. >Twilight took on the friendliest, most heartwarming smile she could.
  3737. >The pegasus' brow relaxed and her eyes went wide.
  3738. >”Quickly, we have to get rid of the collar before Master comes back!”
  3739. >She shot towards the back yard with the vigor of a foal who's promised a candied apple,
  3740. >”Come, there's a tool shed here, there should be something we can use to get it off.”
  3741. >Twilight glanced back at her human and waved a hoof at him to beckon him to follow.
  3742. >”Oh, and I'm Spring Wind.”
  3744. “Let me have a look at it.”
  3745. >Twilight leaned in, so close the stench of filth in the pegasus' coat filled her nostrils.
  3746. >She stank of dirt, urine and rancid grease.
  3747. >It nearly made her gag.
  3748. >But she held it in and lifted the collar with her magic to take a look on the inside.
  3749. >”It somehow knows how far from the house I am, and zaps me if I'm not close enough.”
  3750. >The collar looked very sturdy, tanned leather reinforced with a metal band with some gizmos stuck on to it.
  3751. >The inside had worn smooth.
  3752. “Zaps you? With what? I thought humans can't use magic.”
  3753. >”It's electricity, I think. I heard master mutter something about voltage once when he did something with it.”
  3754. >Twilight's eyes narrowed as she rotated the collar.
  3755. >Yes, there was a battery and some wiring attached to the outside, and that long part had to be an antenna.
  3756. >She looked at the inside again and made the collar turn a whole revolution.
  3757. >Leather, electricity, metal-
  3758. >Two small metal plates on the inside.
  3759. >Metal. Electricity.
  3760. “Yes! We'll short the contacts! See if you can find some tape and a piece of cable.”
  3761. >She waved a hoof at the tiny shed that was nearby.
  3763. >”I couldn't find any cable, but I found this.”
  3764. >Twilight's human presented her with a roll of tape and a short piece of steel wire.
  3765. “That's perfect!”
  3766. >The rustling of feathers from above interrupted them.
  3767. >”I see you are making good progress, Twilight.”
  3768. >Nightmare Moon's shod hooves thumped on the grass next to the human as she put herself down.
  3769. “Hold on.”
  3770. >An urge to turn and shoot a stun ray at the newcomer burned inside Twilight.
  3771. >But she was squeezing the bit of steel wire and some tape between Spring's coat and the collar, and didn't want the tape to stick to her fur.
  3772. >”You wish to disarm that collar?”
  3773. >A blue glow flashed around the gizmo.
  3774. >Then there was a wheezing sound, the collar was enveloped in deep purple shadows, and then it vanished.
  3775. >”There. You're free now, little pony.”
  3776. >”'Ey, Spring! Where the 'ell are yeh!”
  3777. >A male voice with a rural accent shouted from the other side of the house.
  3778. >”Oh no. Master's home.”
  3779. >Nightmare Moon's lips twisted into a sick smile.
  3781. >”Who the 'ell are you? An' what are yeh doin' in my yard?”
  3782. >A thin man with a hunched back, stubble on his chin and upper lip, and a red cap on his head pushed open the back door.
  3783. >”Ya stole Spring's collar! Ya better put it back or else! ”
  3784. >The door slammed shut, and the man stomped off somewhere.
  3785. >”Allow me to handle this, Twilight. It has been a while since I last had some fun.”
  3786. >Nightmare Moon stepped in front of Twilight and spread her wings to cover Spring Wind from sight if one were looking from the back door.
  3787. “Um, I can do it just fine. Y-you don't have to bother yourself with this.”
  3788. >Twilight only noticed the dark blue aura around herself when it lifted her off the ground and made her float behind Nightmare Moon before dissipating.
  3789. >She fell to the ground with a thump.
  3790. >”It is my pleasure.”
  3791. >The other alicorn looked back at her.
  3792. >The sick smile had turned into a grin that left Nightmare's canines in full view.
  3793. >Twilight felt her ears turn back and flatten.
  3794. >She took a step back.
  3796. ---
  3798. Chapter 4
  3800. >A dark blue magical barrier shimmered in the air in front of Princess Luna.
  3801. >Hurried footsteps from within the house were the only sound.
  3802. >A voice that only existed to her whispered in her ear, demanding that she use her magic to bring justice for Spring.
  3803. >Snuff out the abuser, revel in watching him realize death is inevitable, make him feel what he has done, it said.
  3804. >But Luna did not listen to that voice.
  3805. >It was the voice of Nightmare.
  3806. >And she had sworn that Nightmare would never have control over her again.
  3807. >So she stood still, and waited for Spring's tormentor.
  3809. >The house's back door was kicked open not a minute later.
  3810. >”Now git off my lawn!”
  3811. >The scrawny man had a shotgun in his hands, and it was pointed at Luna.
  3812. “Make me.”
  3813. >He was making it all too easy.
  3814. >Soon he would make the gun belch fire at her.
  3815. >Then he would make strange faces because the stick that let him feel oh so powerful didn't even scratch the barrier between them.
  3816. >And then Luna would make him understand what he'd done.
  3817. >”I ain't kidding, now git off or I'll shoot!”
  3818. >He brandished the gun to make sure everypony was paying attention to it.
  3819. “You are too much of a coward to follow up that threat, are you not?”
  3820. >She channeled an additional bit of magic through her.
  3821. >The gun's trigger shone in blue.
  3822. >A deafening boom and a bright flash followed.
  3823. >Countless streaks of pure darkness appeared in the barrier as the buckshot faded away from existence.
  3825. >Slam!
  3826. >”Guh!”
  3827. >A dark blue glow dragged the scrawny man up his own house's wall at the same rate as Luna let her snout rise up into the air.
  3828. >His shirt and the skin on his back grated on rough planks, but she didn't care.
  3829. >Whenever something got stuck, she simply pulled harder until it came loose and hoped it wasn't just his shirt.
  3830. “Do you not revel in your own agony as you did in that of hers?”
  3831. >Luna took a step to the side and waved a hoof at Spring.
  3832. >The pegasus stared at her tormentor with a blank expression on her face.
  3833. >Only the fact that her eyes were narrowed the slightest bit told Luna how she felt.
  3834. >She did not want to admit she enjoyed the agony of others.
  3835. >Yet she knew that this particular man deserved it and she wanted it to happen.
  3836. >Luna knew because she'd looked at her own sister like that, an entire millennium ago.
  3838. >”Ah bought 'er, fair 'n square. Ain't none of yeh business wh' ah do with 'er!”
  3839. >He struggled.
  3840. >Pushed against the magic holding him.
  3841. >It did him no good, of course.
  3842. “Oh?”
  3843. >Luna glanced at the shotgun lying on the ground beneath him.
  3844. >She could pick it up and blast his brains out.
  3845. >But a quick end was too merciful for him.
  3846. “What you do to one of our little ponies is none of my business?”
  3847. >Her hooves thumped on grass as she tread closer to him.
  3848. >He tried to say something, but she forced his jaw to stay shut.
  3849. >Mmph, mmph, MMPH!
  3850. >He tried to yell as he was let into a free fall for a fraction of a second.
  3851. >Luna felt a smile creeping onto her face.
  3852. >So defiant, so full of himself.
  3853. “But you are in luck.”
  3854. >She stopped just short of touching him and bowed her head.
  3855. >The tip of her horn pressed into the skin of his throat, just beneath his Adam's apple.
  3857. >”That's far enough, Nightmare Moon!”
  3858. >Tzzt!
  3859. >A numb feeling spread from her flank, and Luna suddenly felt very dizzy.
  3860. >For a split-second, she lost control of her magic.
  3861. >Thump.
  3862. >The man she'd been holding fell to the ground as she staggered to the side.
  3863. >”I won't let you torture him, no matter what he's done!”
  3864. >Nightmare pounced at the chance.
  3865. >Dark blue flashed in Luna's eyes.
  3867. >She shook her head and pushed the dark cloud of Nightmare out of her mind.
  3868. >The dizziness faded just in time for her to see the scrawny man fading out of existence.
  3869. >He had his hand around the stock of the shotgun, his eyes were wide with surprise, and his mouth was open in a soundless scream.
  3870. >His entire body turned darker and darker until it was as dark as the nothingness between stars.
  3871. >Fwoosh.
  3872. >And then he was gone.
  3873. “Now look at what you have done, Twilight! I had use for him!”
  3874. >She is impeding your goals, she is in the way, she needs to go.
  3875. >Nightmare whispered in her ear as she snapped her head to the side.
  3876. >Twilight flinched backwards, then spread her wings and shielded herself with them.
  3877. >Luna shut her eyes and massaged her temple with a hoof.
  3878. “Keeping it at bay is difficult enough without your stun rays. You let it seize control, and now he is gone.”
  3879. >If only her sister's pupil was half as smart as she'd made herself sound in all those letters she'd sent.
  3881. >”But I... You- What?”
  3882. >Luna let her hoof fall back to the ground as she opened her eyes.
  3883. >Twilight had folded her wings and was looking at Luna with puzzlement on her face.
  3884. “Do you think the power came without a cost, Twilight?”
  3885. >It was a forbidden ritual, sealed in the deepest corner of the private section of the Royal Library.
  3886. “I do not know what powers my sister called upon, but I forced the Nightmare to impart a part of themselves into me.”
  3887. >Its creator and only user, Grimhoof the Fallen, could not contain the power it granted and was twisted into a sick, mindless image of whatever hellish powers he'd summoned.
  3888. >”You... you did this to yourselves?”
  3889. >The being he turned into was bent on destroying everything it saw.
  3890. >Only Luna and her sister, wielding the Elements of Harmony, could stop it.
  3891. “Yes, Twilight. We did, to save Equestria.”
  3892. >But the two sisters were made of sterner stuff, or perhaps just had enough power to begin with, and the ritual was successful beyond anypony's wildest dreams.
  3893. >It changed them, both their bodies and their minds.
  3894. >It gave them the strength they needed.
  3895. >But it also brought Nightmare with it.
  3897. >”But look at what you have become! You look and act like Nightmare Moon, why should I believe you are not her?”
  3898. >Luna looked down at the blue horseshoes covering her hooves.
  3899. >Sometimes she wondered about that herself.
  3900. >The changes were so drastic; she'd taken joy in slaughtering man after man on fields of battle, she'd snuffed out countless human prisoners merely because she thirsted for revenge, she'd tortured the human now standing next to Twilight and then had him live through it countless times in nightmares until he couldn't tell what was real and what was dream.
  3901. “I only hope you can believe me when I say it is still Luna who you are looking at.”
  3902. >But, unlike Nightmare, she only wanted the best for ponies and Equestria.
  3903. >She still loved her sister, instead of hoping to have her banished to the moon.
  3904. >In her heart, she knew that day was as important as night.
  3905. >”I will let the Elements decide. If you are telling me the truth, they will do nothing to you. But if you lie...”
  3906. >Perhaps that would be for the best?
  3907. >Then again, there was no guarantee that she'd be merely stripped of her power.
  3908. >She could be banished to the Moon again, or be turned to stone like Discord, or be left as little more than a mindless body like Grimhoof.
  3909. >It was too risky, especially since the Rift was still a threat.
  3911. “Regardless, I believe you still remember why I am here.”
  3912. >She finally looked away from Twilight and at the human.
  3913. >He was staring at the spot where the other man had ceased to exist.
  3914. >”Yes. Is there anything I can do to help?”
  3915. >You can not blast me with a stun ray and let Nightmare get in control again.
  3916. >She wanted to say that, but held her tongue.
  3917. “Finish your task as fast as you can. As regrettable as it is, we may have to find a way to close the Rift and risk it collapsing and releasing its energy catastrophically.”
  3918. >Twilight gasped for breath as realization hit her and her eyes went wide.
  3919. >”But, that would-”
  3920. “Yes, Twilight. My sister is looking for a way to direct all of the energy to one side. But that is our last resort, only to be considered if I am not successful in finding another way.”
  3921. >She would do everything to stop that from happening.
  3922. >Though her sister and Nightmare cared little for human lives, Luna wanted to be different.
  3923. >Even if it was out of spite towards Nightmare.
  3925. >The abused pegasus slinked behind Twilight as Luna turned to look at her.
  3926. “I was going to offer to take you back to Equestria with me, but... After what you saw, I understand if you want to refuse.”
  3927. >The poor little thing shook with fear.
  3928. >Twilight spun around on spot and wrapped a wing around her.
  3929. >”It's okay. I'm here to help you.”
  3930. >Luna wished she could've done that herself, so she could feel the warmth of another on her side and help her over her fear.
  3931. “I am truly sorry. I did not mean for that to happen. I was going to let him go after a few threats.”
  3932. >But kind words could not undo the damage.
  3933. “Perhaps it is for the best if we do not tarry.”
  3934. >She beckoned the human to her with a wave of her hoof.
  3935. “Come then, let us be on our way.”
  3937. >A few minutes later, Luna and the human were sitting in the back of a bus on their way to the airport.
  3938. “I am sorry. I was not myself.”
  3939. >He would know what she was talking about.
  3940. “I should never have let my rage get the best of me and let it in control.”
  3941. >But she knew her deeds were unforgivable.
  3942. “I hope that, one day, you can find it in yourself to forgive me.”
  3943. >Luna, not expecting a response, let her head rest on the bus' window and watched the buildings, cars, streets and humans they drove past.
  3944. >”I already forgave you.”
  3945. >Her ears perked upright and swiveled at the direction of his voice.
  3946. >”I deserved what you did to me as punishment for my actions.”
  3947. >She craned her head to look at him with her mouth left hanging open.
  3948. “I...”
  3949. >Luna shook her head.
  3950. “But you only did what you were told to, you didn't have a choice.”
  3951. >He was looking down at his lap and at the open palm of his good hand.
  3952. >”No, Princess. I had a choice. I could have saved him, but I did not see him as an equal. His blood is on my hands.”
  3953. >Him?
  3954. >He could only mean that colt that'd tormented his dreams.
  3955. >Luna never found out what happened, he didn't dream about that.
  3956. >But if he was so certain of his own guilt, then perhaps...
  3957. “Sit still. Take your hands out of your lap. This bench is uncomfortable.”
  3958. >...perhaps he wished to be treated differently.
  3959. >She waited for him to do as told, then scooted over and lifted her behind into his lap.
  3960. “Better, though you are not as soft as you could be.”
  3962. >One of his thighs suddenly got a lot harder and pushed half of Luna up a little.
  3963. >Then he let that thigh relax and tensed the other one.
  3964. “You could have requested me to move if you were uncomfortable.”
  3965. >He'd remained still and silent for surprisingly long, for at least fifteen minutes.
  3966. >While Luna knew she was far from light by pony standards, she was nowhere near her cake-gobbling sister's weight.
  3967. >”I hoped you wouldn't notice. Sorry.”
  3968. >His legs shifted beneath Luna and the large, hard bones in his thighs dug into her buttocks.
  3969. “You are hardly being unnoticeable.”
  3970. >She pushed herself off of him and back to her seat.
  3971. “Know that I have no desire to bring you any harm. Quite the opposite: I wish to make up for what I did.”
  3972. >As much as she could, anyways.
  3973. >Memories of what she'd done to him flashed in her mind.
  3974. >She remembered the hollow thwacks of her beating on his chest and how it felt when something snapped beneath her hooves.
  3975. >She remembered the dark satisfaction that'd filled her when she pulled on his hands and legs when a sudden yank turned into a sickening pop and a crunch as his scream was cut short.
  3976. >And she remembered infiltrating his dreams to make him live through it again and again.
  3977. >There was no making up for any of that, much less all of it.
  3978. >But she would try.
  3979. >If she didn't, would she be any different from Nightmare Moon?
  3981. >They hopped off the bus in the city center to board yet another bus.
  3982. >Trendy window displays, flashing advertisements and the clamor of countless humans hurrying from one place to another surrounded them.
  3983. >Their immediate area remained mostly clear since passing humans shied away from them.
  3984. >Unless they were too distracted by their strange handheld devices to pay attention to their surroundings, that is.
  3985. “Is there anything you want from this world? We are going back into ours and I am not certain if there will be a chance for you to return to this one. Just make sure it doesn't take too long, we have to make it to tonight's flight.”
  3986. >It was right to tell him the truth, though she felt hesitant about telling him what his role would be.
  3987. >She didn't want to use him like that.
  3988. >But what choice did she have?
  3989. >She'd discussed asking for pony volunteers with her sister.
  3990. >Celestia was adamantly opposed to the idea, she demanded that Luna must use a human.
  3991. >”I don't think we can afford anything. I took just enough for our tickets and left the rest of the money with Princess Twilight.”
  3992. “Do you think of me as penniless? I've had a savings account grow interest for a thousand years; I can afford whatever you have need for.”
  3993. >She only had a small pouch of bits on her, but he was a modest man.
  3994. >It'd be enough.
  3995. >Twilight's human was looking down at his feet when Luna glanced at him.
  3996. >”Um, well... My shoes aren't very comfortable so maybe we could get better ones?”
  3998. “Are you sure this is the establishment you wish to get shoes from?”
  3999. >A sprawling supermarket, with a constant flow of humans coming and going through its automatic doors, stood in front of them.
  4000. >The building was made of massive concrete elements and everything about it told Luna that it offered low-quality, low-price service.
  4001. >The yard was only mostly clean with some trash strewn about, the front wall had splotches of fresh paint covering what had to be spray painted tags, the cars in the parking lot were old if still functional and there wasn't a single member of staff to be seen anywhere.
  4002. >”It's where I've got my shoes before, plus it's quite cheap. And I don't know any other places in this city, just happened to notice this one in the tourist guide I bought.”
  4003. >Luna's muzzle scrunched up at the thought of entering such a store.
  4005. “I did promise to get you what you wish. But are you truly certain you don't want some kind of a memento of this world in case you cannot return?”
  4006. >Twilight's human sat on a simple stool and was trying on a pair of boots made of soft, brushed leather and some synthetic fiber.
  4007. >Despite Luna's premonition, the store did not feel crowded since humans avoided the two of them.
  4008. >It did stink, though.
  4009. >Of human, plastics, and low-quality produce.
  4010. >”Why wouldn't I be able to return? I know I have a lot to make up for, but I'm still young.”
  4011. >So Twilight hadn't told him?
  4012. >It didn't surprise Luna.
  4013. “You will see why once we reach our destination, but both our worlds are in grave danger at the moment. It is possible that one will have to be sacrificed so the other can be saved.”
  4014. >The shoelaces he was trying to tie with just one hand fell to the floor as he froze in place for a second.
  4015. >Her craned his head to look at Luna.
  4016. >”I... I see.”
  4017. >He may have gazed at her direction, but his eyes were fixed on something far behind her.
  4018. >Even though the only thing there was a shelf full of human shoes.
  4020. “I understand your concern, but try looking a bit more cheerful. Your world's demise is far from certain; on the contrary. I swore I would do everything in my power to prevent it.”
  4021. >Luna held her head high and ignored the group of humans who were following her with their odd devices in hand.
  4022. “Our own world has been in peril several times by threats of similar severity. We always find a way to resolve these crises, most of the time without even a single casualty.”
  4023. >The human walking beside her had a cardboard box held between his side and his good hand.
  4024. >He'd settled for simple black leather shoes without laces.
  4025. >”If you say so, Princess.”
  4026. >He forced a twitchy smile onto his face.
  4027. >Luna concluded it was the best she could do for him.
  4028. >She didn't fully believe her own words either.
  4029. >This particular threat was very different from any other, besides perhaps the Tantabus.
  4030. >It was something only she and a few others could tackle.
  4031. >And if their efforts weren't enough?
  4032. >There was no B-team to save the day.
  4034. >He is weak, take him with you, make him yours.
  4035. >She did her best to ignore the whispers.
  4036. >But as much as she wanted to, she couldn't silence them completely.
  4037. >”Here you go. Dark chocolate, like you asked.”
  4038. >The bus to the airport only ran every half an hour and they'd just missed the previous one when they got back to the bus station, so they'd opted for some ice cream.
  4039. “That was faster than I expected.”
  4040. >Luna levitated the darker of the two cones he had in his hand to her.
  4041. >It'd taken him less than five minutes to find some after she'd told him to do so.
  4042. >The frosty treats hadn't even started to melt.
  4043. >”There's a stand just around the corner.”
  4044. >He planted his behind next to Luna's rear hooves.
  4045. >She shifted a little as the wood of the bench she lied on pressed into her shoulder.
  4046. >After a lick of chocolaty goodness, she glanced back at him and stretched out her rear hooves so they ended up in his lap.
  4047. “Enjoy your treat. But when you're done, see if you can figure out what's wrong with my left rear shoe.”
  4048. >There wasn't actually anything wrong with it.
  4049. >She just wanted to find out what fingers felt like on the more sensitive parts of her hooves.
  4050. >Sure, she knew what fingers felt like on her most sensitive parts.
  4051. >But she was a curious pony.
  4053. >”I'm sorry, but that flight is full. You'll have to wait for the next one that leaves in the morning.”
  4054. >Boredom shone through in the sales clerk's voice, despite of how practiced it was.
  4055. “Our mission is of the utmost importance. Please, do not delay us.”
  4056. >The pen in his hand went click-clack as he repeatedly thumbed the button that made its tip retract.
  4057. >”Nothing I can do, miss pony. There's no free seats on the plane and we can't have you on the floor for safety reasons.”
  4058. >If only he understood.
  4059. >I can make him understand, make him obey, make him ours.
  4060. >Nightmare whispered in her ear.
  4061. “The other Dreamwalkers won't be able to hold it back tonight without me, you have to let us on that flight.”
  4062. >While the Dreamwalkers were valiant and far more effective at guarding Equestria's dreams than their low numbers would suggest, the rate of growth of the Rift's influence was too much for even them.
  4063. >Click-clack.
  4064. >The clerk looked up from the pen and at Luna.
  4065. >”I can't sell you a seat that doesn't exist, miss. Besides, you got wings of your own, why don't you fly yourself?”
  4066. >He was starting to get on her nerves.
  4068. “I'm sorry.”
  4069. >Hum of jet engines filled the cabin, along with scraps of cotton, pieces of plastic and shreds of leather.
  4070. “I'm so sorry.”
  4071. >Luna sat in the middle of the carnage, with Twilight's human next to her on the one intact seat.
  4072. >She had torn apart most of the overhead lockers.
  4073. >She had ripped all but one seat to shreds.
  4074. >At least Nightmare had listened to her somewhat and let the passengers flee instead of slaughtering them.
  4075. “I swore I would never let it take over again.”
  4076. >It was just Luna, Twilight's human and the flight staff on the plane now.
  4077. >The pilot and the copilot hadn't left the cockpit after she'd threatened to kill them if they didn't fly.
  4078. >The human sitting next to her on the only intact seat hugged his knees and slowly swayed back and forth, with his eyes squeezed firmly shut.
  4079. >The one steward who hadn't fled had locked herself in the lavatory.
  4080. “I didn't mean to do it, it just took over.”
  4081. >It'd happened so fast.
  4082. >First she'd agreed with Nightmare that the clerk had to understand.
  4083. >The next thing she knew was that she'd been cast into a corner of her own mind and forced to watch herself march through the airport, then destroy and take over an airplane.
  4085. “It's gone now. Are you hurt?”
  4086. >Luna prodded his neck with her muzzle.
  4087. >It felt hot.
  4088. >He didn't react.
  4089. “It's really gone. Look at me.”
  4090. >He drew in a sharp breath as she took hold of him with her magic and made him stop his swaying.
  4091. >She squeezed into the space between him and the remains of the seat in front of him.
  4092. “I know what I did was wrong but I really did my best to stop it. And no-one was hurt too bad.”
  4093. >He finally cracked open his eyelids.
  4094. >Luna rewarded him with a soft smile.
  4095. “You're not hurt, are you?”
  4096. >”Is it over?”
  4097. >The cloth of his shirt tickled the underside of her muzzle as she put it on his good shoulder.
  4098. >His whole body jerked as they came in contact.
  4099. “Yes. It's over.”
  4100. >His fear of her stung her heart.
  4101. >So much for making up and earning his trust.
  4103. >His fingers ran through her mane, untangling the knots he came across.
  4104. >His brow scrunched as he tried to make sense of the billowing ethereal starscape that was nevertheless made up of individual hairs.
  4105. >He sat cross-legged in the middle of the aisle, Luna resting next to him with her head on his lap.
  4106. >She had her eyes shut and the warmth of his thighs soothed the ache in her heart.
  4107. >Soothed, but did not cure.
  4108. >His movements were twitchy and his entire body was tensed up.
  4109. >She'd had to order him to sit down and do what he was doing.
  4110. >She wanted him to like her.
  4111. >She wanted him to forgive her.
  4112. >She wanted to show him she was better than Nightmare.
  4113. >But all she could do was shuffle forwards a little so he could better reach the rest of her mane.
  4115. >Click!
  4116. >Luna's ears perked up and swiveled to face the sound.
  4117. >Two soft thumps and another, quieter click followed.
  4118. >The sounds carried from the back of the plane, from direction of the lavatory.
  4119. >”Um... What's going on here?”
  4120. >Luna didn't bother moving when the stewardess' voice reached her.
  4121. >She lied still and did her best to ignore the subtle shifts and turns of the human her head lied on.
  4122. >”The Princess ordered me to do her mane.”
  4123. >The lack of enthusiasm in his voice sent needles into Luna's ears.
  4124. >”But... Um, you hijacked this plane and now you- you're just cuddling?”
  4125. >The stewardess sounded like she had some idea of how plane hijackings should go, and that Luna did not live up to that standard.
  4126. “I cannot undo what I have already done, so I chose to make the best of this situation. Now, if you wish to aid the survival of this world, could you be so kind as to find us something to eat?”
  4127. >She finally cracked open her eyelids and heaved her head off the human's lap.
  4128. >He flinched away from the sudden movement.
  4129. >”Food? Oh, right, well, sure. I'll- I'll get you some food.”
  4130. >The stewardess patted the pockets of her uniform before turning around in spot and heading to the back of the plane.
  4132. >Luna watched the flashing red and blue lights through a window as the plane taxied off the runway.
  4133. >Cars with the word 'police' in mirror writing on their hoods had formed a semicircle around a remote spot on the tarmac.
  4134. >The spot their plane was doubtlessly headed to.
  4135. >How should she do it?
  4136. >Should she follow her sister's example and tackle them head on before forcing them into submission?
  4137. >Should she teleport herself and the human to their backs and run?
  4138. >No, she should talk.
  4139. >She would convince them of the urgency of her mission, and that they had to provide her with a means of transportation to the Rift.
  4140. >Their purpose was to protect the citizens, and what better way was there to do so?
  4142. >The pilot's shoes clanged on the set of metal stairs leading down from the plane's door.
  4143. >He was the second last human out of the plane.
  4144. >Luna and Twilight's human still waited in the cabin.
  4145. >”Get out of the plane slowly, with your hands-”
  4146. >Whichever police officer was speaking through a megaphone fell quiet.
  4147. >”Boss, she's a pony, she doesn't have hands. What am I supposed to say?”
  4148. >He probably thought Luna couldn't hear it.
  4149. >But an amused smile crept on the alicorn's face as her ears picked up the voice regardless.
  4150. >There was a crack and a flash.
  4151. >Luna and Twilight's human materialized at the bottom of the stairs.
  4152. “We typically say 'reverse out of the building' when faced with such a situation.”
  4153. >A dark blue barrier sprouted into existence around them in an instant.
  4154. >”Hurk!”
  4155. >The human dry-heaved and held his stomach with his good hand.
  4156. >”Haah. Haah. Could you warn me before you do that, Princess?”
  4157. >A cold sweat rose to his face as he stood next to her, drawing deep breaths to calm his innards.
  4158. “I'm sorry. I thought Twilight would have got you used to that. Sit down if you think that'll make you feel better.”
  4159. >Luna wrapped a wing around his shoulders and gave him a gentle push downwards.
  4160. >She cared little of the weapons pointed at them, or the looks on the faces of the police officers.
  4161. “You needn't worry about me, I'm more than experienced enough to handle this situation.”
  4163. >”So you're asking for us to be your taxi service?”
  4164. >The police commander, a large man with a powerful build, rubbed his bald head.
  4165. >”And expect me to believe that you hijacked a plane because a dream told you there's some kind of danger?”
  4166. >He slapped his hand on the roof of the police car he was leaning against, then turned that hand upside down so its palm faced the sky.
  4167. “You can see this threat for yourself if you take us to the Rift.”
  4168. >The barrier between them distorted what Luna saw and she couldn't tell what sort of an expression he was making.
  4169. >But she saw enough to know her diplomacy wasn't going to cut it.
  4170. >She let out a drawn-out sigh.
  4171. >She'd really hoped she didn't have to do what she was about to.
  4172. “Every moment you tarry brings you closer to being a threat to Equestria. I have sworn to defend my home by any means necessary, and I will not let you get in the way.”
  4173. >Nightmare whispered in her ears as she gathered magic into herself in preparation.
  4174. >Nightmare was not about to take over again.
  4175. >Luna was in charge.
  4176. >”Are you threatening us, miss pony?”
  4177. >Her mane and tail swayed in the vortex of raw power swirling around her.
  4178. “Yes.”
  4179. >She bowed her head so her horn was level with the ground and pointed at one of the cars in front of her.
  4180. >A beam of pure darkness shot from her horn with a deafening roar.
  4181. >She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn't have to watch.
  4183. >”Shots fired, shots fired! We need immediate medical assistance at the airport!”
  4184. >Luna folded her wings.
  4185. >Her hooves thumped on tarmac next to the commander.
  4186. >She used her magic to yank the radio out of his hand.
  4187. “Retract previous statement. No shots fired. But do send medical assistance.”
  4188. >The gadget crumpled like it was made of paper when Luna drove a tiny bit more power through her horn.
  4189. >She let its remains fall in the lap of the man in front of her.
  4190. >He had his back against the one car that was still intact.
  4191. “Are you sure you don't want to be a taxi service? I can make your comrades need for an ambulance turn into a need for a hearse.”
  4192. >She spat the words out from between clenched teeth and made sure he had a good view of her canines.
  4193. >She knew she was straddling a thin line between being herself and being Nightmare, with constant whispers goading her to go even further and end the humans around her.
  4194. >But she refused to listen.
  4195. >There would be no deaths.
  4196. >The men knocked out by magical blasts would live, albeit with a few broken bones.
  4197. >A good part of the magic had gone into enhancing the flashes and booms instead of actually empowering the blasts.
  4198. >”Okay, okay, I'll do it! Just don't hurt my men, they're good lads!”
  4200. >The sun was sinking beneath the horizon as they reached their destination and Luna hopped out of the car.
  4201. >Purple mist swirled beneath a surface of iridescent liquid.
  4202. >The Rift didn't look any different from when Luna first saw it.
  4203. >”I had no idea it was this... this big.”
  4204. “If my sister's words were true, there is a lot more you have no idea about.”
  4205. >She pulled the back door open and waited for Twilight's human to get out of the car before slamming it shut again.
  4206. “You are free to leave now, or stay to find out the truth if you so desire. It matters little to us.”
  4207. >Luna let her eyes scan the entire length of the Rift, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
  4208. >But there was nothing to see, just ephemeral shapes that were gone as soon as her brain picked them out.
  4209. >”Day- Princess Celestia had a chat with the president and it left me with a feeling that finding the truth will cost you your job.”
  4210. >Twilight's human tugged at the strap of the sling holding his right arm.
  4211. >His new, black leather shoes tread the dirt as he walked past the police commander.
  4212. >The burly man had fallen silent and was rubbing his chin with one hand.
  4213. “Leave him to his dilemma. We have more pressing matters at hoof, like ensuring the Dreamwalkers can contain the infection. Come, let us cross over to meet them.”
  4214. >She threw a glance back at the two humans and the black-and-white car next to them before trotting off towards the tear between realities.
  4215. “And make sure you don't linger in the in-between. Whatever is in there isn't of the friendly sort.”
  4217. >The whispers and promises of power were nothing to Luna.
  4218. >What was a few seconds compared to the constant barrage from Nightmare?
  4220. >Luna shook her body to get the tendrils of mist off her.
  4221. >The ash-covered clearing was now full of orderly rows of tents with ponies clamoring in between.
  4222. >There was a pair of guards in ceremonial armor patrolling near the Rift, more guards in camouflage uniforms patrolling other parts of the camp, and off-duty ponies lounging wherever they could find a comfortable spot.
  4223. >A scent of carrot soup hung in the air, a hint of what was going on in the largest tent that stood in the middle of the clearing.
  4224. >Luna had ordered the camp built both to welcome the ponies Twilight would bring back to Equestria, and as a precaution in case there was something they could do to help against the Rift.
  4225. “Is everything still under control?”
  4226. >The pair of guards closest to her snapped to attention.
  4227. >”Princess! Yes. Nothing happened while you were gone.”
  4228. >Luna felt like a saddlebag full of rocks was lifted off her back when she heard the stallion's words.
  4229. >Then she heard something stumble behind her.
  4230. >”I think it's calmed down. Last time felt like it was trying to pop my eardrums.”
  4231. >Twilight's human used his good hand to rip the grasping tentacles off of him.
  4232. “It has switched from lashing out in anger to scheming and corrupting what it can. I find what it's currently doing far more frightening.”
  4234. >”In here, Princess.”
  4235. >The guard in ceremonial armor lifted the flap of a large circular tent.
  4236. >There were seven ponies inside, six of whom who had curled up in sleeping bags around the outer edge and appeared to be snoozing peacefully.
  4237. >They were in fact in a magical trance that let them walk in the dream world.
  4238. >In the middle was a metal stove with a lantern sitting on top of it, only the latter in use since the weather was still as hot as it had been for the last few months.
  4239. >”Princess Luna! You're back!”
  4240. >The seventh, a sandy brown earth pony stallion with light gray mane and tail and a field of stars for a cutie mark, hopped up the moment he saw Luna.
  4241. “Yes, Starfield. I'm back. How is it?”
  4242. >Luna slipped into the tent, followed by the human, and waved the guard away.
  4243. >”There hasn't been any change. It's still spreading, but most ponies are awake now so it's very slow.”
  4245. >The seven in the tent, among with Luna herself, formed eight ninths of the Dreamwalkers.
  4246. >The last member was present as well, though in a different way.
  4247. >Haven, a soft-spoken earth pony mare, was their last member – an enigma wrapped in three layers of secrets.
  4248. >The first secret was her existence.
  4249. >While the Dreamwalkers themselves were something anypony could find out if they wanted to, Haven was kept off records.
  4250. >Only those she visited knew of her, and most of those ponies forgot as soon as they woke up.
  4251. >The second secret was that she was dead.
  4252. >Her death certificate, which Luna had uncovered after much frustration, was dated more than two hundred years ago.
  4253. >It didn't stop her from being very real in the dream world, though.
  4254. >The third and best kept secret, only known to Luna, Celestia and Haven herself, was how she did it.
  4255. >None of the three had made any notes nor had any intention of letting anypony else in on it.
  4256. >A promise of eternal “life” would prove too lucrative for too many.
  4258. “Just get in to any of the free bags and try to sleep. I'm going to begin my vigil for tonight, we'll get started tomorrow.”
  4259. >It'd been hours since Luna and the human arrived in Equestria, and night had long since fallen.
  4260. >The Moon was high in the sky and was so bright it could be seen even through the canvas of the tent.
  4261. >”Don't you need to sleep?”
  4262. >Luna had kept herself busy with overseeing the camp and making preparations for the following day.
  4263. >She had a plan, and that plan needed the Wonderbolts.
  4264. >They may have been the best fliers in all of Equestria, but getting a message to them took some time.
  4265. >Even if their response was nigh instant.
  4266. “I'll sleep for a few hours after sunrise when its power wanes a bit. Don't worry, it's enough for me.”
  4267. >The Rift's influence varied during the day, and it was always at its weakest when the sun was up.
  4268. >She'd exploit that weakness.
  4269. >But first, she had to keep Equestria safe for at least one more night.
  4270. >She drew a deep breath, emptied her mind, and let the magic from deep inside her whisk her into the dreams of others.
  4272. >Luna's hooves tread the void between dreams as myriad doorways spread out in front of her.
  4273. >She let her gaze roll over every one she passed by, searching for any signs of infection.
  4274. >She came to a standstill in front of a wooden door.
  4275. >It was painted a creamy white and had a frame full of intricately carved pony shapes.
  4276. >Her nostrils spread wide as she leaned close.
  4277. >It smelled of dust and of burnt cloth, like someone was ironing.
  4278. >Not of the thick, syrupy insanity of the Rift.
  4280. >She moved on to the next one, one that looked like a prison door.
  4281. >It was made of massively thick oak planks with a steel mesh on top for reinforcement.
  4282. >A sickly sweet scent emanated from it and faint wisps of purple mist seeped through the crack between the door and the frame.
  4283. >She couldn't even remember the last time she ran into a case this blatant.
  4284. >A nagging voice in the back of her head told her that she shouldn't have spent so much time inspecting the camp and setting up for the morning.
  4285. >She should have relieved this poor pony's dream of the Rift's nightmare a lot earlier.
  4286. >But the past could not be undone.
  4287. >So she shut her eyes for a second, filled her lungs with air and pushed the door open.
  4289. >”Tell me about yourself. What's your name, what's your family like, what did you do before you came here?”
  4290. >Luna watched herself – or rather, Nightmare – pace back and forth in front of a kneeling human.
  4291. >Twilight's human.
  4292. >The three of them were on a patch of stone floor surrounded by walls of swirling purple fog.
  4293. >”I'm-”
  4294. >The human stated his name.
  4295. >”Wrong!”
  4296. >Thwack!
  4297. >A metal-clad hoof struck him in his right arm just beneath the shoulder.
  4298. >He collapsed on the floor, his face a mask of pain as he clutched the nasty-looking welt the blow left behind.
  4299. >Luna was frozen in place with her mouth left hanging open.
  4300. >It wasn't because of the walls of swirling mist surrounding their display.
  4301. >It wasn't because she lacked the power to break the dream.
  4302. >It was because she remembered doing what he was dreaming of.
  4303. >And because she looked exactly the same as she had back when it happened.
  4304. >How could she blow away the nightmare and console him when he was just as afraid of her as he was of Nightmare?
  4305. >When he couldn't tell the difference between the two of them?
  4306. >”You do not deserve a name. You no longer have a family. You gave up your past when you desecrated our lands.”
  4307. >Nightmare lit up her horn and pulled on his hair to lift his head off the floor.
  4308. >Thump!
  4309. >His whole body twitched as she slammed her hoof on the stone right in front of his face.
  4310. >”I will make sure you remember that.”
  4312. >Luna had seen enough.
  4313. >She was going to end the nightmare.
  4314. >Even if he would scamper away as he realized who'd saved him.
  4315. >Some ponies reacted to her presence like that, now that she had assumed this form.
  4316. >She'd never expected, or even wanted, them to remember her aid.
  4317. >Nor to send her unnecessary letters as thanks.
  4318. >Still, they used to be grateful for her help.
  4319. >Unlike now.
  4320. >But she had to accept that.
  4322. >She shook her head to clear it of intruding thoughts, then fixed her eyes on Nightmare.
  4323. >Luna's eyes glowed in a gentle white light as power swirled out of her.
  4324. “Let the pains of your past be forgotten.”
  4325. >She leaped forwards and, with a flap of her wings, thumped on the stone behind Nightmare.
  4326. “You are not real. Begone!”
  4327. >A blindingly bright white beam shot out of Luna's horn.
  4328. >It penetrated the nightmare's body like it was made of mist, leaving behind a slowly expanding hole.
  4329. >Its face twisted into a wicked grin.
  4330. >”You cannot change the past.”
  4331. >Then it dispersed like smoke in the wind, along with the walls of swirling fog surrounding them.
  4333. >Luna's hooves fell soundlessly on the undefined nothingness of dreams as she galloped towards the next closest scene.
  4334. >”You will learn your place.”
  4335. >Nightmare towered over Twilight's human, who was lying on the floor with fresh blood oozing off a few spots on him.
  4336. >His breathing was shallow and rapid.
  4337. >Luna remembered what had happened, how he'd given up and fallen limp with the first blow.
  4338. >How the mist of a blood rage had filled her head and kept demanding even more.
  4339. >How her blue horseshoes were stained a deep red.
  4340. >How it'd lasted until she could rein in Nightmare just long enough to remind it that they had a use for him.
  4342. “Be purged!”
  4343. >Luna bowed her head, spread out her wings and took a great leap.
  4344. >Her horn pierced clean through the image.
  4345. >It turned into purple mist and vanished.
  4346. >She stood still for a second, panting heavily, and wiped sweat off her brow with a fetlock.
  4347. >There was no time to rest.
  4348. >Above her, below her, everywhere around her were similar scenes.
  4349. >Hundreds of them.
  4350. “I'm sorry. Please, forgive my haste.”
  4351. >So, with but a glance at the human, she galloped off towards the next one.
  4353. >”How long are you going to keep running in circles, Luna?”
  4354. >A new voice spoke out of the blue.
  4355. >Slow and deep, like that of somepony who just woke up.
  4356. >The voice of Haven.
  4357. >And sure enough, the enigmatic mare was floating beside her, watching Luna with her half-lidded eyes that had dark bags beneath them.
  4358. “Until- haah- Until I find the real him.”
  4359. >That was the key to lifting the nightmare.
  4360. >Once Luna found him, she could guide him out or use him as a focus to banish the Rift's influence.
  4361. >”Hm. Try there.”
  4362. >Haven pointed a hoof at one of the nearby scenes off to the left.
  4363. >Luna banked and turned, keeping to a full gallop, knowing better than to question her.
  4364. >How she knew where to go, Luna had no clue.
  4366. >It was indeed different from the others.
  4367. >It was something Luna couldn't remember.
  4368. >It was the human, lying in bed, alone.
  4369. >His eyes were bloodshot, his body was shaking and he had his functioning arm wrapped around his knees.
  4370. >Every now and then his eyelids would droop.
  4371. >Each time it happened, he twitched, forced them wide open, and shivered even more.
  4373. >They'd stopped for a look at the edge of the scene, but Luna felt something touch her breastplate as she took a step forward.
  4374. >That something was an orange hoof.
  4375. >She looked at Haven and arched a brow.
  4376. >The earth pony's orange mane bobbed as she shook her head.
  4377. >Luna's arched brow turned into a scrunch.
  4378. >She nodded nevertheless.
  4380. >Haven was in no hurry as she approached him.
  4381. >She made sure her hooves didn't make any sound as they hit the stone floor.
  4382. >”Are you afraid of dreams again, Squishy?”
  4383. >He gasped for breath and spun around to face her.
  4384. >”You? But-”
  4385. >”Yes, Pickle. You are asleep.”
  4386. >Haven hopped onto the bed with him and swiped her mane off her eyes.
  4387. >She prodded his cheek with her hoof.
  4388. >”But there's nothing to fear.”
  4389. >She wiggled closer, pressed her forehead into his and closed her eyes.
  4390. >”You can rest now. I'm here.”
  4391. >The human sunk his fingers into her mane and pulled her even closer.
  4392. >”I- But it felt so real. Can I- can I really rest now?”
  4393. >”Yes. I will keep you safe, Squishy. Like always.”
  4394. >For a moment, they lie there in silence.
  4395. >Then the human squeezed his eyes shut, and tiny droplets formed in their corners.
  4397. >Everything vanished.
  4398. >Everything but Luna, Haven and the human.
  4399. >The latter two still lied as they had, with the human's hand in Haven's mane.
  4400. >They floated on the undefined nothingness of dreams.
  4401. >Luna watched them for a short while as an uneasy feeling brewing inside her.
  4402. >It should've been her who he was relieved to see.
  4403. >It should've been her who he held close.
  4404. >It should've been her who got to feel accepted.
  4405. >She turned around in spot, refusing to let her feelings stop her from fulfilling her duty to protect Equestria.
  4407. >”Princess.”
  4408. >Something warm and soft, yet firm at the same time, shook her by the shoulder.
  4409. >”The Wonderbolts are here. Starfield told me to wake you up.”
  4410. >The human's voice penetrated into Luna's dream and ripped her back to the waking world.
  4411. >The sleeping bag slumped down her neck as she heaved her head off the tiny pillow.
  4412. “Bleh, whuh?”
  4413. >Did he say Wonderbolts?
  4414. >Luna was suddenly fully awake and noticed that the tent she'd slept in was full of light and that she could see the sun through the canvas.
  4415. >The two of them were alone, surrounded by eight empty sleeping bags.
  4416. “Thank you. Tell them I will be right there.”
  4417. >The human bowed his head.
  4419. >The mess tent was relatively quiet.
  4420. >It was just Luna, the human, and Spitfire in there.
  4421. >Along with the cooks who were already preparing lunch.
  4422. >Luna had a bowl of porridge with a bit of apple jam in it on the table in front of her.
  4423. “I'm going to need you to find enough clouds to cover the sky. The thicker the better.”
  4424. >She stuck a spoonful in her mouth and did her best to ignore how overtly sugary the jam was.
  4425. >”That's not going to be easy. We haven't had any rain for months.”
  4426. >Spitfire was doing her best to suppress it, but she kept throwing glances at the human who sat next to Luna.
  4427. “But you can do it?”
  4428. >The spoon stopped just short of Luna's muzzle as she glared at the captain of the Wonderbolts.
  4429. >”Psch.”
  4430. >Spitfire swatted at air.
  4431. >”They don't call us the best for nothing. You'll have your clouds, we'll haul 'em all the way from the Celestial Sea if we have to.”
  4432. “Good. Do that as soon as possible, then be prepared to clear them as fast as you can.”
  4433. >A look of disbelief flashed on the pegasus' face.
  4434. >Luna didn't like leaving her in the dark, but the fewer who knew what she was planning, the better.
  4435. >With the Rift, one could not be too careful.
  4437. >”All right, Wonderbolts! Listen up!”
  4438. >Spitfire's voice carried into the mess tent.
  4439. >”The Princess wants the entire sky covered in clouds. That means you-”
  4440. >She paused for a brief moment.
  4441. >Long enough for Luna to pop a bit of porridge into her mouth.
  4442. >”-are going to find me the thickest, darkest clouds you can. You're going to get them all the way from the ocean if you have to!”
  4443. >It tasted bland and watery.
  4444. >”Don't give me that look, Fleetfoot! I know it ain't as prestigious as chasing human aircraft, but it's an order straight from the Princess herself! That means you're going to make that sky look as gray and bleary as the porridge you had for breakfast!”
  4445. >And looked as dull as it tasted.
  4446. >”Any questions?”
  4447. >But it was the only thing to eat.
  4448. >Luna glanced at the human and noticed him staring at her plate.
  4449. “If you want some, just tell me. I'll get some for you.”
  4450. >”Since you all know what to do, go get me some clouds! I don't care how you do it as long as you do it! Now go!”
  4451. >The human shook his head as the rustling of feathers and heavy flapping filled the air.
  4453. >Luna wished she had a parasol.
  4454. >The sun, shining from a cloudless sky, had turned her coal-black coat into her personal inferno.
  4455. >And it wasn't like the one that burned inside Luna's sister.
  4456. >The one had turned her mane and tail into flames, one that was no hotter than the skin.
  4457. >No, Luna's inferno was threatening to turn her into simmering pony soup, or at least give her second-degree burns.
  4459. “Are you truly certain that you wish to help the... injured?”
  4460. >She'd asked the human if there was anything he wanted to do, hoping that such lenience would lead to him forgiving her.
  4461. >”I may not be able to bring back those I failed to save, but maybe I can still help someone.”
  4462. >He'd insisted on helping in the medical tent.
  4463. “I appreciate your intent, but you should understand that the fighting is over and the 'injuries' in this camp are either bruises form sparring or dehydration due to this forsaken heat.”
  4464. >She'd thought he would want to play cards with some of the off-duty ponies, or go for a swim in the nearby river, or even brush her mane.
  4465. >”Then how am I supposed to make up for my mistakes?”
  4466. >His head slumped and his eyes found his toes.
  4467. >Luna turned to face him, lifted his chin with her hoof so their eyes met and put on the friendliest smile she could.
  4468. >He only flinched slightly at her touch.
  4469. “Perhaps by admitting that you are injured and giving yourself time to recover.”
  4470. >He swatted away her hoof.
  4471. >”I'm not the one who's forcing me to help you with whatever plan you have despite being down an arm.”
  4472. >Luna's ears fell limp.
  4473. >She wanted to protest, to tell him it was strictly out of necessity.
  4474. >But his words rang true and her excuses would change nothing.
  4476. >A lone scrap of a cloud hung in the sky as Luna glanced up before diving into the medical tent.
  4477. >The interior was cool and delightful compared to getting baked in the sun.
  4478. >There were two ponies inside, to her surprise.
  4479. >There was the nurse she'd met the previous night, and an earth pony stallion lying on one of the stretcher beds.
  4480. >The stallion had camouflage uniform on him and was covering his eyes with a forehoof.
  4481. >His breathing was slow and deep.
  4482. >”Princess? Is there something you need?”
  4483. >The nurse, a male pegasus, set down the bottle of juice concentrate from which he'd been pouring into a pitcher full of water.
  4484. “He asked if he could help with the 'wounded.'”
  4485. >Luna took a step to the side as the human slipped into the tent.
  4486. “Keep him busy for a while.”
  4487. >The nurse glanced at the pitcher resting on a table next to him, then at the human.
  4488. >”Um, well... I guess I'll find something for him to do.”
  4489. “Good.”
  4490. >Luna turned around in place and pushed the tent's flap to the side.
  4491. “I'll return shortly.”
  4493. >It only took her some fifteen minutes to find the commander and tell him to prepare the troops for some drills – a convenient excuse for having them ready in case things would not go to plan.
  4494. >It was both simple and complicated at the same time.
  4495. >First, she and the human would go to the in-between and she'd try to find out what hid in the mists while he served as a distraction.
  4496. >There was a chance it would be enough, and that none of her precautions would be necessary.
  4497. >But the Rift was not something that gave up its secrets willingly.
  4498. >So, she'd had a tiny fragment of the Tree of Harmony shipped to the camp.
  4499. >The human would carry it to the Rift, get the being's attention, and run for his life.
  4500. >Then the Wonderbolts would punch a hole in the clouds and let the sun weaken whatever came through.
  4501. >That would debilitate it enough for Luna and the Guard to cast it back.
  4502. >Hopefully.
  4504. >Luna had to bow her head so her horn wouldn't get caught on the flap as she slipped into the medical tent.
  4505. >Hurried hoofsteps, barked orders and the complaints of ponies who'd been woken up followed her.
  4506. >The human sat next to the earth pony stallion, who now had his eyes open, and was holding a glass of juice in his hand.
  4507. >The nurse lied on a stretcher bed as he leafed through a magazine.
  4508. >All three of them turned to look at Luna.
  4509. “You.”
  4510. >She made a jabbing motion at the human.
  4511. “Come with me.”
  4512. >”But you said-”
  4513. “Now.”
  4514. >Luna narrowed her eyes as she glared at the human.
  4515. >He glanced at the glass of juice in his hand, then at the stallion lying in front of him.
  4516. >”Whatever you say, Princess.”
  4517. >He pushed himself onto his feet and set the glass down where he'd sat.
  4518. >He protested, he is weak, take him.
  4519. >Nightmare's whispers echoed in Luna's ears.
  4520. “We're about to do something very important and possibly dangerous; that means you're going to follow my orders immediately and without question. Is that clear?”
  4521. >She pushed aside the tent's flap and waited for the human.
  4522. >”Yes, Princess.”
  4523. >The tone of his voice made unpleasant memories flash in her mind.
  4524. >Of how she'd beat him, abused him, and tormented him.
  4525. >If only there was a way make up for it.
  4526. >But she could only push the thoughts aside and concentrate of her plan.
  4528. “What we're going to do is go in there-”
  4529. >Luna swung her hoof towards the Rift.
  4530. “-and stay in between. You're going to reply to the whispers and I will try to figure out what the thing whispering to you is.”
  4531. >They stood a good fifty paces from its shimmering surface.
  4532. >The sound of officers barking orders and countess hooves stomping on the ground carried from the camp behind them.
  4533. “But don't stay too long and don't let it get too close to you. If you feel like you're in danger, just step out into either world.”
  4534. >The human nodded his head as Luna went on.
  4535. “If everything goes well, we'll get the information we need and you'll be free to wait for Twilight.”
  4536. >His face lit up at the mention of his owner.
  4537. >”I understand. I'll do my best.”
  4538. >He glanced at her, nodded, then looked back at the Rift.
  4539. “Whenever you feel ready. I'll be right behind you.”
  4540. >She heard him draw a sharp breath just before his shoes started treading the dirt.
  4542. >She saw rainbows as her head pushed through the iridescent film covering the Rift.
  4543. >Then she saw nothing but purple.
  4544. >Purple trees that turned into purple mountains that turned into purple humans that turned into purple trains...
  4545. >She swung her hoof and pumped the tiniest bit of magic into her horn.
  4546. >The cloud surrounding her dispersed, and she could see even more purple.
  4547. >Everywhere around her were thick clouds of purple.
  4548. >Apples that turned into pots that turned into spears that turned into blades of grass-
  4549. >And there was the human, standing in the nothingness between worlds, surrounded by thick strands of purple mist.
  4550. >Luna stood very still and waited very quietly.
  4551. >The sickening, syrupy stench of the anomaly filled her nostrils and made her stomach churn.
  4552. >”You have nothing to offer to me.”
  4553. >She jerked in surprise as she heard his voice.
  4554. >Her heart thumped in her chest as her senses fed her brain with far more information than usual.
  4555. >”Why would I want the power to destroy?”
  4556. >Something stirred in the mists.
  4557. >Something massive.
  4558. >”I want to restore...”
  4559. >The human took a single step back.
  4560. >Something long and thick moved in the clouds above them.
  4561. >”E-e-equ-”
  4562. >He turned around scrambled to a run.
  4563. >He vanished a split-second before something snaky and twice as thick as Luna's barrel shot through the spot he'd stood in.
  4564. >Luna didn't wait around for it to notice her.
  4565. >She spread her wings, leaped backwards, and prayed she would be fast enough.
  4567. >Thump.
  4568. >A spike of pain shot form Luna's shoulder as she fell on ash-covered dirt.
  4569. >The Rift loomed above her.
  4570. >Thick clouds, as gray as the porridge she'd had for breakfast, covered the sky.
  4571. >What was the thing she'd just seen?
  4572. >It'd looked like an enormous snakelike creature, but it'd been covered in a layer of the same mist that swirled everywhere inside the anomaly.
  4573. >Luna scrambled to her hooves.
  4574. >”What was that thing?”
  4575. >The human, standing next to her, stared at her.
  4576. >His eyes were wide open and his lower lip quivered.
  4577. “I'm going to need a better look to find out. Wait here.”
  4578. >She bent her hooves and spread her wings.
  4580. “Here, take this.”
  4581. >An embroidered silk pouch, shimmering with Luna's magic, floated to the human.
  4582. “All you have to do is go back there with this, make sure it notices you, and run.”
  4583. >In the pouch was a shard of the Tree of Harmony.
  4584. >The Elements of Harmony, which drew their power from the Tree, were the cause of the creature's hatred and rage.
  4585. >The shard would get its attention, no doubt.
  4586. “Run like your life depends on it – because it will.”
  4587. >She plopped the pouch in his hand and forced his fingers to close around it.
  4588. >”Do I have to do this?”
  4589. >He gazed at a spot of dirt between him and Luna instead of meeting her eyes.
  4590. “Yes. Either you do it or I make you do it.”
  4591. >Luna gulped down a bit of saliva and looked around.
  4592. >Blue specks, the Wonderbolts in their flight suits, formed a circle above her.
  4593. >The Guard was in formation behind her.
  4594. >The Rift shimmered in front of her.
  4595. “We're as ready as we'll ever be. Get going.”
  4597. >Thum. Thum. Thum.
  4598. >Luna's heart beat like a hammer.
  4599. >The human moved so slowly that covering the twenty paces between him and the Rift seemed to take forever.
  4600. >She could hear some of the ponies behind her paw at the ground to calm their nerves.
  4601. >Then the human made it and touched the surface.
  4602. >He passed through.
  4603. >Absolute silence took over the clearing.
  4604. >Even the wind fell quiet.
  4605. >Every single pair of eyes was fixed on the surface.
  4606. >Nopony dared to even breathe.
  4608. >Then it happened.
  4609. >He reappeared, running as fast as his two feet would carry him, with a look of absolute terror on his face.
  4610. >The surface of the Rift ballooned out.
  4611. >It turned into a tentacle of mist that shot after him.
  4612. >Time seemed to slow to a crawl.
  4613. >Thump.
  4614. >His foot hit the ground.
  4615. >Luna's mane snapped against her back as magic swirled into her.
  4616. >Thump.
  4617. >It would catch up to him in but a second.
  4618. >Thump.
  4619. >She had to save him.
  4620. >Thump.
  4621. >A thin ray of sunlight pierced through the clouds.
  4622. >Thump.
  4623. >Luna bowed her head and pointed her horn at it.
  4625. >The clearing bathed in bright sunlight all of a sudden.
  4626. >The tentacle of mist froze in place.
  4627. >A massive dark blue beam shot out from Luna's horn with a deafening roar.
  4628. >It hit the thing.
  4629. >The sound of a million chalks screeching on blackboards emanated from it.
  4630. >Luna's hooves shot up to cover her ears.
  4631. >The mist covering the tentacle vanished.
  4632. >Beneath it was what looked like the tentacle of an octopus made of pure darkness.
  4633. >It was as thick as three ponies standing side to side and had a sharp claw on its tip.
  4634. >Black smoke billowed from its surface.
  4636. >It shot towards Luna.
  4637. >It was on her before she could even react.
  4638. >Pain.
  4639. >Pain flooded her mind as the claw penetrated her chest.
  4640. “Guh...”
  4641. >It writhed inside her.
  4642. >It burned inside her.
  4643. >Her hooves felt wobbly.
  4644. >Yet she refused to give up.
  4645. >Her horn lit up with magic once more.
  4646. >But before she could do anything, the tentacle turned into a cloud of black smoke and vanished.
  4647. “I... Wha-”
  4648. >Dizzy.
  4649. >Thump.
  4650. >She didn't remember falling, yet she still hit the ground.
  4651. >She felt something warm and wet spread from her chest.
  4652. >Dark.
  4653. >How could a sunny day be so dark?
  4654. >And so cold?
  4655. “Haah...”
  4656. >And why was she so tired?
  4658. >”Princess!”
  4659. >Luna drifted through a dark void.
  4660. >She couldn't see anything.
  4661. >”Don't just stand there, go get...!”
  4662. >It felt like she floated in a pool on her back.
  4663. >Tiny ripples lapped at her sides and wings.
  4664. >”I'm here, I'm here, what ha- Oh.”
  4665. >Something very heavy and very hard lie on her chest.
  4666. >But it didn't cause her to sink for some reason.
  4667. >Maybe it was just strapped to her so tight it felt heavy?
  4668. >”Carry her to the tent and prepare for...!”
  4669. >She tried moving her hoof.
  4670. >Nothing happened.
  4672. >”What did you do this time?”
  4673. >That voice.
  4674. >That slow and deep voice, like that of somepony who just woke up.
  4675. >”Oh. I see.”
  4676. >Split. Splat. Split.
  4677. >Somepony walked through a puddle.
  4678. >Tiny waves hit Luna's side.
  4679. >Then a flow of warm air brushed her snout.
  4680. “G-haaa!”
  4681. >Air rushed in to fill her lungs.
  4682. >Her eyes burst open.
  4683. >Haven's smiling face loomed above her.
  4684. >”Welcome back, Luna.”
  4685. >Luna found herself lying on her back in a pool of black water.
  4686. >Her legs were splayed out to her sides
  4687. >The water was deep enough to cover her hooves, but too shallow to get in her eyes
  4688. >Only the undefined nothingness of dreams existed beyond the pool.
  4689. >She rolled off her back and scrambled to her hooves.
  4691. “What happened? Why am I here?”
  4692. >Haven tilted her head to the side a little.
  4693. >The smile on her face didn't falter as fragmented memories floated out of her mane.
  4694. >There was the Rift.
  4695. >And purple clouds.
  4696. >Something thick and snakelike.
  4697. >The sound of a running human.
  4698. >A great, burning pain in her chest.
  4699. “Am I...?”
  4700. >The claw penetrated deep into her.
  4701. >So deep it must have reached her heart.
  4702. >”Only the living can dream, Luna. But you don't have long.”
  4703. >Luna's stomach lurched.
  4704. >She had battled with Chaos itself, built much of Equestria from the ground up, been freed of the Nightmare, and saved her kingdom from the plague of humanity.
  4705. >She had seen so much and lived for so long.
  4706. “Is it really... over?”
  4707. >Haven tilted her head to the other side.
  4708. >She squeezed her eyes shut as her mouth turned into a straight line.
  4709. >”Let's see what she has to say.”
  4710. >She lifted a rear hoof out of the black puddle and-
  4711. >Splash!
  4712. >-drove it back with all her strength.
  4713. >For a short second, nothing happened.
  4714. >Then the circular ripples created by Haven's hoof turned into a raging whirlpool.
  4715. >Black smoke billowed out of the vortex.
  4716. >With a flash of dark blue, the water rushed to one spot and formed the shape of a pony.
  4718. >It was like she was looking at a mirror.
  4719. >”You've made me feel all neglected, dear Luna.”
  4720. >Nightmare's voice was just like she remembered.
  4721. >Precisely like Luna's, just with a touch of insanity added in.
  4722. “What do you want?”
  4723. >The Nightmare's hooves thumped on ash-covered dirt.
  4724. >Luna glared at the manifestation of darkness as it came closer.
  4725. >”I'm here to offer salvation. What else?”
  4726. >Its lips curled into a smile as it jabbed at Luna's chest.
  4727. “Make your offer, fiend, and be glad I'm willing to listen.”
  4728. >She spat out the words and lifted her snout into the air as a sign of defiance.
  4729. >”We are dying, Luna.”
  4731. >Its hooves stopped.
  4732. >Silence overtook the tiny field of ash the three of them stood in.
  4733. >Haven had planted her rump on the ground and seemed content to just watch.
  4734. >A glance at her brought Luna no closer to a response.
  4735. >”Do you wish to join her? Dreamwalk for all eternity?”
  4736. >Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
  4737. >Blue horseshoes tread lightly on dirt that was still damp.
  4738. >”You know how. Go ahead if you wish.”
  4739. >Nightmare circled around Luna, never diverting its gaze from her head.
  4740. >Yes, its words were true.
  4741. >Luna could replicate what Haven had done.
  4742. >But...
  4743. >She wanted to hug her sister.
  4744. >She wanted to feel love, however fleeting it would be compared to her own lifespan.
  4745. >She wanted to become even better friends with Twilight.
  4746. >...She was too selfish for that.
  4747. >”Or, you can accept my offer. I give a part of myself to heal you, you give a part of your mind to me.”
  4748. >Luna had promised to never give anything to the Nightmare.
  4749. >Ever.
  4750. >”A simple trade. A little bit of control to me, life to us both. Not a bad deal, if I do say so myself.”
  4751. >But what choice did she have?
  4752. “Then be done with it, demon.”
  4754. >A smile flashed on the Nightmare's face.
  4755. >Then it turned into black smoke and shot towards Luna's chest.
  4756. “Hu-”
  4757. >It felt cool.
  4758. >Like a masseur spreading oil on her.
  4759. >Only it reached deep inside.
  4760. >A wave of darkness overtook her.
  4762. >”Hush now, my moonlight. I am here for you.”
  4763. >Somepony was singing.
  4764. >”Rest now, little moonlight. The day has come for all.”
  4765. >A very familiar voice.
  4766. >One that spread a loving warmth inside her.
  4767. >”Hush now, my moonlight. Cast away your sorrows.”
  4768. >One that told her she needn't worry about anything.
  4769. >One that let her know it was just a dream.
  4770. >”Rest now, little moonlight. It is time to sleep.”
  4771. >It was weird to wake up to a lullaby, though.
  4772. >But mother sometimes sung that song for no reason.
  4773. >It always made her smile that mellow smile of hers.
  4774. >The one that made her look like she wouldn't trade what she had for anything in the world.
  4776. >Silken sheets rubbed on Nightmare Moon's body as she shifted in bed.
  4777. >”Sister!”
  4778. >So loud.
  4779. >”How do you feel? Are you all right?”
  4780. >Why did Celestia sound so worried?
  4781. >”Can you move? Open your eyes?”
  4782. >Nightmare Moon cracked open her eyes.
  4783. >Her sister's flame-shaped eyes and burning mane greeted her.
  4784. “I feel fine. A little tired, that is all.”
  4785. >Whump.
  4786. >Celestia threw herself on Nightmare Moon and wrapped her in a tight hug.
  4787. >”I was so worried!”
  4788. >Her sister's hooves were so strong she couldn't move.
  4789. “Can't. Breathe.”
  4790. >The iron grip relaxed quite a bit.
  4791. >”What happened? The doctors had just given up on you when something black came out of your veins and healed you.”
  4792. >Nightmare Moon lifted her own hooves off the bed and placed them around her sister's neck.
  4793. “I simply accepted what I am and let a suppressed part of me do what had to be done.”
  4794. >”Well, whatever happened, I'm just glad you're all right.”
  4795. >Celestia finally let go.
  4797. >Nightmare Moon was in her room, lying in her own bed.
  4798. “You.”
  4799. >And standing near the door was Twilight's human.
  4800. “What are you doing here?”
  4801. >A human?
  4802. >In HER room?
  4803. >How dare he!
  4804. >”He's barely left your side this past week.”
  4805. >The human bowed his head at the two princesses.
  4806. >”I hope I did something helpful.”
  4807. >And he dared to speak to her?
  4808. “Begone! Get out of my sight!”
  4809. >He looked at her and blinked rapidly.
  4810. >His lips parted for a short moment.
  4811. >Then he nodded and plodded out of the room.
  4813. >”I thought you were fond of him.”
  4814. >Nightmare lit her horn up with magic and lifted the covers off of her.
  4815. “Was fond of him. His kind needs to repay what they did to our land.”
  4816. >She hopped off the bed and landed on wobbly hooves.
  4817. >”Careful. Don't go too fast.”
  4818. >Her sister rushed to her side and leaned against her for support.
  4819. “I'll be fine. Now, I remember getting invited to their world for some diplomatic gathering; did I wake up in time for that? Is it even safe to cross?”
  4820. >A conference of leaders would suit her needs perfectly.
  4821. >There was a lot in need of repair in Equestria, and there were a lot of humans.
  4822. >”The United Nations Special Assembly? It's in two days. Will you join me? And yes, it is safe to cross. The Rift has been completely quiet, even your Dreamwalkers haven't reported anything.”
  4823. >Moon's lips curled into a smile.
  4824. “Yes. I believe we can reach an agreement on what we'll make them do, sister.”
  4825. >They would repay for what they did.
  4826. >In full.
  4827. >With blood and sweat.
  4829. ---
  4831. Chapter 5
  4833. >The human, who was forbidden from using his name, sat on a stool in front of the medical tent.
  4834. >A handful of concerned ponies milled about in front of him.
  4835. >They did not bother him; they knew that they weren't allowed in since the princess was undergoing emergency surgery.
  4836. >The ponies were something he paid next to no attention to, anyways.
  4837. >It'd taken him a good thirty seconds to notice that one of them had brought him a sunshade.
  4838. >He'd been too busy thinking of how the soil greedily drank her blood.
  4839. >How it spurted out of a gaping hole in her chest.
  4840. >And how a grim satisfaction spread inside him as he watched his tormentor bleed out.
  4842. >But she'd had him stroke her mane.
  4843. >She'd let him have first pick of what to eat.
  4844. >She'd bought him new shoes.
  4845. >She'd given him ice cream.
  4846. >Was she truly bent on evil?
  4847. >Or could it be she regretted what she'd done and was trying to make up?
  4848. >...no.
  4849. >He would not believe that.
  4850. >Not yet.
  4851. >No, she was testing him.
  4852. >Testing if he would overstep his boundaries.
  4853. >There was no telling what she'd do if he did.
  4854. >Maybe she'd have him dream of being locked in a cellar full of spiders again.
  4855. >Maybe she'd whack him all over with those steel shoes of hers.
  4856. >Or maybe she'd come up with some other form of torment.
  4858. >His gaze wandered upwards, over the tops of the rows of tents in front of him, and found the shimmering surface of the Rift.
  4859. >It was so close, yet so far.
  4860. >The camp commander ordered a large exclusion zone around it immediately after the incident.
  4861. >But he doubted the ponies would stop him if he were to run for it.
  4862. >On the other side, he would be free.
  4863. >For a while, at least.
  4864. >No-one would be waiting for him, and he wasn't sure if walking long distances was something he could do in his current state.
  4865. >The chances were he'd either wake up in a hospital alone after some passerby noticed him, that he'd wake up in a hospital with Daybreaker like the previous time, or that he wouldn't wake up at all.
  4866. >It was too much of a gamble.
  4867. >And even if his escape was successful, Daybreaker could track him down.
  4868. >She could find the president again and threaten him to do whatever she wanted.
  4870. >”What?!?”
  4871. >A sudden shout from the tent behind him drew the human back to the present.
  4872. >”Give me- What? But that's...”
  4873. >The hushed, calm voices were suddenly raised and confused.
  4874. >”Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
  4875. >”I- I have no idea! I've never seen anything like it before.”
  4876. >Something metallic clinked on the ground.
  4878. >The human who was forbidden from using his name felt his heart racing as a tingling sensation spread to three of his limbs.
  4879. >His right arm remained numb.
  4880. >He'd had the impression that the princess would survive.
  4881. >But now?
  4882. >His stomach lurched.
  4883. >A part of him wanted to see her gone.
  4884. >It wanted retribution for she'd done to him.
  4885. >For the endless beatings and nightmares about them.
  4886. >But another part of him argued that she wasn't beyond salvation.
  4887. >That she would somehow revert back to that dark blue mare she was when he first saw her, all the way back in that dark stony cell.
  4888. >Death was too cruel, too permanent, even for someone like her.
  4889. >Death meant there would be no more trying out new recipes, no more bad jokes to be told, and no more watching sunset by the seashore.
  4890. >And no chance at redemption.
  4891. >He knew very little of the princess' past, but he did know that she deserved a second chance.
  4892. >Everyone deserved a second chance.
  4893. >But now it sounded like she wouldn't get one.
  4895. >”What are you all standing around here for? Princess Celestia will be here any minute now! Get back to your stations or patrols or drills or whatever you were assigned to!”
  4896. >A male voice, hoarse from too much yelling, cried out from somewhere behind a nearby tent.
  4897. >The nameless human knew that kind of voice all too well.
  4898. >It summoned vivid memories of basic training.
  4899. >The handful of ponies milling about near the medical tent all looked at the direction it came from.
  4900. >”Granite Grain, you're supposed to be helping the chefs in the mess tent! Princess Luna may not be doing too well but that doesn't mean the rest of us don't have to eat!”
  4901. >A dull gray unicorn stallion, with fancy insignias on the shoulders of his uniform, trotted into the human's field of vision.
  4902. >”And Slipstream, you should be enforcing the exclusion zone! Do you think we saw the last of that massive tentacle thing? Because you have a duty, and that duty is to make sure no other ponies will be harmed by it!”
  4903. >The officer came to a stop near the group of ponies and made jabbing motions at one of them.
  4904. >”Now move! You all have orders to carry out!”
  4905. >The ponies in the group remained still and looked very confused for a second, but as the officer kept glaring at them, they dispersed as each of them headed off.
  4907. >The officer let his mask of practiced toughness fall from his face as soon as the other ponies were out of sight.
  4908. >His posture slumped, his gaze fell to his hooves and he let out a sigh.
  4909. >Then he shook his head, spun around in place, and trotted to the human.
  4910. >”How is it?”
  4911. >He sounded both tired and like he had a sore throat.
  4912. “It-”
  4913. >”Captain Spear? Is that you out there?”
  4914. >A twinge of annoyance flashed inside the human as a voice from inside the tent interrupted him.
  4915. >But he was used of being on the bottom rung of hierarchy.
  4916. >”Yes, it's Silver Spear. Princess Celestia will be here soon, I came to ask whether I can let her in there or not.”
  4917. >Celestia.
  4918. >Daybreaker.
  4919. >They were the same thing, as far as he knew.
  4920. >He would have preferred to stay away from her.
  4921. >But he had little choice in the matter.
  4922. >”Well, I... suppose you can bring her here? We're not sure what just happened, but I don't think her presence will make any difference.”
  4924. ***
  4926. >”Silver Spear said you were in the in-between with her. Tell me what happened.”
  4927. >Daybreaker sat on the ground next to the bed her sister lied in, and the human with a forbidden name stood behind her.
  4928. >What used to be a gaping wound in Nightmare Moon's chest was now a blob of pure darkness.
  4929. “She asked me to get the attention of whatever is in there. So I started arguing with it when it offered power.”
  4930. >Even the flames on Daybreaker's mane did nothing to light up the spot of black.
  4931. >It was like the void between stars in the night sky: no matter how much light you shone at it, it never got any less dark.
  4932. “It said it could make me strong enough to overthrow you, but...”
  4933. >Should he tell her?
  4934. >That he found the idea so tempting he very nearly agreed?
  4935. >That he was filled with satisfaction as he imagined the siblings, all bruised and bloody, lying in front of him?
  4936. “...I knew it would have led to the downfall of this world. Possibly mine as well.”
  4937. >Perhaps it would be best to not tell her of how even thinking of that in front of Nightmare Moon's barely breathing form made discomfort sprout inside him.
  4938. “It didn't like that. Something enormous stirred in the mists around me immediately after. I had to run for my life, and only noticed her when she stumbled out behind me.”
  4940. >”She wasn't hurt then?”
  4941. >He shook his head, despite Daybreaker's gaze being set on her sister's chest which rose and fell slightly in a steady rhythm.
  4942. “No. That happened after the second attempt.”
  4943. >His hand wormed its way into his pocket and produced an embroidered silken pouch out of it.
  4944. “She didn't explain why, but she gave me this and told me to take it near the Rift. She and the rest of the camp waited.”
  4945. >He stuck his hand out towards Daybreaker, with the pouch resting on an open palm.
  4946. >She glanced at him, then at the pouch, before looking back at her sister.
  4947. >Then she slowly craned her head until her eyes fixed on the bag again.
  4948. >”That's... Why did she gi- oh. The Elements, of course. That's why it attacked her. It sensed their connection to us.”
  4949. “What do you mean?”
  4950. >He voiced the question before he could stop himself.
  4951. >It was not his place to ask.
  4952. >No matter how curious he was.
  4953. >He'd heard Twilight talk of the Elements, and it'd given him the impression that they were extremely powerful artifacts.
  4954. >But that was all he knew.
  4955. >”Luna and I used to wield the Elements, before Twilight and her friends became their embodiments. It ended when-”
  4956. >Silence.
  4957. >Daybreaker was completely frozen in place.
  4958. >The human wasn't sure if he should say something or not.
  4959. >He opted to keep his mouth shut.
  4960. >”It ended when an incident left them unusable.”
  4961. >Maybe Twilight could shine a light on the Elements and the Sisters.
  4962. >He'd have to ask her about it.
  4964. >”But that does not matter right now.”
  4965. >She made a shooing motion with a hoof.
  4966. >”Leave us for a while. Go eat, or do whatever you wish. I don't care.”
  4967. >He stared at her with his lips cracked open for a second.
  4968. >Her voice was different.
  4969. >It was warm and caring instead of dry and harsh.
  4970. >In addition, her eyes were round instead of flame-shaped, and had a hint of pink to them.
  4971. >But her mane was still made of fire.
  4972. “Yes, Princess.”
  4973. >He bowed his head and turned towards the tent's flap.
  4974. >”Bring me something to eat when you come back. Bring the captain with you as well.”
  4975. >He glanced at the two alicorns just before slipping out of the tent.
  4976. >Daybreaker had her forehead on her sister's cheek.
  4977. >No matter how they treated him, they still loved each other.
  4978. >They'd soften their stance on him as well.
  4979. >Anger and rage diluted over time.
  4980. >They'd forgive him, eventually.
  4981. >Then he'd get to go home.
  4982. >He pushed the flap out of his way and stepped outside.
  4983. >A little colt, which he knew only he could see, was waiting for him.
  4985. ***
  4987. >The hoof nudging his lower back felt very real and solid.
  4988. >Despite how the ponies having lunch avoided his vicinity.
  4989. >He concentrated on the taste of ravioli and tomato sauce.
  4990. >The tomato was full of sweetness.
  4991. >The ravioli and its herb-basted filling was so flavorful he couldn't even put it into words.
  4992. >A stark contrast to the sour and watery tomatoes, and bland pasta he was used to.
  4993. >Nudge.
  4994. >Poke.
  4995. >”Your parents miss you. Like my parents miss me.”
  4996. >It was scrumptious, even without ketchup.
  4997. >Ketchup would've ruined it.
  4998. >Poke.
  4999. >Nudge.
  5000. >”You can still go see them. I can't see mine.”
  5001. >It was delicious.
  5002. >”Why not go tell them why?”
  5003. >It was tasty.
  5005. ***
  5007. >He sat in front of a plate of cold pasta, on a bench so low his knees touched the table.
  5008. >Damp streaks ran down his cheeks.
  5009. >Something hard and angular tapped his left shoulder.
  5010. >”Did something happen?”
  5011. >The metal horseshoe was a reddish orange, but the voice was warm and caring.
  5012. >No.
  5013. >He couldn't let her see his weakness.
  5014. >His eyes nailed themselves on his food.
  5015. >”Oh. Is there something you want to talk about?”
  5016. >The bench creaked and bent as Daybreaker put her weight on it.
  5017. “No. I'm fine.”
  5018. >His voice came out low and stuffy.
  5019. >It made his fingers twitch and his heart beat faster.
  5020. >”I don't like being lied to. But, I won't force you to talk about it if you're not ready.”
  5021. >He squeezed his eyes shut and waited.
  5022. >And waited.
  5023. >But the the sharp pain of her hoofstrike never came.
  5024. >”Maybe some other day.”
  5025. >Was she really not going to punish him?
  5027. >”I'll get you something warm to eat.”
  5028. >The bench sprung back up as Daybreaker lifted herself off it.
  5029. >The human whose name was forbidden stared at the cold food in front of him with his lips cracked apart.
  5030. >Where was the merciless slave driver who'd forced him to walk until his legs gave out?
  5031. >Where was the ruthless tyrant who turned the president into a whimpering, stinking pile on the floor?
  5032. >He craned his neck to look at her burning mane and tail.
  5033. >Could he?
  5034. >Could he tell her of his desire to meet his own parents, and those of the brown earth pony colt who still haunted him?
  5036. >Cla-clunk.
  5037. >Two steaming plates of ravioli and sauce, coated in an orange glow, set themselves down on the table.
  5038. >One in front of the human, the other next to him.
  5039. >”We're going to move Luna back to Canterlot tonight. I told them to prepare a train carriage for us at the closest station.”
  5040. >Daybreaker squeezed onto the bench, took hold of a fork with her magic and used it to pop a ravioli in her mouth.
  5041. >”Mmh. Not half bad.”
  5042. >He stared at her as she leaned in towards the plate and shoveled food in her mouth.
  5043. >It wasn't very princess-like, as she got some tomato sauce on both her upper and lower lips, and a tiny bit on her chest, too.
  5044. >Despite that, seeing it made his stomach grumble as a reminder of how little he'd eaten.
  5046. “Do you ever think of your parents?”
  5047. >Daybreaker had already finished her portion as the human was halfway through his.
  5048. >Eating with his left hand was slow and awkward since the ravioli kept falling off his fork.
  5049. >”Not too often. They've been dead for a very long time.”
  5050. >She dabbed her mouth with a napkin, and got most of the sauce off.
  5051. “Someone keeps reminding me of mine and his. He demands I go see them.”
  5052. >His words nearly got stuck in his throat.
  5053. >”Is it one of Luna's Dreamwalkers? I heard you spent some time with them.”
  5054. “No. It's- It's Dusty. He's dead. Because of me.”
  5055. >The lump in his throat was gone.
  5056. “I keep having dreams of him. And seeing him when I'm alone. I try to ignore him but it doesn't work. He can poke me and talk to me and no matter what I do it just goes straight into my brain. I just want him to leave me alone! I can't change what happened!”
  5057. >He realized he'd yelled, and that everyone in the mess tent was staring at him.
  5058. >His face was suddenly very hot, and he wished he could slink under the table.
  5059. >Why didn't he stay quiet?
  5060. >Daybreaker was troubled enough.
  5061. >Her sister lied unconscious with no guarantee that she'd ever wake up.
  5062. >And now he'd gone and poured his own, inconsequential troubles onto her.
  5064. >”Talking about it is an important step on the road to acceptance.”
  5065. >Yet the corners of her mouth crept upwards when he looked at her.
  5066. >”Would you like to tell me what happened?”
  5067. >She reminded him of the white alicorn who had a mane of flowing rainbow.
  5068. >But it wasn't her.
  5069. >It was still Daybreaker.
  5070. “I...”
  5071. >He couldn't.
  5073. >Though he'd finally managed to wash the blood off his hands, he still couldn't talk about it.
  5074. >About how he'd found Dusty digging through the remains of his platoon's meals one day.
  5075. >The colt had been a scrawny little thing, with his ribs clearly visible through his dirty coat.
  5076. >He'd felt pity for the little guy, and slipped him a bit of food whenever he could.
  5077. >They came up with a spot he left the food in.
  5078. >The arrangement worked just fine.
  5079. >Until it happened.
  5080. >Until he woke up to one of his platoon mates shouting an alarm.
  5081. >No.
  5082. >He didn't want to remember.
  5083. >Not the cries about a saboteur.
  5084. >Not how he and two others were sent on patrol to find the infiltrator.
  5085. >Not how he saw something move in a dark corner.
  5086. >Not how his brain recognized the figure as something equine, as an enemy.
  5087. >Not...
  5088. >He shook his head.
  5090. >”I won't force you to. But you should know that even I have done something I regret deeply to this day.”
  5091. >Daybreker fixed her pink eyes into his.
  5092. >”I hurt my sister. I... hurt her more than I can imagine.”
  5093. >She squeezed her eyes shut and blew the air out of her lungs before drawing a deep, wheezing breath.
  5094. >”She was so jealous of me she couldn't take it. I was completely blind to her agony. We were supposed to rule together, but everypony – myself included – was blind to how important she and what she did was. She felt neglected. Rightfully so.”
  5095. >The alicorn shook her head.
  5096. >There was a hint of dampness in her eyes when she opened them.
  5097. >”In the end, she saw no other choice but to attack me. I... I had to do something terrible to her. But I was lucky. We got to make up.”
  5098. >She slammed a hoof on the table.
  5099. >The sudden sound made the human flinch.
  5100. >”I promise I'll listen when you're ready to talk. But right now, we have to get my sister back home.”
  5101. >She pushed on the table to spin around on the bench, then hopped on her hooves.
  5102. >”Come. I have a letter to send, and you're going to find me paper, ink and a quill while I find some dessert.”
  5104. ***
  5106. >Cla-clack, cla-clack, cla-clack...
  5107. >The carriage shook ever so slightly as it crossed from one piece of track to another.
  5108. >The human whose name was forbidden sat on a seat next to a window, resting his elbow on the windowsill and his chin on his hand.
  5109. >Daybreaker's quill scribbled on the piece of paper he'd got her.
  5110. >Otherwise the carriage was quiet.
  5111. >Nightmare Moon lied on a stretcher in the aisle, and the camp's nurse sat next to her, but neither of them made any sound.
  5112. >As far as he could hear, at least.
  5113. >His mind focused on the lush and verdant forest the train passed through.
  5114. >He could tell it used to be lush and verdant, at least.
  5115. >Most of the foliage, apart the larger trees, was a dry brown.
  5116. >Dead leaves littered the forest floor.
  5117. >It looked like the aftermath of a major industrial accident.
  5119. “Did something happen to this forest?”
  5120. >The scribbling of Daybreker's quill paused.
  5121. >”Drought.”
  5122. >Then it continued for a second.
  5123. >”We had to draft our weather squads.”
  5124. “Weather squads? What are those?”
  5125. >He slid his elbow off the windowsill and craned his neck to look at the alicorn sitting next to him.
  5126. >”Just a second.”
  5127. >Scribble scribble scribble.
  5128. >Then the letter she was writing rolled itself up and vanished in a flash of fire.
  5129. >”You asked about weather squads, right?”
  5130. >She glanced out of the window, then looked at him.
  5131. >”I suppose I can tell you how it works here in Equestria. I heard your world is quite different.”
  5133. ***
  5135. >”Go fetch some tea and cake.”
  5136. >Daybreaker's voice echoed in the cavernous main hall of Canterlot Castle's Library.
  5137. >A thin layer of dust covered everything from the bookshelves to the clerk's desk.
  5138. >Only the reading spot that Daybreaker and the human with a forbidden name occupied was clean.
  5139. “Yes, Princess.”
  5140. >The rag he'd swept dust with splashed into the bucket full of foamy soap water that lied next to the reading table.
  5141. >Daybreaker threw a passing glance at the source of the sound, then refocused her attention on the thick tome resting on the table.
  5142. >The human rubbed his good hand on the thigh of his pants to dry it, then headed down the path of disturbed dust towards the exit.
  5143. >Dust swirled and floated in the airflow caused by his passing, eventually settling down again to create an artwork that resembled a stream frozen in time.
  5145. >It'd been a full day since their return to Canterlot.
  5146. >Nightmare Moon lied in her room, still completely unresponsive.
  5147. >Her vitals were fine, if slightly weak, and the doctor who came to see her didn't find anything else out of the ordinary.
  5148. >X-ray images showed that her ribcage had healed already, and whatever darkness flowed out of her had turned into flesh and fur that was indistinguishable from that around it.
  5149. >Since there wasn't anything she could do for her sister, Daybreaker had decided to look into what had caused the wound.
  5150. >She'd spent the night in her sister's room.
  5151. >The human didn't know what happened in there since he slept in one of the staff rooms, but she hit the books with fervor the first thing in the morning.
  5152. >She'd been remarkably tight-lipped since, only opening her mouth to bark an order every now and then.
  5154. >His footsteps echoed in the deserted hallways as he passed through one corridor after another, each lined with vibrant stained glass windows, masterful paintings or intricately-carved marble pillars.
  5155. >Nobody had bothered to tour him around the castle, but he eventually made it to the kitchen despite having to retrace his steps more than once after getting lost.
  5156. >The kitchen was far larger than what he was used to, with multiple stoves, fridges and sinks, but just as deserted as the rest of the castle.
  5157. >Fresh produce lied on the tables that lined the room, and on the island in the middle.
  5158. >Zucchinis, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, lettuce and eggs, among other things.
  5159. >Everything needed for a delicious casserole.
  5160. >Or a soup.
  5161. >But no tea or cake.
  5162. >Just a pony-sized metal cart in one corner of the room that looked perfect for delivering refreshments.
  5163. >...Not that he could make casserole, even if he had the time or was permitted to.
  5164. >Chopping and preparing everything with just one hand wasn't possible.
  5166. >Pots, pans, trays and cutlery clinked and clanged as he dug through the kitchen in search of tea.
  5167. >There were so many kinds of utensils.
  5168. >Wok pans, cast iron pans, small pans, large pans, steel kettles, coated kettles, big knives, small knives, jagged knives, straight edged knives, whisks, sieves...
  5169. >He wanted to try all of them.
  5170. >Though he wouldn't mind baking a cake – on the contrary, he'd love to – that would take far too long.
  5171. >Especially with just one hand.
  5172. >And without permission.
  5173. >Daybreaker probably already wondered where he'd disappeared to.
  5174. >He'd get a smack on the cheek or a whack on the thigh...
  5175. >...or maybe she was too absorbed in her research to even notice him being gone for so long.
  5176. >She'd definitely be mad if he didn't bring cake, though.
  5178. >After a while of rummaging through the cupboards, he had a kettle on and some tea leaves waiting in a beautiful, hand (or hoof?) painted pot.
  5179. >One of the fridges yielded some cake, too.
  5180. >It was a half-eaten chocolate dry cake, but cake nevertheless.
  5181. >Daybreaker never specified what sort she wanted.
  5182. >Which meant he wouldn't get whacked for bringing the wrong kind.
  5183. >Right?
  5185. >Maybe she'd even let him make dinner for himself, or read a book about pony history, or...
  5186. >...Or maybe he'd just be happy if she chose not to hit him.
  5187. >One step at a time.
  5188. >He'd worry about his own desires and ambitions once he ascertained his standing.
  5189. >So far he'd been used as a punching bag, a dildo, a pawn in failed negotiations, a zoo exhibit, a living cadaver, a weapon in successful negotiations, a glorified tour guide, a source of affection, and a piece of bait.
  5190. >And now he was a housemaid.
  5191. >There had definitely been a marked improvement, from punching bag to servant.
  5192. >Would the rise in standing stop there, or would they eventually let him go?
  5193. >To that, he had no answer.
  5194. >It was probably best not to ask about it, either, given how he was officially a trophy war and the property of someone else.
  5195. >Remembering that would make them turn him into a zoo exhibit again.
  5197. >The cart's wheels clacked on the seams between the polished stone slabs that made up the floor.
  5198. >He pulled the cart instead of pushing since he couldn't get it to go straight with just one hand.
  5199. >The dust coating the floor in the library muffled the clacks as soon as he found his way back there.
  5200. >Daybreaker's ears twitched and swiveled his way as he got in sight of her.
  5201. >”There's plenty of mentions about 'extraplanar energy' and multiple realities, but nothing of extraplanar creatures. It wouldn't surprise me if this is actually the first time anypony has run into one. Or THE one.”
  5202. >Her eyes, which still had a hint of pink to them, zipped back and forth on the pages of the tome in front of her.
  5203. >”My hypothesis is that the energy and the being are one and same. I hope there is some way to find proof without having to face that thing again.”
  5204. >There was an open scroll next to the book, but otherwise everything was as it'd been when he'd left.
  5205. >Including the bucket next to the reading spot.
  5206. >”I suppose it is time for a break, though. Pour some for me, and for yourself as well.”
  5208. >The way she kept glancing at him as she sipped her tea made him feel like he should say something.
  5209. >What could she want him to say?
  5210. >Something about how he wanted to return home and make the army hold up its promise of paying for his degree?
  5211. >Or about how he was afraid of both her and Nightmare Moon and preferred Twilight over them?
  5212. >Maybe it was because she wasn't too happy about the leaves in her tea since he couldn't hold a strainer while pouring?
  5213. “Why is the castle so empty? Of ponies, I mean.”
  5214. >He wanted to sink through the floor the moment he closed his mouth.
  5215. >Why hadn't he stayed quiet?
  5216. >”Everypony who isn't strictly necessary is out helping our troops. We'll start demobilizing and returning to normalcy as soon as peace negotiations are underway.”
  5217. >Why did he remind her of the conflict?
  5218. >He lifted his cup to his lips and took a sip, hoping she would forget about his status.
  5219. >”If we can find a solution to this extradimensional crisis first, that is. Speaking of which...”
  5220. >He very nearly spewed the tea out of his mouth.
  5221. >Calm.
  5222. >Stay calm.
  5223. >Panicking wouldn't help him.
  5224. >”...I called for some help with this research. They'll arrive soon, and you will go to the train station to pick them up.”
  5225. >He let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
  5226. >Daybreaker looked up from the scroll and at him.
  5227. >She tilted her head a little as she saw his relief, but didn't say anything.
  5229. ***
  5231. >The ear-splitting screech of metal on metal filled Canterlot Central as the lone train with a single carriage came to a halt.
  5232. >Apart from the ponies aboard, the human was the only living being in the massive station complex.
  5233. >He tread down Platform 1 towards the carriage as its door swung open and two unicorns hopped out.
  5234. >A mare and a stallion.
  5235. >They looked familiar.
  5236. >Where had he seen a night blue unicorn stallion with two nested crescent moons on his flank?
  5237. >And a white-and-purple maned gray unicorn mare with three stars on hers?
  5238. >The mare very much like Twilight, only older.
  5239. >And something about the stallion reminded the human of the princess, too.
  5241. “You two must be the ones Princess Celestia summoned for assistance.”
  5242. >He had the friendliest smile he could muster on his face and stretched out his good hand towards the pair.
  5243. >”Is Twily here with you, or are you alone? We haven't heard anything of her for days.”
  5244. >There was a slight waver in the stallion's voice.
  5245. >The pair glanced at each other, worry flashing on their faces, as the human shook his head.
  5246. “It's just me here, to lead you to the castle. Who's Twily, by the way?”
  5247. >They ignored the human's hand as they trotted past him.
  5248. >”Twilight. Our daughter. Have you heard anything of her?”
  5249. >So that's why she looked and sounded so much like Twilight.
  5250. “She's in my- the human world, searching for the ponies who were taken there. She's...”
  5251. >Perhaps it would be best to let Twilight tell of Twin Weaves' fate herself.
  5252. “...doing fine.”
  5254. >His feet thudded on the platform as he took a few running steps to catch up with the ponies.
  5255. “Are you sure you know where you're going? I was told to take you to her.”
  5256. >The mare tapped the stallion's shoulder with a hoof and leaned in to whisper something in the his ear before the pair slowed to a walk.
  5257. >”This is where we live. Of course we know our way around, dear. It's not the first time Princess Celestia asked for our help, either. I was her star pupil once, you know.”
  5258. >She took a few prancing steps, puffed out her chest and stuck her snout up.
  5259. >”I think I passed most of it on to Twily, though. The more advanced spells have evaded me since her birth.”
  5260. >She seemed to deflate as her head sunk.
  5261. >”It's okay, dear. You're perfect just the way you are.”
  5262. >The stallion wrapped a hoof around the mare's neck and pulled her in for a hug.
  5264. ***
  5266. >Eight hooves and two feet clopped and thumped on the cobbled streets of Canterlot, breaking the veil of oppressive silence that hung over the city.
  5267. >”I don't think we ever got the chance to be properly introduced. I'm Twilight Velvet. Adventurer extraordinaire, though I'm now retired.”
  5268. >”And I'm Night Light. The one who ensured she had a bed to sleep in and food to eat whenever she wasn't on some epic quest of utmost importance.”
  5269. >Both the ponies waved a hoof at the human, then leaned towards each other to nuzzle and touch horns.
  5270. >Frrzt!
  5271. >The human flinched and drew a sudden, sharp breath as a bit of magic sparked out.
  5272. >”Oh! Sorry! I forgot Twily said you're afraid of magic.”
  5273. “It's... fine. It's totally fine. I'm getting better. Just, I wasn't expecting that to happen, and...”
  5274. >He rubbed the back of his head with his hand.
  5275. >”We'll try to remember to warn you before using it, then.”
  5277. “Uh, the castle is that way.”
  5278. >The clip-clop of the ponies' hooves on the cobbled street stopped as they turned to look the way he pointed.
  5279. >”We're going to see if our home is still standing first. If the Princess wanted us to go there immediately, she would've said so.”
  5280. >Velvet waved her hoof to get the human to follow her.
  5281. >”Or, was she doing something important when she sent you?”
  5282. >He rolled his eyes and headed after the ponies.
  5283. >It was all he could do, after all.
  5284. “She was studying in the library.”
  5285. >”Hah!”
  5286. >The mare swatted at air.
  5287. >”She'll barely notice even if we're three hours late. Only Twily is worse at losing the track of time while studying.”
  5289. >”It's nowhere near as bad as I feared.”
  5290. >Night Light's gaze slid over a half-burnt building as the trio trotted past it.
  5291. >A part of its roof had collapsed, and long black trails of ash on the walls marked where windows had broken and smoke had billowed out.
  5292. >”I was afraid of near complete destruction with nothing left standing, but it's just a burnt building here and broken windows there.”
  5293. >”I told you you worry too much.”
  5294. >Velvet stroked her husband's barrel with her hoof.
  5295. >”We're going to turn to our home street and see that everything's exactly as we left it. Even your precious stamp collection will be on the table you last sorted it on.”
  5297. >The human watched and listened as Velvet and Night Light chit-chatted about mundane stuff.
  5298. >He...
  5299. >He wasn't quite certain of how he felt.
  5300. >A certain warmth spread to his insides as memories of his own past resurfaced.
  5301. >Walking home from school with a friend, babbling about games, TV shows, and the teachers.
  5302. >Sitting on the sofa with another friend, a controller in hand and a can of beer waiting on the floor, listening to him rant about his problems with the opposite gender.
  5303. >He missed the kind of freeflowing chatter between people who knew and trusted each other.
  5304. >But the two ponies in front of him, no matter how innocuous they looked and sounded, were not people.
  5305. >The memory of dark, magical fog slithering into his nose and mouth and down his windpipe resurfaced among the others.
  5306. >A shiver traveled from his head all the way down to his toes.
  5307. >He drew a long, deep breath, just to prove he could.
  5309. ***
  5311. >Twilight Velvet and the human sat in the kitchen, with teacups waiting on the table in front of them.
  5312. >The cups had hand-painted flower motifs on them, and shiny gold-colored trimming.
  5313. >The chairs they sat on, and the table between them, were made of a dark, dense wood, and their legs were covered in intricate carvings.
  5314. >”I think it's all here! Just let me check the last two...”
  5315. >Night Light's voice carried from upstairs, muffled and distorted from reflecting off walls so many times.
  5316. >”Yes, dear, we know. Now come drink your tea before it gets cold!”
  5317. >Velvet's shout echoed for the shortest while.
  5318. >She let out a little sigh and shook her head.
  5320. >”Anyways. May I offer you something to eat? You look so thin. Or is that just a human thing?”
  5321. >Her gaze fixed on the human, and on how bony he looked.
  5322. “Um...”
  5323. >A desire to slink under the table welled up inside him.
  5324. >He looked down at the teacup.
  5325. “Well, I wasn't fed too well when I was imprisoned. I guess it's left its mark.”
  5326. >His voice came out quiet.
  5327. >A memory of eating leathery cabbage with flecks of charcoal in it floated to the forefront of his mind.
  5328. “But you don't have to worry about me. I'm sure I'll be back to my former glory in no time, now that I get to eat properly.”
  5329. >”Let an old mare have her fun. Shiny has Cadence to look after him, Twily has both Spike and her friends, and Flurry isn't old enough. I mean, who else do I have to spoil?”
  5330. >Velvet hopped off the chair.
  5331. >”I think I left some crackers around here somewhere. Those should still be edible. Oh, and prepare for magic.”
  5332. >Her horn lit up, and some cupboards flew open.
  5333. >The human rolled his eyes and sipped some tea.
  5335. “Should I help you look?”
  5336. >Watching Velvet rear up as she looked on the topmost shelf of each cupboard, only to find them empty, made him feel uneasy.
  5337. >Though he wasn't especially tall for a human, he was still far taller than normal ponies.
  5338. >Which meant he could both see and reach the top shelf with no extra effort.
  5339. >”No- ngh!”
  5340. >The mare stood up on her hindlegs once again.
  5341. >”I just need to remember where I left it.”
  5342. >Th-thud.
  5343. >Her forehooves fell back to the floor.
  5344. >”Besides, you're the one with a hurt limb.”
  5345. >Another cupboard flew open.
  5346. >”Oh, there it is. Sorry it's a bit plain, but we have to make do with what we have.”
  5347. >In it, on the top shelf and so far back it was almost out of sight, was a single packet of crackers.
  5348. >Velvet's glow enveloped it, and it floated onto the table.
  5350. >”It's all there!”
  5351. >A widely-grinning Night Light trotted into the kitchen.
  5352. >”Oh, I didn't know there would be something to eat.”
  5353. >He stopped next to his wife, wrapped a hoof around her shoulder, and nuzzled the side of her neck.
  5354. >”Mmh. Hi. How's the back yard? Anything left alive?”
  5355. >Velvet reached up with a hoof and ruffled her husband's mane.
  5356. >”Nope! It's all brown and dead.”
  5357. >”Hah. And you're already looking forward to planning and planting a new garden, aren't you?”
  5358. >The couple let go of each other.
  5359. >Night Light pulled back the chair next to Velvet and sat on it.
  5360. >”Maybe. What were you talking about, by the way? I... didn't listen too closely.”
  5361. >He reached out and pulled the packet of crackers to him, then dug one out.
  5362. “I was telling of the ponies that Princess Twilight and I rescued. Misty Slate and Spring Wind, and what they told us of their time in my world.”
  5363. >Crunch.
  5364. >The stallion bit into his cracker.
  5365. >”Oh. Did I interrupt? Do go on.”
  5367. ***
  5369. “She's studying extradimensional beings. I think it's better if I let her explain why, but I can tell you that it's very important.”
  5370. >The human, along with Velvet, waited in the lavishly-furnished hall.
  5371. >The paintings lining the walls were first-grade copies and the carpets were plush, colorful, and woven from real wool.
  5372. >”Yyyeah. I may have read about that.”
  5373. >Velvet rubbed the back of her head with a hoof.
  5374. >”There was that letter addressed to Twilight and I kinda opened it. Of course it was meant for Twily, but...”
  5375. >She glanced back at the stairs behind her.
  5376. >Night Light said he 'had to grab a few things' before they'd leave for the castle.
  5377. >”...I'm sure she won't mind. So, I know what happened.”
  5378. >Her hooves tread the plush carpet as she got closer to the human.
  5379. >”I admit that all this is making me worried. Why is she asking me of all ponies? I'm under no illusion that I'm something special. Haven't been since Twily's birth.”
  5380. >She couldn't quite keep her gaze fixed at one spot, and her voice was both quiet and shaky.
  5381. “I know just as little as you do. Probably even less.”
  5382. >She was within arm's reach.
  5383. >Too close.
  5384. >But he didn't push her away.
  5385. >Though a part of his mind screamed at him for it, he'd decided to trust this mare.
  5386. >”Maybe she has h-”
  5388. >The thud of hooves on the stairs interrupted them.
  5389. >”Sorry to keep you waiting.”
  5390. >Night Light had saddlebags, embroidered with the same nested crescents he had on his flank, hanging over his barrel.
  5391. >They were fully laden with books, and had quills poking out from under the flap.
  5392. >”Are you sure you got everything you'll need, dear? It's a fifteen minute walk to the castle.”
  5393. >Velvet had a brow raised as she looked at her husband's load.
  5394. >The sarcasm in her voice was so thick it was impossible to miss.
  5395. >”Yeah. I double checked. Should I triple check to make sure?”
  5396. >...for most.
  5397. >Velvet let out a sigh and rolled her eyes.
  5398. >”No, you don't have to.”
  5399. >She pushed the door open.
  5401. ***
  5403. >Velvet and Night Light's hoofsteps echoed in the halls of the castle.
  5404. >The human trailed behind the ponies since the mare claimed – and looked like – she knew her way around.
  5405. >Why had the Princess even sent him to meet them?
  5406. >If she wanted some time alone, she could've just told him to leave.
  5407. >Or did she value formalities that much?
  5409. >”Hey, we-”
  5410. >Velvet froze for a single heartbeat when she saw Daybreaker's flaming mane.
  5411. >”-we're here.”
  5412. >A twinge of wariness remained in her voice.
  5413. >”Ah, Twilight Velvet. It has been a while.”
  5414. >The alicorn spun around on her seat and extended a hoof towards Velvet.
  5415. >”You read the letter I sent you, right?”
  5416. >Night Light remained still as his wife trotted towards the Princess.
  5417. >”Is that...?”
  5418. >His voice was but a whisper, just loud enough for the human next to him to hear.
  5419. “She calls herself Princess Celestia. Princess Twilight calls her Daybreaker. She... wasn't always on fire.”
  5420. >The alicorn's ear twitched and swiveled towards the pair.
  5421. >”I... see.”
  5422. >”I understand your suspicion, Night Light. Would it help if I told you what happened?”
  5423. >The Princess looked up from the book she and Velvet perused, and at the stallion.
  5424. >”Perhaps you could then help me convince your daughter to give up her plan of using the Elements on me, at least for the time being.”
  5426. >”Through here.”
  5427. >Orange magic enveloped a single book in a nondescript bookshelf in one back corner of the Royal Library.
  5428. >There was a grating sound, then the whole shelf moved back into the wall and slid to the side.
  5429. >Behind it was a passage which led to a very dusty and cobweb-riddled room, made of rough stone and just high enough for the Princess to stand in, that was packed to the brim with bookshelves and chests.
  5430. >”This is where Luna and I hid some of the less than exemplary results of ponykind's magic research. Such as the notes of Cherry Rock, or Grimhoof the Fallen as he is better known.”
  5431. >Velvet and Night Light remained outside, their mouths hanging open and eyes wide, as Celestia and the human tread in.
  5432. >”Everything else in here is best left forgotten.”
  5434. >A tingling sensation spread all over the human's skin as he passed through the secret door.
  5435. >For a split-second, he was plunged into complete and utter darkness.
  5436. >Then there was a flash of orange and his sight returned.
  5437. >He found himself lying on the floor with no memory of falling down.
  5438. >Three ponies loomed above him, each with worry on their face.
  5439. “Huh? What was that?”
  5440. >”That was a stun ray from one of the wards me and Luna set up when we sealed this place. My apologies.”
  5441. >A whitish-orange hoof, clad in a red metal horseshoe, extended towards him.
  5442. >”Don't worry, it didn't harm you. We know our spells.”
  5443. >After a short second of staring at it, he grabbed the hoof with his good hand.
  5444. >Celestia pulled him back on his feet.
  5445. “Huh.”
  5446. >Why was she suddenly so helpful?
  5447. >Was it the pink tint of her eyes that he'd first noticed on the train to Canterlot?
  5448. >Or the ponies with them?
  5450. >Slam.
  5451. >A thick tome fell on a table.
  5452. >”I ask that you never mention what you're about to see and hear.”
  5453. >Night Light's rear hooves crossed as the Princess stared at him.
  5454. >”Velvet I know and trust, and he-”
  5455. >Celestia nudged her head in the direction of the human.
  5456. >”-doesn't know enough about magic to learn anything.”
  5457. >”He is the most reliable pony I know, Princess. A little absent-minded at times, but with a heart of gold.”
  5458. >Velvet zipped to her husband's side, wrapped a hoof around his shoulders, and pinned him to her side.
  5459. >”Come on, dear. You don't have to flatter me like that.”
  5460. >The unicorns rubbed their cheeks together, then exchanged a quick kiss.
  5461. >Celestia watched them with an unreadable expression on her face.
  5463. ***
  5465. >”...so the Tree of Harmony taps into the same power that courses deep beneath Equestria. The very same that seeps up from the ground for us to use as magic.”
  5466. >The three ponies sat at the table, their eyes glued on the tome as Princess Celestia explained the point of each page.
  5467. >The human was far less interested.
  5468. >He understood next to nothing of what he heard, which is why he'd pulled a random book off a nearby shelf and now flipped through its pages.
  5469. >”Little is known about where this power comes from, or why it's there. Any known attempts to tap directly into it have ended in insanity.”
  5470. >It was a children's book.
  5471. >A story about young pegasus so fascinated with books that she felt like she was born the wrong race.
  5472. >”The exact cause remains unknown, but Cherry Rock theorized it is because Shadows live in this energy and slip through and into the mind of any pony attempting such a thing.”
  5473. >The little filly read, and read, and read.
  5474. >But it did not help her understand why she did not have a horn with which to utilize the spells she learned.
  5475. >”We do not know which was wrong: his theory, or his presumption that sunlight would purge this energy. What we do know is how he tapped into this power, and that he did not immediately succumb to madness.”
  5476. >So she read even more.
  5477. >Surely there had to be some way for a pegasus to use magic.
  5478. >”See what he writes here: 'I can feel it gnawing at my mind. Whispering. Suggesting I let it take over. It promises more power. More than the alicorns have.'”
  5479. >But the little filly found no such thing.
  5480. >So she decided to make her own magic.
  5481. >”And that is what happened to us. We can feel it gnawing at our minds. Whispering. Suggesting we let it take over.”
  5482. >And make magic she did.
  5483. >She wrote the most wondrous of spells any pony had ever seen.
  5484. >It is then she realized that real magic is not about magic itself, but about helping others.
  5485. >Which was what her spells were doing.
  5486. >”Unlike Grimhoof, we are not about to give in to the temptation.”
  5488. >The silence was broken only when the human slammed his book shut.
  5489. >Three pairs of eyes bolted to him, all wide open.
  5490. >Three gasps of various intensities sounded out.
  5491. “Oh. Sorry. It's just... I didn't really understand what you were on about, so I picked this book from the children's section to pass the time with.”
  5492. >He lifted the book up to his chest and showed the cover.
  5493. >”You can go wash Luna if you're bored. You know where to find hot water, soap, a sponge and a towel, right?”
  5494. >Washing stuff, washing stu-
  5495. >Right, in the bathroom he used last night.
  5496. “Yeah. I do.”
  5498. ***
  5500. >There was one problem.
  5501. >Nightmare Moon was heavy, and he wasn't allowed to carry anything heavy because of his broken ribs.
  5502. >So he couldn't get her to the bathroom.
  5503. >He stood there for a while, watching the mare's chest rise and fall with her breathing, and stroked his chin.
  5504. >Putting an unconscious pony in a bath tub probably wasn't a good idea anyways.
  5505. >So what if he brought some water here and washed her where she lied?
  5506. >It wouldn't get her as clean, but it would be better than nothing.
  5507. >But how would he keep the bed from getting wet?
  5508. >He looked down at his right hand and pinched its forefinger.
  5509. >Nothing.
  5510. >He felt nothing.
  5511. >If only it wasn't so useless.
  5512. >Maybe he could be of some help to others, instead of being just a burden.
  5513. >The chair at Luna's desk scraped on the floor as he pulled it back and sat on it.
  5514. >What could he do?
  5515. >Go back and ask for advice?
  5516. >After they sent him away because he was in the way?
  5518. >Perhaps he was too harsh on himself.
  5519. >It wasn't his fault.
  5520. >He looked at the pitch black mare lying close to him.
  5521. >But could he blame her, either?
  5522. >Yes, she was the cause, but she tried to make up for it.
  5523. >And now she lied there, with no guarantee that she'd ever wake up.
  5524. >He let out a sigh, pushed himself to his feet, and tread to the bed.
  5525. >For a while he just watched her breathe.
  5526. >'We can feel it gnawing at our minds.'
  5527. >Her coat was as smooth as silk as he reached out and stroked her neck.
  5529. >A quiet creak was the only sound she made.
  5530. >That was from the hinges as the door swung shut behind her.
  5531. >Celestia's gaze met that of the human.
  5532. >”Trouble moving her?”
  5533. >He nodded.
  5534. >Her lips curled into a smile.
  5535. >”I realized I should be the one doing it. Velvet is more than capable of- what's that on your hand?”
  5536. >The princess' brow scrunched, her eyes narrowed, and her horn lit up in orange.
  5537. >A sinking feeling spread into the human's stomach as his heart skipped a beat.
  5538. >His hand shot off Luna's coat like it was a red hot stove.
  5539. >Strings of sticky, dark liquid connected his palm to her.
  5540. “Aaah!”
  5541. >He stumbled backwards.
  5542. >The strands were severed by a blade of orange light.
  5543. >Even more orange enveloped his hand.
  5544. >”I can't-”
  5545. >The darkness seeped into his skin.
  5546. >A wave of dizziness passed through him...
  5548. >...and then it was gone.
  5549. >Like nothing happened.
  5550. >He stared at his palm with his mouth hanging open.
  5551. >It didn't look wrong.
  5552. >It didn't feel wrong.
  5553. >He squeezed his hand into a fist, then spread it open again.
  5554. >It didn't move wrong.
  5555. >”How do you feel? Anything wrong?”
  5556. >Fist. Open. Fist. Open.
  5557. >His brow furrowed.
  5558. “I... don't think so?”
  5559. >He pulled back his sleeve to see his wrist and arm.
  5560. >They looked the same as always.
  5561. >”Well then. Let's hope it stays that way.”
  5562. >Celestia's hoofsteps filled the room with their clip-clop.
  5563. >”You said something similar filled her wound when... when it happened, didn't you? It shouldn't hurt you.”
  5564. >The human flinched as her orange glow enveloped his hand and forced it around.
  5565. >She leaned in for a closer look, caring little of how he squirmed.
  5566. >”It looks fine and I can't feel anything wrong with you.”
  5567. >The magic vanished.
  5568. >He pulled his hand close to his chest and turned sideways, shielding it from both her attention and her magic.
  5570. ---
  5572. Chapter 6
  5574. >Twilight Sparkle was tardy.
  5575. >She could blame neither the car she was in, nor its driver.
  5576. >The man in black drove well and was slightly ahead of schedule, when he turned off the main road and onto the gravel path leading to the Rift.
  5577. >She couldn't blame the wiry stallion sitting next to her, either.
  5578. >Persimon Slice had done everything he could to make finding him easier.
  5580. >No, the only one Twilight could blame for her tardiness was herself.
  5581. >But she had to make the choice she did!
  5582. >There just weren't any other options!
  5583. >Not even after she saw Daybreaker and Nightmare Moon blackmail the United Nations Special Assembly.
  5584. >The sisters demanded – and got – five thousand humans in exchange for a promise to close the Rift.
  5585. >What was she supposed to do when she saw it live on TV?
  5586. >Abandon her task and rush to confront the royal siblings?
  5587. >Alone, without the Elements?
  5589. >Changed or not, the Princesses wouldn't leave her and the ponies she was rescuing trapped in another world.
  5590. >That was Twilight's sole lifeline.
  5591. >Her friends waited in Ponyville, done with their portion of the rescue operation.
  5592. >She'd bring Persimon, the last pony in the human world, back home and reunite with her friends.
  5593. >Then they'd find the Elements one way or another.
  5594. >And restore Equestria to its former glory.
  5595. >Starting with Celestia and Luna.
  5596. >Returning the humans would be easy once the sisters were back to normal.
  5598. >Or would be, if Twilight wasn't tardy.
  5599. >It'd taken her a full week to find Persimon.
  5600. >There was a chance that Daybreaker and Nightmare Moon had devised a way to close the Rift, and would do so as soon as Twilight got through.
  5601. >She should've asked her friends to come with her.
  5602. >But she hadn't.
  5603. >At least they'd had ample time to visit the Crystal Empire.
  5604. >Cadence was the lone twinkling light in the otherwise gloomy situation.
  5605. >She was more than smart enough to use the bureaucracy and formalities her position gave access to.
  5606. >Surely she'd delayed the Royal Sisters enough to give Twilight a chance.
  5608. ***
  5610. >The Rift felt different.
  5611. >Quiet and still.
  5612. >There were no ethereal shapes in the mist, and no whispers in Twilight's ears.
  5613. >But she had more pressing matters on her mind and trotted to Equestria without stopping.
  5615. >”Attention! Princess in the camp!”
  5616. >A sudden shout threw Twilight's mind into confusion.
  5617. >She'd specifically instructed the guard to treat her like she was nothing more than Celestia's pupil.
  5618. >Then she recognized the source: a human guard.
  5619. >She shook her body, only to realize there were no tendrils grasping it, before glancing behind herself to see Persimon emerge from the Rift.
  5621. >Neither Daybreaker nor Nightmare Moon were in the camp.
  5622. >That was, Twilight thought, a good sign.
  5623. >It meant she at least had a chance to make things right.
  5624. >And that she could make sure the pony she'd rescued got home.
  5625. >She glanced at the earth pony stallion trotting beside her.
  5626. “You said you live in Baltimare?”
  5627. >Persimon wrenched his gaze from the camp around them and looked at Twilight.
  5628. >”Yeah. Although, I haven't been around to pay my rent for quite a while now, so I'm not sure I still have a home.”
  5629. “Don't worry about that. The Royal Treasury will recoup any missed payments, and we've got temporary shelters set up in Ponyville. You'll have a place to sleep in.”
  5631. ***
  5633. >Something nudged Twilight's shoulder.
  5634. >She thought she was alone on her boat made of books, sailing the sea of ink.
  5635. >And reading.
  5636. >The boat was a very good read.
  5637. >Though, now that she thought about it, a boat made of books was...
  5639. “Bwuh?”
  5640. >She cracked open her eyelids.
  5641. >The dim light of a lantern illuminated the canvas of the tent she slept in.
  5642. >”My apologies for waking you this early, Princess.”
  5643. >A human sat beside her.
  5644. >Her human.
  5645. >He looked a bit different.
  5646. >His right arm was no longer in a sling but hung limply by his side, and he had proper, fitting clothes on him.
  5647. >”Princess Celestia sent me to get you as soon as she heard of your return. She requests your immediate assistance on a matter of utmost importance.”
  5648. >He gestured with his left hand as he spoke, which made the limpness of his right arm all the more apparent.
  5649. “Huh. What's... How's your arm?”
  5650. >Sleep still muddled Twilight's thoughts and made her only think of what she saw.
  5651. >His words echoed in the back of her mind, but didn't mean anything to her.
  5652. >”The joint healed perfectly. The nerve did not. Now, are you ready to go? The train's waiting.”
  5653. >The train...?
  5654. >The words clicked together in Twilight's brain all of a sudden.
  5655. “Princess Celestia needs...? What's it about?”
  5656. >She squirmed out of her warm and comfortable sleeping bag.
  5657. >”I wasn't told.”
  5659. “I hope Persimon Slice won't be too upset with this.”
  5660. >Twilight kept her voice down as they made their way through the camp.
  5661. >Stars speckled the sky above them, but a pre-dawn glow was visible on the horizon.
  5662. >The weather was as hot and dry as it'd been when she started her mission in the human world.
  5663. >”The pony you brought back with you?”
  5664. “Yeah. He wasn't sure if he has a home to return to.”
  5665. >She wasn't sure if going to Canterlot was the right thing.
  5666. >Her friends wouldn't be there.
  5667. >But Daybreaker couldn't have fallen low enough to lay a trap.
  5668. >Not for a pony.
  5669. >”Will he be fine? Should I stay behind to make sure?”
  5670. >What could she need help with, anyways?
  5671. >Something even she couldn't handle?
  5672. >And why'd she sent the human instead of a letter?
  5673. “The camp commander knows what to do. You don't have to worry about it.”
  5675. ***
  5677. >Cla-clack. Cla-clack. Cla-clack.
  5678. >The train's wheels clacked in a steady rhythm as they passed from one piece of track to another.
  5679. >The forest beside the tracks grew ever so slowly brighter as dawn approached.
  5680. >Shades of dead brown still dominated the forest, the usual vibrant greens being but a memory, now even more so than when Twilight had left.
  5682. >Had anything happened while she was gone?
  5683. >Had there been any word of her friends?
  5684. >Or about the five thousand humans who were now in Equestria?
  5685. >Questions churned in her mind, but she couldn't ask for answers.
  5686. >The human's head rested against the window.
  5687. >His eyelids were squeezed shut, and his breathing slow and steady.
  5688. >She didn't want to wake him.
  5689. >Not even to ask how he'd been.
  5690. >She chose to lay down on the seat instead.
  5691. >It was hard and pressed on her side, but she did her best to ignore it.
  5692. >She managed to push the questions out of her mind.
  5694. >”Princess? It's time to wake up.”
  5695. >Something soft and warm shook her back.
  5696. “Bluh?”
  5697. >She'd only meant to take a short nap.
  5698. “Where are- Oh. We're here.”
  5699. >A quick rub of her eyes let her recognize the familiar outskirts of Canterlot whizzing past them.
  5700. >She hopped off her seat, then shook herself like a wet dog.
  5701. “Nnh! I forgot to ask, but how have you been? Were you treated well?”
  5702. >The sudden rush of blood made her feel so much more awake.
  5703. >”I am fine. My ribs have healed already. The biggest problem has been boredom – I haven't been of much help in the research – but I have been treated well.”
  5704. >He sounded more formal than he used to.
  5705. >Twilight wasn't sure what to make of it.
  5706. >Was he trying to be polite?
  5707. >Had they beat him again?
  5708. “They have? That's great! What kind of research?”
  5709. >She hopped back on her seat.
  5710. >”I'm afraid there isn't much I can tell you. They're trying to find information about something in the library. I was told I do not know enough about the subject to be helpful, so it's better if I let them explain it.”
  5711. “They?”
  5712. >The two of them glanced at each other, Twilight with an arched brow and the human with pursed lips and a finger on his chin.
  5713. >”I never told you, did I? Your parents have been helping Princess Celestia with her research. They'll probably be waiting for you at the station.”
  5715. ***
  5717. “Mom! Dad!”
  5718. >Twilight's wings beat the air as she leaped out of the carriage.
  5719. >”Twily!”
  5720. >Thump!
  5721. >Four hooves wrapped around her the moment she thudded into her father's chest.
  5722. >”I'm so relieved to see you're okay!”
  5723. >She wrapped her own hooves around her parents' necks and pulled them in for a hug.
  5724. “Bah! Mom, you knew I'd be fine. I've been through worse.”
  5726. >A thump from behind told her that her human had hopped off the train as well.
  5727. >After one last nuzzle, she returned her front hooves to the ground and turned to face him.
  5728. “We should-”
  5729. >His face was downcast and the corners of his mouth drooped.
  5730. >Twilight glanced behind herself, at her parents, then looked back at him.
  5731. >He'd lifted his face and forced a smile on his face.
  5732. “Something on your mind?”
  5733. >”We shouldn't leave Princess Celestia waiting.”
  5734. >He tread past the ponies without meeting Twilight's eyes.
  5735. “What am I supposed to do with him?”
  5736. >Twilight kept her voice down so only her mother and father heard her.
  5737. >”You could wait until he's ready to speak, or you could order him to speak. But let's not keep him waiting.”
  5738. >Night Light nudged both his wife and daughter, then nodded towards the human's receding back.
  5740. ***
  5742. “How long have they been here?”
  5743. >Twilight watched a shirtless human male, one that looked stockier than her human, stomp on his shovel to sink it into a pile of rubble.
  5744. >He threw a passing glance at Twilight as he lifted a shovelful of ash, wood splinters, and glass shards, then tilted his shovel to drop it in a wheelbarrow.
  5745. >”The first group came a day after the announcement, five days ago.”
  5746. >Velvet's voice had a hint of wariness to it.
  5747. >Her eyes narrowed the slightest bit as she looked at the human clearing out a burnt-down building.
  5748. >”Celestia said they're here to help with the rebuild. But I think it's better if you ask her about it.”
  5749. >She waved her hoof towards the direction of Canterlot Castle.
  5750. “Huh. I didn't think she'd let them in Canterlot.”
  5751. >Had something changed?
  5752. >Daybreaker used to have humans.
  5753. >Twilight tore her gaze off the shirtless human, shook her head, and trotted off behind her mother.
  5755. ***
  5757. ”Okay.”
  5758. >Twilight threw herself onto a bed and let her hooves fall limp.
  5759. >Each of them ended up pointing in a different direction.
  5760. >She let out a deep sigh and stared at the ceiling and its mosaic tiling, hoping to relax.
  5761. >But the tension didn't drain from her muscles.
  5762. >She still felt twitchy and her tail swished back and forth.
  5763. “Nightmare Moon wanted to enslave humanity, but Daybreaker talked her out of it and got her to settle on 5000 humans. On top of that, Daybreaker and my parents discovered a way to close the Rift that probably won't result in an apocalypse for either side, but they're not entirely sure of that, so they want those humans to stay in Equestria while they do that so your species won't go extinct.”
  5764. >It was evening, and she'd just spent the whole day with Daybreaker, listening to her explain what'd happened.
  5765. >The human stared at Twilight as she had to pause to gasp for breath.
  5766. “And it turns out Luna and Celestia sacrificed their sanities for power to save Equestria, and now they're fighting some beings from the underworld in their heads. And Daybreaker thinks Nightmare Moon has lost her battle, but isn't completely sure of this since Luna wasn't like the rest of us with her dream walking. Oh, and you can put the box down on that table.”
  5767. >She pointed at the guest room's desk with a hoof, then let the hoof fall on her forehead.
  5769. “What am I supposed to do?”
  5770. >...at least she had the Elements of Harmony back.
  5771. >She glanced at the bejeweled box, which her human had set on the desk.
  5772. >”I can get you some tea if that'd help.”
  5773. >But would they make everything right again?
  5774. >Was even their power enough?
  5775. “Naw. Just... come here.”
  5776. >She patted the bed with one hoof.
  5777. >Her human stared at her for a second, then sat down on the patted spot.
  5778. >Twilight squirmed and crept until her head rested on his thigh.
  5779. >Its soothing warmth spread into the back of her head.
  5780. >She let out a sigh.
  5781. “Haah. Somtimes, I feel like I want to lock myself in a library and not come out until the problem's gone.”
  5782. >As much as she wished to, she couldn't do that.
  5783. >Not with the fate of Celestia and Luna resting on her.
  5784. >She flopped onto her side, so she faced away from her human, and shut her eyes.
  5786. ”But enough about me. How are you doing? Were you treated well while I was gone?”
  5787. >She drew a sudden, sharp breath as something touched her mane.
  5788. >The human's palm smoothed the frazzled strands of hair sticking out, sending out waves of relaxation.
  5789. >”I spent most of the time with Night Light and Velvet. They treated me well.”
  5790. >His fingers dug into her mane at the base of her ear.
  5791. “Mmh. Good.”
  5792. >Tiny ripples of pleasure spread from where his finger scritched.
  5793. >Her ear flicked as his knuckles grazed it.
  5794. >”Your father's cooking is something even I can't match. Well, couldn't match. Can't do much now that I'm one handed.”
  5795. >Even Spike couldn't match Night Light's cooking.
  5796. >Just the memory of it filled Twilight's mouth with saliva.
  5797. >Maybe she'd have time to have dinner with her family?
  5798. “Did he do his cheese cauli? That's the best thing he does. I don't know what he puts in it that makes it so good. Spike tried replicating it a few times, but couldn't figure it out either. Not that his attempts were bad, just not as heavenly.”
  5800. “So what do you think of all this? It's your world on the line, not mine.”
  5801. >Twilight lay on her stomach, with her wings spread eagle.
  5802. >”I trust your judgment, Princess.”
  5803. >Her human's fingers ran between her feathers, smoothing and straightening them.
  5804. >Twilight rolled her eyes at his words, despite knowing he couldn't see the gesture.
  5805. “Just tell me how you feel about it.”
  5806. >Silence.
  5807. >Twilight's wing twitched as he plucked out a bit of loose down that'd got stuck on a living feather.
  5808. >”I'm afraid.”
  5809. >His fingers stopped.
  5810. >”I'd accepted that I wouldn't go back home, but now I'm afraid for my friends. My parents. All of them. Will they be just gone?”
  5811. >His voice wavered the tiniest bit.
  5812. >”I always thought I'd eventually get to go back – maybe it'd take years, maybe even a decade or two – but if there's no home to return to, then... Then what am I? A pet? A toy, something to be cast aside as soon as you grow bored?”
  5813. >It was Twilight's turn to be left speechless.
  5814. “I- I haven't thought that far. There's so much to worry about in the present that I haven't thought of the future. If I can't stop Nightmare Moon, I'm not sure if it'll even matter. I've seen a future where I lost to her. She's not someone who'll forgive an attempt to stop her. Daybreaker is more of a question, but I don't think she's up to any good, either.”
  5815. >But even if she stopped them, would Luna and Celestia return?
  5816. “I'll do everything I can to stop them from risking your world. I promise.”
  5817. >He said nothing in response.
  5818. >His fingers returned to Twilight's feathers, plucking out another bit of loose down.
  5820. ***
  5822. >Twilight wasn't quite sure when she fell asleep.
  5823. >She just knew that when she cracked open her eyelids at one point, she was lying under covers instead of having her head on her human's thigh.
  5824. >That, and the ceiling had changed from mosaic tiles to crystal glass.
  5826. >A full moon hung high above her, so radiant it drowned out all but the brightest stars.
  5827. >She pushed the covers off herself, taking care to not bother the human sleeping next to her.
  5828. >Though she was asleep and reality could be different, seeing him there instead of curled up on the floor made a warm smile spread on Twilight's face.
  5829. >”He is sleeping next to you. You can feel how his weight causes a depression on the mattress, and your dream changed to accommodate.”
  5830. >The slow and deep voice, like that of someone who'd just waken up, felt oddly familiar.
  5831. >Twilight craned her neck to look at its source, an earth pony mare with half-lidded eyes and very faint orange coat.
  5833. “Who are you?”
  5834. >Her brow furrowed as she tried to recall what she'd read about Luna's Dreamwalking magic.
  5835. >Luna wasn't the only one with such a talent, but there were only seven others, and Twilight didn't remember reading about anypony like the mare in front of her.
  5836. >”Haven.”
  5837. >She definitely hadn't seen that name in the book.
  5838. >”I'm not listed in the books because-”
  5839. >Haven lifted a hoof off the floor and covered her lips with it.
  5840. >What'd she meant?
  5841. >She had a secret, but what and why?
  5842. >The mare shook her head and returned her hoof to the floor.
  5843. >”Somepony needs your help.”
  5844. >She squeezed her half-lidded eyes shut.
  5845. >Everything disappeared.
  5846. >Everything but Twilight and Haven.
  5847. >Twilight felt like she was falling, and flapped her wings to slow herself.
  5848. >But it changed nothing.
  5849. >A massive wave of vertigo made her fall to her knees.
  5850. “Nngh. What-”
  5851. >”There.”
  5853. >Twilight and Haven stood on the edge of a tiny island of ash-covered dirt floating over nothingness.
  5854. >Princess Luna sat in the middle of the island, with her back towards Twilight.
  5855. >Her head hung limp at the end of her neck, and her wings were draped on the ground instead of being folded on her sides.
  5856. >Her ears were pressed flat against her skull.
  5857. “Princess Luna?”
  5859. >”Twilight.”
  5860. >One of her ears swiveled upright and turned towards the newcomers.
  5861. >”You are here to lecture me on my mistake.”
  5862. >Her voice was utterly deadpan.
  5863. “No! I'm- I'm not even sure what I'm here for. Why did you-”
  5864. >Twilight glanced at Haven, only to realize the mare was nowhere to be seen.
  5865. “...Haven?”
  5867. >”She knows what I did. I don't blame her for leaving.”
  5868. >Luna pushed herself on her hooves and swung around.
  5869. >Trails of dried tears ran down from her eyes.
  5870. >She didn't look straight at Twilight, but rather at a spot between them.
  5871. “Are you blaming yourself for what Nightmare Moon did? That's not-”
  5872. >”No, Twilight. My mistake was letting it take control. I was selfish and accepted her offer instead of fulfilling my duty as Equestria's guardian.”
  5873. >Her eyes locked with Twilight's as she tread closer.
  5874. >”Now it roams Equestria, free to do as it wishes. And I'm stuck here.”
  5875. >She did a sweeping motion with her hoof, directed at the center of the tiny island they stood on.
  5876. “You did what? I- I don't understand.”
  5877. >Twilight left her lips cracked open as words failed her.
  5878. >Everything was going to be fine.
  5879. >She just had to use the Elements to purge Nightmare Moon and Daybreaker out of Luna and Celestia.
  5880. >So why did Luna act like that?
  5881. >”Would it help if I showed you?”
  5882. >Luna's horn flashed blue, and a bubble with an image in it appeared between the alicorns.
  5883. >The image showed the Rift.
  5884. >Only there was a gargantuan tentacle coming out of it.
  5885. >The tentacle had a razor sharp claw on its tip.
  5886. >It was headed straight at the image, at Luna, so fast that everything else seemed to stand still.
  5888. ***
  5890. >Twilight woke up alone.
  5891. >What Luna showed her still haunted her mind.
  5892. >She couldn't blame Luna for making the choice she did.
  5893. >Choosing life wasn't wrong.
  5894. >It couldn't be.
  5895. >Especially when Twilight would make it right again, so there'd be no lasting harm.
  5897. >The sheets were disturbed on the spot where he'd been in the dream, but her human wasn't next to her.
  5898. >She rolled out of bed and trotted across the room to check on the Elements.
  5899. >The familiar glint of gold and gemstones greeted her as she peeked in the box.
  5900. >She let the lid slam shut and headed to the bathroom.
  5901. >The treasures would have enough power to be Luna's salvation.
  5902. >They had to.
  5904. ***
  5906. >A most delicious scent of fried eggs and various herbs and vegetables hung in the air as Twilight trotted into the kitchen.
  5907. >”Oh. Good morning, Princess.”
  5908. >Her human waved his good hand at her.
  5909. >He stood in front of a stove, and had spices and various chopped-up ingredients – ranging from onion to spinach to cherry tomatoes to sliced toast – on a table near him.
  5910. >”Do you want me to give your bread a nice golden brown finish when I'm done with its filling? Or do you prefer it as is?”
  5911. >He nodded at the toast.
  5912. >Her stomach growled.
  5913. “Dab it in oil and fry it for a bit. That's how Spike does it.”
  5914. >He looked so different.
  5915. >Lost in his cooking, a smile on his face and a spatula in hand.
  5916. >Nothing like the human Daybreker gave her.
  5917. >The one who was beaten catatonic.
  5919. “I thought you said you can't do anything one handed.”
  5920. >She could barely keep from drooling as her human set a plate of two egg, cheese and vegetable filled toast burgers down in front of her.
  5921. >”This is just something little. Besides, you got some pretty good tools in here. Celestia said they're for the earth pony and pegasus cooks, but they work just as well for a one-handed human like me.”
  5922. >Fresh basil, fried tomatoes, shredded spinach, melted cheese...
  5923. >Twilight dug in without waiting for him.
  5924. “Mmm! How'h yoo make dis so gooh?”
  5925. >Bite. Nom. Chew.
  5926. >”Hm. The pan was a little too hot for the bread. It's a little burnt.”
  5927. >Gulp.
  5928. “Where'd you get the idea to make breakfast anyways?”
  5929. >She'd devoured one half of her meal before looking up at her human.
  5930. >He held his lone egg sandwich/toast burger in his hand, and had taken a bite off the corner.
  5931. >”I ran into Celestia when I came to get something for myself. She looked nervous, and talked about their plan to close the Rift, and how she wants you and your friends to be there in case something goes wrong.”
  5932. >He bit into his sandwich.
  5933. >Twilight followed suit.
  5934. >A short moment of intense chewing ensued.
  5935. >Gulp.
  5936. >”I thought I'd make a decent meal for you since we don't know how long it'll take. So you don't get tired.”
  5938. >Twilight shivered.
  5939. >She hadn't asked when.
  5940. >The mix of tomato, egg and basil in her mouth lost its taste all of a sudden.
  5941. >”Did I say something I shouldn't have? Is there too much salt in it?”
  5942. >A she swallowed her mouthful with loud gulp.
  5943. >It felt like something hard and massive inching down her throat.
  5944. “N- No! Not at all!”
  5945. >Her voice was so high-pitched she didn't even fool herself.
  5946. “I just didn't think it'd happen today!”
  5947. >Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were on their way and should get to Canterlot before noon.
  5948. >She'd thought she'd have time to go come up with a plan, then explain it to them.
  5949. “I-i-it'll be fine, right? I mean, it's not the first time we're rushing in without a plan or anything.”
  5950. >Her human stared at her in silence.
  5952. ***
  5954. >”Ha! Told you we'd find her here.”
  5955. >Rainbow Dash's voice made Twilight twitch as it broke the silence of the Royal Library.
  5956. >Already!?
  5957. >They weren't supposed to get there until she could find something!
  5958. >Twilight slammed shut the book in front of her and spun around on her seat.
  5959. >Her friends stood at the door, with Rainbow Dash fluttering above them and her human looming behind them.
  5960. “Oh. Hi! I... wasn't expecting you quite yet.”
  5961. >What should she tell them?
  5962. >That she had no clue about what was going to happen, or what they would have to do?
  5963. >”Twilight! Ain't I glad to see you. Can't say I wasn't a wee bit worried when you were gone for a full week after sayin' it'll take at most three days.”
  5964. >Applejack trotted straight to Twilight, threw her hooves around the alicorn and squeezed her into a tight hug.
  5965. >The clip-clop of three sets of hooves and flapping of a pair of wings filled the library as the rest followed behind the earth pony.
  5966. >They enveloped Twilight in toasty pile of hugs.
  5968. >”Say, Twilight, is there some reason why you're reading 'Interdimensional Monsters and how to Deter Them?' Fillies' horror books aren't exactly your style.”
  5969. >Twilight's smile turned into a toothy grin.
  5970. >She'd hoped that choice of literature wouldn't be noticed, but Rarity had an eye for detail like nopony else.
  5971. “Uhm. It's not because we're going to the Rift and there's a slight risk of an unknown monster from another dimension attacking us. Because I... would've found some more reliable source if that was the case. Hehe.”
  5972. >Waves of heat rose to her cheeks as she rubbed her neck with a hoof.
  5973. >”So the rumors about a tentacle beast living in there are true? Maybe it's just misunderstood and only attacked Nightmare Moon because it felt threatened.”
  5974. “Iii don't think that's the case, Fluttershy. It tried to take over Equestria's dreams first. Its attack on Nightmare Moon was a suicide strike as far as we know. There hasn't been a sign of it since, but that could also be because it's hiding and waiting.”
  5975. >Twilight shook her friend's hooves off her.
  5976. >She spread her wings and bent her hooves, then hopped up and beat her wings to stay airborne.
  5978. “Okay. You're probably wondering why you're here.”
  5979. >Her voice had a higher pitch than usual.
  5980. “Nightmare Moon and Daybreaker are planning on closing the Rift, and they're going to do it today. They want us to be there, with the Elements, in case something goes wrong.”
  5981. >Six pairs of eyes were fixed on her.
  5982. >The only ones that made her stomach twist were those of her human.
  5983. >Could she stop them in time?
  5984. >Could she save his world?
  5985. “But there's a risk that they'll end up annihilating the human world. That's why we're going to stop them before they can do it.”
  5986. >Could Daybreaker or Nightmare Moon be listening?
  5987. >The thought made adrenaline surge in her veins.
  5988. >She realized she was drifting upwards as the surge made her wingbeats more powerful.
  5989. “Or that's what I hope will happen.”
  5990. >She folded her wings and fell to the ground with a thud.
  5992. ***
  5994. >”I can't smooth these strands sticking out if you keep squirming like that.”
  5995. >The human ceased his gentle brushstrokes.
  5996. >Twilight shifted around on her seat a little, earning herself a light tap on the shoulder, but still couldn't get comfortable.
  5997. >It wasn't because of the wood stool she sat on or how hot it was in the tent she and her human were in.
  5998. >The chatter of off-duty ponies and hoofsteps of guards patrolling the camp around them wasn't the cause, either.
  5999. >It was because too many thoughts crisscrossed in her head.
  6000. >Would her 'plan' work?
  6001. >Surely, Nightmare Moon and Daybreaker wouldn't trust her.
  6002. >They knew Twilight and her friends would be right behind them, wearing the Elements, as they cast the spell to close the Rift.
  6003. >They had to have a plan B of some sort.
  6004. >Twilight would have one if she were to be in a similar situation.
  6005. “Sorry. I'm just worried. What if they have something up their sleeves, or something happens when we try to zap them with the Elements while they're channeling the spell?”
  6006. >”I'm sure it'll be fine. Just do as I do and push away the bad thoughts.”
  6007. >Twilight drew a deep breath and held it in while he ran the brush down her mane.
  6008. >She imagined her worries as water on her back and let them flow.
  6010. “How does it look? Did you get the worst ones?”
  6011. >The stool was no softer than before, but the thought exercise proved somewhat helpful.
  6012. >Or, at least the human hadn't dared to complain about her squirming.
  6013. >”It's stubborn. But I'm getting there.”
  6014. >”Twilight?”
  6015. >A dry and harsh voice called out from just outside the tent.
  6016. >A hoof clad in a red metal shoe drew the flap open.
  6017. >Daybreaker stuck her head in.
  6018. >The flickering light of her flaming mane cast dancing shadows all over the tent.
  6019. >”We're about to begin.”
  6020. >Twilight's stomach twisted.
  6021. >The smile on her lips vanished.
  6022. “O-oh. Let me just-”
  6023. >She batted at the human's hand with her hoof.
  6024. “-go get my crown. I'll be right there.”
  6025. >She forced a grin onto her face, acutely aware of how twitchy the corners of her mouth were.
  6026. >”I will hold Nightmare Moon in place long enough for you to do what needs to be done, but not before the Rift and the threat of mankind is gone.”
  6027. >Daybeaker pulled out.
  6028. >The flickering light of her mane and dancing shadows it cast vanished.
  6029. >Twilight's mouth hung open as she stared at where Celestia's head was a second ago.
  6031. ***
  6033. >Twilight watched her friends don their Elements.
  6034. >Her ears registered Pinkie's babbling, but her brain ignored it.
  6035. >Was she doing the right thing?
  6036. >Had she made a mistake in judging Daybreaker?
  6037. >Was it even Daybreaker?
  6038. >Celestia had seen many a war.
  6039. >Had she chosen cruelty because she knew it was the path of least bloodshed?
  6040. >Perhaps cold mathematics proved that sealing the Rift was the best option.
  6041. >But why hadn't she talked with Twilight about any of it?
  6043. >”Is there something on your mind, Twilight?”
  6044. >Fluttershy's soft voice drew Twilight back to the present.
  6045. “Huh? Oh. Um, I'm just not sure if we should stop them. Before the spell that is.”
  6046. >She just couldn't make sense of Daybreaker.
  6047. >Or was it Celestia?
  6048. >Why did she suddenly agree to-
  6050. >Twilight's head and ears jerked upright.
  6051. >She froze in place.
  6052. >Of course.
  6053. >Equestria would be safe once the Rift was gone.
  6054. >Celestia wouldn't need Daybreaker after that.
  6055. >Which was why she said she'd hold Nightmare Moon so the Elements could purge both of them.
  6057. >”Twilight? You okay there?”
  6058. >Applejack's orange hoof waved in front of Twilight's eyes.
  6059. “Yes. Yes. Never better!”
  6060. >”You don't look okay to me.”
  6061. >She set a hoof on Twilight's forehead to check her temperature.
  6062. >“You know you can tell us. Keeping it to yourself won't do you no good.”
  6063. “I just realized what Celestia is doing. We'll have to let her close the Rift. It's a calculated risk and she's decided it's the best way to end this crisis.”
  6064. >Five pairs of eyes fixed on her in total silence.
  6065. “She said she'd hold Nigthmare Moon in place for us after they're done with their spell. It's still Celestia in there. We have to trust her.”
  6066. >Her words were met with more silence and wide open eyes.
  6067. >She forced a twitchy smile on her lips.
  6068. >Of course they wouldn't understand.
  6069. >She hadn't explained Grimhoof's ritual to them.
  6070. “It's a long story. I'll explain once we're done. They're going to start any moment now.”
  6072. ***
  6074. >It was utterly and completely quiet.
  6075. >There was no wind to rustle the tents.
  6076. >No birds or even insects chirping or singing.
  6077. >No critters scurrying about in the distance.
  6079. >They all stared at the Rift.
  6080. >Some fifty paces from it stood Daybreaker and Nightmare Moon.
  6081. >Twilight and her friends were lined up at their flank.
  6082. >Behind them stood the human
  6083. >Behind him, the guard.
  6084. >All staring.
  6085. >All waiting.
  6086. >Even the Rift itself seemed to wait for something.
  6087. >Swirls of purple mist flowed on its surface, traveling from left to right.
  6088. >Then they all changed direction at the exact same moment.
  6089. >Their back and forth motion was as regular as the ticking of a clock.
  6091. >Nightmare Moon's and Daybreaker's horns flared up simultaneously.
  6092. >A strand of light erupted out of both of them.
  6093. >Daybreaker's orange strand and Nightmare Moon's blue strand spiraled around each other as they shot towards the Rift.
  6094. >A dim white light flashed at the spot where the twin strands hit the anomaly.
  6096. >For a short second, nothing happened.
  6097. >Then the Royal Sisters, the strands of light connecting their horns to the Rift, floated off the ground.
  6098. >The top edge of the Rift started inching down towards the ground, towards the bottom edge.
  6100. >Flash.
  6101. >So bright it blinded Twilight.
  6102. >Boom.
  6103. >So loud it made her ears ring.
  6104. >Rumble.
  6105. >The ground shook and heaved.
  6106. >So strong she nearly fell over.
  6108. >Her vision returned just in time for her to see it.
  6109. >The purple mist billowing in the Rift parted.
  6110. >Inside it was something enormous.
  6111. >A blob of pure blackness, so dark her brain couldn't understand it.
  6112. >A perfect void of light.
  6113. >And it was passing through the surface, passing through to Equestria!
  6115. Now!
  6116. >She couldn't hear her own voice.
  6117. >The thing suppressed all sound.
  6118. >But it mattered not.
  6119. >She reached deep inside herself for the spark of Friendship.
  6120. >It heeded her call and turned into a raging inferno of power.
  6121. >Raw magic welled inside her as she and her friends floated into the air.
  6122. >Beams of light shot out from each Element, connecting them to each other.
  6123. >Twilight let herself turn into a mere conduit of the Tree of Harmony's power.
  6124. >Waves of laughter, honesty, kindness, courage, generosity, and magic washed over her.
  6125. >A massive beam of rainbow shot up to the sky.
  6127. >But it was too slow.
  6128. >A tentacle from the Being from In-Between appeared from seemingly nowhere and wrapped itself around Twilight's rear hooves.
  6129. >It yanked her, sending her flying towards the rift.
  6130. >She caught one last glance of Equestria.
  6131. >But that one glance filled her with hope.
  6132. >A rainbow beam of light crashed down on the Being.
  6133. >It was no longer a perfectly black void, but glowed in a blinding white light.
  6134. >Two alicorns were silhouetted against the beam as well.
  6135. >It'd hit both targets.
  6136. >A wave of relief spread inside Twilight.
  6138. >Thunk.
  6139. >Pain exploded in her head.
  6141. ***
  6143. >Dark.
  6144. >...no, purple.
  6145. >But cold.
  6146. >She laid on her side.
  6147. >On something.
  6148. >On nothing.
  6149. >On purple.
  6150. >She saw nothing but purple.
  6151. >Swirling purple.
  6152. >Purple mist.
  6153. >She felt like purple mist should remind her of something.
  6154. >But the buzzing in her ears and the pain in her head was too distracting.
  6155. >She felt like purple mist was a bad thing.
  6156. >But why?
  6158. >”Don't look so glum, Twilight.”
  6159. >Twilight's own voice called out for her.
  6160. >Almost her own voice.
  6161. >It was a tiny bit deeper than hers.
  6162. >Hearing it sent a wave of fear through her.
  6163. >She did not want to hear.
  6164. >She did not want to see.
  6165. >She did not want to know.
  6167. >Twilight appeared out of a cloud of mist.
  6168. >Only, it wasn't quite Twilight.
  6169. >Twilight wanted to close her eyes, to close it all out, but she couldn't help looking it.
  6170. >It was purple.
  6171. >The same purple as her.
  6172. >Almost.
  6173. >A bit lighter... and darker at the same time?
  6174. >Twilight was looking at herself.
  6175. >Only whatever she was looking at had a mane and tail that billowed in an ethereal wind and shimmered in the colors of sunset and sunrise, and a coat that glowed ever so slightly.
  6177. >The shoes of purple metal she wore clicked on the purple with each step as the doppelganger circled around Twilight.
  6178. >”You have got yourself in quite a situation, haven't you?”
  6179. >Click. Clack.
  6180. >”Trapped between dimensions, with your only way out closing fast, and with you too hurt to even stand.”
  6181. >Click. Clack.
  6182. >The metal of its shoe felt cool as it cupped Twilight's chin and lifted her head so it could stare into her eyes.
  6183. >Its lips curled into a smile.
  6184. >”Do you want a little help?”
  6185. >Some part of Twilight's brain still worked.
  6186. >She knew she looked at her own Nightmare.
  6187. No.
  6188. >The only sound she could make was a grunt.
  6189. >”I see. Well, if you change your mind...”
  6190. >Swoosh.
  6191. >It was gone.
  6193. ***
  6195. >Twilight realized she was awake.
  6196. >Her head felt like something beat it with a mallet.
  6197. >There was nothing but purple mist around her.
  6198. >She laid on something purple and solid.
  6199. >She couldn't make it out: it was plain purple with no detail whatsoever.
  6200. >How long had she been there?
  6201. >Which direction was the Rift in?
  6202. >Had it already closed completely?
  6203. >She scrambled to her hooves.
  6204. >Thud.
  6205. >And fell back down as a wave of dizziness struck.
  6207. >She tried again.
  6208. >Thud.
  6209. >And again.
  6210. >Thud.
  6211. >But the dizziness just got worse with each attempt.
  6212. >She lied on the purple, gasping for breath as she tried to settle her roiling stomach.
  6213. >She just barely kept herself from emptying her gut.
  6214. >What could she do?
  6215. >Changing her mind was not an option.
  6216. >Nightmare Twilight was not an option.
  6217. >But...
  6218. >Did she have any other option?
  6219. >The others were probably looking for her, but next to nothing was known about the in-between.
  6220. >Could they even find her?
  6221. >Was she somewhere else?
  6223. >She didn't have time to think.
  6224. >She had to move.
  6225. “Hn- nn!”
  6226. >Her hooves held as she pushed herself up.
  6227. >But she felt like she was spinning rapidly.
  6228. >Clip.
  6229. >One shaky hoof in front of another.
  6230. >Clop.
  6231. >One step at a time.
  6232. >Clip.
  6233. >One. More.
  6234. >Cl-
  6235. >Thud.
  6236. >Darkness.
  6238. ***
  6240. >Her human stared at her with a stoic expression on his face.
  6241. “Please.”
  6242. >Twilight could barely whisper.
  6243. “Home.”
  6244. >Darkness pushed in from all sides.
  6245. “Help.”
  6246. >She tried to reach out towards him, but could only make her hoof twitch.
  6247. >”If I don't go home now, I'll never be able to.”
  6248. >Home.
  6249. >He mentioned home.
  6250. >”I'm sorry, Princess.”
  6251. >But why did he turn his back to her?
  6252. >Why was he walking away?
  6253. “Mom.”
  6254. >It was getting dark.
  6255. “Mo...m.”
  6257. ***
  6259. >Twilight lied on something very soft.
  6260. >Somepony with a very familiar voice spoke somewhere nearby.
  6261. >The voice filled her with warmth and love.
  6262. >She was safe.
  6263. >That she knew.
  6265. ***
  6267. >It was a nightmare.
  6268. >Just a nightmare.
  6269. >Nothing more.
  6271. >Twilight rubbed her eyes with a hoof.
  6272. >Smarty Pants made the nightmare go away.
  6273. >Just like always.
  6274. >She gave the worn doll a squeeze before hopping out of bed.
  6275. >The sound of hoofsteps carried from downstairs; mom and dad making breakfast.
  6276. >A nagging doubt spread in her as she tread towards the bathroom.
  6277. >More precisely, a nagging doubt spread from two spots on her spine that felt very, very strange.
  6278. >Like there was something attached to them.
  6279. >She fanned out a wing and looked at it.
  6280. >Yep.
  6281. >She had wings.
  6282. >But she was also awake.
  6283. >Blink. Blink.
  6284. >It didn't make any sen-
  6286. >Nightmare.
  6287. >She hadn't given in.
  6288. >But...
  6289. >How was she home, then?
  6290. >Her human had abandoned her.
  6291. >She trotted to the stairs, spread her wings, and leaped down.
  6292. >Flap.
  6293. >Th-thud!
  6294. >And landed gracefully at the bottom.
  6295. “Mom? Dad? Are you here?”
  6297. >Hurried hoofsteps filled the apartment.
  6298. >”Twily!”
  6299. >”Twilight!”
  6300. >Four ponies emerged from different rooms.
  6301. >Velvet and Night Light from the kitchen, Celestia and Luna from the living room.
  6302. >The real Celestia and Luna, without even the slightest trace of Daybreaker of Nightmare Moon.
  6303. >The former pair rushed to Twilight and wrapped her in the tightest of hugs.
  6304. >The latter were content to watch, a wide smile spreading to their lips.
  6305. >”We were so worried!”
  6306. “What happened? I remember getting dragged in.”
  6307. >Twilight nuzzled her parents' cheeks and wrapped her hooves around them.
  6308. >”You'll have to ask him.”
  6309. >Celestia stepped to the side.
  6310. >Twilight's human stood behind her.
  6312. “You?”
  6313. >Twilight's hooves thumped on the floor as she released her grip on her parents.
  6314. >Her brow arched.
  6315. “But you- you left me.”
  6316. >He looked down at his own shoes.
  6317. >”Yes.”
  6318. >Then back at Twilight.
  6319. >”I tried to. But you are not a bad person. I couldn't leave you there. Despite-”
  6320. >He glared at Celestia.
  6321. >”-despite what they did to me, and made me into. And now I'm stuck here for good.”
  6322. >He blew some air out of his nose, producing a 'hmph' sound.
  6323. >”At least I'm not alone.”
  6325. >”Or is he?”
  6326. >Everything turned purple.
  6327. >Everything turned blurry.
  6328. >Everything turned into clouds of purple mist.
  6329. >Everything but the other Twilight.
  6330. >The one with a flowing mane and tail.
  6331. >She stood in the middle of the clouds that used to be Twilight's home and family.
  6332. >”Did he choose to return home after all? Did he ever even find you?”
  6333. >The mist formed an image of the human.
  6334. >”It can happen.”
  6335. >Clip.
  6336. >Clop.
  6337. >Its shod hooves tread on the purple as it approached.
  6338. >”I can make it happen.”
  6339. “Nig-”
  6340. >A cold metal shoe covered Twilight's lips.
  6341. >”Hush. Let me help.”
  6342. >But.
  6343. >Nightmare.
  6344. >”Let me save you.”
  6345. >But...
  6346. >...was there any other option?
  6348. >No.
  6349. >She would not give in.
  6350. >”He did find you, by the way.”
  6351. >Its horn flashed purple.
  6352. >A cloud of mist swirled into a perfectly lifelike image of Twilight's human.
  6353. >He had the same stoic look on him as he walked towards something.
  6354. >”He really left you behind. Left you for dead.”
  6355. >It patted Twilight's shoulder with its shod hoof.
  6356. >”All he had to do was shout. Your friend would've found him, and you.”
  6357. >It nudged Twilight's cheek with its muzzle.
  6358. >”He chose to leave you. Abandoned you in your hour of need.”
  6359. >The doppelganger brushed up to Twilight.
  6360. >Its warmth spread into her.
  6361. >Its coat was as soft as the finest silk.
  6362. >”He left you for dead.”
  6363. >She...
  6364. >She was going to die?
  6365. >”But I'll help you. I'll give you what you want.”
  6366. >This was her end?
  6367. >Trapped between worlds until she starved to death?
  6368. >”I don't even ask for anything in return. Just that you embrace your destiny.”
  6369. >Abandoned by someone she thought her friend?
  6370. >”Become what you are meant to be. Live up to your true potential.”
  6371. >She...
  6372. >No.
  6374. ***
  6376. >Twilight's mane tickled her back.
  6377. >It felt like waves traveling down from her neck and all the way to the base of her tail.
  6378. >Yet she didn't spare it even a glance as she cracked open her eyes and got on her hooves.
  6379. >Her nausea was gone.
  6380. >As was the uncertainty.
  6381. >She knew precisely where she was and what she had to do.
  6383. >Clip.
  6384. >Clop.
  6385. >Her shod hooves tread on the purple as she headed towards the Rift.
  6386. >She made a sweeping motion with a hoof.
  6387. >The swirling purple mist parted before her.
  6388. >The anomaly loomed ahead, shrunken to a quarter of its original size.
  6389. >Its surface still shimmered in the colors of a rainbow, like a coat of oil on a puddle.
  6390. >There was one thing Twilight had to do before she could return home.
  6391. >She willed magic into her horn.
  6392. >Five ponies walked out of the mists surrounding her.
  6393. >Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity.
  6394. >Each and every one of them had a face like they were looking at a ghost.
  6395. >”Tw-”
  6396. “Later.”
  6397. >Twilight pointed a hoof at the Rift.
  6398. “Go. Before you can't. I'll be right behind you, don't worry.”
  6399. >One was missing.
  6400. >As was the sound of one set of hooves.
  6401. >”Twilight? What happened to you?”
  6402. >Applejack still stood in place, staring at Twilight.
  6403. “I'll explain in a bit, as soon as we're all back home. He is still missing.”
  6404. >He owed Twilight an explanation.
  6405. >He wasn't about to get away without one.
  6406. >Not after abandoning her.
  6408. ***
  6410. >Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on her horn.
  6411. >The mist didn't want to obey her.
  6412. >Its master was gone.
  6413. >Dead in another world.
  6414. >The mist had little will of its own, though.
  6415. >Twilight made it do what she wanted.
  6416. >She wanted to find something.
  6417. >Someone.
  6418. >A human.
  6420. >There.
  6421. >Close to his world.
  6422. >But not quite there yet.
  6423. >Twilight spread her wings and took off.
  6424. >He was far, but the mists held many shortcuts to those who knew how to use them.
  6425. >She slipped into a cloud.
  6427. “Going somewhere?”
  6428. >Slam!
  6429. >”Aah!”
  6430. >Twilight came down right in front of him.
  6431. >He just barely had time to flinch before her magic enveloped him.
  6432. “You are mine. Now and forever. Did you think I'd let you go?”
  6433. >He didn't even try to struggle.
  6434. >His breathing grew shallow and rapid, and his heart raced, though.
  6435. “Come, now. There's no need to be afraid. You know I won't hurt you.”
  6436. >Twilight's lips curled into a smile.
  6437. >He was completely frozen in place.
  6438. >She lifted him off the purple that served as the ground.
  6439. “Or perhaps I will. A little. As punishment. For trying to kill me.”
  6440. >Her shod hooves clip-clopped in a steady rhythm as she trotted towards Equestria.
  6441. >She glanced at him over her shoulder.
  6442. “That was not very nice of you.”
  6444. >Twilight chucked the human through the Rift.
  6445. >The anomaly had shrunk so much it was barely large enough for him if he were to walk upright.
  6446. >So he wouldn't mind a little help with getting through.
  6447. >He needed punishment anyways, and there was-
  6448. >There was something.
  6449. >Twilight's snout nearly touched the shimmering surface of the Rift.
  6450. >There was something she forgot.
  6451. >She couldn't shake the feeling.
  6452. >Her brow furrowed as she glanced behind herself, at the swirling mists.
  6453. >What was it?
  6454. >Her friends were safe, she'd made it back before the Rift closed for good, and the human hadn't escaped.
  6456. >”You forgot to wake up.”
  6457. >A mellow orange earth pony mare, with dark shades beneath her eyes and a messy mane, trotted out of a cloud of mist.
  6458. “Haven? How-”
  6459. >How did she know the pony's name?
  6460. >She'd never seen her before.
  6461. >Yet she looked familiar.
  6462. >”I am wherever ponies need help with nightmares. This is one?”
  6463. >Haven tilted her head and arched a brow.
  6464. “I- Bu- What do you mean? I'm not having a nightmare”
  6465. >She wasn't asleep.
  6466. >She'd accepted her real self and made everything right again.
  6467. >”Hm.”
  6468. >Haven squeezed her eyelids shut and let her head droop.
  6469. >”My mistake. If you want to go, go.”
  6470. >She tapped her forehead with a hoof and shook her head.
  6471. >”Maybe the rules are different here. Maybe changing the waking world is fine.”
  6472. >Twilight's mouth hung open as she stared at Haven.
  6473. “Show me. What will I change?”
  6475. >Nightmare Moon and Daybreaker flanked Twilight as the trio stepped out to a balcony.
  6476. >Massive Equestrian flags hung on the walls on both sides of the three princesses.
  6477. >The crowd on the plaza beneath fell quiet as Twilight stomped a hoof.
  6478. >”Greetings, little ponies. We are here to bring glorious news.”
  6479. >Twilight followed their rehearsed routine and waved at the ponies beneath as Nightmare Moon made a grand, sweeping motion with her hoof.
  6480. >”The human menace has been driven out of Equestria, once and for all. The anomaly that allowed their invasion is no more.”
  6481. >Daybreaker's rear hoof tapped Twilight's ankle.
  6482. >It made her mind blank out for a split-second.
  6483. >She'd practiced enough to recover before anypony could notice, though.
  6484. “We have decided to be lenient on the remaining humans. They may work for their freedom.”
  6485. >Twilight's human, a platter with three glasses of champagne in hand and a heavy collar on his neck, stepped out to the balcony.
  6486. >Each glass lit up with magic, and floated to one of the alicorns.
  6487. “We are looking for volunteers to help them integrate into Equestrian society.”
  6488. >The three ponies on the balcony sipped at their drinks in unison.
  6489. “So if you have work that needs doing, contact the Human Helpers. They will find a suitable one for you.”
  6491. >”That is your dream. Do you like it, Princess?”
  6492. >Yes.
  6493. >Humans were weak.
  6494. >She would-
  6495. >Or did she?
  6496. >She knew so little of them.
  6497. >They had to repay for what they did.
  6498. >They were spoils of war.
  6499. “I-”
  6500. >Her head spun.
  6501. >Property.
  6502. >Study.
  6503. >Retribution.
  6504. >Friendship.
  6505. >She felt wobbly.
  6506. >”Here.”
  6507. >Haven offered a hoof.
  6508. >Twilight took it.
  6509. >”Until then, Princess of In-Between.”
  6511. ***
  6513. >Something pulled on Twilight's rear hooves.
  6514. >It was strong enough to drag her along the ground.
  6515. >Or floor, or whatever.
  6516. >She couldn't feel any detail, like she was being dragged on polished steel.
  6517. >It wasn't cold, though.
  6518. >It felt like it didn't have temperature at all.
  6519. >It neither drained heat from her nor conducted heat into her.
  6521. >Twilight tried to shake its grip, but there was next to no strength in her.
  6522. >Its grip just got tighter.
  6523. >”Stop struggling. I'm trying to get us out of here. You better hope I wasn't too late.”
  6524. >It was the voice of her human.
  6525. >Why was he there?
  6526. >Hadn't he left her?
  6528. >Twilight cracked open her eyelids.
  6529. >Purple.
  6530. >It's all she saw.
  6531. >Solid purple and swirling purple mist.
  6532. >And her human.
  6533. >He had both her rear hooves in his good hand, and was dragging her towards the Rift.
  6534. >Or what was left of it.
  6535. >Panic flashed inside her as she realized it was just barely wide enough for them to fit through.
  6536. “Eep! Faster.”
  6537. >She tried to get on her hooves, but all she managed to do was flail about helplessly.
  6538. >”I'm trying, I'm trying.”
  6539. >His voice was snappy and full of frustration.
  6540. >”You can thank your sadistic shadow-haired friend if we end up stuck here, we'd already be there if this blasted arm of mine worked. ”
  6542. >They wouldn't make it.
  6543. >At the rate he was going, they wouldn't make it before the Rift would be too small to cross.
  6544. >He was giving it his all; the cursing and panting made that clear.
  6545. >She had to do something.
  6546. >But what?
  6547. >She could barely move, and definitely couldn't stand, much less walk or run.
  6549. >...He wouldn't like it.
  6550. >He'd hate it.
  6551. >He'd definitely hate it.
  6552. >But it was the only option.
  6553. “Heads up!”
  6554. >She focused her mind and reached for the magic inside her.
  6555. >Flash.
  6556. >Crack.
  6558. >They rematerialized right in front of the Rift's shimmering surface.
  6559. >”Urp.”
  6560. >The human retched.
  6561. >But his grip held.
  6562. >He staggered through.
  6563. >And dragged Twilight with him.
  6565. ---
  6567. Epilogue
  6569. >The fact that her favorite reading chair was getting threadbare floated somewhere in the back of Twilight's mind.
  6570. >”Princess.”
  6571. >It wasn't important now.
  6572. >She was reading about icebreakers.
  6573. >Apparently, they had flat-bottomed hulls.
  6574. >A flat bottom meant the keel climbed on top of the ice.
  6575. >That, in turn, meant that the weight of the ship did the breaking instead of engines.
  6576. >”Twilight.”
  6577. >And that led to both greater speeds and lesser fuel consumption.
  6579. >A hand shook Twilight's shoulder.
  6580. “Huh?”
  6581. >It belonged to her human.
  6582. >He had a bemused smile on his face.
  6583. >”It's past midnight and you still haven't had dinner.”
  6584. >...It was?
  6585. >She'd only read for a little while.
  6586. >A little while that'd been enough to go three quarters through a thick book full of technical writing, footnotes and cross references.
  6587. >Her stomach grumbled in agreement with the human.
  6588. “Oh. Um, it's still good, right? Go heat it up. I'll be right there.”
  6589. >She slipped a bookmark, one of her own molted secondaries, between the pages before slamming the book shut.
  6590. >A deep yawn made her jaw open so wide she felt the joints pop.
  6591. >When had it gotten so late?
  6592. >She shook her head to ward away a sudden assault of drowsiness.
  6594. >A scent of spinach and mashed potatoes wafted from the kitchen as Twilight trotted into the dining room.
  6595. >Spike had to have made his spinach blinis again.
  6596. >Twilight's mouth filled with saliva at the thought.
  6597. >She pulled back the chair that had a platter and utensils laid out on the table in front of it.
  6598. >”Just a second. This takes a moment without a microwave.”
  6599. >A quiet hissing sound accompanied the human's voice.
  6600. >”I hope you don't mind that they're not quite as good as fresh. Reheating doesn't do these any good.”
  6602. >Clunk.
  6603. >The human set down a platter with a pile of blinis and a bowl of mashed potatoes on it.
  6604. >”Here you go. As good as I could make 'em.”
  6605. >Twilight stared at it for a while before her brain kicked in.
  6606. >She shook her head again.
  6607. “Did you send the letters I gave you?”
  6608. >Her knife clinked on the platter as she cut a piece and popped it in her mouth.
  6609. >It was fluffy and filled her mouth with the taste of spinach.
  6610. >A little dry, though.
  6611. >”To Velvet and Night Light and Shining Armor? Yes.”
  6612. >The chair next to Twilight's scraped the floor as he pulled it back and sat down.
  6613. >”I also got the drinks on your list, and borrowed a blanket for tomorrow's picnic. Pinkie said there's no rush to return it.”
  6614. >He covered his mouth with the back of his hand before letting out a massive yawn.
  6615. >”Sorry. I got up early and have been up all day.”
  6616. “Hmmh!”
  6617. >Gulp.
  6618. “It's fine. You did a great job. It's been far too long since I've had a chance to lose myself in a book.”
  6620. >”Is there something you want me to do? Would you mind if I...”
  6621. >He tugged at his collar.
  6622. >It was a steel rim with gold highlights, and shared colors with Twilight's mane: a thick band of purple in the middle, with the Elements engraved on it, and thin red bands on the edges.
  6623. >Compared to the other humans, his was light and stylish.
  6624. >A symbol, not a restraint.
  6625. >Twilight focused her mind and pushed magic into her horn.
  6626. >The collar lit up in purple, let out a faint click, and fell to the human's waiting hand.
  6627. >”Thank you. And good night.”
  6628. >He'd have it on again when Twilight woke up.
  6629. >He always did.
  6631. ***
  6633. >Twilight's eyes zipped through the items on the list that she floated in front of her.
  6634. >She, Spike, and the human were headed to Ponyville Station to pick up Twilight's parents, Shining Armor, and Cadence.
  6635. “Okay. Let's go through this one more time. Apple juice?”
  6636. >The list, along with a quill, floated to Spike.
  6637. >”Check.”
  6638. >The dragon struck through the first line after peeking into the basket the human was carrying.
  6639. >”You already had me go through it once before we even left. I got all we need in here.”
  6640. >Twilight trotted on for a second before the human's words registered in her brain.
  6641. “Um.”
  6642. >She knew they had everything, of course.
  6643. >Spike knew she only double checked her lists to calm her nerves.
  6644. >The human obviously hadn't had time to learn that.
  6645. “What if something's missing? We've spent more than a week preparing this and I want it to be perfect. Cadence and my brother are busy since they have a baby to take care of, on top of an empire. There won't be another chance any time soon.”
  6646. >”Yes, but we already-”
  6647. >”It's how she stays calm. She worries way too much, especially since her family cares more about being together than about the food.”
  6648. >Spike glared at Twilight as he spoke.
  6649. “I know. I do it because I'd go all 'Twilynanas' otherwise.”
  6650. >Both of the males arched a brow at her.
  6651. “Ask Shiny about it. He loves telling that story.”
  6652. >Twilight rolled her eyes.
  6653. >Her brother loved telling it, but she hated hearing it.
  6654. >Yeah, she kind of went a little overboard a few times as a filly, but that didn't mean she was constantly on the edge.
  6656. “Sunshine, sunshine...”
  6657. >Clip, clop, clip, clop.
  6658. >”...ladybugs awake. Clop your hooves and...”
  6659. >Every pair of eyes at Ponyville Station was fixed on Equestria's esteemed princesses.
  6660. “...do a little shake!”
  6661. >Both Cadence and Twilight burst into giggles.
  6662. >”So you still the same, Twily. We got a little worried when we heard of what happened to Celestia and Luna.”
  6663. >Shining Armor rustled Twilight's mane with a hoof.
  6664. “Oh, hush. You were busy changing Flurry's diapers while I was busy saving Equestria. You know, just like the last time the entire world was in danger. And the time before that. And-”
  6665. >”So. How's life been here in Ponyville? You got any 'rehabilitators' here? Well, apart from him.”
  6666. >Velvet rolled her eyes as she nodded at Twilight's human.
  6667. “There's five. Lyra Heartstrings got one, Lotus and Aloe got three masseurs for their spa, and then there's that one who sells strawberries in the market every morning. Strawberry Sunrise's.”
  6668. >”Sound like you have it easy, then. You can't even cross the street in Canterlot without running into one. They're pretty good at construction, though. The worst hit buildings have already been torn down.”
  6670. ***
  6672. >The grass felt cool under Twilight's behind.
  6673. “Spread it here. We'll have a nice view and some shade.”
  6674. >They were on a low hill on the outskirts of Ponyville, at the base of a massive oak.
  6675. >A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the enormous tree.
  6676. >”Should I set out the food and drink, too?”
  6677. >Twilight's human chucked the blanket on the grass and tugged at each corner until it was spread.
  6678. >”You'd just make us feel awkward. We're used to doing it ourselves.”
  6679. >Velvet lit up her horn and made the basket of food float into the middle of the blanket.
  6680. >”It's refreshing to have such a beautiful day after a week of rain.”
  6681. >She looked up at the sky and the few wispy white clouds sailing across its blueness.
  6682. “Iii may have called in a few favors. They had this scheduled for tomorrow, but Rainbow Dash really wanted to loan one of my Daring Do books and...”
  6683. >Twilight hoped they wouldn't notice her flushed face.
  6684. >She wasn't supposed to use her status to manipulate weather ponies.
  6685. “Aaanyways. How's Flurry?”
  6686. >She put on her best grin.
  6687. >”You wouldn't believe how much she's grown! Here, have a look.”
  6688. >Cadence levitated a photo out of Shining's saddlebag.
  6689. >It showed Flurry Heart sleeping on Sunburst's back.
  6690. >A little bit of drool dribbled out of her mouth and into his coat, but the gentle smile on his face suggested he didn't mind.
  6691. >”I took this just before we left. Isn't she adorable?”
  6693. >”Mm. This is great. Did you make these, Spike?”
  6694. >Night Light's voice was muffled by a mouthful of egg sandwich.
  6695. >”Uh, no. He did.”
  6696. >The dragon spun around and pointed at the base of the oak, only to notice the human wasn't there.
  6697. >”Where'd he go?”
  6698. >Twilight looked up from her fruit salad for a glance around their picnic spot.
  6699. >Dad, Mom, Shiny, Cadence, Spike.
  6700. >The human was nowhere to be seen.
  6701. “Huh. I guess he went home.”
  6702. >He wouldn't do anything as stupid as run into the Everfree.
  6703. >Twilight trusted him.
  6704. >He also had the collar on, so anypony would instantly know he was Twilight's.
  6705. >”A shame. I would've liked to hear these thing's secret.”
  6706. >Night Light took a massive bite of his sandwich.
  6708. ***
  6710. >Twilight's knocks echoed in the crystal hallway.
  6711. “Mind if I come in?”
  6712. >Silence was the only response.
  6713. >She pushed the door open regardless.
  6714. “Hi. I got a little worried since you just up and vanished.”
  6715. >Her human sat cross-legged on his bed, with an open book in front of him.
  6716. >”You looked like you were having fun. I didn't want to get in the way.”
  6717. >Twilight tread into his room and hopped onto the bed.
  6718. “You're not in the way. You're just-”
  6719. >She stroked his back with her hoof.
  6720. “-not used to us yet.”
  6721. >How should she say it?
  6722. >As much as she wanted to call him her friend, she couldn't.
  6723. >Not yet.
  6724. >Maybe in a few years, once ponies opinion on humans had had time to soften.
  6725. >She'd have to keep up appearances for now.
  6726. “I know patience is never easy. You'll see that ponies aren't that unlike you humans. We laugh, we joke, we play games, we form bonds. You'll just have to wait before other ponies learn to trust you. They'll be your friends. Have no doubt about it.”
  6727. >Was it too cold?
  6728. >She hadn't meant to sound distant.
  6729. >”Friends?”
  6730. >He slammed his book shut, then blew some air out of his nose to produce a 'hmph' sound.
  6731. >Then he fell quiet.
  6732. >His face relaxed, losing the mask of anger it'd had.
  6734. >”I suppose I'll just have to make the most of what I have now. It's what I chose, after all.”
  6735. >His voice was a little bit deeper than usual.
  6736. “Was it- was it a dream when I saw you abandon me? A bit before you dragged me back to Equestria, just before the Rift closed for good.”
  6737. >Twilight's own voice was shaky.
  6738. >She felt blood surging in her veins as her heart thumped in her chest.
  6739. >She'd never asked about it, assuming he didn't want to talk about it.
  6741. >He shimmied around to look at Twilight.
  6742. >His face was blank, as far as she could tell anyways.
  6743. >”No. It was not. I tried to leave you there.”
  6744. >He bent his neck to look down at Twilight's hooves.
  6745. >”But I knew I couldn't bear the weight of murder. I would've been haunted by it forever. Even worse than I'm haunted by Dusty.”
  6746. >Spots of dampness appeared at the corners of his eyes.
  6747. >”I'm sorry. I shouldn't have even considered it.”
  6749. >Twilight stared at him with her mouth hanging open.
  6750. >What should she do?
  6751. >Punish him?
  6752. >Have him chained up?
  6753. >Ask Celestia about it?
  6754. >Have Starlight re-educate him?
  6755. >She stood up and wrapped her front hooves around his shoulders.
  6756. “It's okay.”
  6757. >His hair tickled her cheek as she nuzzled his head.
  6758. “It turned out fine in the end and that's what matters. I'm fine and you're fine.”
  6759. >Or she could forgive him.
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