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Songs of the Spheres

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ARC 1: BREATH

Enter, Part 1

 

The man of light fled across existence, and the enchantress followed.


Presently, existence manifested itself as a desert to the two of them. It was not the apotheosis of all deserts - far from it. It was decidedly too mysterious to be described in such a pure way. The sands themselves couldn’t be considered the defining feature unless someone was foolish enough to stand upon the burning grains barefoot, in which case it wouldn't be part of the scenery but it certainly would be prominent in the mind (and feet) of such a person. The real appeal of this particular desert was the ruins. The ancient stone structures stood around in defiance to the eons, chiseled both by intelligence and the merciless decay of time. Symbols adorned the many pillars - triangles within triangles were prominent alongside a depiction of an ancient eye staring forward and letting loose one single, painful, tear.


The man of light did not stop to puzzle over any of this - if he had, he probably could have discerned some meaning from the ancient glyphs and figure out where he was. He unfortunately didn't have the time to waste on getting his bearings, a fact he was painfully aware of. He continued running across the sands, kicking up excessive amounts of the ground with his softly glowing cobalt-blue feet. He wore no shoes, but his crystalline composition kept him from charring his feet. This did not mean he wasn't foolish - far from it.


He was, after all, running from the enchantress.

He knew she was gaining - but he did not dare steal a glance behind him. Not yet, anyway. He kept his gaze forward, catching glances of his hands every time they shifted forward in time with the opposite foot. He kept focusing on a small, black orb in his left hand, grasped tightly by his sharp digits. Had the object been made of glass it would have shattered from the force he was exerting, but it wasn't. It was something far stronger and much more complex than simple glass. He considered using it - but he still had enough intelligence within him to know now was not the time, for there was a strange obelisk coming up.

He recognized this for what it was - an ancient machine. He tore his right arm from its rapid back and forth motion, holding the palm outstretched to the obelisk. He focused, intent on timing this just right. The instant before he passed the ruin a surge of electrical energy shot forth from his fingertips, filling the obelisk's many glyphs with a blue glow. A wall of translucent hardlight shot out of it, erecting fully behind the man of light and dividing him from his pursuer.

He whirled around quickly, raising the black sphere high in the air, tapping it rapidly with his fingers. Even though he wasn't looking at it, he knew many yellow lights were rippling on its surface as it processed his request.

In the instant it took the sphere to process the input he locked eyes with the enchantress - or so he assumed, anyway, it was hard to tell which way she was looking when her eyes were obscured by those goggles. He also noticed that the wall of hardlight wasn't going to slow her down as much as he had hoped. He’d thought she would use her magic to levitate over the wall since she was avoiding the use of teleports to save her magic reserves. But no, she just shot a single laser from her horn at the obelisk, shattering the priceless relic into thousands of pieces. Her four hooves hardly slowed their gallop from the encounter - he may have gained a second, probably less.

Then the man of light was somewhere else. He didn't take long to gather his bearings - hallway, largely gray, with big numbers on one wall. Some kind of underground base, perhaps. There was most certainly a story behind this place he was not interested in. He bolted down the hallway, his rigid form creating loud clanks upon contact with the equally hard ground. Good thing stealth was not his goal - though perhaps he should have at least considered it.

He turned a corner, discovering a handful of humans in full green uniforms, all carrying what appeared to be military-issue (but primitive) guns. He would have probably been annoyed by the pointless gunfire in his direction, but he heard the enchantress appear in the spot he himself had mere moments before, reminding him that he should still be terrified. The humans must have seen the blue light as well because they soon started shooting behind him as well as at him.

The enchantress's flesh would be vulnerable to these physical bullets while his was not - she would not allow herself to be injured, so she would be slowed. The man of light allowed himself a small glimmer of hope upon realizing this, thanking primitive human technology for the uses it did have.

A voice - male, aged - cracked over the base's intercom. "People, we've got an intrusion into the base and gunfire! Yes, it really is a magic man and a unicorn! Keep an eye out for that horned red fairy or anything else unusual! Get some backup to level twenty-three already!"

The man of light saw SGC-23 imprinted on a nearby wall. Concern crossed his mind for a moment. Perhaps they could overwhelm him? Not likely, he thought dismissively. They were mid-humans with primitive technology, nothing they had could harm him-

A woman with blonde hair stepped out from a side door and shot him with a pistol-sized weapon that launched a blue lightning bolt directly into his shining chest. His body was forced into a mild seizure - his crystals all needed to reset from the energy overload. He twisted to the side just as another bolt came from the gun. He knew it was supposed to do a lot more than just stop him for a second from the woman's surprised look, but one second was a very precious commodity to the man of light at this juncture.

The bolt that missed him hit the enchantress head on but was absorbed by a blue aura-shield she had erected around herself. She ran right for the man of light, horn aglow with an unsettling bright blue.

The man of light acted in reflex, ordering the sphere to take him somewhere - anywhere - and he appeared in a vast room composed entirely of crystal similar to his body, though he knew there was no relation. The entire scene brimmed with power and knowledge. He felt it - something spectacular - tug at his mind with intense knowledge and fortitude. It wanted him to ask a question. It wanted to answer. He suddenly had no doubt in his mind he could be given the answer to almost any question he had.

Still, he resisted, running again. This large open room would not do - he needed to get somewhere else. He felt the high levels of magic here - magic she could use to trap him with ease. He fumbled with the sphere, trying to input something more specific into it. He wanted someplace... crowded.

He left just as the enchantress appeared.

Where he showed up was indeed crowded - and also a place he would fit in. It was a merchant outpost filled with hundreds of beings from countless worlds doing business.

The man of light still ran, shoving several people and machines out of the way. First an orange blob, then some elf-like race (he had no idea which one, there were thousands), then some energy being that he passed through.

"Rude!" it called after him.

He gave no response, rushing past a countertop where some insect-type was giving one of those grey-skinned troll girls some blue orb. The thought that it might be an infinite sided die crossed his mind. He almost paused just to swipe it and see what it would do, but the sound of the enchantress appearing in the world shot that idea out of his mind. He ran past just as the troll girl rolled the die - hope you get a favorable result, blueblood - and that was the last he saw of it. He focused on his sphere again. He was taxing it, he knew, but it was his only edge over her. It worked faster than her magics.

"Make way!" He heard her yell in her authoritative voice, trying her best to sound like a police officer or whatever the equivalent was here. It was enough to move some individuals out of the way, making it much easier for her to move through the crowd than him. His advantage had been lost once again.

He used the sphere, this time appearing three feet in the air over some extremely murky swamp water. He got a look at two humans wearing swamp leaves as simple clothing before he fell into the murk. The shock of hitting the water stunned even his mineral-based body. His grip loosened and the sphere drifted out of his hand into the murk. He was mentally unable to do anything about this, as he was still trying to process the swamp water’s existence.

The man of light stopped processing halfway when the enchantress appeared above him. She didn't fall into the water - merely floated above it, her blue magic surrounding her and keeping her free from disgusting murk. She didn't look down - didn't see him.

He started reaching for the black sphere, eyes fixed on her form. He wasn't quite capable of realizing he was underwater just yet, so he grabbed too hard, knocking the ball downwards instead of grabbing it. He was, however, aware enough to curse inwardly at his butterfingers.

The enchantress looked at the two humans. "Have you by chance seen a man of crystal around?" she asked in a friendly voice that came naturally to her.

"...Woah, Due. A talkin' horse."

"You think she tastes like chicken?"

The enchantress responded to this with a slightly bemused undertone. "Everything tastes more or less like chicken."

The man who had asked the question - Due - took his leaf hat off in awe. "Words of wisdom..."

"Naw," the first said. "Just words. The shiny dude is hidin' in the swamp water right under ya'."

The man of light grabbed the ball just as the enchantress looked down at him, disgust on her face. "Oh... Swamp water..."

"It has great flavor miss! You should try it!"

This comment gave the enchantress pause - just enough for the man of light to get out of there.

For the first time he found himself in a place that made him consider giving up. There was absolute blackness - no gravity and no light in any direction. And yet, he knew - he just knew - there were great horrors and terrors out there in the darkness, great heaving eldritch things that would be able to squash him to oblivion by complete accident with a stray whisper.

And then he saw something that terrified him - and it wasn't just because he shouldn't have been able to see at all in this place of darkness.

Two people. Two people he recognized.

One was a man in black, evil on his face. The other was a madman standing in front of a blue box. The man of light realized with a feeling that drove him to shivers that they were both looking right at him.

He had just interrupted the standoff of two giants in an eldritch location.

This realization made him freeze.

The man in black grinned. "Ah, look at what the squiddle dragged in!"

The madman with a box grimaced. "Run. Flee. If you can, whoever you are."

The enchantress appeared behind the man of light, ready to apprehend him - but she was startled by the scene as well. She drew back from the two powerful beings.

The man in black laughed, a truly horrifying sound that should never have come from human lips. "Oh, a familiar tale, old as time itself stands before us! The pursued and the pursuer, dashing across vast swaths of land, intersecting their destinies with that of so many, many others. Wondrous!"

"Oh for-" the madman with a box lunged for the black sphere in the man of light's hand, touching it in just the right places to activate it.

The man in black 'laughed' again, and waved. "Have a nice-"

-Day would have been what arrived at the end of that sentence, and the man of light knew it. The thought - of that thing telling him to have a nice day - came close to making him lose what mental faculties remained within him. What he saw next threw him into a full panic. He found himself in a large field of roses.

Roses.

It can't be...

He saw it - to his right, a Tower made of black stone that reached to impossible heights. Powerful energies beyond his understanding flooded his mind, telling him that which he did not want to know, showing him the meaning of the Tower's many eldritch windows in a horrible and beautiful Song.

Had he not been close to panic there was no telling what he would have done here - would he have even realized what standing next to the Tower meant? Was it possible? Could she be redirected? Such questions went unanswered - he fumbled in panic for the sphere, pressing it at complete random, chance (Chance? What was chance in a place like this?) being the only thing that allowed him to press the right buttons to escape - once again at the exact moment the enchantress appeared.

He appeared in a grassy land and took off at a run. He saw a flash of red in the sky above him, but he was no more able to consciously register that than he was the rock a few feet in front of him. The enchantress appeared in the world quickly, galloping after him.

He hit the rock, tumbling head over heels. The black sphere flew from his hands and into a patch of dirt. He skidded to a stop, a long stretch of grass upturned by the plow that was his face.

He gave up. He let his limbs fall flat, his motion stop. He was doomed - the sphere was God knows where, his face was embedded an inch into the ground, and he could already feel her magic around him.

He did not try to resist.

It took ten seconds for her to cast the spell. Then they were gone from the world with a quick flash of blue light, unaware of the marks they had left. For atop a nearby hill, a tall purple winged unicorn stared at where they had just been, jaw slack.

"What in Celestia's name was that!?"

~~~ 

Princess Twilight Sparkle was no stranger to bizarre happenings; such things had pretty much defined her life for the last few years. She had been thrust into the positions of hero, diplomat, psychologist, friend, warrior, and prisoner time and time again by the magical world around her. Even her title as Princess of Friendship - truly a defining part of her these days - had arisen from a bizarre encounter with rogue magic and confused destiny. 

The main difference between those times and now was that she was usually part of the bizarre events in one way or another. It was an exceptionally odd day when something completely off-the-wall happened that had no relation to her or her friends whatsoever. Today was one of those rare days. Some human-shaped crystal monster and a unicorn in a full body suit had appeared, engaged in a rather one-sided scuffle, and vanished without so much as giving her a glance. 

She wondered what in Celestia's name was going on, unaware that she had blurted the thought aloud. With nopony else present she remained completely unaware of her outburst, instead focusing on remembering why she was out here in the grassy hills in the first place. For the life of her, she couldn't determine why she had decided to go for a walk - there must have been some reason, she was sure of it. But no matter how much she racked her brain and tapped her skull with her hoof, nothing came to her. 

Twilight became lost in her thought process, the unusual event she had just witnessed falling into the background since no immediate action was required. She squinted her lavender eyes shut and took a breath, stretching out her wings, trying to slow her mind down a bit so her thoughts would become manageable. She channeled some magic into her horn just to release some energy.

Okay... she thought. Back on topic.

She opened her eyes and looked at the grassy hills, still unsure why she had walked out here, but she compartmentalized that nagging thought away for the moment. She walked over to the cut in the ground the crystal-energy-man had made with his head when he'd tripped. He must be made of sapphires, Twilight concluded from the depth of the rut. She smiled thoughtfully - a being made of magic and sapphires. She had never seen such a thing! How exactly would it live? It'd probably need to survive off magic alone and wouldn't need to eat. Sleep? Perhaps not, though there was evidence that suggested everybody needed sleep to ease the mind. Maybe it didn't even have a mind?

She could have sworn it moved with fear though. The unicorn had as well, but she (had it been a she?) had moved with more purpose and control. She obviously hadn't been scared of the crystal man, it was something else. Had they run into something terrifying in their high-stakes game of teleport-pursuit?

It was then Twilight saw the black sphere sitting innocuously in the dirt. Her thoughts of fear and psyche became secondary as she focused her attention to the remnant of the scuffle. She lit her horn once again, focusing on the globe, using her natural magics to levitate it to her in a purple aura of arcane energy. She narrowed her eyes at the object - featureless. There wasn't even a defect from being dropped roughly in the coarse dirt. Its edges shone like oil despite it being completely solid. She knit her eyebrows together, scrutinizing it. 

Something made her look upwards suddenly - a strange feeling of being watched - but nothing was up there. She shrugged it off and returned to the sphere, a nagging feeling eating away at the back of her mind, trying to tell her that something had happened. She thought of it as nothing more than curiosity. 

She tapped the sphere with her hoof. The section she touched - a square with rounded corners - flashed a dull yellow. Another square lit up alongside it, two 'squares' to the right. Nothing else happened. 

What are you? The crystal man had you... You were the only thing he had. You must be important.

She tapped it a few times in other places, lighting other squares up, but beyond the seemingly random pattern and number of lights flickering nothing happened. She scanned it for magic and found a faint aura inside it similar to teleportation, but not quite the same. She wasn't sure what that enchantment could accomplish - it was so weak. It'd need something to react with or draw power from to have any sort of visible effect. Seeing as it was the only spell in the globe, this was confusing to say the least.

She was sure she was missing something here. Maybe it reacted with the crystal man himself to do something? It was certainly possible, but that struck her as dangerous. And if that were true it might react badly to her magic...

She stopped messing with it. She levitated in front of her face for a while longer, knowing she couldn't figure anything out by standing here but electing to stare into the oily sheen anyway. 

A brash voice interrupted her contemplations. "Hey Twi! What are you looking at?"

Twilight looked away from the mysterious orb, directing her gaze to the familiar voice with a smile. "I have no idea."

The cyan pegasus with the rainbow mane to whom the voice belonged flew a little higher into the air and dropped her jaw comically. "You have no idea about something!? Woah."

Twilight rolled her eyes. "Rainbow Dash, there's a lot of things I don't know."

"Uh, durr, that was sarcasm." Rainbow Dash swooped through the air to the front of Twilight, staring at the sphere. "...It's just a bowling ball, Twi."

"Bowling balls are a lot bigger and don't flash when you touch them."

"Small magic bowling ball then," Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. She reached her hoof out towards the ball. "Wonder if you could bowl with it..." 

Twilight jerked it back. "No touching! This thing has strange magic in it that might react with your own resulting in Luna knows what!"

"Pfft," Rainbow Dash waved a hoof dismissively, doing it such a way that she wouldn't hit her flapping wings. "Stop being so paranoid, it's just an odd ball." She rushed to the sphere quickly, grabbing it out of Twilight's magic with her two front hooves. Several lights lit up and Twilight gasped.

Nothing happened. Rainbow Dash held the sphere in one hoof, taking full advantage of the unusual traction pony hooves had for the flat and hard objects they were. She started juggling it between her hooves. "See? Nothing to worry about Twi, it's all fine."

Twilight's left eye twitched. "You've made your point, Rainbow. I'd like it back now."

Rainbow Dash shrugged and tossed it back to her, caught once again in purple magic. "Not like I could keep it from you long anyway, assuming you remember to teleport."

Twilight smirked coyly. "I'm getting better at that!"

"You still chased Starlight around the castle on your hooves yesterday."

"I was... caught up in the moment."

"Yeah. Sure. So what are we going to do with this thing? Where'd it even come from?" 

"Right here," Twilight said, gesturing at the rut in the ground. "A unicorn was chasing a crystal man. They teleported here, she caught him, he dropped the ball, and they teleported away." 

"You just called it a ball. A... bowling ball!?"

Twilight ignored her. "As for what to do with it... I'll take it back to the castle and probably run some tests on it, see what it is. Failing that, find out whatever I can." 

"Sounds boring. Can't we go try to find that unicorn and crystal guy? Sounds more like adventure if we do it that way."

"I wasn't scanning the teleport, I can't follow it."

Rainbow Dash groaned. "Really Twilight? For all we know that might have been the biggest adventure ever, and now we'll never have it."

Twilight looked into the sphere and found herself thinking of a rose of all things. She smiled. "Somehow... I think this is the key to adventure, Rainbow. We just have to figure it out." She turned her head to the west - her castle peeking out over the horizon with its magical, crystalline glint. The structure was impressive and tree-like, although it could be described as tacky or gaudy by sensible ponies. The multi-pronged magical starburst on the castle's tip was visible even from this fair distance, the shape mimicking the six-pointed mark on Twilight's own flank. She took a breath and trotted towards her home.

"Uh... Twilight?"

"Yes, Rainbow?" 

"Teleport, remember?" 

"Oh," Twilight deadpanned. "Right. Coming Rainbow?"

"Eh, sure, don't have anything better to do today."

Twilight focused a teleport spell into her horn, taking special care to think about Rainbow Dash, herself, and the sphere while also picturing the most prominent room in her castle. She weaved the spell together in under a second and in a flash of purple energy they were there - the ‘meeting room’ of the castle, for lack of a better name. She had spent much of the last few years of her life in this grand room. The chandelier made of tree roots lit the room up in a multicolored glow and the blue-ish crystalline walls were dulled so they wouldn't blind everypony who entered with refraction. The center of the room was marked by an ornate table surrounded by seven throne-esque chairs, one of which was smaller than the others, designed for Twilight's 'number one assistant,' Spike. The other six were of equal size and intended for Twilight and her five closest friends. Each of the six chairs were adorned with the symbol of the pony that sat there: the cloud with a rainbow lightning bolt for Rainbow Dash, the balloons, the diamonds, the butterflies, the apples, and Twilight's own magical starburst. These six symbols had once been nothing more than 'cutie marks,' pictographic representations of talent and inner magic that all ponies had. But now - now they represented much more. They were the symbols of a legendary band, of Harmony realized in six mares who couldn't be more different. 

"Twilight? You're starting to glaze over."

"Oh," Twilight said, snapping herself out of the nostalgic trance. "Yes, well... right." She trotted over to the table. At the moment it was activated, showing a circular map of the nation they lived in, Equestria, and its neighbors. Twilight found herself examining the mountains of the dragon lands, the wastelands of the south, the landscapes of Griffonstone... Even the snowy peaks of the Crystal Empire and Yakyakistan. She smiled - in some way; much of this land was hers. Hers to protect and rule in at least some fashion. She absent-mindedly set the mysterious globe on the table-map and pressed her hoof to the tabletop. 

She felt the map's connection to a power much higher than her own, a power Twilight had learned to respect over the years. She owed it so much. The entire castle was a gift from it, and one of the smaller ones at that. She smiled as she felt the welcoming energies of Harmony wash over her. 

The welcoming feeling quickly changed, attention shifting from Twilight to the black sphere. Twilight felt the arcane mood shift again to... something she didn't recognize. Fear? No, she'd felt fear before. And anger... as well as disgust...

Confusion?

Twilight blinked, taking a step back. "But the Tree of Harmony knows everything..."

Rainbow Dash stared at her. "Er... What?"

“I'm getting confusion from the magic, Rainbow. I've never felt that from the Tree before... It has no idea what the sphere is." 

Rainbow Dash blinked. "You know, I'm not going to question that and take it at face value for once. What does that even mean?"

"I'm... Not sure."

In that moment both Rainbow Dash's and Twilight's cutie marks started glowing, drawing their gaze to their flanks. They knew exactly what that meant. They were being called. They turned quickly to the map and saw their symbols - alongside the symbols of all their friends - dance over the map at a particular location, shining their arcane light down upon it. 

"...Here?" Rainbow Dash said. "It's never called us here before."

"It's never had something this unknown either," Twilight said, glancing at the unknown object. 

"Eh, it probably has, you just don't know about it," a new high-pitched voice called from across the table. Twilight and Rainbow Dash looked up - to the surprise of neither of them, a pink pony with the most cotton-candy-like mane imaginable sat in the balloon-imprinted throne. Twilight and her friends had long ago stopped asking how the pink mare managed to get to and from locations without anypony noticing so quickly without the use of wings or magic, just like any number of the other impossible feats she performed daily. 

"Hi Pinkie," Twilight said with a genuine bright smile.

Pinkie's already huge grin widened. "Hi yourself! So, who's ready to crack this puppy open and see what intrigue awaits for us within?" She lifted a wooden mallet she definitely didn't have a second ago into the air, aiming at the sphere. "I hope it's like a piñata!"

"Pinkie Pie!" Twilight yelled. "Don't break the mysterious artifact!"

Pinkie put the hammer away somewhere nopony could see. She shrugged. "Not like I could break it anyway, thing's durable."

Nopony asked how she knew this. Twilight just continued talking. "The Tree is probably just calling us here to solve a regular friendship problem - no need to get all excited for intrigue or anything..."

"I dunno Twi," Rainbow Dash said. "I have this gut feeling that this won't be normal, y'know?"

Pinkie nodded rapidly - perhaps more rapidly than should have been physically possible. "I do know! I'm not sure anypony, anyone, or anything knows what's going on!"

Twilight nodded slowly, glancing at the sphere again. "We should at least wait for the others before doing anything."

"Agreed," Rainbow Dash said. "Hey, Pinks, wanna take bets on what Rarity'll think of the bowling ball?"

"It's not a bowling ball!" Twilight wailed.

Pinkie ignored her. "I think... She'll find it absolutely beautiful!"

"Really? Looks like disgusting oil. I say she hates it. Three bits?"

"Done!" Pinkie giggled. "Now all we do is wait!"

~~~ 

Rarity Belle - or Miss Rarity Belle as she was known to those not close to her - was a unicorn who knew exactly how to make an entrance. She knew she would not be the first to arrive to the meeting hall, so she prepared long before she even saw the Castle doors. The moment the diamonds on her flank started glowing, she tossed her purple mane gracefully to the side, turned the sign on her boutique to closed, and daintily trotted across town, making sure to keep her head held high and not to rush frantically. 

She - and everypony else - knew this keeping of appearances was a little shallow, but Rarity just couldn't bring herself to stop. She was a graceful mare, and there was no way in Equestria that she'd stop being one for any reason besides a national disaster. Even when there was such a catastrophe she usually maintained her dignity while dealing with the danger; a skill a mare like her needed seeing as she was friends with Twilight of all ponies. Rarity may have loved the purple mare to bits, close to a second sister, but trouble followed the princess around everywhere - there was just no escaping it. 

Rarity supposed that, deep down, she liked the antics. No, it was more than that. She eagerly anticipated them, despite constant evidence she gave to the contrary. She may have complained and whined - what lady wouldn't? - but she rarely meant it. Her life was one few mares dared to dream. Hero, lady, fashionista, businessmare, popular... it probably all went to her head if she was honest with herself, which she was often not. Honesty was not her virtue - that was reserved for another of her friends, one who had many a time shown how crazy Rarity was at times. 

Speaking of, the mare in question came into Rarity's line of sight. The orange earth pony with apples upon her flank - currently glowing just like Rarity's own diamonds - sauntered up to Rarity. They walked side by side as the orange pony let out a greeting. "Howdy, Rarity."

"Hello, Applejack," Rarity spoke with her careful high-class annunciation - a false dialect she had forced herself to acquire when young and had never dropped since. It was a part of her now. "What do you suppose the problem is this time?"

"Well, it's callin' the two of us again," Applejack commented in her country drawl. "Ah figure it's somethin' that'll require some different viewpoints."

"Perhaps, but Pinkie's been called too. I saw her flank light up right before she darted behind a bush," Rarity said, not needing to explain that Pinkie was most definitely waiting for them at the table, probably bored already. 

"Eeyup," Applejack said in response to nothing in particular. "Think it'll be all of us today?" 

"Probably," a new voice said - one much softer than the two others, but neither classy nor rustic. Despite the softness of the voice, it wasn't meek either, though it had been in the past. "I'm here, after all."

Rarity turned to her left just in time to see a butter-yellow pegasus land, her pink butterflies glowing on her rear. The color of the cutie mark matched that of her mane, a beautiful and graceful collection of hairs that could house animals (and probably did at times). Rarity was slightly jealous of her friend - she herself was cursed with a light blue mark, a purple mane, and white coat. White may have been among the more glamorous of the colors, but the clash of the diamonds and the mane... Well, at least the diamonds matched the blue of her eyes. 

"Guess so," Applejack said, agreeing with the newcomer's comment. "How's Angel, Fluttershy?"

"His feet are healing nicely," Fluttershy responded, her expression telling Applejack thanks for asking. "Though I think he'll just injure it again the moment they're fully healed... That rabbit and his parkour obsession..."

"Just make sure you do tell him when it's fully healed," Applejack said. "...You know, even though he is a vicious little varmint."

"Yes, I guess so..."

Rarity was silent - she was busy positioning herself relative to her friends. She had Fluttershy and Applejack walking to either side of her, and made sure she was slightly forward, taking the lead. The Castle was coming up quickly, and she was ready for it. Her horn burst with a brilliant blue glow, surrounding the giant double doors of Twilight's Castle in her aura. She slid them open with perfect timing, such that neither she nor her companions would need to slow their motion. She didn't look behind her when she closed the doors - such a thing could ruin her rhythm. She could probably regain it before they reached the top of the stairs, but such things were uncertain. 

She found herself wondering, once again, why she cared. The only ponies waiting up there would be her friends, ponies who didn't care for class. She could let her guard down and nothing negative would happen whatsoever. But no, like always, she couldn't bring herself to do it. This was who she was - the one who had style. Twilight was the excitable intelligent one, Fluttershy was the gentle soul, Applejack was down to earth, Rainbow Dash was the tomcolt, and Pinkie was... Pinkie. 

It was who they were. While they might grow and evolve as ponies, some things didn't need to change. Perhaps shouldn't. 

Rarity quickly brought herself out of those thoughts - despite the smile they brought to her face. They were close to the top of the stairs now and her friends had fallen silent. Rarity took in a deep breath and opened the door with perfect timing - her two friends flanking her to augment her entrance, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not. It didn't really matter.

Mainly because nopony noticed the grand entrance. Pinkie just waved. "Hi Rarity! Been waiting for you for eighteen p-"

"Uh..." Applejack interrupted, pointing at the map in mild disbelief. "Is it pointin' us here? What does that even mean?" 

Fluttershy gasped softly. "Are we the friendship problem?"

Twilight shook her head, a motion Rarity noticed was significantly more dignified than when they'd first met. Becoming a princess had slowly drawn Twilight to have at least a modicum of class, something Rarity found satisfying. "I doubt it," Twilight said. "I mean, if these were normal circumstances, I suppose that could be it... But I know what triggered this." She levitated a strange, black, oily ball up to the light, revealing its unusual sheen. 

"My..." Rarity said, hoof to her mouth. "That looks rather... beautiful..."

"Ha!" Pinkie shouted, startling Rarity. "Three bits Dashie! Woop woop!"

Rainbow Dash sighed, tossing Pinkie the bits. She caught them in her teeth, giggling. 

Rarity raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Did you two bet on my reaction again?"

Pinkie nodded vigorously without a trace of embarrassment or remorse. Rarity turned to Rainbow Dash. "How do you keep losing?"

Rainbow Dash glared at Pinkie. "I swear she's cheating somehow."

"You could just agree with me Dashie!" Pinkie giggled. 

"Then there'd be no bet!"

"Ah," Applejack spoke up. "There's your problem Dash. She's exploitin' your need for competition."

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to respond with a presumably clever retort, but Twilight interrupted it by placing her hoof on her forehead. "Girls. Focus. Please."

"You got it!" Pinkie said, putting on a pair of googly-eye glasses. Fluttershy chuckled and everypony else ignored the amusing eyewear. 

Twilight lifted the black sphere into the air. "This is..."

"The bowling ball," Rainbow Dash said.

"No, it isn't," Twilight snapped. 

"It is now, sugarcube," Applejack said. 

Twilight twitched, ready to protest, but thought better of it. She chuckled slightly. Rarity knew that look - it was the look Twilight had when she realized how ridiculous something was. "Okay then... This is the bowling ball, a strange device I found when..." Twilight continued on to tell them all of her strange encounter with the man of light and the enchantress, leaving nothing she thought important out. She ended her tale with the Tree of Harmony's confusion and subsequent calling of the six of them. "So evidentially we are supposed to do something with this mysterious artifact here in the castle. All of us. So... ideas?"

"You already shot down the hammer idea," Pinkie said. 

"Yes, Pinkie, I did." Most mares would be fed up with Pinkie at this point, but Twilight said these words without a hint of venom at all - though the words did come with a slight tone of impatience. 

"You said it was like teleportin'," Applejack said. 

"Yes. But it definitely isn't exactly that and I cannot recall another spell like it."

Fluttershy raised a wing. Twilight nodded in her direction. "Well, I was thinking... Maybe it does something similar to teleporting because it's similar to it? I mean, I don't know much about magic, but that's how it works right?"

Twilight nodded with a smile. "Yes, that is how it works Fluttershy. You've been paying attention to my ramblings haven't you?"

"Yes," Fluttershy said, slightly embarrassed.

"Not wise," Rainbow Dash commented. "Her egghead talk will melt your brain eventually."

"I can confirm..." Rarity mentioned, remembering her own times she had tried to parse through what Twilight was saying when she was in one of her science moods. It got far too complicated far too quickly. The worst of those talks had been when Twilight had tried to activate that darn...

"...Mirror Portal!" Rarity blurted out, shattering her calm stance for a moment. 

Twilight blinked. "What about it?"

Rarity regained control of her posture. "When you were working on it... The main spell wasn't teleportation, was it?"

"No... No it wasn't!" Twilight lit up. "Now that I think about it, there aren't crystal people anywhere on Equis at all, is there Rarity?"

"Oh, I'm told there are golems around - surprised you haven't heard of them, dear - but I'd have heard about a glowing man-thing made of sapphires if such a thing did exist. Or Lyra would have anyway, you know her."

"That means..." Twilight levitated the bowling ball in front of her face. "This is probably a world-mirror. A portable one... That can probably go lots of places! But how? There's not enough power and the spell isn't quite right... Maybe it's broken? Incomplete?"

"Hey, Twi?" Rainbow Dash asked. "I'm no mage, but didn't you say it might react with something earlier? Why not bring it to the Mirror Portal, see what happens?"

Pinkie gasped. "Genius!"

Twilight smirked. "Good idea Rainbow." Rarity knew Twilight had been about to suggest such a thing herself but was letting Rainbow Dash take the credit anyway. In a way, Rainbow deserved it, she had spoken first after all. Rarity took pride in bringing up the Mirror Portal, though she briefly wondered if Twilight had thought of that first as well... Probably not, given how confused her reaction had been. 

"To the east wing!" Twilight shouted, dashing out of the meeting room in a decidedly not graceful manner. She passed her number one assistant - a small purple dragon by the name of Spike - leaving him in the dust. Pinkie and Rainbow Dash's hurry to get going made the poor scaled boy fall over, his green spines folding against the floor. 

Rarity trotted up to him, trying not to chuckle at his adorable struggling. "Spikey... you okay dear?"

"Just... fine!" he said. He meant it, though Rarity could tell his head was sore. "You six got another friendship problem to deal with?"

Rarity frowned. "Something tells me it's different this time... We're going to the Mirror Portal for a look-see. We may be down there a while. Think you could bring us some tea?"

"Sure thing! Be ready in a jiff!" 

Rarity smiled warmly. "Thank you." She left Spike to his business and trotted after the other five mares. She was still careful to move with style, though 'careful' was perhaps misleading, seeing as it was second nature to her at this point. She still wasn't sure why she was giving it such a fuss earlier.  

She arrived fashionably late in a wing of the castle littered with books, scrolls, and a magic mirror augmented with dozens of unusual magical devices that Rarity couldn't even begin to guess the function of.  She knew that altogether they allowed the Mirror Portal to function when the stars weren't aligned, to ensure the portal between worlds was permanent. Rarity herself had never been through the portal - only Twilight and Pinkie had, along with their mutual friend Starlight Glimmer. They had told Rarity of a world much like their own, except filled with humans, technology, and an almost nonexistent level of magic. She had often considered going herself to meet these human creatures who always wore clothing and had hands, but she'd never gotten around to it. Maybe she would today, assuming something didn't go terribly wrong.

She wasn't all that bothered by the idea of something going terribly wrong anyway. Yet another thing she had gotten somewhat used to over the years - though she never stopped gasping and freaking out a bit when it did happen. 

Celestia, her life was strange.

She turned her attention to Twilight - she and Fluttershy were touching the bowling ball to the Mirror to no effect. 

"Try harder," Rainbow Dash suggested. 

"No..." Twilight said, furrowing her brow in concentration. "I think... It's something else... The spells aren't the same - close, but not the same..."

"Why's that?" Rarity asked.

"I don't know... They're really close now that I compare them - I'm certain this ball has some effect like that of a Starswirl Mirror, but the spell's just... off. And too weak..."

"Maybe it's customizable," Pinkie said, slurping on a blue slushy. "Choose your destination kind of thing."

Twilight blinked. "Pinkie, you are a genius. That's what all the lights are for, selecting - no, wait, they don't alter the spell..."

"But maybe you can dear," Rarity suggested. "If any mage can figure out how to alter a spell, it's you."

Twilight looked into Rarity's eyes and nodded with conviction. She stared at the bowling ball - then the Mirror - then the sphere. Everypony fell silent. They knew what was coming. 

Twilight was about to get an idea. And then they would be able to start. 

"Got it!" Twilight shouted. Then, without explaining what she was doing, she removed a glass jar from a device on the Mirror Portal’s back. Inside the jar was a strange blue magic gas. Twilight set it aside and created an identical, empty jar from the aetherm placing it where the old jar had been and filled it with a gray magic mist, her grin widening as she did so. "Just copy and paste..."

"Uh... What?" Applejack said.

"Computer thing," Pinkie answered as if this explained everything. All it did was let everypony know they shouldn't ask further. 

"Strong spell... Mirror..." Twilight muttered, levitating a few tools to her from a nearby box, tightening a few bolts on the Mirror and running magic energies through several magic artifacts. She smirked. "And... Done..." She pressed her hoof to the shimmering surface of the Mirror. 

She didn't pass through. It was solid. 

"Oh come on!" she shouted. "That should work! I mean - I had it optimized and everything..."

"What did you do?" Fluttershy asked.

Twilight frowned, looking right at the bowling ball. "I put the spell from in here into the Mirror and tried to 'set' it to Earth... But it didn't stick. It's missing something..." She levitated the strange sphere back to her eyes. "Something..."

Pinkie touched the ball lighting up a single square. She looked at Twilight with a knowing gaze. Twilight's eyes sparkled with another idea. She levitated the ball over to the Mirror, touching the two artifacts together. Several squares lit up on the ball, all in a sequence. Twilight grinned. "Aha!"

And then all six of them were gone in an instant, leaving the Mirror Portal behind. 

Spike came down with a tray of piping hot tea three minutes later. He frowned at the lack of ponies to give it to.

Eventually, he shrugged and decided it meant more tea for him. And Starlight, assuming he could find her. 

~~~

It was the apotheosis of all jungles. Humid, green, and full of the squawking of numerous colorful birds. Distant calls and roars from other, larger animals came from afar. The large, dripping leaves of the many trees rustled in the soft breeze, their water returning to the air as the sun beat down on their canopy. The dirt below wasn't muddy, merely damp and covered with morning bugs.

It was in this jungle six equine friends appeared, three feet above the soil below. Rarity and Pinkie were the only ones who landed on their hooves - though Rainbow Dash was spared the indignity of a faceful of dirt since her default state was hovering. 

"I suppose it worked then," Rarity observed.

"Sorta..." Twilight muttered, standing up and wiping the bugs off her face. "I was trying to activate the mirror and not the ball... But it apparently reacted with the altered spell I made and used it itself..." She lifted the ball and studied it. "There was a sudden surge of extreme power within it. I have no idea where it came from..."

"So... This is Earth?" Applejack asked.

Twilight frowned. "Well, I suppose there probably is a jungle somewhere on Earth, but I thought the portal had to take us to Canterlot High..."

Pinkie Pie took a cell phone out of her mane. "No signal. Or GPS signal. Angry birds still works though."

Twilight was only mildly surprised Pinkie had gotten ahold of a cell phone. "Well... it's not Earth then. Somewhere else. I can tell you we aren't in Equestria either - the magic feels off. Only slightly, though."

"Awesome! A brand new frontier!" Rainbow Dash raised a hoof and grinned. "We'll be like Daring Do and explore the jungle!"

"Rainbow..." Fluttershy began. "Shouldn't we get our bearings first? See if... Twilight can take us home?"

Twilight's pupils shrunk to pinpricks.

"Oh..." Fluttershy put a hoof to her mouth.

"Twi? Ah don't like that look..." Applejack commented.

"I... I have no idea if I can..." Twilight said. "I was scanning what was going on, yes... I have the spell to bring us here. But I can't channel that much power and I need the reverse spell." 

Fluttershy whimpered. "We're... Stuck here?"

"Nonononono," Twilight said, voice wavering considerably. "I just need to... figure out a solution!" She lifted the sphere into the air. "This thing is the key. It can help us get home. Just need to press the right buttons!"

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. "Isn't it just as likely to take us somewhere else?"

"Not if I figure it out!" Twilight said. She lit her horn, overlaying the spell she put in the Mirror Portal over the sphere, and the same lights from earlier lit up. Nothing happened - probably because they were already in the location selected. "Now just to figure out what all this means..." She stared at the sphere blankly for several seconds. 

"Er, anythin' we can do to help with that Twi?" Applejack asked.

"...Not really, no, sorry." Twilight smiled sheepishly. "Don't worry though! Totally got this!"

Applejack raised an incredulous eyebrow but said nothing.

"Can we go exploring then Twi?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"...Sure, this will take a while anyway. I'll find you when I'm done. Don't go too far."

"Got it," Rainbow Dash saluted. "Good luck Twilight!"

Twilight nodded, turning the sphere over in her magic.

Pinkie Pie bounded after Rainbow Dash. "Yay! Exploring!"

Fluttershy followed. "I can't wait to see the animals here..."

Applejack took up the rear. "Rarity? You comin'?"

"Oh no, I think I'll stay here and not romp through the filthy jungle. You girls have a good time though! I'll just stay with Twilight."

Applejack nodded. "Alright. See you." They left, heading into the deep foliage.

Twilight looked up at Rarity. "...Thanks. I'm going to need somepony to bounce ideas off of and keep me... calm."

"Don't mention it, dear. I may not be a magical scholar, but I know a few tricks." She frowned. "...Do you really think you can figure this thing out?"

"Not completely. But I might be able to pretend and get something that works. First I have to figure out why we're not on Earth. It was almost the exact same spell the Mirror Portal would have used, just altered from the spell in the ball. It should have worked as a test run, just to see if..." She trailed off into ramblings and mumbles. She summoned a black notebook and pen with her magic and began to frantically scribble.

Rarity gracefully sat down, watching Twilight closely. Soon her circular magic diagrams evolved far beyond Rarity's understanding, reaching levels of complexity Rarity had only glimpsed at the back of Magic textbooks as examples of high magic. Rarity didn't say anything or ask any questions - she'd wait for Twilight to indicate it was time for that. The two just sat in the clearing; one patient, one working furiously. 

~~~ 

Despite the attitude she’d displayed to Twilight, Rainbow Dash wasn't completely calm about the situation - they might be stuck on some alien world for Celestia's sake! However, she had put on a mask to keep this line of thought deep within herself. Their chances of getting home were much better if Twilight had space to think, to solve the problem without constant interruptions and stressors. Rainbow Dash knew full well she was the primary source of interruptions and distractions, so she had provided a reason to get out of there. 

Who am I kidding I wanted to explore, to find something new and exciting.

That most certainly was true, but Rainbow Dash still knew it was better this way. She and her friends could have an adventure in this world and get back home! 

Hopefully.

She tried hard not to think about the possibility of not making it back home. 

Applejack was currently making that difficult. 

"We should look for firewood," she said. 

"Why?" Rainbow Dash muttered.

"Cause we might be here a while - Ah don't wanna be caught after dark without a fire."

"Twilight will get us home long before then. Do you see the sun here? Early morning."

"It might take us all day to find firewood in this damp jungle, Rainbow."

"Exactly why we shouldn't waste valuable adventuring time on finding firewood."

Fluttershy spoke up. "Ricaduro says there's a bunch of dry wood a little ways to the east. Easy to get to."

Rainbow Dash blinked. "...Who?"

Fluttershy lifted a wing, showcasing a tropical bird the size of her head happily perched among her feathers. He had a blue-red complexion and a double-pronged beak that made it hard to tell exactly where his mouth was. He squawked. 

"Well now we know Fluttershy has a way with animals here too," Rainbow Dash said, smirking. "And we don't have to collect firewood now."

Applejack let out an annoyed break. "Right. We could look for shelter then..."

Pinkie groaned. "AJ! Stop being so... so... practical. Have some fun! Just... Look at this, for instance!" She ran up to a bright orange seven-petal flower that was twice as large as she was. "Isn't this just beautiful?"

Rainbow Dash had to admit, the orange flower was rather impressive. The patterns on it reminded her of a tiger, though perhaps one whose skin had been through a blender. The thing felt predatory.

Applejack nodded slowly. "Ah s’pose so... Ah didn't think flowers got that big."

Fluttershy shrugged. "Ricaduro says it isn't even the biggest he's seen. Apparently, the 'red creatures' live in a much larger one."

"Ooooh! Where's that?" Rainbow Dash asked. 

Fluttershy conversed with Ricaduro for a few seconds. "Not far. To the north a little ways. He doesn't want to go there - they eat birds."

Rainbow Dash grinned. "Well, you could keep them under control right?"

"Probably," Fluttershy said. "I'm going to let Ricaduro go anyway though, he's got a family to get back to."

"Mission acquired: find red creatures!" Pinkie announced. She put on a safari hat. "Thataway!"

Fluttershy waved bye to Ricaduro and followed Pinkie. Rainbow Dash flew overhead while Applejack took up the rear.

Rainbow Dash attempted to imagine a bunch of red creatures living in a giant flower. What came to mind first was a giant rose in which a bunch of red diamond dogs lived, except they had cat ears for some reason. She chuckled at the image. 

"I think they'll be big bugs," Pinkie said suddenly.

"Ah'm goin' for... Yaks," Applejack offered. Everyone turned to Fluttershy, expecting a response from her. 

"Oh, I already know what they look like, Ricaduro told me the basics."

"Who's closest?" Rainbow Dash asked. 

"Pinkie. But she's off by a-"

Pinkie held up a hoof. "Don't tell us. Let us be surprised!"

"Oh. Okay then."

Rainbow Dash was now imagining giant red crickets living in a rose. Not as funny of an image, so she added the cat ears again just for the heck of it, bringing a smirk to her face. Applejack apparently had a similarly amusing image in her mind, failing completely to hold her chuckle in. Fluttershy just gave them odd looks and shook her head. 

They walked for a while longer - maybe an hour, they weren't really sure. They'd forgotten completely about 'not going far' now that they had a destination. They talked on and off about the jungle, adventure, and other random things that were rather pointless. But that's what friends do - talk about pointless things and laugh and bond. 

They mostly forgot that they were stuck in an alien world because of it. They had each other and were easily distracted by the many amazing sights - the flora, the fauna, and the sky whenever it could be seen through the treetops. They made out two moons in the blue heavens, one the smooth silvery orb they remembered from home, the other a smaller, blue sphere that was somewhat hard to see against the sky. 

"You know," Pinkie said, "The humans of earth actually went to their moon in a big rocket."

"Ain't no way," Applejack said.

"Oh, it happened! There were pictures, video, everything! They even brought moon rocks back!"

"Ah'll believe it when Ah see it."

Rainbow Dash chuckled. "You hear that ponies? Applejack just got a one-way ticket to Earth!"

"Ah, apples."

"I hear it's nice there," Fluttershy said. "I bet you'd like it once you went!"

"Too many fancy gizmos Ah think."

"Fancy gizmos are the way of the future!" Pinkie giggled

Their conversation of moons, men, and moments was interrupted by a pony that stepped out of the foliage, stepping in front of them. She was an earth pony - pink, blue eyes, cotton candy mane. She lacked a mark on her flank, but otherwise her smooth face and vibrant body were exactly like Pinkie's at first glance. Upon closer inspection, a few differences could be seen - her forehead was a bit too large and bony, for one. But it was her eyes that got to all of them. The orbs stared with a vacant expression, eyes missing most of the light that Pinkie's had to them. 

Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Fluttershy backed up a bit, the mare's presence unnerving them. Something felt wrong.

Pinkie Pie just smiled. "Hi! I'm Pinkie Pie! Who are you?"

The other pink pony just neighed. Pinkie's smile faltered. "Uh..."

Fluttershy put a hoof to her mouth. "Oh... My... She... Uh... She just asked us why we weren't with the herd like... like an animal would."

"Okay, that just made this creepier..." Rainbow Dash muttered. "Uh... No offense," she told the other Pinkie. The mare's expression did not change. She simply did not have the mental capacity to understand language. She finally walked around the group, heading for Fluttershy. 

"Er..." Fluttershy took a few steps back. "Uh... Hi. What should I call you?"

The pony - no, animal - had no concept of a name besides 'me' and 'pink'.

Normally at this point Fluttershy would just give out a name, but she couldn't bring herself to name a pony - especially because she just wanted to call her 'Other Pinkie.' Fluttershy shivered.

"Uh... How 'bout Cotton Candy?" Applejack suggested. The other Pinkie turned to look at Applejack blankly. She seemed satisfied with the suggestion somehow. 

Fluttershy nodded slowly. "Yes... That'll do. Cotton," she had to force herself to say it, "where's the herd?"

Cotton understood Fluttershy like virtually all animals did and gestured with her muzzle (as opposed to her hoof) towards the north. The same direction they were already headed.

Nopony paused to consider what this might mean.

Cotton seemed to sense it was time to move on. She turned and headed north without another noise. Pinkie followed without question, bouncing after her other self. The other mares exchanged confused glances with each other before following themselves. 

Rainbow Dash flew alongside Pinkie. "This... This... She is..."

"Bizarre? I know right! Feral, animalistic ponies in this other world! Who knows what other strange stuff there is?"

Rainbow Dash blinked. "How can you be okay with... With..." She glanced at Cotton.

"Dashie, she can't understand you, only Fluttershy. You don't need to feel nervous around her."

Rainbow Dash shook her head. "That. How can you do that?"

"Do what?" Pinkie asked, an innocent look on her face.

"...It's been maybe two minutes since we met this pony who looks almost exactly like you, can't talk, and acts like an animal! It's not just weird, it's disturbing." Rainbow Dash glanced at Cotton again. The pony's head was turned, but Rainbow Dash remembered those eyes nonetheless. They were bright, blue, but not full of the spark. The spark she'd seen in every pony she ever met - a spark she hadn't even been consciously aware of until today. Looking into the gaze of a pony and not seeing it really brought it to the forefront...

"I guess I'm just used to other versions of me already. Earth Pinkie, the many Mirror Pool Pinkies... You know."

"None of them were animals were they?"

Fluttershy shot Rainbow Dash an annoyed look but said nothing.

Pinkie pursed her lips. "Well... It is a little creepy to tell you the truth, but, you know, no point in getting freaked out about it. And - oh! Idea! Cotton!"

Cotton didn't turn - she was unable to recognize her name just yet seeing as she had only just gotten it. Pinkie didn't care. She rushed to the front and gave her a cupcake. "Here! I bet you've never had one of these before!"

Cotton poked her nose at the cupcake and sniffed deeply. The sweet aroma made Cotton's eyes dilate - she ate the entire thing in one gulp, paper and all. Pinkie giggled, patting her on the head. "Good girl."

Applejack blinked. Then she blinked again. "Well, Ah'll be, that's certainly not something anypony ever thinks they'll see."

Fluttershy nodded slowly. "...Yeah..." She took a deep breath and walked over to Cotton. "Hey there."

Cotton met Fluttershy's gaze with her own. Fluttershy flinched, but kept her eyes up and moved closer. "You... You are a good girl aren't you?"

Cotton made a satisfied whinnying sound. Fluttershy scratched her behind the ear, making the pink back leg thump the ground much like that of a rabbit's. Fluttershy smiled. 

Rainbow Dash looked at Applejack. "...They're going mental."

"Ah can't bring myself to disagree..." Applejack responded.

"You know if there's a version of Pinkie..."

"Ah know. Ah hope we don't run into 'em."

Rainbow Dash shivered, suddenly enjoying the adventure a lot less. They set out once more to the north, conversation dwindling considerably. 

Rainbow Dash was the one who heard it first; a muffled thump followed by a rustle. Her ears perked up and she heard it again. "Hey guys? I hear something."

"What are-" then Pinkie heard the thump as well. Her ears swiveled to the south. "Oh. That."

Cotton fixed Pinkie with a puzzled look. The next thump all of them heard - and Cotton's demeanor changed instantly from puzzled to panic. She ran - bolting into the foliage, leaving the other four far behind.

"Skittish," Rainbow Dash said. "Think we should run?"

There was no time to discuss - the owner of the thumps had increased its pace after Cotton bolted, making no more attempts to muffle the huge steps. The tremendous noise shook the jungle, sending chills of fear into the ponies. Birds squawked in panic and flew away into the sky. Applejack had just decided to turn tail when the thing burst through the trees, bellowing a roar loud enough to make Rainbow Dash wince. 

It was tall, almost taller than the trees, and heavily built. There were two gigantic scaled feet and a meaty trailing tail at the bottom. The tiny arms would have made it less impressive had the claws affixed to them not been bloody and jagged, shifting almost naturally to the orange color of the beast's main body. The head of the beast dwarfed everything else about the creature - it was square-set, lined with perhaps hundreds of jagged bone-teeth, and had a predatory eye on either side of the face. The orbs were locked right onto its prey: four succulent ponies. 

Rainbow Dash thought it looked like those pictures of a T-Rex she'd seen in dinosaur books, though the face was a little off.

The reptile leaned down, jaws open, preparing to scoop Pinkie into its mouth. She screamed, running off at high - and impossible - speeds to the north. Rainbow Dash and Applejack snapped out of their paralysis to enter a new phase of fear: the flight response. The beast pursued them as they ran. It only got six steps before Fluttershy flew in front of its face and Stared into its eyes with her own, making sure it saw her intense disapproving gaze. The apex predator comically stopped in its tracks and whimpered in her presence.

"It's okay, you were just looking for food," Fluttershy said, easing off her Stare. "But I couldn't let you eat my friends. Sorry. Say, we..." She glanced behind her. Her friends were long gone. "...I could help you find some food in return. What do you like to eat?"

The beast growled.

"...Besides ponies, okay?" Fluttershy shivered at the thought, painfully realizing that the wild ponies here were just another part of the natural food chain. That'd take considerable effort to get used to. "Anything else?"

He grunted.

"I have no idea what a Marm is, but okay, let's go hunting for one." She cocked her head. "Do you have a name?"

He did not.

"Well, then you are Rexy. Let's go Rexy! Also, don't go that way, we don't want to scare Twilight."

Rexy didn't mind going another direction. He marched through the jungle with a pegasus on his head. Neither of them thought this was odd. Rexy because he wasn't that smart, and Fluttershy because she had dealt with more than a few apex predators in her time. This included dragons, though they were more people than animals, less susceptible to the Stare. Not that she liked using it even on animals. Only when needed. 

They continued on, both blissfully unaware of how much they were throwing the rest of the jungle for a loop.

~~~ 

Twilight was not pleased with her current situation. 

She and her friends were stuck in some alien jungle impossibly far from home. There was no sign of any civilization whatsoever and she had heard dozens of low, guttural, predatory calls that made her hair stand on end. That wasn't the worst part though - she was fairly certain she and her friends could take care of themselves - but that she had no idea what had even happened.

She went over the events in her head again - the Mirror was unable to open the connection she had set for whatever reason, so she'd touched the sphere to it and the sphere had connected - she had no idea how - and drew power from itself somehow to open the portal. But there was no spell to bring that energy, and she didn't know of any non-magical power source that powerful. It baffled her, that power. It had exceeded even that of the Mirror itself. Ten times stronger! How was that even possible?

An idea came to her suddenly. She opened a notebook and scribbled down some numbers - yes, there it was. The Mirror Portal hadn't had enough energy to establish a connection, just like it had been before she added all the extra devices to it, back when it had to wait for the Stars to align to get enough magic. But she knew the Mirror had enough energy to reach Earth at the moment... ...Wait, what if it just required more energy to come here? Wherever here was. That made some sense - maybe some worlds were more 'distant' than others. But the question remained: she had set the destination as Earth. Why didn't they come to Earth? Why-

"The transformation enchantment!" she shouted suddenly. 

Rarity looked up from one of Twilight's discarded notebooks. "Did you figure it out?"

"I know why we're here and not on Earth - the Mirror Portal's spell has an enchantment that transforms you to an 'appropriate' form, giving you a sort of 'vortex' effect before you arrive while it changes your body. But we didn't experience that when we came here, we were just here. The ball read the spell I gave it without consideration for possible enchantments - it treated it like a normal Mirror spell and found a different set of coordinates! These coordinates!"

She pulled out the ball. "I can just remove the transformation matrix from the spell and use the ball to go directly to Earth! Give me a sec..."

"...Shouldn't we find the others?"

"If this works I can just make us come right back..." She altered the spell inside the sphere to her liking, sure it was connected to Earth now, and... ...nothing happened.

"...You know, it occurs to me that the presence of the Mirror Portal itself may have activated it or something." Twilight sighed. "We don't know how to use this thing by itself..."

"Well, you know the right spell now. Can you cast it?"

Twilight pondered this. "I... Well if I was going from Equestria to Earth I'm sure I could, now that I have it. It'd take considerable effort, but I'd manage. However... It took a lot more energy than I thought to get here. Maybe if I train myself more I could produce that much... But not right now. I'd probably have to spend weeks doing nothing but practicing my magic. And even that's just a maybe." 

Rarity shook her head. "Please tell me there's a plan B, I don't want to live in this jungle for weeks, darling."

"I know. The other option is to find another source of power. I think a physical Element of Harmony would do it."

"So we need to find some magic artifact then? Rainbow's going to love this."

Twilight nodded. "Here's to hoping there's some ancient ruins we can plunder. Or, Plan C, figure out where this thing got its power from."

"That's probably a dead end.  We should just find the others and start looking."

Twilight nodded, folding up all her notebooks and creating a simple knapsack. She stuck the ball and books in and slung it over her back. "Let's go. Hope they're all doing okay."

"They're all capable of taking care of themselves, dear."

~~~ 

Pinkie Pie knew the T-Rex (it wasn't really a T-Rex, but she didn't care) had stopped chasing them long ago. She just didn't see any reason to stop running - it was fun!

She supposed Rainbow Dash and Applejack were still terrified - but she wasn't sure she could stop them just by saying the T-Rex was gone. Plus, Applejack was so far behind them she'd be out of earshot anyway. Pinkie had ways to make he hear, but that'd just be petty in the end. Best to just leave it alone. Pinkie did had to admit they couldn’t run forever. She just wasn't expecting what it was that stopped them - a sight so out of left field that her jaw dropped. 

Rainbow Dash halted as well - more impressive than Pinkie’s instant stop since she was flying and didn't have the ground's assistance. They saw two more ponies - one they didn't recognize and an earth pony version of Rainbow Dash, both standing near a large tree. This sight alone would have stopped Rainbow Dash - but it was the other half of the scene that stopped Pinkie. 

The ponies had riders.

The riders were tall, lanky creatures with two legs and four arms. They had no skin or hair; instead they were covered head to foot in brittle red carapaces. One of the riders was a dark pink shade, the other a blood red. Their hands had three fingers, each of the digits resembling a grasshopper leg. Their own legs were like that of an ostrich, bent backward in a painful looking configuration so their feet wouldn't drag on the ground while they rode the ponies. 

Then there was their face.

It was like a mask. A flat, red mask with four eyeholes and angular spines off the top and sides. There was a small opening under the pointed bottom - presumably a mouth - where two mandibles hung out. 

Pinkie stared at the eyes. The eyes had the spark in them. 

The redder one glared at them, then back at the pink rider. It spoke with a series of musical clicking sounds that were obviously a language of some sort. The pink one responded with a shrug. 

"Hey girls, what did you find here?" Applejack asked, catching up with them. She saw the riders. They saw her. They heard her voice. They saw her hat. A hat obviously designed for the head of a pony. There was silence for a second. 

The red one leaped off his pony and thrust a spear in their direction threateningly, saying something they couldn't understand but obviously wasn't a friendly hello. 

Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes. "Oh you want a fight do you?" She flared her wings. "Well-"

"Dashie, no," Pinkie said. "I... I think these things are dangerous. Really dangerous. They'd be able to hurt us."

Applejack gulped, nodding. "They... They do look pointy in a lot of places..."

Rainbow Dash stood down, lowering her wings. The red rider didn't. He spoke some more, and the pink one tossed him some rope.

"Aw heck no!" Rainbow Dash shouted. "You are not tying me up!"

The red rider moved quickly, touching the spear to Rainbow Dash's neck, coming as close as possible to drawing blood. Rainbow Dash froze. 

"Rainbow..." Applejack said. "Let's just do what he says and hope the others find us."

Rainbow Dash nodded extremely slowly. The red rider took this as a sign to tie the rope around her midsection, an act the being had evidentially done many times before seeing as it only took a few seconds. Applejack and Pinkie were next, taking even less time due to the lack of wings. Pinkie's smile was gone, replaced with a face of worry and barely contained panic. They were being captured by the red creatures. By aliens.

That was both cool and terrifying at the same time. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Enter, Part 2

"They did go this way, right?"

Rarity fixed her friend of many years with an 'are you serious?' look. 

"Sorry," Twilight recanted. "It's just... I don't know where they went and... Yes I know I should trust you more."

Rarity shrugged, carefully stepping over a dampened area of the ground. "No need to apologize Twilight, I understand you're anxious. They'll be fine. They probably already found some ancient temple or something and are finding us a powerful magical artifact as we speak."

"Knowing them they probably found something at least," Twilight admitted. "Though it can't be that easy to find a magical artifact..."

Rarity raised an incredulous eyebrow. 

"Who am I kidding, if we were home I could find several dozen of them without much effort at all. If we get home we won't be hurting for a power source to use this spell. Celestia could probably just cast it. The problem here is that we don't know the lay of the land." At this, she tripped over a lone tree root and fell right into the soil below, sending bugs scurrying. "Eeeeech..." she muttered. 

Rarity huffed. "We're going to get extremely filthy out here... We should have just waited for them."

"I left a note. We should be fine. I'll know if anypony finds it and then we can just teleport back. I do know that clearing."

Rarity nodded, making sure to twist her head so a nearby branch wouldn't tussle her mane further. "To be honest I'd just rather not tromp through a jungle where there are dozens of shifty roots waiting to trip me. Not to mention whatever's been making those noises."

"I have enough magic to protect us and Fluttershy's with the others, so there's nothing we should worry about from any sort of predators." And yet I'm finding myself regretting letting them go... I'm afraid there's something I didn't think about. I was too fixated on the problem... Maybe I still am.

Rarity put a hoof on Twilight. "Hey, don't beat yourself up. You did figure out what was going on and have a few ideas for solutions. We're no longer completely lost here."

"Yeah... You're right," Twilight nodded, swatting away a mosquito. "Just need to find it... Or them... Or both."

"Preferably both," Rarity said. She looked up at the sky. "Huh. There's a second moon up there."

Twilight stopped in her tracks and stared up into the sky. A stupid grin covered her face. She tried to say something but all that came out was vaguely wordlike noises. Her inner thoughts weren't much more coherent - stuck on MOON MOON MOON and many questions about what the second moon meant in an indecipherable ball. Were there two Lunas in this world? Did it orbit under gravity like Earth's moon? If that was the case, how did the gravity work? Why was it blue of all colors?

"Twilight, you've stopped moving."

"Oh!" Twilight blushed. "Yes, sorry. But, two moons! Or more we can't see right now! It's like something from a book!" She squealed. "When we get home I think we'll be coming back here a lot just to learn more..."

Rarity smirked. "I don't believe I'll be joining you unless there's something here besides jungle."

Twilight pointed at the blue moon with her wing.

"Dear, we can't go to the moon."

"Well, yes, but it could be studied."

"Twilight, you're the scientist."

Twilight nodded in mild disappointment. "I wonder if Sunset'll be interested..."

"Probably," Rarity admitted. "As well as the other you."

"Ah, yeah, Sparky will be really interested in this..."

"...Sparky?" Rarity said, raising an eyebrow.

"Well, I don't call her Twilight," Twilight laughed. "She calls me Twinkie though, so there's that."

Rarity chuckled, putting a hoof over her mouth. "I can't believe I've never heard about this before."

"It's a thing we agreed to more recently. It's really annoying calling with 'Twilight! No, other Twilight!' all the time. I don't know how Pinkie manages. I think the two of them switch places sometimes."

Rarity pondered Twilight's thought on Pinkie. "While that would explain many things it raises just as many if not more questions," she chuckled to herself. "Why-"

Rarity tripped over a loose root as she laughed, shifting from cries of amusement to cries of dread (and then disgust) rather quickly. Her face hit the soil, agitating more than a few resting bugs. 

Twilight's snickering devolved into open laughter as Rarity squealed and jumped up, waving her hooves around in a haphazard panic, flinging the bugs in her mane everywhere. 

"Heh - never change, Rarity. Never change."

~~~

Applejack decided quickly that she hated being led by a rope. It was uncomfortable, undignified, and unbearable. She knew that was probably the point but that didn't stop her from growling, stomping her hooves in annoyance, and spitting none-too-kind insults at the demons whenever she could. She almost wished they could understand her. 

Pinkie and Rainbow Dash had looked at her with inscrutable expressions when she'd called them demons aloud but as far as Applejack was concerned that's what these things were. Red, ugly, deadly, and violent - already the red one had punched the pink one a number of times. Notably few of those instances had resulted in the pink one's 'laughter' - which was a strange twittering noise that gave Applejack goosebumps. 

The two demons also weren't stupid. Despite having their backs to the three of them most of the time, they still managed to keep a close eye, looking back whenever Applejack was thinking about making a go for one of them. The red one just seemed to know what she was thinking. For all she knew he could, which wasn't a pleasant thought. The pink one wasn't as logically minded - staring more at Rainbow Dash's wings and at the earth pony he was riding that was Rainbow Dash's mane but without wings. Even though he had no facial expressions Applejack could tell he was very confused. A silver lining in this mess, she supposed. 

Regardless, to her, they were demons until they did anything that gave her another idea. 

Applejack turned to look at her two friends. Rainbow Dash's wings were tied up, so there was little the pegasus could do. Applejack knew Pinkie could get out whenever she wanted. She had chosen to stay tied up with a grimace on her face. Applejack got the impression that Pinkie was more aware of the danger than the rest of them. She wasn't afraid of the demons though - she was afraid of Applejack trying something. She wouldn't come out and admit it, but Applejack knew. She had a hunch for these sorts of things. 

So Applejack refrained from taking action, despite all the times she wanted to. She knew Rainbow Dash would have definitely tried something by now had her wings been free. She supposed they all were lucky the feathery limbs were pinned. 

Applejack growled again. "Ah don't like this Pinkie.... Ah really think we should..."

"Shoooosh Applejack," Pinkie said. "We don't want to anger these people."

"Demons."

Pinkie shook her head. "People, Applejack. They talk, laugh, play, yell, and throw big festivals that involve giant red rubber balls! ...You know, probably. Who can say really about festivals?"

Rainbow Dash grunted. "They can still be people and evil. Ponies aren't always nice either, as we all know."

Pinkie sighed. "We should still give them a chance."

"They've tied us up, Pinkie," Applejack said. "Ah'm running a little low on chances to give here."

Pinkie shrugged. "Just keep doin' what they ask. We don't want to get one of their spears pointed at us again. That wouldn't be very fun!" She smirked. "Though I could make it fun if they let me, just need to sew streamers and a party blower onto it... Probably some cotton candy for decoration..."

Applejack tuned Pinkie's musings out, moving on to study the demons once again. Much of their armor was natural carapace, including their 'face'. Some of the arms and shoulders had complex engravings in them that might have been symbols with meaning or just complex patterns they carved into their own limbs for fun. These symbols were also on their chestpieces, which were artificial, made of some dull leather that was painted the color of the wearer. 

The pink one caught her staring. She looked away - those four-eyed heads were just disturbing on so many levels it wasn't even close to funny, no matter what Pinkie said. 

They rode in silence until they could see their destination. 

It was a flower the size of a small town. It needed to be that size since a town was built on top of the red daisy. The flower with a few hundred more petals than a proper daisy had any right to have. Applejack had to admit the tremendous flora was glamorous, even if its design bugged her for some reason she couldn't discern. The buildings built onto the flower were very primitive - all made of wood and leaves, most little more than tents. There were a few dozen demons in the village, ranging in color from a pale pink to an almost black red. Some of them had large, brilliant wings - probably the females, though this was just Applejack's guess. She was going off her knowledge of ants, which admittedly was spotty at best, though much better than the two ponies she was with. Only a few of the females used the wings, presumably because they were really heavy creatures so it would take a lot of energy to stay in the air. 

There were no trees on the flower so the entire town was in the brilliant sun, shade only provided by carefully erected leaf umbrellas, of which there were a dozen or so mixed among the various tents. There were also about twenty 'tamed' ponies in town, a few of which were being ridden around. A couple others of which were being kept in pens like pigs. 

Like pigs

Applejack almost blew it when she saw herself - hatless and with the pronounced forehead - in one such pen, eating out of a trough. It was only Pinkie's steadying hoof that kept her pacified. "Things are... different here, Applejack!"

Applejack made no response beyond a single, long breath. 

They were led into the center of town, on top of the fuzzy pollen-filled center. They drew quite the crowd, so much that the red demon had to keep moving the others away and shout something at them, but that only had a minimal effect on the citizens. They couldn't stop staring at Rainbow Dash’s wings - especially the children, whose shells looked considerably softer than the adults'. 

"What are you looking at?" Rainbow Dash spat.

The demon crowd backed away at the words, scared of something that could speak.

"Don't worry!" Pinkie called in the friendliest tone she could manage. "We're just talking ponies! Not dangerous! Well not unless you catch Rainbow Dash on a bad day but that's beside the point!"

The words were meaningless to the demons and probably wouldn't have helped even if they were understood. The red demon yelled something out that calmed the crowd. He then yanked on the rope, dragging them the rest of the way to the center of town. Sitting in this prominent position was a tall circular hut crafted from expertly weaved dry grass, by far the largest building in town at the size of a large living room. The red and pink demons disembarked, tying their mounts to a nearby post and entering the hut, dragging Applejack and her friends with them.

The interior was well lit by a big crystal hanging from the ceiling. There was a bed, a chest, and a few sets of armor lying around. Sitting in the throne towards the back was the largest demon Applejack had seen yet - a bright crimson male with a tall staff in his hands. The wooden object was covered in markings similar to the ones found on his carapace, the weaving designs leading to the largest piece of jade Applejack had ever seen. 

The red and pink demons fell to one knee and put two of their hands behind their head. They extended their other two and spoke one word - a word that sounded vaguely like 'Siron' through the clicks. 

So this was their leader.

Siron. 

He was one ugly customer, in both the literal and figurative sense. 

The red demon spoke first - and for a somewhat long time - no doubt explaining what they had found and how these three 'pony prisoners' had acted. Siron just nodded occasionally and held his chin with his hand, giving the appearance of deep thought. Otherwise, his flat face made it impossible to read him. 

The pink demon said little, and even then only when prompted to by the red one. The responses were short and simple - Applejack was fairly sure that "tach" and "mil" were "yes" and "no" thanks to him, but she had no idea which was which. 

Eventually, Siron himself spoke. His 'voice' was significantly deeper than the two demons standing before him. He gestured towards the ponies - inviting them to do something. The pink demon tensed. 

Applejack knew what he wanted - he wanted them to speak. She shut her mouth. Screw this, she wasn't doing anything these demons wanted.

"Hello, Mister Siron! I'm Pinkie Pie!" She extended a hoof. "I see we've gotten off on the wrong hoof, but I hope to change that!"

Siron was silent for a moment – then he made the sound Applejack had identified earlier as laughter. He stood up from his throne, a left hand gripping his staff tightly, a right one raised high into the air. A crimson aura surrounded the fingers, wafting around the digits like a soft flare. Applejack felt the rope around her tighten. 

He's got magic. He's going to kill us with it. 

In an instant, the ropes disintegrated, freeing the ponies. "Yeah!" Rainbow Dash shouted, stretching her wings. "Siron rocks!"

Siron's legs buckled under him - it looked painful, but it was probably natural for him. He stuck a finger out to Pinkie's outstretched hoof and tapped it in greeting. 

Pinkie grinned - and proceeded to show Siron how to properly hoofbump, curling his fingers into a fist and nudging it with her hoof. She giggled and Siron nodded. 

He stood tall once again, dwarfing all present. He pointed at the ponies and spread his arms wide; making waving motions with the three that weren't holding the staff. 

The meaning was clear. They were free to go. The red demon seemed irked by this, but something Siron said shut him up really fast. Siron pointed at the ponies again and made a shrugging motion, and did the reverse of his previous gesture, bringing his arms in. Then he laid his palms flat and made a circular motion. 

Applejack frowned. "...What?"

Rainbow Dash smirked. "I think he just said we are welcome to stay if we want."

Pinkie blinked. "Oh. I thought he was offering us pie, but that does make more sense." She grinned, turning to Applejack. 

Applejack sighed, laughing softly, almost out of breath. "All right, maybe they aren't demons."

"Can we stay?" Pinkie pleaded.

"Fine... We can stay for now. Twilight'll be in for a surprise when she finds us, eh?"

Rainbow Dash laughed. "Can't wait for that!"

~~~

Twilight found herself displeased with what she was looking at once again. 

What kind of creature made a track this big? Something predatory, given the claw-like impressions of the toes and the distance between the tracks. She was no advanced tracker but she could make some simple deductions from what she saw. The thing had two legs, a tail, and was hunting. 

The image that came to her mind first was that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex - but of course, that was silly, right?

...Dinosaurs might still walk the planet in other worlds...

She gulped. There were a lot of smaller tracks around the big ones, of which she could deduce little besides they were hoofprints. She could see several of them shooting off in one direction, more or less directly north. She couldn't make heads or tails of any other direction - not even which way the predator went.

"Well?" Rarity asked, nervous. Her face was still dirty from the fall a short while ago but she had managed to fully recover her eyelashes and reform her mane to a 'suitable' level of grace.  

Twilight took a breath. "Well, they were here and a big predatory thing attacked them. At least some of them ran that direction. The creature... I have no idea where the creature went, but I don't see any big tracks where they fled, so that's good."

Rarity frowned. "Unless it can fly."

Twilight bit her lip. "...I think I'd be able to know if it took off flying here. The canopy's still intact..."

"Why wouldn't it chase them then?"

"Fluttershy's Stare?"

"Then why'd they even need to run?"

Twilight shook her head. "I don't know, Rarity. All I can tell you is what I see with my rather dubious tracking skills. Which is not much."

"It's okay. Just... Follow them then?"

Twilight nodded. "Hopefully we can find Applejack and she can put together this mess of trails. Or just tell us what happened... Splitting up was a really bad idea."

"That remains to be seen," Rarity reminded her. "We don't know what happened."

Twilight forced herself to accept the comforting remark. "Right. Right. Let's not keep them waiting. Who knows, we could meet them on their way back!"

~~~

The 'demon' village adjusted to the three unusual ponies rather quickly. Siron made a short announcement - barely two minutes - and things moved along at a quick pace. The children still couldn't take their eyes off the unusual ponies and although they weren't hiding in fear anymore, they wouldn't come close to the ponies either. The adults kept shooting the mares surprised glances but nodded in their direction as though they were people, not animals. It was a much less hostile environment than it had been just a few minutes before. 

Rainbow Dash liked the attention to the surprise of absolutely no one. She waved, grinned, and did numerous aerial tricks for the populace just to see their reactions. Granted, their faces were basically impossible to read, but there was always body language to go off of and Rainbow Dash decided that was good enough. She was the center of attention, and she loved it. This was likely because none of the animal ponies had wings or horns - not even the version of Twilight she had seen trotting around. Nothing but regular, cutie-markless ponies in the care of 'demons.' 

Darn Applejack, naming them 'demons.' Now Rainbow Dash couldn't think of anything else to call them. It was still somewhat insulting to them, no matter how apt of a description the name was. The 'demons' were a rather violent people - fighting broke out every few minutes and at least two of those incidents hadn't been friendly sparring. Nobody had gotten seriously injured, but from what Rainbow Dash had seen she wouldn't put duels to the death past these people. The thought was both cool and terrifying, like that T-Rex from earlier.

Oh - Fluttershy! Where was she!?

The moment of panic subsided quickly - she probably tamed that big dinosaur easily. The three of them probably didn't even need to run into the hands of the demons. But had Rainbow Dash thought of that? No, not until now. She'd been in panic mode, which had quickly shifted into annoyed angry mode, and then to showoff mode. She hadn't really gotten a chance to think till now. 

"Hey, we should probably go out- check for Fluttershy. We've been here a while."

"We'll head out soon," Applejack said. "Ah think a group of them are preparin' to go huntin', if Ah'm readin' Pink correctly. We could leave with them, have some protection."

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. "Where?"

Applejack looked at Pink - the same pink-carapace demon that had helped capture them and had been with them ever since. (The other one, Red, had noticeably avoided the ponies at every turn.) Pink paused, trying to figure out what Applejack wanted. He eventually just shrugged and pointed to a barrel of apple-like fruit. 

Applejack facehooved and shook her head. "No..."

"Tach," Pinkie said before pointing to a group of demons - two men and one woman - suiting up with weapons, chestpieces, and their pony mounts. Rainbow Dash tried not to look at the ponies too closely, especially the one that looked like her. She instead focused on the weapons. Most of them were spears, though she caught sight of a couple swords. One demon had a set of razor-sharp yo-yos she swung around with her four arms, mesmerizing Rainbow Dash with their cyclic motions. "Yep," she smiled. "That's them, that's the hunt. Totally going on that."

Applejack raised her eyebrows. "We aren't exactly hunters, Rainbow."

"Oh, Psh, I'm sure we can show them some fun things, right Pink?"

Pink looked at her and shrugged in bafflement. 

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes at Pink and in the process noticed an almost-white demon coming up to her, a female with four blue, shimmering eyes. She had more designs etched into her carapace than most of the others, all variations of a diamond pattern not seen on any other demons. Even the usually untouched 'face' was covered in them, the etchings twisting all the way down to her toes. 

Rainbow Dash waved at her and did an aerial frontflip, smirking. 

The white woman - who Rainbow Dash was already calling White - raised her hand, creating a soft pink-white glow around her digits. Magic. Rainbow Dash had slowly become convinced that of all the demons, only Siron had magic, but before her was proof that the assumption was false. White's wings began to glow impressively with her magic energy, the power lifting her into the air as effortlessly as Rainbow Dash herself. She performed her own frontflip.

Rainbow Dash smirked. "Hey Pinkie! I think I've just been challenged!"

"Go easy on her at first, Dashie!"

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "Okay fine." She stretched her hooves and wings - then launched into the air, stalled, and entered a controlled fall. She angled herself perfectly at the ground and pulled up at the last possible second, the tip of her tail touching the top of one giant petal. She arched upward into a loopdeloop and stopped in front of White, smirking. 

White looked around the area, calculating. Then she launched herself into the air, fell, did a loopdeloop mid-fall, and then pulled up at the last second. 

Some demons started rubbing their fingers together to produce a cricket-like noise. The equivalent of applause, presumably. 

Rainbow Dash chuckled. "Nice one! Time to bring out the big guns!" She considered doing one of her more advanced tricks - a tornado, for instance - but that was probably a little too extreme for this. She decided to keep it subdued, but still something beyond her opponent. She launched into the air; flying in a pattern she'd flown before at hundreds of Wonderbolt stunt shows. She hit a critical speed, and a trail of rainbow magic appeared behind her. The manifestation of color drew gasps from the mass below. 

"Go Dashie!" Pinkie cheered, waving a flag. 

Rainbow Dash did exactly that - she performed a rapid corkscrew back into the ground, landing with a sharp turn, wings splayed, a rainbow visible between them. She smirked at White. "Beat that."

She did. 

Rainbow Dash gawked as White raised both of her hands, summoning dual magic spheres to her sides. She flew into the air, face skyward, as the orbs circled her. Two magic trails were left behind in a double-helix pattern, leading the eye up to the impressive glowing point that was white herself. She floated up there for a while, shining like a star atop a double helix. Then she exploded in a shower of sparks, falling down as if dead. Rainbow Dash was concerned for a second but White righted herself, landing on her feet. 

"Heh," Rainbow Dash chuckled. "I'm going to have to bring out the big guns, aren't I?"

"No time," Applejack said. "The hunting party's heading out. Pink's getting adamant about it."

This was an understatement, Pink was hopping up and down, waving all four of his arms. Rainbow Dash nodded. "Looks like we have to put this on hold White, but we will continue."

White nodded as if she understood. Maybe she did. Maybe she thought Rainbow Dash was conceding. Rainbow Dash didn't know, she simply left to check out the hunting party. Pink came with them.

Pinkie made a "hrm..." noise.

"What?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"I'm going to call these three... Rose, Crimson, and Fuchsia. The winged one's Fuchsia, if that isn't obvious."

"Good enough for me," Rainbow Dash said, looking at the demons that comprised the hunting party. Rainbow Dash did think that maybe Rose was more of a light pink, but they already had a demon named Pink. It'd be so nice if they could just figure out their names. "...I've always wanted to be on a hunt..."

Applejack raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Well, yeah! It's exciting! Hunting down a target and taking it out - the mark of the predator's life!"

"You'd like being a dragon, huh?" Pinkie asked.

"Griffon too. Gilda'd talk about the hunt sometimes, even though she did eventually admit she sucked at it."

Applejack blinked. "She admitted to that?"

"We were young idiots who hadn't quite gotten the nuance of 'awesome' yet."

"Ah'm just surprised you know the word 'nuance'."

Pinkie snorted at this remark. 

As the group of four demons and seven ponies (counting the mounts) set out, Pink eventually urged the three yammering ponies to quiet down. Soon, all of them were carefully prowling through the jungle. Fuchsia was at the front, her wings twitching with the soft breeze. She had the posture of someone listening closely to every last detail she could.The posture of a predator. 

After what seemed like hours of walking, she held up a hand. She pointed with the other arm on the same side through a nearby bush. Rainbow Dash didn't see anything at first, but her great eyes eventually made out the target. There was a large green reptile standing perfectly still behind the bush. The behemoth was vaguely reminiscent of a triceratops, except the hood was dome-shaped and there were five horns. 

She realized she could hear it breathing. 

Fuchsia waved three hands to point at Pink, Rose, and Crimson, directing them to certain locations around the triceratops-thing, giving it a wide berth. They expertly flanked it, weapons ready. Pink and Rose had spears, Crimson had two swords, and Fuchsia held the yo-yo things, eyes narrow in focus. 

Applejack took in a deep breath and turned away. Apparently, she'd decided she couldn't actually be a part of this. Her loss, Rainbow Dash thought, turning to Pinkie. The earth pony was smiling, but that smile wasn't as big as usual. Rainbow Dash knew she wasn't thrilled about this either - heck, Rainbow Dash herself was a little nervous - but Pinkie was going through with it. Probably to get on the good side of these people more than anything else.

Rainbow Dash just wanted to prove to herself she could be a part of this. She took in a breath to calm herself...

Fuchsia yelled the command to move before Rainbow Dash was done breathing out. Fuchsia slung the beast’s back legs with one of her yo-yos, preventing it from running away. It was surprised that such a flimsy looking string held. Rose and Pink threw their spears into the reptile's thick, flabby side, prompting a substantial roar of pain. Rainbow Dash saw the red blood seep out, a sight that both chilled and excited her. The duality was strong with her emotions today. 

Crimson moved next, leaping onto the raging reptile's back, kicking it and driving his swords in with impressive force. He was trying to knock it over, but no matter how much Fuchsia pulled with her yo-yo to help the beast wouldn't topple. It tried to flee again, but the line held fast. 

Pinkie Pie decided to act - appearing on top of the triceratops-thing's crown with a wooden mallet in her hooves. She walloped it alongside the head, dazing it. Rose and Pink seized the opportunity, ramming themselves into the beast's side while it was disoriented. This made the fat reptile fall to the side, legs flailing. Crimson leaped into the air again, landing right in front of the beast's face. He drove a sword right between its eyes. It twitched and let out one final roar before falling still, dead. 

Pinkie whooped nervously. "G-got 'im! Heh... Heh..." Her entire body shook and her breathing sped up. "Okay... Calm... Calm... Down Pinkie, everything's fine..."

Fuchsia put a hand on Pinkie, drawing the jarred pony's gaze. She nodded in approval - and Rainbow Dash knew the demon was trying to comfort Pinkie. The earth pony grinned, pulling the creature into a big hug. Fuchsia was obviously baffled by this action, but she didn't remove Pinkie from her. 

Pinkie eventually removed herself. "It's done Applejack, you can look!"

"How... Nasty is it?"

"Less blood than I was expecting," Rainbow Dash observed. "You always think it'll go gushing... It doesn't, really." She laughed nervously. "Haven't you had dead animals at your farm Applejack?"

"Yeah..." Applejack said, turning slowly. "Ah'm not a fan of it when it happens though. There's a reason we ship the pigs off to get slaughtered."

Pinkie gasped. "You slaughter the pigs? I thought you used them for truffle hunting!"

"Why in Equestria would we need that many pigs for truffle hunting? No, it's just that Equestria's griffon and dragon population need to eat too, you know."

"Oh riiiight! Duh!" Pinkie tapped her head. 

And then Pinkie's tail started twitching the same time her left pupil dilated. "Pinkie sense acting up!" She shouted.

The demons went on edge. They were able to recognize the intensity in her voice. 

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow - Pinkie sense. Yet another thing about Pinkie you just couldn't question. Twilight had tried once and ended up in the hospital multiple times for it. It was just a 'feeling' you had to trust. "What's it mean this time?" Rainbow Dash asked. 

"I dunno, it's a new one. Feels bad though."

And then a ‘T-rex’ burst out of the nearby trees, roaring.

How in Equestria didn't we hear this thing walk up!? Rainbow Dash glanced at the once-noisy triceratops-thing. Oh. 

Rainbow Dash briefly considered running, but she had enough of her wits about her to realize the demons weren't. Fuchsia had launched herself into the air with some effort, wrapping the predator's jaw in her yo-yo, forcing it shut. Rose and Pink retrieved their spears from the felled beast's flesh and threw them at the larger monster's knees. Crimson drove a sword into the Rex's flanks, opening an impressive gash as long as Crimson was tall. And yet, the apex predator remained standing, albeit displeased with the pain it was experiencing. 

Pinkie appeared on top of the Rex's head - this time with a golf club - and hit it in the earhole. The muffled roar somehow sounded more unnerving than a natural one. 

Rainbow Dash took a breath. Okay... She flew towards the beast's nose and bucked it at high speed. Her back hooves hurt - but the Rex's skull hurt more. "Take that!"

Applejack even got in on the action this time - it was no longer a hunt, it was a battle to survive. Her impressive earth pony strength took the Rex's legs out from under it, toppling it to the ground. 

Crimson moved to deal the killing blow between the eyes, but that was the moment the yo-yo wire finally snapped. Crimson stopped just short of leaping into the dinosaur's gaping maw. The Rex roared, standing back up despite constant whaling from Rose, Pink, and Applejack. Its head was level with the flying form of Fuchsia. It was angry, biting at her with intents to devour her in a single bite. There wasn't much she could do to avoid it with her tired wings, seeing as falling wouldn't help. The Rex missed the first bite. He would not miss the second. 

Then another ‘T-Rex’ showed up and chomped down on the other predator's neck, killing it in a near instant. The fight stopped instantly when everyone saw who was riding the savior dinosaur. 

"Hello!" Fluttershy called, waving from atop her mount. "Meet Rexy! He's a good boy. Uh... Do you all mind if he eats? He's kinda hungry still... It's a little gruesome to watch, more so than predators from home."

Rainbow Dash nodded in agreement. "Yeah... Everything's more brutal..." She let out a breath of relief. They were alive and awesome.

Pinkie smiled. "He can have some, but the demo- er, the red people need to take some of it back to their tribe."

"Oh, that's no problem, he can share." She then told Rexy what to do and floated down from atop him. "So, are you going to introduce me to your new friends or..."

Crimson pointed at Fluttershy and cocked his head. Fuchsia shrugged.

Rainbow Dash laughed. "Yeah, I guess we can do that. Fluttershy, this is Pink. He... Well, he took us prisoner..."

~~~

Twilight and Rarity found the gigantic flower with almost no difficulty at all despite having lost the trail several minutes back. Their jaws dropped at the sight of the flower-based village. Unlike the others, they'd had nothing to prepare them for the unusual sight - the flower, the bug-people, the domestic ponies, the pony that looked just like Twilight - all these things were dumped on Twilight and Rarity all at once. Twilight stared at her other self for some time from her vantage point at the flower’s edge.

Twilight shivered. "This isn't Equestria, all right..."

"My... Do you think those ponies down there are anything like us?"

"Eating out of a trough? Being kept in pens? I doubt it."

"...We do that with cows, dear."

Twilight blinked. "...That suddenly seems horribly degrading."

"It might be," Rarity admitted. "The others are probably in there somewhere."

"The chances are very high. Let's hope they aren't captured." Or being cooked. "I'm going to introduce myself, you should stay back."

"Twilight, I'm not letting you go near those things alone. No discussion."

Twilight took in a breath. "Okay then..." She trotted onto the flower, heading right for the center of town, Rarity right behind her. At first, the bug-people paid no attention to them. Then one pointed out Twilight's wings in curiosity. A vermillion female looked up and stared right at Twilight with that unreadable expression all of them shared. Then her posture started to tremble slightly and she pointed at Twilight's horn and yelled an alien word. 

Twilight cast a translation spell the instant she heard that without thinking - acting on the instinct of a mage. Since there were dozens upon dozens of different races on Equestria and thousands of different dialects, it was one of those spells that had been perfected in the deep past and one that would be taught to any higher-level mage, even if the need for such a spell had declined. It was by no means a simple or easy spell, but she had been trained to use it whenever she ran into any language not touched by it. She was so fixated on the spell that she didn't notice the red people scamper away from her in fear. 

Rarity had to tell her. "Twilight, they're scared."

"Why?" Twilight asked. "They are obviously natural predators and have domesticated..." she paused. "...What are presumably Neandroponies. I suppose they haven't seen wings before..."

"No, perhaps not. But they were scared of your magic."

Twilight frowned, wondering why again. She turned her head to the version of herself - no horn. "I suppose unicorns don't exist..." 

"Agreed. Perhaps you could keep magic to a minimum then?"

"Well, I already cast the translate spell, but okay. Speaking of that, they need to talk more so the translation can work itself out. It doesn't read their minds. So... hey!" She called, moving towards a velvet individual standing by a cart pensively. "I'm Twilight Sparkle!"

The man let out a series of panicked clicks - one of which the spell managed to translate as 'away' in an uncharacteristically high-pitched voice.

Twilight smirked. "Oh! Keep talking! We need to be able to communicate! 'Away', see? It works both ways!"

The velvet man apparently heard the clicking noise that meant 'away' come from her mouth. It made him scream in fear, running for a nearby tent. More than a few followed his example. 

Twilight shook her head. "This doesn't make any sense! These people are obviously brutal and violent, given the social structures I've observed from afar. Why are they so terrified of me?" 

Then a white female walked right up to them. She met Rarity's eyes first. The two had a moment of inexplicable connection, but the white bug broke off the stare quickly. She turned to Twilight and started to speak rapidly. Only a few words got through - 'speech' and 'learn' and 'me' and 'you'. 

"She knows what I'm doing!" Twilight said. "Thank you miss... White!"

White kept talking and making gestures. "Fear." "Magic." "Danger." "Secret." "Then." "Others."

"Others? Have you seen my friends?"

"What." "Hear."

Twilight created a magic image of Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, and Fluttershy's cutie marks. "These?"

"Gone."

"GONE!?" Twilight shouted - instantly going from zero to panic. "What do you mean gone!? Tell me-"

A bolt of red magic hit her in the side, sending her skidding across the dirt. Rarity gasped. "Twilight!"

Twilight opened her eyes, barely giving herself enough time to dodge the next attack by taking off into the air. She saw her attacker - by far the largest of the bug-people. One of his right hands was enveloped in red magic while the other held an impressive staff. Even though he had no expression Twilight could see murder in his eyes. 

"Siron! Stop!" White yelled.

This was answered with untranslated clicks mixed with "that is danger." 

"I mean no harm!" Twilight shouted. Siron turned to her instantly and Twilight knew that Siron only head "I mean harm." He pointed the staff at her, channeling his magic through it. A claw of green and red swirled death shot out. Twilight raised a magic shield, blocking it - but she could feel it tearing away at her magic in an unnatural way. Sadly, since she was able to block the magic at all she knew the staff wasn't powerful enough to open a portal. She'd hoped it would be. She fired her own bolt of magic at Siron in retaliation. 

He took it face first, a mark appearing between his four eyes. It hurt, but he evidentially wasn't the type to care about a little pain. He raised his hand, enveloping Twilight in his telekinesis. He twirled the staff, firing a dozen bolts of green-red at her. 

Twilight levitated herself out of the grip, flying in an arc behind Siron. She pulled her horn back and unleashed a powerful explosion of purple energy, sending Siron forward - but he didn't topple over. He kept his ground and pointed two hands at Rarity - enveloping her in telekinesis. She screamed. "Twilight!"

Siron put the jade of the staff to Rarity's neck and gave Twilight a deadly look. He wanted her to stand down, or Rarity was going to get it. 

Twilight gulped. She couldn't think of anything fast enough to get Rarity out safely. Siron had discovered her weakness...

And then Twilight remembered her teleportation spell. 

Rarity vanished in a puff of purple energy and appeared right next to Twilight. Twilight smirked at Siron. 

Siron was not deterred. He raised his staff into the air, collecting energy into a swirling mass. Twilight did the same with her horn, ready to see exactly how much power Siron could muster. 

"Everybody STOP!" Rainbow Dash yelled, flying between the two of them, hooves outstretched. "WE! ARE! NOT! ENEMIES! NOT!"

Siron lowered the staff. Twilight let her spell fizzle out. "Rainbow... You're okay. I… I was worried for a second there."

"Naw, don't be. We made friends here, Twilight, even though we couldn't understand a word they said."

"You can now," Siron spoke, standing tall, but visibly more relaxed. A few more untranslated clicks followed this. 

"Woah..." Rainbow Dash said. "That's cool." 

"Translation spell," Twilight smiled. "...Sorry for getting worked up, Siron."

White narrowed her eyes at Siron, making mad clicks. "Siron." "Worked up."

Siron glanced at White. "Veila." "Protect you." "Alicorn." 

"Your name is Veila?" Rainbow Dash asked White. She nodded tentatively. 

"You have a word for alicorn?" Twilight wondered aloud. 

Siron frowned, trying to parse together what she was saying. "Hand." "Blue." "Danger."

A fuchsia female walked up to Siron and gave a little speech about "Hunt." "Beast." "Chomper." "Pink one." and "New yellow one."

Twilight raised an eyebrow at Rainbow Dash. "...What did you do?"

Rainbow Dash smirked. "We hunted dinosaurs Twilight!"

Twilight had nothing to say to this.

~~~

Rainbow Dash really liked being able to talk to the demons. It had only taken a few more minutes of conversation to get most of the kinks worked out and it was much better than communicating with gestures consisting mostly of varying degrees of shrug. Siron agreed with this statement. It turned out that Siron was really his name and not just a title. Red - or, rather, Anix - as just grumpy about it regardless and hardly talked at all. Veila found the idea of communication simply fascinating, and Fuchsia... 

...Well, "Fef" was not the person Rainbow Dash had expected. She was not an awesome, cool, strong warrior type. She was a warrior - as were all the demons - but she was also rather hyper and excited about, well, everything. Her retellings of what happened on the hunt made Siron chuckle more than a few times.

Rainbow Dash was really glad laughter translated as well, the alien noise had been a little disconcerting. 

Fef was still going on, even as Rainbow Dash thought. "And then the yellow one just rode in on her CHOMPING BEAST and DOWNED the enemy! It was just so... So..."

"Awesome?" Rainbow Dash suggested.

"Yes! AWESOME!" Fef twirled her remaining yo-yo in triumph. "That's exactly what it was! Thank you, Rainbow!"

"Don't mention it."

Siron chuckled again. "Well, this is... Interesting. Where is this tame chomper you speak of?"

"Riiiight behind the treeline with the half-eaten Horner and dead chomper. Mlinx didn't want to scare the town with the hulking beast. Probably a good idea, seeing as you were already dueling an ALICORN."

“I'm right here you know," Twilight said.

"Wait, Mlinx? Who's that?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"The bro you probably just call 'Pink'," Fef giggled. "Naming us by colors... What a SILLY idea!"

Siron held up a hand, silencing further conversation. "Before we continue this we should go deal with this tame chomper. I'll believe it when I see it."

"Won't take long," Rainbow Dash chuckled. 

Siron, Fef, and Anix set out with Twilight, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash close behind. Rainbow Dash took a moment to wave at Veila as they left. She waved back. 

"Hey, why isn't she coming?" Rarity asked Siron.

"She and I are the only P'e'thika in the tribe," Siron saw the look on Rarity's face and knew instantly the word wasn't translated. "We can use magic. There must always be one in the tribe. She is the only heir for now, so she must be protected. It is the main reason why I took swift action against Twilight."

"Ah, I see."

It took less than a minute to reach the edge of the flower and enter the treeline. Pinkie Pie was waiting for them. "Come one, come all, see the giant Rexy! Admission free, but don't call him Roxy, or else your he'll make your hearts break with adorable ferocity!" 

Fef broke out into laughter. "You sound EXACTLY like how I imagined you!"

"Oh cool! The translation spell's ON! Woo! Now we can have real parties!"

"Calm yourselves," Siron said. "I must see this... Rexy."

"Right this way Siron!" Pinkie trilled, trotting deeper into the jungle.

Rexy was, in fact, right that way. He stood just under the canopy, sniffing the air like some kind of ferret. Fluttershy was scratching his nose. "Who's a good boy? You're a good boy!"

Siron nodded. Despite his cool demeanor, he was at a loss for words. "...Ah."

Rarity saw the half-eaten 'Horner' and gagged. She put a hoof over her eyes and turned away. Twilight didn't gag, but she gave the carcass an untrusting look. 

Rainbow Dash laughed. "It's just food for the tribe, Twi!"

"Not just food!" Fef said. "SCALES for ARMOR too! And those horns can make some off-the-wall weapons!" She squeed. 

Mlinx (Rainbow Dash still thought of him as Pink internally) looked up. "...Wait, we can understand them... How?"

"Spell," Twilight offered. "It translates between languages.”

Mlinx looked at Twilight for the first time and jumped skittishly into the air, letting out a swear that had no translation.

"At ease, Mlinx," Siron said. "It is not the Mistress."

"Horns on a chomper, now there's more. And look!" Mlinx pointed at Rarity. "Just a horn? Wow! That's terrifying. Must be more powerful..."

Anix let out a huff. "Coward."

Fef punched Anix. "Hey, cool it with that! Mlinx held himself ADMIRABLY on the HUNT!!!"

"You are not a good judge of that."

Siron let out a sigh. "Settle this like warriors or shut up. I'd prefer the latter at the moment seeing as we have other things to attend to."

Twilight looked at the chief of all the demons. "Indeed we do. Among the first things I'd like to know is who this 'Mistress' is and why she makes you terrified of me."

"Come to my hut then. We will no doubt have much to discuss."

~~~

"So... Hi! I'm Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria. I'm an alicorn pony. What do you call yourself?"

Siron pondered this with two hands on his hips, one on his chin, and another on his staff. He was still having difficulty processing the fact that he was talking to a pony - an alicorn at that. It - she - wasn't walking around in that aloof, mindless way regular ponies did, nor was she being a savage monster. "Just Siron. We don't have all those complex names here."

"...What do you call yourselves? As a people."

Siron cocked his head. "Not sure what you mean by that."

"Well, I'm a pony, Rexy is a 'chomper', some of my friends are dragons, certain animals are dogs, and you are...?"

Siron laughed.

"What's so funny?"

"We're just 'the people'. I can see now that not giving ourselves a name was perhaps a little hasty, but we had no need for one. Until now, I suppose."

"I... Guess there are a lot of different peoples where I come from. It's just assumed that everyone has a name..." She looked like she was pondering something.

"What were you calling us earlier - demons? What does that mean?"

Twilight folded her ears back and blushed. Siron marveled once again at the expressiveness of that face. The ponies wore their expressions for all to see - it was so fascinating to watch. It must be much easier for leaders to prove their worth in the land they came from. 

"Siron... It's not a very... flattering word."

Siron liked the idea already. "What's it mean then?"

"Demons are a... Special kind of monster, often associated with violence, evil, and corruption. Most that exist where we come from are sealed away in a horrendous place called Tartarus."

Siron weaved two of his hands together. "I like this. We are, in fact, warriors that terrify all the creatures of the jungle. Even chompers run away in fear sometimes. I accept this label."

"You should really reconsider, it has evil connotations..."

"We are the red demons," Siron stated matter of factly. He could tell this annoyed Twilight, the expressions were just too obvious. Not only were the eyes easier to see than those of his people - there was also adjustable ears, flaring nostrils, twistable mouth, and shifting skin! There was no way these ponies could keep secrets, he was certain of it. 

Siron leaned back in his throne. "Now that that's out of the way, tell me your story, Twilight Sparkle."

She did - she described her home in a reverent, almost poetic manner. He didn't understand a lot of what came from her mouth, but he didn't let her know that. He gleaned that there were many different tribal villages - or 'cities' as she called them - filled mostly with ponies. There were other unusual races with names like griffons, dragons, and changelings. Magic was apparently common over there, which Siron felt cheapened the gift. Most interesting was the notable cosmology of only one moon - the evil gray one. He felt sorry for the plight that must have come from that.

Then she spoke of the man of light and the enchantress. Siron had no idea about the man in light, though he did deduce that a unicorn was a pony with just a horn, like Rarity. Twilight spoke of the sphere, something she obviously knew little about.

"May I see it?" Siron asked.

"Sure. Just don't touch it. We... Really don't know what activates it." She brought it out, levitating it towards his face. He took over holding it with his own magic, narrowing his eyes. She was right - there was a spell in there. He'd never heard of enchantments before, though the idea of them explained much about the world he lived in now that he thought about it. She was also right that there was almost no power within the ball. 

She nodded. "Yeah, I know, it's baffling. I think I have the right spell, but I don't have enough magic within me to activate it. And no, neither you no your staff do either. I scanned it."

Siron knew this but nodded to confirm anyway. He also knew what she was going to ask next - it was written on her face. 

"Do you... Know of any magic powerful enough?"

"The blue moon."

Twilight sighed. "Yeah, can't really get to the moon..."

"There is an altar roughly an hour's ride from here that summons the spirit of the blue moon to those it deems worthy. It no doubt has one of those 'enchantments' you spoke of. The spirit has more power than I can even imagine."

"That'd do it. Probably," Twilight said. "...There's a catch isn't there?"

Siron wasn't sure if she picked up on his body language or just deduced that on her own. Either way, it made him respect her more. She may not have held herself like a warrior, but he was becoming more and more convinced she had just been brought up wrong. "Yes. The Spirit of the gray moon prowls those lands. An alicorn. A dark, evil beast that has used its dark horn to kill many of our kind - demons - for glee. No warrior has managed to even wound her. Many have tried. She kills random demons while we are out hunting, but she always kills at the altar."

"So our way home - if we are worthy - is guarded by a dark alicorn moon spirit?"

"Yes."

"I can see why you were terrified of me. You thought I might have been her."

"The thought crossed my mind. But you just look too weak for that."

"Gee, thanks."

"Wasn't a compliment."

"That was a thing called sarcasm."

Siron blinked, silent. For a moment he became angry - but then he burst into laughter. "Of course it would go both ways..."

"Huh?"

"Not important," Siron said, waving a hand dismissively.

"Okay." Twilight frowned, entering deep calculated thought. Siron found this interesting. 

"...You are a leader yourself," he said. 

"Er... yes! One of the four Princesses of Equestria! Well, five, but my niece is a little young to be ruling. We're all alicorns. And no, none of us are 'warriors' like you, at least not devoutly so. Ponies are a peacekeeping race, though you probably already figured that out. Your culture is closer to that of the dragons, though more cooperative."

"If I get the opportunity I shall challenge a dragon to a duel."

Twilight smirked. "Better hope you pick one of the smaller ones, they can grow to the size of mountains."

Siron thought that sounded fun.

"Regardless... Thank you for your hospitality Siron, but we should probably try to get home as soon as we can. Maybe we can talk to this evil moon Spirit - or won't run into her at all."

"Wishful thinking."

"I know. But we won't have to beat her, I just need the power. I can get us out of there quickly."

Siron nodded. "Normally fleeing is unacceptable, but exceptions are made for the Mistress. I wish you luck on your quest." He stood up, clasping his hands over his chest and clapping the other two together. "May our arms cross again."

"...I have no arms."

Siron took a moment to realize how silly the saying was in this situation and laughed again. "No... No, you don't."

Twilight smiled warmly. "I get the idea though, don't worry." She turned to the door of the hut and opened it, stepping into the afternoon sun.

The five ponies and assorted demons looked up from their conversation to her and Siron.

Twilight looked at her friends and quickly explained the situation with the altar and the moon Spirit. 

"You... You're going to face the Mistress!?" Mlinx blurted. "You're all crazy!"

"Yep!" Pinkie said, hefting a fuzzy golf club. "There has to be some challenge, after all!"

"Count me in!" Fef said, twirling her yo-yos, having replaced the broken one already. "I've ALWAYS wanted to see the Mistress!"

Siron held up a hand. "You need not feel obligated, Fef."

"I'm not Siron! I just wanna LOOK and SEE!"

"Fool," Anix muttered.

Applejack glared at him. "She's courageous."

"Courage that gets you dead is foolish."

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "We've faced off against dark monsters before, we'll be fine."

"Plus I can bring Rexy along!" Fluttershy said. "Scare the scary Mistress away!"

Rarity blinked. "My, that's a rather good idea."

"We should go soon - Spike is probably getting worried," Twilight said. 

"Yeah..." Pinkie nodded slowly. "Come on Fef! Let's go!"

"Oh my YEEES!" she squealed. "Let the biggest hunt EVER commence!"

"I..." Mlinx looked at Pinkie, then at Rainbow Dash. "I'll come as well."

Anix wordlessly turned form Mlinx and walked away, making a careful gesture behind his back. 

Siron shook his head. "You know what that means, Mlinx."

"Yes... Yes I do, Siron. We will make it right." He bowed.

Fluttershy blinked, glancing from the receding form of Anix to Mlinx. "Uh... What just happened?"

Mlinx held up a hand. "I can tell you about it after this hunt."

Fef's energy increased at the sound of someone else using the word 'hunt'. "Can we GO already!? HUNT! HUNT! HUNT!"

Twilight chuckled. "Yes Fef, we can go now." She paused. "Uh... Which way?"

Siron pointed with all four hands and the staff.

"Got it," Twilight said, oblivious to the mocking nature of the gesture. Ah, it was good to be a demon. 

Siron wished them luck and returned to his hut. He laughed again - heartily and long.

That had gone exactly as planned.

They were going to take care of his alicorn problem for him. Some of them would probably die, but so what? The altar would be free... 

~~~

Fef laughed suddenly. "We are now officially in a part of the jungle I've never SEEN!" She eagerly looked around with peeled eyes. "And as expected it looks a lot like the rest of the jungle. Bluh."

Pinkie grinned. "Well I think it looks pretty cool! Look at this giant flower!" She gestured at a large snapdragon-like plant.

Twilight examined it and thought it looked more purple than blue, but the color wasn't all that important at the moment. If she came back and documented the flora of this world it would be, but that thought was running in the background. Her focus was on the magic - she could feel it now, a powerful enchantment calling to her with a sweet song only she could hear. Rarity couldn't hear it - Twilight had asked a few minutes ago. The graceful unicorn just wasn't as attuned to magic.

Twilight had been pretty confident the altar would provide enough magic power before but now she was certain of it. She even thought she could steal the needed magic from just the excess emanations on the chance the blue moon Spirit didn't find them worthy, though that would take time. Twilight found herself wondering what 'worthy' meant on this world - battle-hardened? Strong? Or was it dependant on being pure of heart? ...Whatever that meant. She supposed she was about to find out. 

Until that happened...

She turned to Mlinx, who was walking alongside Rexy. He had taken a liking to the huge dinosaur and had been talking with Fluttershy about the posibillity of taming other dinosaurs, and she'd been glad to give him tips. He appeared to be actively listening, unlike Fef, who had the attention span of a mayfly. 

"Mlinx!" Twilight called.

"Yes?" he said, riding over.

"Why was Anix so upset with you back there?"

"He thinks we're going to our deaths. I don't think that, but he did. He was just trying to look out for us."

"Odd way of showing it..."

"Really? That's pretty standard around here. Though, Fef and I aren't exactly normal. Well, okay, Fef is more normal than me, she's one of our best warriors. I'm well known as the soft shell who gets ideas."

"Are ideas bad?"

"No, just uncertain or dangerous. Mainly to myself. Anix keeps me under his arm to keep me out of trouble. Or... He did."

Twilight frowned. "He rejected you, didn't he?"

"Yes. There will have to be a public confrontation when I return." He laughed bitterly. "I'm going to be trounced."

"Is he really that good?"

"Best warrior in the tribe, besides Siron."

"I take offense to that!" Fef interrupted, slinging her yo-yo expertly past his head, close enough to put him on edge.

Mlinx shivered. "No one is questioning your... Erm... Skill with those things."

Fef laughed. "Oh of course not! Derp, I just have to give you a hard time, you know. Ohmygosh I've never seen this kind of bug before- Oh. Never mind. It was just the lighting." She then did a cartwheel for no reason. Pinkie followed suit, giggling with her.

"Those two are really hitting it off..." Mlinx noted.

"Indeed," Rarity agreed. "It's rare Pinkie finds somepony - er, someone - who can keep up with her antics.

"Fef's never had someone. She's always been the odd bug. At least there are other soft shells in the tribe..."

Twilight was annoyed by his continual self-deprecating use of the phrase ‘soft shell’. However, his tone wasn't all that negative, so she couldn't be sure if it really was a degrading term or just a cultural thing. She didn't ask - although she was thinking about it. 

All thoughts and clatter stopped instantly when they entered the clearing. Where there had been dense flora before now there was nothing but bare dirt in a circular formation, dried under the gaze of the sun. There was only one thing in the clearing - a single, round, white pedestal. Twilight was instantly struck with a feeling of déjà vu. She didn't know it, but this was only to be one of many such feelings she would get in her life. She would never fully understand then, but they would become constant companions, thoughts defined by the sense of things having happened before. 

Twilight looked around - no sign of the Mistress. Good. She cautiously approached the altar, the rest of her party following behind. 

They heard a horrid screeching behind them - the sound of something dark, angry, and dead inside. Fef and Mlinx whipped around, readying weapons. 

The dark one appeared behind the two of them with a teleport, taking her position in the center of the group. She was an alicorn twice the height of Twilight, mane and tail the color of Void and swirling with an unsettling magic aura. Her wings were angular and predatory while her eyes were that of a serpent. Dark gray armor akin to bones lined her midsection, and her horn curved upwards slightly into a threatening point. 

Twilight's eyes widened - this was more than déjà vu, this mare looked familiar

It was the form of one of her first enemies, the evil she had faced with her friends when they first met.

Nightmare Moon. Slightly altered from the image in Twilight's memory, but unmistakably her. 

The Nightmare went after Fef and Mlinx first, giving them no chance to turn around. Her hooves came down on them, smashing them painfully into the dirt. 

Rexy stopped the Nightmare from killing them then and there with a swipe of his enormous tail. Even a being such as the Nightmare was powerless against the sheer girth of the reptile. Pinkie moved in next with her party cannon, bringing it out of nowhere and blasting confetti festively into the dark mare. Rarity fired off some simple magic bolts from her horn; Twilight smiled, glad to see the spell she had taught Rarity put to good use. Rainbow Dash flew around the Nightmare rapidly, enveloping her in a tornado of wind. 

The Nightmare'd had enough of this. She banished the tornado with a simple flap of her wings, tossing Rainbow Dash to the side. Rexy tried to eat the Nightmare but he found himself lifted by pitch-black telekinesis and thrown to the treeline. Pinkie dodged the attack that came after her, appearing on the Nightmare's back with a golf club in her hooves. "Fore!" she shouted.

She never got to the punchline of her joke - the Nightmare grabbed her in a magic chokehold before the club made contact with her skull. The Nightmare tried to snap the pony's neck, expression shifting to fury when Pinkie's neck simply bent like a limp noodle instead of snapping. Pinkie's pained smile distracted the Nightmare enough for Applejack to get a buck in across the dark mare's jaw, releasing Pinkie.

"Thanks, Applejack... Gah..."

"Thank me later!"

"Oh look at that, a cheesy line! Ha- oh right."

The Nightmare pulled her head back, black energies coalescing around her horn, giving it an unusual metallic sheen. Twilight recognized the spell - a big laser, directed right at Pinkie. 

"Cover me!" Twilight told Rarity as she leaped right into the path of the laser, pulling her own head back to charge a retaliation spell. She had to release it early to counter the Nightmare's, so her purple beam was considerably smaller than the black onslaught, but it held for a moment. 

A moment was all that was needed. Fef - who had been pretending to be seriously injured - flung a yo-yo from her position, wrapping around the Nightmare's legs. The blades wouldn't cut into the dark one's flesh, but Fef didn't need that. She just pulled and the Nightmare fell over, her spell stopping in an instant. 

Rexy returned to the fight, Fluttershy on his head. She nodded to him. He raised a foot and stomped down on the Nightmare, kicking up an impressive cloud of dust. 

Mlinx laughed, getting up on one knee. "Crushed by a chomper... What a way t-"

"Not done," Twilight, Pinkie, and Fef said at the same time.

"Crud," Mlinx said. The Nightmare teleported in front of him, growling. He thrust his spear forward and it snapped in two. 

Then the Nightmare spoke.

"Fool."

Twilight remembered to teleport Mlinx out of the way before the Nightmare could lob off his head. "You can talk?" Twilight asked the Nightmare.

She didn't respond. Instead, she released an explosion of black energy that toppled everyone over except Fef. Fef gulped. "Nice moon mare..."

The Nightmare rammed Fef through the chest, her black horn driving all the way through the carapace, dripping blue blood out the back. 

Fef cried out a little - both in pain and... amusement? "GOTHCA!” With her other yo-yo she tied herself to the Nightmare and wrestled the alicorn to the ground, attempting to snap the dark mare's neck. The neck wouldn't break. The Nightmare teleported out, leaving Fef down on the ground, blue blood pooling around her.

It was then Twilight knew they would lose this fight. They needed a plan B.

"I'm going to try something!" she shouted. "Keep her away from me!"

"I'll... Try, dear!" Rarity yelled. She was shaken by the injury of Fef, but Twilight had faith she wouldn't faint until later. 

Twilight bolted for the altar, trying to tune out the yells, screams, and roars of the fight. She arrived, laying her hooves on the altar, feeling its magic course through her. Yes, there was plenty to work with; she just needed to access it...

The altar lit up with a flash of light - a beam that led directly to the blue moon up above. A white figure took form before Twilight. The entity looked human, albeit with four arms. She had no face - merely a white space with a lump that might have been a nose. She wore nothing and her hair trailed behind her like wispy clouds. 

Twilight was speechless. What was this?

The woman extended her four white hands and levitated the 'bowling ball' out of Twilight's pack, placing it equidistant from all her palms. She held it there for one second. Then she raised a single hand, poised upright for what seemed like an eternity.

She brought it down, cutting the sphere in two. 

Twilight screamed - and was momentarily able to hear the scream of Applejack. Twilight panicked. There went their hope. The Spirit had denied them, cutting up the device, refusing the power. It wanted them to end right here...

The Spirit banished these thoughts with a single action. 

She removed a green diamond out of the sphere. It glowed a soft color and shifted in and out of phase with the light around it, making it seem like it was moving. 

Twilight's eyes widened as she realized what it was.

A nonmagical power source.

Suddenly the Spirit was gone and the battle rushed back into Twilight's senses. Rexy was laying on the ground, barely moving, Fluttershy frantically tending to him. Fef was trying to stand up, but her wound was too great. Rainbow Dash was nowhere to be seen. Mlinx and Applejack were lying in a pile to the side, the latter's hat over the demon's head. 

Only Rarity and Pinkie were facing the Nightmare - and with a magic bolt directed right at her horn, Rarity fell as well. 

"Twilight if you're going to pull a trick out of your hat now would be the time!" Pinkie yelled as she leaped over the Nightmare's rage-induced attacks, which were currently in the form of dark scythe-like magics that Pinkie avoided by a hair's breadth each time. 

Briefly Twilight wondered how Pinkie was so good at this, but she quickly banished the thought. Pinkie was right; she had to act now. She grabbed the green diamond in her magic and pushed it with the spell she had crafted earlier - a spell for direct transport to Earth. The diamond reacted with ease, pumping far too much energy into the spell. Twilight saw the fabric of reality stretch around her - but no portal formed. 

Twilight paled. No. No, that was our last shot.

"Twilight!" Pinkie yelled, one of the Nightmare's hooves hitting her across the jaw.

What had even been the point of going to Earth anyway? There was no magic there, this Nightmare would just lay waste to it - unless one of the leaders decided to drop one of those 'nuke' things, and that'd be just as horrible...

"Argh!" Pinkie yelled - the Nightmare had gotten smart again and trapped her in the dark telekinesis. 

"You are unnatural," the Nightmare stated coldly.

"You're one to talk nasty-pants!" 

If only we could go back to Equestria.

Twilight's eyes lit up. Then she turned to look at the Starburst on her flank. 

The connection was still there. She knew it - even from worlds beyond, she was still attached to her destiny. She lit her horn, trying to pull at the faint connection. But she wasn't powerful enough. The connection was there, she just couldn-

"Twilight!" Pinkie wailed just before her head was slammed into the ground, flattened like a pancake, silencing her.

Twilight grabbed ahold of the green diamond with her wing and locked eyes with the Nightmare. 

Twilight saw the reptilian eyes of darkness. 

The Nightmare watched Twilight's eyes go pure white. She channeled the power of the diamond and found her connection to her home, her destiny. 

The evil being had no time to react - and Twilight knew it. She knew exactly where she was connecting to in Equestria. There was no other location it could possibly be. 

A hole tore between the worlds, swelling to the size of a large house in under a second. The edges were white with strands of magic interwoven like braids and through the portal a Tree could be seen. A Tree made of Crystal with a purple starburst in the center that matched Twilight's flank. 

The Tree of Harmony. 

Twilight and her five friends all felt their souls resonate with the magics within the Tree. The Nightmare felt it as well, lifting up a hoof, preparing to flee. 

She forgot to teleport. 

A rainbow of colors shot from the center of the Tree of Harmony, enveloping the dark Nightmare in the holy light of Harmony itself. The Nightmare said no words - she merely screamed as she was enveloped by the blinding colors. In a flash of brilliant white, the magics dissipated, leaving behind an alicorn almost nothing like the one that had stood there moments prior. She was shorter, her wings were more natural, her armor was gone, and the dark mane had been replaced with beautiful stars. The eyes were closed peacefully. She was asleep. 

Twilight stopped casting the spell and the portal behind her closed with a comical 'pop.'

Pinkie pulled her face off the ground with a single motion. "That was-"

"So AWESOME!" Rainbow Dash yelled, trotting out from the treeline, taking a branch out of her mane. She was very bruised and battered - more so than everypony else - but she looked so alive. 

"Hey! That's my line!" Fef shouted, before going into a fit of coughing.

Twilight gasped - she really saw Fef's wound, by far the worst out of all of theirs. "We need to get you-"

"I'll live," Fef said, laughing. "Not like she punctured anything VITAL."

"But... Your chest... There are all sorts of vital organs there..."

"You keep vital organs there?  No wonder you ponies aren't warriors. Wow. Sad."

"She's talking petals," Mlinx muttered. "That attack narrowly missed her stomach. If it had hit that, she'd be dead. Most of us wouldn't be able to stand while oozing blood either."

"Ahaha- I'm not standing!" she layed back down on the ground. "I'm not movin' at all!"

"Is everyone else okay...?" Twilight asked, unsure about Fef.

There was a chorus of 'yes'es.

"Uh..." Fluttershy said. "Rexy broke a leg. You... Do you think you can make a portal so I can take him home to treat him?"

Twilight looked at the diamond. "I think I could move all of Canterlot with this thing. A T-Rex should be easy."

"Oh. I'll take that as a yes then.Can we go now? There's not anything else to do here..."

"Take care of me," A deep, melodious voice announced. The dark alicorn was awake. "Do what you must."

Twilight put on a pitying smile. She knew exactly what to do with this mare.

~~~

"Siron, meet Luna. Luna, meet Siron."

Siron blinked - he had not been expecting this outcome. Or at least that's what Twilight assumed, as always the demons were hard to read. "We found a way home and used it to purge the dark magics from her. She won't hurt you anymore. In fact..."

Luna bowed. "I submit myself to you as one of your warriors. If you will have me, after all I've done."

Siron was silent for several seconds. Then he laughed, as Twilight expected.

"I'd be a fool to turn you down. Come, Luna, let's see what you've got..." He led her away. As he walked off, he took one moment to look at Twilight. "You are welcome in our village anytime."

Fef shot a fist into the air. "YES - ow."

Mlinx shook his head. "Yes, we all know you're excited, yeah, yeah, go rest already so you live to wear that scar proudly."

"Bluh..." she groaned, followed immediately by a giggle. 

Twilight saw Anix watching the procession from a distance. "Mlinx..."

"I'll deal with him when the time comes," Mlinx said. "It'll be much later. You should head home."

Twilight nodded. "Okay. But I'll be back."

"Of that, I have no doubt." He walked away with Fef. 

Twilight turned to her four friends - minus Fluttershy, who was already back in Equestria, tending to Rexy. "Well girls..." She glanced at the receding form of Luna. “I guess the Tree always does send us to solve Friendship Problems.”

Pinkie smiled. “You think we would have learned that by now.”

Twilight chuckled. “Yeah…” She held the green diamond up for all to see. The shifting mesmerized them. "Shall we go home?"

"This is just the start, isn't it?" Rarity asked.

Pinkie laughed. "Yep! You can count on it!"

Applejack shrugged. "Ah suppose Ah'll be up for some more explorin' later... If we have a better plan next time."

Twilight nodded. "We will." 

She tore a hole in reality to home. It was then - and only then - when their cutie marks glowed, signifying a job well done. 

 

Chapter Text

Ponies on Earth

A full day had passed since Twilight and her friends had returned to Equestria from their little outing in a jungle. Twilight had not slept for any of that time.

She still hadn't the foggiest idea what the green diamond was and the lack of information was driving her up a wall. It matched no mineral she had ever seen, was completely devoid of magic, and yet produced more power than she could even measure. The only other things that did that were the Tree of Harmony itself and the being known as Discord.

At the moment, she had her eyes level with the diamond, unblinking, staring in a vain hope of observing some pattern in its constant shifting appearance. Despite the odd texture and apparent vibrations, the diamond didn't actually move at all. It felt a little fuzzy and unstable when touched directly, but apparently the table it was on didn't think so. 

It was just green and mysterious and powerful.

She really hated not knowing more.

"So, you going to put it in the mirror now, or are you going to keep staring at it hoping the 'eureka' moment will come?"

Twilight turned to Spike, her always-faithful assistant. He'd been helping her examine the diamond over the last several hours, though he was asleep for half of that. Despite getting fed up with the lack of progress about two hours in the little dragon was still willing to help her, including slapping her across the face (metaphorically or otherwise) to get her to realize how silly she was being.

Twilight sighed. "I... Guess it is time for that, huh? It is what it's for."

"Good, because was beginning to worry that you'd put away a thing that can travel to other worlds just because you hadn't studied it enough yet!"

Twilight chuckled. "I'm not that bad. Plus, I did tell Mlinx we'd return one day. Can't really do that without this or some other power source. This object just seems the most... Versatile of all the options. Mainly because I don't want to rely on Discord for anything."

"Good idea," Spike said. "That guy can't even be found half the time."

Twilight shook her head, banishing thoughts of her most annoying friend. She picked up the diamond with her magic and trotted over to the Mirror Portal, sticking it at the top-center, affixing it with a simple adhesive. The Mirror sparked with an overflow of alien energy as a result. Twilight touched her hoof to the shimmering surface and it passed through easily. With a smile, she stepped through, appearing in a very familiar jungle by way of a glowing shimmer of energy affixed to a tree. There were no signs of any demons - but why would there be? This was far from the giant red flower. 

Spike came through behind her. "...Huh. Feels a little odd not to be turned into a dog."

Twilight raised an eyebrow. "Do you want to be a dog?"

"Oh, no!" he said, waving his hands back and forth. "It's a good kind of odd!"

"Uh-huh. Well, it works," she said, walking back through the tree's shimmering side, appearing back in her castle.

Spike bounded after her. "Hey! I wasn't done looking at the alien jungle! It was cool!"

"You'll get another chance, Spike," she said. "Right now I need to test something..." She removed the glass jar she had filled with magic gasses the day before and created another one with a different set of gasses. She plugged the new spell into the Mirror Portal and stuck her head through. 

There was no transformation vortex. That was good. She went right to her destination - the base of a statue. She knew there was a giant marble horse behind her, but she didn't bother to turn so she could see it. She was looking at the familiar school in front of her, a building composed mainly of maroon bricks that rose three stories, significantly taller than most buildings in Ponyville. There were two separate wings of the structure, each flanking a central entrance adorned with glass etchings of horses and the sun. 

Much like both the statue and the glass etching, Twilight reared up in glee, leaping out the rest of the way into the world. "It worked!" she cried.

Three or four faces looked up at her outburst - decidedly non-pony faces. They were the faces of two-legged apelike creatures with mostly bare skin. Said skin came in a wide range of colors, and while there was preference for peach tones, Twilight could see green, yellow, and blue. The hair on their heads was usually much more vibrant, with a tendency for brilliant solid hues. These beings lacked horns or wings, had hands at the edge of their arms which could hold amazing devices like cellphones, and all of them wore copious amounts of clothing.

In other words, just humans.

Twilight waved. "Hi Coco!"

Coco - a blue haired girl with cream skin - blinked, bewildered at the talking alicorn. She waved back, confused, and continued on her way.

"Huh... Guess I do look different. Must be odd to them."

"No kidding," Spike said, coming through the portal himself, retaining the form of a scaly reptile. "Did you know dragons are legendary creatures to humans?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Not sure if I'm going to like being a real dragon here or not, is all I'm saying."

Twilight grinned. "Well, it's time to find out. Come on, let's go inside and say hi!"

~~~

Sunset Shimmer was a woman who had allowed herself to get a little too comfortable with the status quo. Understandable, since she was currently happy, something she couldn't have said for most of her life. Most of this previous unhappiness had been her fault, a direct result of having ambition as a primary character trait. As so many had before her, she had attempted to climb to the top and gotten burned by the sun - though in her case this was more literal than most. 

Those days were behind her. She had given up her delusions of grandeur to live amongst her human friends at a high school instead of... Well, almost anything else. She was mentally much older than her classmates, was a master in magic in her home world, and knew ponies in high places. But she stayed here because she liked it. She didn't want it to change. She didn't see any reason why it would until one of her friends asked a very particular question.

"So... Sunset!" Pinkie said, sitting herself and her lunch tray across from her fiery friend. "What're you going to do after you graduate in a few months?"

Sunset looked up from the book she was reading - Essays on Quantum Theory - tossing her red and yellow curls. She stared blankly at her pink friend with her crimson eyes. 

Pinkie sighed, putting a hand to her forehead. "Please tell me you've actually given it some thought..."

"Uh... No..." Sunset said, face blank, nervously clasping her gloved hands together. 

"Sunset, it's my job not to think things through! ...Okay, so, it's actually Dashie's, I'm just supposed to be ditzy. Still, you're a genius, you think about things."

Sunset smirked slightly. "I wouldn't say I'm a genius..."

"What about all those magic-scanny things you hooked us up to? Or those times you outthought the bad guys? Or those mysteries you solved? Or that book you're reading?"

Sunset blinked. "Fair point. I'm not as smart as Twilight though, yo-"

"Oh no, we aren't derailing the topic into 'which Twilight are we talking about' territory. I see your ploy."

"Sorry," Sunset said, leaning back in her chair. "I... I really haven't thought about it Pinkie. I guess I'll go wherever you girls go."

Pinkie facepalmed. "Sunset..."

"What?"

"Not all of us are graduating. Fluttershy and Rarity will be out the same time as you but the rest of us are staying another year. Fluttershy's already got a job offer and Rarity's headed for fashion school or something," Pinkie shook her head, a sure sign of not really being sure what Rarity was doing. 

"Oh," Sunset said. "...I knew that."

"Yes, but you haven't thought about it." Pinkie put her chin in her hands and leaned forward. "Sunset, school's ending. You're going to have to do something. Go to college, get a job, go back to Equestria... School doesn't last forever, silly!"

Sunset bit her lip. "Well... Great."

Pinkie raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong? There's a whole new life out there for you, you just have to find it!"

Sunset shook her head. "I don't want to leave you girls. You are-"

"We are not your only friends. Twilight, Spike, and Starlight will all welcome you in Equestria. As well as the other me!"

Sunset blinked. "...Are you pony-Pinkie right now?"

"Wouldn't you like to know!?" Pinkie giggled.

Sunset narrowed her eyes. "Yeah. Should've expected that answer."

Pinkie nodded. "Profound observation! Now stop sidetracking."

Sunset chuckled. "Fine, fine... You're right. I should think about it. I'll figure something out, Pinkie. It's still several months away, don’t worry."

"Several months can burn like dynamite Sunset! Starts out slow then BOOM! DOOOOOOM!"

Sunset reeled back from Pinkie's sudden outburst. "Good point. I'll probably talk to Twilight about it."

"Which one?"

"Probably both, come to think of it."

"I ask because there's one standing right behind you."

Sunset smirked, turning around slowly. "Twilight, why did you sneak up on-"

She was stunned into silence by what met her gaze. It was Twilight, all right. Twilight the pony. Still a pony despite being on Earth. All of her was there, the wings, the horn, the purple fur coat... The eyes...

"Because I wanted to surprise you!" Twilight answered Sunset’s unfinished quesiton, grinning. 

Sunset touched Twilight's muzzle with her finger. Fuzzy, a little damp, but definitely solid.

"Uh..." Twilight cocked her head.

Sunset shook her head. "Just...Checking to see if you're real."

Sunset heard a laugh that drew her attention to the small purple reptile on Twilight's back. "We're real, all right. As real as your hanging jaw," Spike said, smirking.

Pinkie giggled.

"You're... Both... Here..." Sunset managed. 

"Uh... Yeah?" Twilight said, smile fading. "Is something wrong with that?"

Sunset darted her eyes left and right, scanning the cafeteria. Yep. People were staring. None were afraid - they'd had enough experience with magic mumbo-jumbo to be used to it - but they had a lot of phones out. 

"Nothing to see here!" Sunset blurted out suddenly, trying to position herself over Twilight and Spike. "Nothing at all!"

Twilight fumbled with her wings. "Sunset, they know who I am..."

"NOTHING AT ALL!" Sunset grabbed Twilight by the scruff of her neck and ran her out of the cafeteria, checking to make sure Spike stayed on board. Sunset didn't let Pinkie's maniacal laughter deter her. Nor the sounds of cell phone camera apps snapping pictures.

"Sunset what are you-"

"Shush until I get you into a closet," she blurted, kicking the doors of the cafeteria open. She stepped into the well-lit - but abandoned - hall. She turned a sharp corner and tossed Twilight and Spike into a broom closet, slamming the door shut with them inside. She leaned against the door, breathing hard, sliding down to the hall floor. 

"Ow..." Spike muttered from behind the door.

"Sunset, why are we in a closet?" Twilight asked.

Sunset took in a breath. "Because you can't just walk around as a pony, Twilight! People were taking pictures!"

"...So? They know me, and it's not like you girls aren't on TV with your fancy powers and dresses. Weren't you in a movie or something?"

Sunset opened her mouth, closed it, grunted, then opened it again. "Look, Cinch is watching us. I've tried to get us to be more careful than before so she doesn't learn too much..."

"...Cinch? Isn't she that incompetent principal who bullied Sparky?"

Sunset took a moment to process Twilight's nickname for her other self. "...Yes."

"Why should we care what she knows?"

"Because she's going to want revenge eventually and the less she knows, the better."

Twilight was silent for a moment. "...Wasn't this still an overreaction, even then?"

"Uh... Yeah. Probably," Sunset admitted. "Maybe I just wanted to have something happen. Or maybe I still haven't processed that you're a pony. Oh my gosh you're a pony how are you a pony Twilight, how!?"

"...Can you let me out of the closet first?"

"Nah, I'll just come in." She opened the closet and shut it behind her. It was pitch black inside. "Huh. Dark."

"No, Really?" Spike said.

Twilight sighed, creating a light with her magic. "Fine, guess we can do it in here to satisfy your baseless and sudden paranoia."

"Thank you," Sunset said. "So, first question. HOW!?"

"Mysterious transdimensional power source and an accompanying adventure," Twilight said. 

Sunset blinked. "That...That doesn't help me."

"Maybe you should start from the beginning?" Spike suggested. 

"Oh. Okay," Twilight cleared her throat. "It all started with me walking down the hill for no discernible reaso-"

"Stop," Sunset said, holding up a hand. "I know your storytelling voice when I hear it. How many hours will this take?"

"Uh... Four?"

"Five," Spike corrected. "It took seven with me, and that was because we were doing science at the same time."

Sunset shook her head. "Yeah, don't have time for that. Lunch ends in twenty minutes." She lifted up her hand and removed her glove. "Let's do this the fast way. Think of... The story you were telling."

Twilight looked at Sunset's bare hand, confused for a second. Then realization dawned on her face - she glanced at the red crystal hanging around Sunset's neck. "Oh. Got it. Go ahead."

Sunset delicately touched Twilight's forehead with her bare finger. The red crystal sparked, and Sunset was flooded with emotions and images from Twilight - she saw Twilight walking on the hills... She saw the man of light and the enchantress... She saw the ball... She saw the jungle, felt Twilight's barely contained panic... She saw the demons... She saw the Nightmare, the Spirit, and the green crystal...

She slowly retracted her hand. "Woah..." It was a bit much to take in all at once. She raised a hand to keep Twilight from talking while she sorted out her thoughts. Twilight had just uncovered a spell that could travel the worlds easier than the Mirror Portal ever had and she had the power source to activate it. She'd met an alien race that was, frankly, pretty awesome looking. And Twilight was prepared to go looking for more worlds.

Sunset grinned. "Twilight, this is amazing!" She grabbed Twilight by the shoulders, forgetting she wasn't wearing her glove and absorbing a rush of excitement form Twilight, raising her own adrenaline levels even further, making her hyperventilate. "Easy... Easy..." she gasped. 

"Probably should put the glove back on," Twilight observed.

"No... Kidding..." Sunset gasped, slipping the glove over her hand. "Yeesh..."

"So yeah!" Twilight grinned. "That's what's up and why I'm here! Just decided to tell you in person since the opportunity arose!"

"If I walked through the portal right now I'd appear in Equestria as a human," Sunset realized. 

"Yeah! We might not even need to use the Mirror Portal - I could probably use the energy from your crystal to open my own portal. It doesn't take all that much power to open a gate to Equestria, compared to the jungle at least. I could probably do it with my own power from here, actually…”

Sunset's pupils contracted. "Twilight... Do you think other you..."

"You mean Sparky?"

"...Yes. Sparky." Sunset rolled her eyes. "Do you think she could... learn this spell?"

"Well, probably, but she isn't exactly skilled at magic and the spell is somewhat complex."

Sunset smirked. "Do you doubt her fidelity with gadgets? She had that locket, remember? She can just make something to cast it for her."

"Well, yes. I could probably store the spell in something like that for her but she'd still need power for going to other places... Oh. Right. Crystal."

Sunset was giddy - most of it was probably just excess excitement from Twilight, but Sunset didn't care about that at the moment. There was something new to do and... well it just felt like she had to be part of this world jumping fiasco. It felt like... A natural evolution of herself.

Couldn't have come at a better time.

"I'm going to go get her so we can do this thing," Sunset said. 

"Uh, isn't lunch almost ov-"

Sunset stood tall. "Who cares? Pshaw, this is more important than school! Stay here, I'll be back!" She ran out, closing the closet door behind her. She ran down the hallway, towards the room she knew Twilight/Sparky would be. 

Sunset was probably letting Twilight's excitement affect her a bit too much. She noted this, and pushed it out of her mind - there was a goal for her right now. An... adventure. Yes. That was right. Adventure. She was going to throw open the floodgates.

 ~~~

The Twilight Sparkle known as Sparky was currently in Canterlot High's labroom, an enclosure that had at one point just been a place for chemistry professors to make vain attempts at being cool. Now, however, it was filled with all manner of scientific gadgets thanks in no small part to Sparky herself. Sunset may have started it up, but Sparky, like all good aspiring researchers, had connections. Those connections were more than willing to provide extra funding to a budding science program for a student as full of promise as she was. 

Currently, she was experimenting with magic. The purple crystal around her neck glowed slightly as she tapped into its power with her mind, producing a small telekinetic aura around a block of iron. The cube was precisely ten centimeters by ten centimeters by ten centimeters. After she lifted it a full meter off the ground, a disc-shaped device clicked on and absorbed the magic field into itself and displayed the number 71.2. She wrote this number down in her notebook, to be put on a spreadsheet later, at which point she'd run it through a complex series of programs to find any discernable patterns. 

Until then she was just going to move onto the next experiment she had running. She glanced at the ocarina she was printing in the brand new 3D printer. The machine was putting the finishing touches on its first printed design, finishing the smooth blue plastic of the woodwind instrument. It was currently on the top... or side... or... Actually, Sparky had no idea if ocarinas really had any directions besides 'put mouthpiece in mouth.' Considering how sideways the mouthpiece was that didn't really help analyzing it in three-dimensional space. She decided she'd need to look at the design on the ocarina's virtual model to see what equations defined it. 

Regardless, Sparky stared at it for the two minutes it took to complete. She opened the sleek door of the printer and took the instrument out, tossing it in her hand to test its weight and stability quickly. She'd measure the dimensions and mass accurately a little later, right now she just needed a ballpark estimate to see if everything made sense - which it did. She fed a small piece of string through the side of the mouthpiece and slung it around her neck, just like she'd seen in pictures. Then she brought it to her lips and blew.

The noise that came out was atrocious. It worked though; she just absolutely sucked at it. She looked at it incredulously, wondering if she could either find the time to practice or if she could find some other use for it. Something to think about later - now was the time to take those measurements...

Or it would have been had Sunset not pushed into a room with a frantic smile on her face. 

"...Sunset?" Sparky said, concerned. 

"Guess what?"

The concern left Sparky instantly. She raised an eyebrow. "Rainbow needs another guitar string?"

"What? No! Well, maybe, but that's not what this is about." She rubbed her hands together rapidly. "Twilight-"

"-Twinkie-" Sparky corrected automatically.

"...Twinkie has found a way to travel worlds! Worlds other than just Earth and Equestria!"

Sparky glanced at the clock. Thirteen minutes until the next class. If she responded positively to Sunset she was likely to miss said class and probably a few more. There were no exams or tests today as far as she knew so the chances of her grades actually being affected in any way were pretty low, seeing how forgiving Celestia was about absences. 

Sparky grabbed her notebook, camera, pens, and assorted devices quickly, stuffing them into her purple laptop bag. She held tightly onto her labcoat and stared right into Sunset's eyes with her own - eyes that were almost identical to a certain purple alicorn's. "When do we leave?"

Sunset grinned. "Glad we're on the same page. That's up to Twil-Twinkie though. Come on, she's in the broom closet."

Sparky blinked. "The broom closet?"

"Oh... I may have been trying to hide her."

"Why?"

"...You can see for yourself. Come oooon!"

"Are you high on excitement again? Did you touch Pinkie?"

"No!" Sunset raised her hand. "Just Twinkie! ...Man, that's a dumb name."

"It's adorable," Sparky countered. "Plus, she likes it."

Sunset shrugged. "Eh... Guess so. Come on." She grabbed Sparky by the hand and ran her across the school to the broom closet. They passed the school's resident 'cool dude' on the way.

"Hi Flash! Bye Flash!" Sunset called, leaving the blue haired boy rather bewildered at the rapid encounter. He didn't even manage to formulate a response before they were out of his sight. 

Sparky was shoved into the closet shortly thereafter and rather unceremoniously flopped onto her pony self's back. "Oh. Twinkie. You're a pony."

"Yep! Amazing, right?"

"I'd say so." She stood up and dusted herself off. "So, Sunset, why are you hiding her?"

Sunset twitched and Spike broke out into laughter. 

"What's so funny... Spike?"

Spike managed to nod in agreement with Sparky's greeting but couldn't get any explanation out, he was too busy chuckling. The responsibillity fell to Twinkie. "Oh, just that Sunset hid me because I was a pony, trying not to make a scene or let information fall into the wrong hooves or something. I'm honestly not all that sure."

Sunset sighed. "Fine, you all win, I was being silly.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Can we do the thing now?"

Twinkie raised an eyebrow. "I can't teach or give Sparky the spell like this!"'

"Wait, you want to teach me how to do it!?" Sparky said, grin widening. "I can try, I've been studying those scrolls you sent through and I think I can..."

"You are not versed in higher spellcasting Sparky, sorry," Twinkie apologized. "You'd need to use one of your machines to unleash the spell, or at least something similar."

Sparky was already drawing up plans in her mind on how to create the device she would use to capture the spell and activate it over and over again. Something similar to the magic disc device she had, but with a power input valve so she could use her own power on it, and of course a safety mechanism... 

"Uh... Sparky?"

"Sorry, just... thinking up designs."

Twinkie grinned. "Great! We’re part way there. But that'll take time. You'd have to design it, I'd have to distill the spell down, and I'm pretty sure Sunset doesn't want me to spend all day in the lab here." 

Sparky's eyes widened. "C-can we go to Equestria to do it?"

Twinkie smiled. "Yes. Yes, we can. Let’s see if I really can open this connection with my magic…” Her horn flared up and she cast the spell to connect directly to Equestria. She tore a hole in the fabric of reality similar to the one she had torn a day ago in a far removed jungle, though this one was considerably smaller and cost significantly less power to open, small enough that she could generate it on her own. Light poured into the closet from a world of green hills, blue sky, magic aura, and crystal castles.

The three girls stared at the bright light, blinking as their senses adjusted. 

Spike sighed. "Well, I'm going through." He hopped into Equestria. "You coming?"

Twinkie shrugged, entering her world with a flap of her wings. Sunset stepped through next, looking at the world with an expression of nostalgia. 

Sparky came out last, stepping slowly, legs shaking. This new world felt different to her - and it was more than just the unrealistically bright landscape, more than the somehow 'off' sun, more than the magic crystal castle nearby. The substance of this world was different. Was the gravity slightly altered? Were physics somewhat different? Was it just the magic?

She didn't know. 

All she knew was that it was amazing and a little overwhelming. She'd always just accepted that there was another world through the Mirror Portal that had ponies in it. How had her scientific mind never fully realized the implications about that? Never asked the questions? Never told her to come here?

She stood in abject awe a full minute and twenty seconds before she started snapping pictures and taking notes. "My gosh why didn't we do this sooner?"

Sunset rolled her eyes. "You were nervous about, and I quote 'my molecules being torn apart and re-arranged by some unknown force through unknown means with unknown side effects'!"

"Oh. Right." She blushed. 

"Hey, don't worry, we're all here..." She blinked. "Hey, is that Lyra over there?" she said, pointing down the street towards Ponyville proper.

Twinkie's eyes suddenly flew wide open. "Hide."

"Huh?" Sunset said, bewildered.

"Hide! Lyra's crazy about human conspiracies!"

"Twilight I don't really think-"

Twilight teleported herself and the humans into the foyer of her castle, startling the unicorn who happened to be standing there, Rairty. "Oh! Uh... Sunset? What a surprise! And uh... Are you Twilight, or... Oh my..." She put a hoof to her mouth, glancing back and forth between the purple alicorn and the purple human. 

"...Rarity?" Sparky gawked. 

"...Sparky, right," Rarity waved gracefully, regaining her composure quickly. "Welcome to Equestria. What brings you here?"

"Twinkie's paranoia."

Rarity stifled a laugh at the absurd nickname. "Well, that's certainly how she is all right. What was it this time?"

Twinkie rolled her eyes. "Lyra's here."

Rarity raised an eyebrow. "Why is that a problem? She's such a nice mare."

"Humans, Rarity. HumansRight in front of you,” she said like this explained everything.

"Dear, there's nothing to worry about. I'm sure she'd love to meet these two."

"Oh, you think everything will be fine... It won't be. Spike will be distracting her now, but I'm not sure if that'll last."

Sparky winced. "Poor Spike..."

"Yeah. Sorry, we're going to have to cut the tour short, get you two back before she-"

Sunset put a finger to Twinkie’s muzzle. "Shhhhhh. We'll be fine."

"This is not the time to get on my case for calling you paranoid!"

"Yes. Yes it is."

Sparky giggled. "Hey, Lyra!" She called outside. "Come on in! Got some people for you to meet!"

"Celestia save us..." Twinkie muttered.

~~~

 

Less than a minute ago, Spike had walked up to Lyra. “Hey, Lyra, what brings you here?”

Lyra bit her lip. “I… I need to talk to Twilight about a… problem.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Did you and Bon Bon have a fight?”

“Oh no, Bon Bon and I are fine! It’s just…” Lyra sighed. “I’d like to talk to Twilight, okay?”

“Well, she’s a little busy, but I’m sure she can-“

“Hey Lyra!” Twilight called. ”Come on in! Got some people for you to meet!”

Spike groaned inwardly. Lyra raised an eyebrow at him. “…Should I not go in?”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to answer that question until I see your reaction.”

Lyra blinked. “Well that’s certainly an odd response.”

“You’ll understand in about ten seconds. Come on.” Spike led her to the front doors and threw them open. “Tah-dah, be amazed!”

Lyra’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped.

“Hi!” Sparky said, getting down on one knee. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. Not the Twilight you know, but-“

Lyra did not let her finish her introduction. “HUMAN!” She shrieked, her previously frowning face turning into a stupid grin. She flung her front hooves wide and tackle hugged Sparky. “OHMYGOSH A HUMAN!”

Twinkie turned to Sunset and raised an incredulous eyebrow. Sunset just kept grinning at her.

“Uh… Yeah, I’m a human!” Sparky said, trying in vain to pry the minty unicorn off her. “And I hear your name is Lyra!”

“YOU KNOW MY NAME! The texts were right, you know everything...”

“…What?”

Lyra stared into Sparky’s eyes. “Tell me the secret of the seven-sided chest.”

Sunset shrugged. “Lyra, we don’t know anything about any seven-sided chest.”

Lyra stared into Sunset’s eyes with a grin that was somehow both stupid and terrifying. “If you exist, that means I was right! I was right all along! You can’t hide the truth from me anymore! I will find out what really happened at Tartarus’s Inception, you can bet your bottom bit on it! Now tell me!”

Rarity blinked. “…I’m going to leave you dears to this, it looks like you have quite a bit to-“

“Oh no you don’t,” Twinkie said. “You’re going to stay right here and suffer through this like the rest of us.”

“I’d hardly call this suffering…”

Lyra interrupted the train of thought again. “Enough talking about normal things. Human-Twilight, I need to know what your people did…”

Sunset facepalmed. “Humans don’t exist on Equestria, Lyra. We come from another world entirely.”

“Aha! I knew it! You’re all aliens from another planet!” She cackled. “Brilliant deduction, Heartstrings!”

Sunset chuckled a little. “Actually, I used to be a pony. But yeah, Sparky here’s an alien. We’ve got a magic mirror and everything.”

Lyra stared closer at the human in her hooves. “…Why is your world concerned with ours? Why have you altered our history? I need answers!”

Sparky blinked, face straight. “…We didn’t know your world existed until a couple years ago.”

“I’m sure Starswirl had some contacts when he forged the mirror,” Twinkie said.

“No, this comes from before Starswirl!” Lyra wailed. “Ancient humans! We have legends about you all from long before ponies had even formed the three tribes! They were the authors of our world, the builders of our society-“

Twinkie sighed. “This is why I thought this was a bad idea.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “I happen to be enjoying this.”

“Hey!” Lyra interrupted. “Answer my questions!”

Sparky squirmed. “Lyra, if we were somehow in your world all those thousands of years ago, we don’t remember it. It’s just not likely!”

Twinkie nodded. “Yeah, those legends were probably based off the Handmaid, since there was no way humans could have been here before Starswirl made the mirrors.”

Lyra stood up and shook her head, releasing a thankful Sparky. “No… No you’re wrong!”

Sunset knelt down to be level with Lyra. “Lyra… Rarely is anything as it seems, or as you have believed for so long.”

“I… But you don’t understand, I’ve been researching the human myth most of my life! They existed way back then! How do we have records of the name ‘human’ from that far back if they didn’t exist?”

Sunset frowned. “I… I don’t know. I never studied ancient world history that well. But you have to be willing to accept that things are not as you think they are. We sure don’t know about your ancient humans.”

Lyra sat down, dour. “Well… This is disappointing.”

Sparky stretched her back to make sure it was okay from Lyra’s death-grip. “It’s fine, really. I’m admittedly a little interested myself why you have legends about humans.”

“Oh we have the best legends about humans! Once, long ago, a tribe of ponies and other races lived in Tartarus, sealed from the world above by a terrible magic wrought by the demons of the past. But then a human child fell into Tartarus and led them all to freedom! …Well, in one version of the story at least, the one I like. In others the human kills them all to ensure the dominance of human control of the world.”

Sparky blinked. “…Morbid. Though I guess ancient legends tend to be. We have ones where a wolf eats a kid and she has to be cut out. Rather… Gorey.”

“…I always liked that story,” Sunset said out of the blue. Noticing the strange looks she was getting, she put her hand behind her head. “I also liked Hansel and Gretel!”

“…They cooked the witch, Sunset. In her own oven.”

Sunset raised a finger to protest, but Rarity shushed her. “Just face it dear, you’re a girl with a penchant for morbid stories. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“But-“

“No buts Sunset, you are who you are. Accept it!”

Sunset hung her head. “…I like explosive and violent things. Sometimes.”

“Hrm?”

“…Almost all of the time. It’s not something I’m proud of!”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “I just said it was nothing to be ashamed of. While those of your ilk aren’t all that common, there’s still merit in the way you hold yourselves. The world needs warriors, just like it needs ponies with an eye for the finer things.”

Lyra blinked. “I am learning so much about human culture…”

“Pony, remember?” Sunset said.

“You’re a human right now. …I need a notebook.”

Spike raised a claw. “We’ve got plenty!”

Twinkie twitched. “Spike!”

Lyra grinned. “Where are these notebooks!?”

Spike pointed to a nearby bookshelf, one of many many places notebooks could be found in this castle. Lyra grabbed it hastily, along with a nearby pen. She clicked the pen several times in her magic. “Okay! Let’s get this show on the road! More culture! Hit me with it!”

Sparky blinked. “Well, I can’t really give a good survey of our culture…”

“…I can,” Sunset said, a grin appearing on her face. “I’ve lived among the humans for almost four years now. I can give you a very interesting look at the way they tick, Lyra. It will, of course, take several hours to explain in full, and require a lot of tangents and random factoids, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it!”

Lyra’s eyes twinkled while Twinkie’s became crestfallen. “Sunset… We really don’t have time for that…”

“We have all the time!” Lyra shouted.

“Actually, I don’t think you do,” Spike said. “Didn’t you have a problem?”

Lyra’s cheerful expression suddenly dropped. “Oh… Right… Twilight?”

“Yes?” Sparky and Twinkie said.

“The princess,” Lyra said, walking up to Twinkie. “I… I have a problem.”

Twinkie raised an eyebrow. ”Fight with Bon Bon?”

“Why does everyone assume that? No, it’s…” She glanced at the two humans, the dragon, and the unicorn standing around them. “Uh…”

Twinkie spread her wings. “Can you all wait outside please? Lyra needs a word with me in private.”

Sunset nodded, quickly leading everyone else outside without a word. Soon only Lyra and Twinkie stood in the hall. Lyra sighed. “So, you know the Canterlot gang?”

“Yeah. Did something happen between you and one of them?”

“Lemon Drops.”

Twinkie smiled at the memory of the yellow mare, one of her and Lyra’s mutual childhood friends. “Ah, her. What’s up with you and her?”

“Well… I was talking to her about my human theories. I’d never shared them with her before! Don’t know why I never did – I did with both Moondancer and Minuette a long time ago. Moondancer actually gave me most of my human legend books!”

“That explains a lot.”

Lyra chuckled. “Yeah, a bit. But when I started explaining things to Lemon she got… Angry, screamed at me for being stupid and… stomped off back to Canterlot. And… Well you’re the only other one of her friends in town, I figured you might know what that was about.”

Twinkie frowned. “…No… I have no idea why she’d act so negatively. This sounds like more than… annoyance at your antics.”

Lyra smirked. “Twi, if I cared about ponies being annoyed, I’d’ve stopped being a human conspiracy theorist years ago. This was different. She was angry. Not even Moondancer got angry at me for this. Fed up? Yeah. Frustrated? Oooooh yes. But never angry.”

Twinkie nodded. “…Looks like we need to go on a trip then. Can’t let hurt feelings like this stew for too long. Come on, we’re going to Canterlot.”

Lyra raised an eyebrow. “But what about your… visitors?”

Twinkie furrowed her brow. “I guess I could bring them along…”

Lyra laughed. “Humans? Out in the open? That won’t cause a scene, nope, not at all.”

Twinkie smirked. “I can always just turn them into ponies. …You know what, that’s one of the best ideas I’ve had all day. Do you care if they join us?”

“I mean, no? I just don’t want Lemon to be mad because they exist.”

“I gotcha.” She and Lyra left the castle, stepping outside to meet up with the others. Sparky was currently talking to Rarity about differences in fashion while Sunset and Spike were talking about fire. “Hey guys! We’re going to Canterlot.”

“…Like this?” Sunset said.

“No,” Twinkie said. “Sparky, you okay with becoming a pony?”

Sparky’s jaw dropped. “…I mean, let me think about it, it’ll rearrange my molecules and have an unknown number of side effects-“

“She’s fine, cast the spell,” Sunset said.

“Sunset I did not say I was fi-“

Twinkie cast the spell anyway, transforming the two of them into ponies – unicorns to be exact. Sunset stretched the familiar legs of her old body and smiled, noting that they had boots instead of gloves. “Been a while…” She glanced at her brilliant solar cutie mark, still bright upon her flank. She lit her horn, creating a fireball in midair. “Yep, I’ve still got it.”

“You going to burn something?” Spike asked.

“I’m not a pyromaniac!”

“I sense lies.”

“No, really! Just because fire is my thing does not mean I like to burn everything. Come on!”

There was a thump behind them that interrupted their conversation. Sparky had just landed flat on her face, glasses falling into the grass. “…Observation: four legs does not make it easier to stand as hypotheses would suggest.”

Lyra chuckled. “Can’t handle the hooves?”

“It feels like I’m an eternal hunchback,” Sparky said.

“A what?”

“Have Pinkie show you sometime. It’s creepy,” Twinkie said. “I’m curious…Do you have more magic now that you’re a unicorn and have the crystal?”

Sparky focused her energy into her horn, lighting it up. She tried to lift a nearby rock and instead condensed it into fine powder. “…I’d say so. Holy cow.”

“Holy… cow?” Lyra said.

“Expression,” Sunset explained. “Twinkie, you have an airship right?”

“Yeah?”

“To Canterlot then!”

~~~

Sparky, Twinkie, Sunset, and Lyra all sat in the basket of Twinkie’s ‘airship’.

It was a hot air balloon in the shape of her face.

“Question,” Sunset said. “How can you be a princess and not have a personal airship?”

“I do! It’s… Just at Canterlot all the time!” Twinkie smiled sheepishly. “Only big cities have airship docks!”

“Ponyville needs to hurry up and grow,” Lyra said. “Get more modern fun stuff. No offense to Pinkie, but sometimes I want to go out for something a little more fancy than baked goods.”

Pinkie poked her head out from under the basket. “I heard that!” Then she vanished.

Lyra shivered. “…There are no secrets from her…”

Twinkie shook her head. “No… Rainbow Dash successfully lied to her for years about, of all things, pies.”

“Question,” Sparky said. “…Pies?”

“Long story. One that Rainbow Dash should probably tell you, actually, not me. Besides, we’re at Canterlot.”

The glorious capital of Equestria was a true feat of pony engineering. Built onto the side of a tall mountain, numerous levels of pearly-white city hung over the valley below. Hundreds of buildings weaved in and out of the numerous levels, entering and exiting the mountain itself, winding up towards the largest structure in the city by far. The castle was an awe-inspiring work of art with dozens of yellow-tipped minarets scraping the sky. Gardens flourished in the brilliant sun of the day and pegasi flew all around the complex structures, casting fleeting shadows on the lands below.

“This looks nothing like the cities back home…” Sparky observed, adjusting her glasses. She took out her phone to take a picture – but it slipped out of her hooves. “My phone!”

Sunset teleported it back with her magic. “There you go.”

“…How do you ponies hold anything with hooves?” Sparky said, snapping a picture using her magic to hold the phone.

“Traction theory,” Twinkie said. “There’s a faint magical field that exists on all pony hooves that allows us to hold objects. It’s unwieldy, and far inferior to your hands, but it works well enough.”

Lyra raised an eyebrow. “…I always just thought they kinda held things. Never bothered to think if it was weird or not.”

Twinkie smirked. “You were focused on other things.”

“Still am. Those ancient humans were a thing. I’m telling you.”

Twinkie rolled her eyes. “Riiiiight. Regardless, I’m taking us down…” She guided the balloon to a flat area of the city, behind the castle so as not to draw unwanted attention. The four of them hopped out like large rabbits, glancing around the city with mixed expressions of wonder, nostalgia, nervousness, and amusement. “Lyra, I uh… Don’t remember where Lemon’s house is,” Twilight admitted.

Lyra rolled her eyes. “This way. When we get there, Sparky, Sunset, you might want to hang back a bit, k?”

Sunset nodded. “Of course.”

Sparky agreed absentmindedly – she was busy staring at the society around her. Ponies of all three kinds lived here, though there was a visibly higher concentration of unicorns. She watched them go about their lives, particularly fascinated by the many many restaurants they passed, including some place that made her think ‘Indian’, even though there was no way India existed here. The food smelled so good…

She took a picture and tore her nose away, allowing herself to take in other sights. Guardsponies patrolled the areas with stern expressions and unmoving postures. Sparky found it odd that most of them were male in an obviously female-dominated society, but didn’t question it openly. “So… This is your capital.”

“Yeah,” Sunset said. “Pretty cool huh?”

“I have to admit, it looks like it was designed with artistic aesthetic in mind, rather than functionality...”

“It’s really, really old,” Twinkie admitted. “The lower levels are newer, built less with art in mind, and there are several sections of the city inside the mountain.”

Sparky noted this in her book. “Celestia rules from here?”

“Both Celestia and Luna, as equals. Legally, Cadence and I have the same say, but in practice they do all the actual ruling.”

“Huh. I wish Principal Celestia was the president.”

Sunset let out an annoyed sigh. “You and me both.”

“Hey, that’s the problem with electing your leaders,” Twinkie said.

Lyra shook her head. “They elect their princesses!?”

“Well, they don’t have immortals over there. Or magic. Because of that there are no wise rulers who can live forever. Invariably kings, queens, princesses, princes… All will pass away, and less altruistic leaders take their place.”

“Woah… Kinda like how we elect mayors?”

“Yeah. Actually, exactly like that. They just do it all the way to the top.”

“That’s pretty weird!”

Sunset gave Sparky a knowing look.

“Okay, fine! I was biased!” Sparky threw her hooves in the air – and fell over. “Ow…”

Twinkie helped her up. “You okay?”

“Fine, thanks.”

“We’re here,” Lyra said, walking up to the door of a very yellow house seamlessly placed among other similar houses, forming a bit of a house wall. Twinkie followed close behind her while Sunset and Sparky stayed behind.

Sparky looked to Sunset. “Okay, my observations about this world. One: you never told me enough about it. Two: these ponies are far too colorful and happy all the time about everything. Three: can we go get a bite to eat at that Indian place?”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “It’s not ‘Indian,’ but sure. Though I don’t think I have any bits on me…”

“Oh…”

Sunset smirked. “Twinkie – still feels odd to say that – can pay for us. We just have to wait for her to deal with-“

“GET OUT!”

Sunset and Sparky swiveled their heads back to the front door. Lyra was thrown out the front door – caught by Twinkie’s telekinesis before she could hit the ground. Sparky couldn’t see who Twinkie was talking to, but Twinkie’s expression was rather angry.

“Lemon, that was uncalled for.”

“Twilight, I’d appreciate it if you left.”

Twinkie shook her head. “As both your and Lyra’s friend, I can’t just let this be. I want to know what’s going on.”

“She’s bat-hoof crazy that’s what’s wrong!”

“…And this is news?”

Lyra raised a hoof. “Yeah, okay, maybe the calling me crazy all the time is a little irksome.”

“Shut up,” Lemon spat.

Lyra obliged. Twinkie didn’t. “Lemon, I need to know what’s going on-“

“What’s going on is that Lyra’s crazy and I don’t want to hear about it!”

“I’m sure Lyra will agree not to talk about it if we just know why, Lemon.”

Lemon twitched. “Twilight, just go. Please.”

Sunset sighed, walking up to the front door.

“Who are you?” Lemon muttered.

“I’m Sunset.” She removed one of her front boots. “And I’m going to figure this out.” She touched lemon on the shoulder, and the red crystal glowed…

Sunset saw what Lemon remembered. She saw a stallion – obviously Lemon’s father – digging into ancient tomes, his long beard draped over the texts.

“Dad?” A young Lemon asked. “Watcha lookin’ at?”

“Legends of the ancient humans!” He chuckled. “Did you know, long ago, that ape-like creatures ruled the world?”

“Really?”

“Yes, after the age of demons was the age of man, an apparently brilliant age. We don’t know much about them because they left only scant traces behind, but we know they existed!”

“…I thought things that far back were just legends?”

“Oh, I suppose Tartarus is a legend then?” he asked with a chuckle.

“I dunno. I’ve never seen it!”

“I have. Went there myself when I was younger. It really is full of terrible creatures – but also a really friendly dog.”

“Cerberus! You’ve told me the story before!”

“Have I? I suppose my memory fails me then…” He rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I’m studying these ancient texts and I think I may be onto something. Starswirl’s encounter with the Sirens – I told you about that a week ago – was a wild goose chase. There probably is no Mirror. I found something greater. In the land of Tauryl, there are great towering relics older than time itself.”

“Tauryl? Never heard of it!”

“It’s the land of centaurs and gargoyles, the homeland of the great sorcerer Tirek. I’m thinking of planning a trip there, to see if I can find the humans.”

“Can I come along?”

“Sorry little Lemon, a bit too dangerous for you. But I’ll be sure to bring back souvenirs!”

Sunset took in a deep, pained breath. She knew what was coming. Lemon’s memory blurred to her sitting on the porch of her house, looking at the street. Waiting for her father to come back. Days passed. Lemon the filly eventually gained her cutie mark and grew into a mare, still staring out the front door for her father. The stallion who never came back…

More years passed. Lemon got her own house – this one. Still, many days she would sit by a window and stare at the road, wondering.

Sunset pulled back from Lemon, shaking her head. “I am so sorry.”

“Did… Did you just apologize for going into my head?”

“No,” Sunset asserted. “You needed somepony to go into your head since you weren’t yourself. Lemon… You’ve been holding onto this for too long.” She slipped her boot back on.

“I…”

“You’re mad at the mystery of the humans for taking your father from you. And you don’t want to face that – so you get angry. You fight back…” Sunset realized something in that moment, chuckling. “...I’m guilty of that too. I don’t want to think about my future, so I either get angry or dismiss it. It’s something we all do.”

Lemon looked at Sunset, baffled by how she was acting.

Twinkie smiled. “What Sunset’s trying to say is that, sometimes, we need to think about things to move forward, not push them out of our minds. The best way to do that is talk about it.”

There were tears in Lemon’s eyes. “I haven’t seen him in decades…”

“And I’m not going to say he could come back. I am going to say you can move on.” She hugged her. “You can talk to Lyra and I. Neither of us are here to corrupt your memory. We could even call Moondancer, Twinkleshine, and Minuette, if you want.”

“I… don’t want to drag them into this.”

“It’s not a question of want, Lemon. It’s a question of if you need more friends.”

Lemon sniffed. “I… Don’t know.”

“Then… How about you just start by telling the story of your father? Don’t worry about us, or what we think, or even about the humans. Just tell it.”

Lemon looked at Sunset. “…She already knows.”

Sunset shook her head. “I don’t know how you need it to be told.”

Lemon nodded. “…Yes. You… You’re right. He… Well I don’t know what his childhood was like, but it was full of adventures…”

And she told her story.

~~~

After it had become clear the story would last several more hours, they moved to the ‘Indian’ restaurant, which turned out to have the rather uninspired name of the Tasty Treat. What it lacked in creative names it more than made up for in food. Twinkie, Lyra, and Lemon were sitting at one table, leaving Sunset and Sparky alone at another.

Sparky looked at Twinkie, a faraway look in her eyes.

“…What is it?”

“She really is amazing, isn’t she? World leader, diplomat, magical scientist, librarian…”

Sunset smiled. “She is, isn’t she?”

“I’m just… some kid with a phone and a magic necklace.”

“Twi… You’re so much more than that. You’re a genius.”

“Yes, but I’ll never amount to what she is.”

Sunset smirked. “How does ‘dimensional traveler’ sound to you?”

“But she’s already that too…”

“Ah, but she’s new, just like you. You could both start on this path and find something different. A bit of… competition.”

Sparky rolled her eyes. “We both know you’re the leader, not me.”

“Who says the glory has to go to the leader?”

“Why does there have to be glory at all?”

“Cause it’s fun,” Sunset said. “Doesn’t have to be diabolical, you know.”

“I guess so. You really want to start our own dimensional exploration thing? I mean, we aren’t that experienced.”

“We have powers, we have skills, and we have something they don’t have – science. Or, more accurately, technology. They have to expend a lot of effort to make something like an iPhone. We have billions of them around. We’re not advantage-less.”

Sparky nodded. “We better ask principal Celestia for a new club then.”

“No doubt.”

“What kinds of worlds do you think we might find?”

Sunset grinned. “A world made entirely of donuts. I’m placing my bets.”

“I’d be curious to find a world that exists only in two dimensions! Or four dimensions!”

“A place where there are no men at all!”

Sparky shot Sunset a look. “That’s impossible.”

“You won’t know until you find one!”

“I… That’s… …That’s right. By that logic, there may be a world identical to this one, except you never get the idea to travel to other worlds. And you will, by chance, never travel there.”

Sunset blinked. “…Wow, we really don’t understand anything about this, do we?”

“Nope.”

Sunset grinned. “That makes it really exciting!”

“You bet it does!”

They high-fived for no particular reason.

“What are you two planning?” Twinkie asked from her table.

“Nothing you need to be concerned with! Yet!” Sunset responded, chuckling.

“I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying.”

“You don’t have to! We just want the dimension hopping spell you were going to give us anyway.”

Lemon blinked. “…Dimension hopping?”

Lyra shrugged. “I dunno. But I might want to find out.”

Twinkie shrugged. “Maybe eventually. Right now, we don’t even know what we’re doing. But in the future… Who knows? We might have a big national production.”

“Yeah. Who knows?” Sunset laughed. Of course that was just wishful thinking. There was no way this thing would get that big.

~~~

Pinkie the human (or at least a Pinkie who was a human at this moment) stood in front of the Mirror Portal, tapping her foot impatiently.

Sunset, Sparky, and Twinkie walked through the portal as ponies.

Pinkie shook her head. “You know, for being ‘Ponies on Earth’ you didn’t spend all that much time on Earth!”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Sure, Pinkie. …Hey, I’m still a unicorn. Huh.”

“I can change you back, somewhat easily,” Twinkie reminded her.

“Wonder if there’s a way to keep my horn…” Sunset mused.

“That’s something to wonder about later, right now we need to get the spell in your hands. Er… hooves.”

Sparky chuckled – and tripped over her hooves again. “Ow.”

Sunset laughed. Then she looked around nervously. “You know…”

“Sunset, you have nothing to worry about,” Twinkie said. “It’s not like there’s a bunch of people spying on us, waiting for the right moment to strike.”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “Yeah. That’d be silly.” Nopony noticed her sarcasm, they just walked into the school, prepared to make a scene. Pinkie shrugged, following them and preparing a party at the same time.

Of course, they were being watched. But it wasn’t by Cinch – or anyone associated with Cinch in any way. A woman dressed in all black stood at the window of a nearby apartment complex, binoculars in her hand. Her skin, purple; her hair, red; her face, scarred over the right eye. She slowly lowered her binoculars as her targets left her sights.

She pulled out a phone, dialing a government number.

“They’re definitely ponies,” she said.

“Good work agent Shadow! I assume there’s more, since you’re actually calling. Did you figure out how their portal works?”

“No. I have discovered that, normally, their kind can use magic naturally, through their horns.”

“Woah, so they’re unicorns? How… interesting. I bet they can do some pretty awesome things in their world!”

“That remains to be seen. Do I move in to the portal?”

“Only you can make the call if it’s time for that.”

“…For now, I will just keep watch on this Sunset. She shows promise.”

“You do that. Welp, it’s Friday, time to give the office its weekly cake. Don’t disappoint me, agent Shadow.”

“I won’t,” she said, hanging up.

Agent Tempest Shadow took one more look at Canterlot High before ducking out of sight. No one knew she had ever been there.

Chapter Text

Beware Thy Self

Spike walked down the stairs to the basement that held the ever-so-popular Mirror Portal, carrying a tray of sandwiches. He was mildly surprised to find all six of the girls there rather than just Twilight. “What’s the special occasion?” he asked.

“Ah, Spike! I was just explaining to everypony what I’ve done!”

Spike looked at the Mirror Portal, specifically at the large glass globe mounted on top of it that hadn’t been there yesterday. The sphere was filled with a large quantity of multicolored magical gas that held a strangely uniform shape vaguely like a puffy sea urchin. It nested itself snugly inside the halo-like machinery the Mirror Portal had been adorned with prior. “Uh… What have you done?”

Twilight gestured towards the globe with her wing. “Why, I’ve made it so we no longer have to switch out spells! This bulb is set to change to whatever I want! Earth, the demons, somewhere else, you name it! So long as I have a correct spell configuration we’re fantastic!”

“Uh huh…” Rainbow Dash said. “…So, what’s that mean for us?”

“I’ll get to that Rainbow! I had a randomization spell running on the bulb all night to see if I could land a stable connection, and wouldn’t you know it – it worked! I’ve got a new dimensional address that nopony has ever been to before!”

Rainbow Dash’s bored expression vanished. “When are we going in?”

“Well, soon, obviously. I called you over here as soon as I saw it myself!”

Applejack raised a hoof. “Isn’t walkin’ in blind a little… Dangerous?”

Twilight blinked. “…Fair point.” She stuck her hoof through the portal, waving it around a bit. “…Seems safe, room temperature, I can feel air…”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Oh, in that case, why not go ahead and stick your head in?”

Twilight stuck her head in, prompting a facehoof from Applejack. ”Ah was jokin’ Twilight.”

“Huh?” Twilight said, pulling her head out. “I’m sorry, didn’t catch that.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Is it safe, Twilight?”

“Yeah. It’s actually another version of this very castle.” Twilight grinned. “Can’t wait to meet another version of ourselves!”

“Like that won’t be confusing… Or creepy...” Rainbow Dash muttered.

“We’ll obviously have to use nicknames at some point.”

Rarity smirked. “Like Twinkie?”

“Sure, like that,” Twilight said, oblivious to Rarity’s soft giggling. “…What should the rest of our nicknames be?”

Everypony looked at each other and shrugged. “Ah suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Applejack said.

“It’s probably best if somepony else gives us nicknames anyway,” Pinkie added. “I mean, giving yourself a nickname is just a taaaaaad silly.”

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t Rainbow Dash do that all the time?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “What can I say? I’m so awesome I can make my own nicknames.”

Twilight smirked. “Well, I’m sure we’ll get to put your nickname skills to the test eventually. But, for now, who wants an adventure?” She gestured towards the mirror. “Who knows what lies behind this shimmering portal?”

“You do,” Applejack said. “You looked in.”

“Well, I – yes – let’s just go through the portal already.” She spread her wings and flew through the portal, her five friends following behind.

Spike waved goodbye as they left. He looked at his tray of sandwiches. None of them had been taken. Once again, more for him. He wondered if this was going to become a pattern or if it was just an early adventure fluke. He shrugged, throwing a sandwich into his mouth. If it was a pattern, good; if not, he’d enjoy it while it lasted.

He walked out of the Mirror room and back into the castle proper, devouring another sandwich. “Hmm… These could really use some sapphire sprinkles…”

With a flash of blue magic sprinkles of sapphire gemstones appeared on the sandwich he was holding. “Huh. I have gained the power to summon sapphire sprinkles at will!”

He heard lighthearted laughing behind him. He sighed. “Or it’s just you using magic.”

A pinkish-purple unicorn walked in front of him. “Hey, you don’t know for sure that was me.”

“Starlight, it was either you or Trixie, and if Trixie had done it things would have exploded. Violently.”

Starlight shrugged. “It would have probably just turned into a teacup.”

Spike nodded, taking a bite of his sapphire sprinkle sandwich. “Woah, this is excellent.”

“Flavor enhancement spell,” Starlight said. “Figured I might as well make the best possible sandwich.”

Spike gulped down the entire sandwich. “I can never look at sandwiches the same way again…”

“Yeah, that spell tends to do that. Though not to Pinkie’s cakes, for whatever reason.”

“Her pastries defy explanation.”

“That they do.”

Spike wiped his face and offered Starlight a sandwich, which she grabbed in her telekinesis. “So, Starlight, where have you been? Haven’t seen you around.”

“I was helping Trixie with a show because, you know, she needs help.”

“Did you do all the tricks for her?”

“Oh no, merely that one that needs the teleport spell.”

“Which one’s that, again?”

Starlight gave Spike a knowing smirk. “If I told you that it’d remove the mystery of the act. A true magician never reveals her secrets.”

“Trixie’s told you, though.”

“That’s because I’m in on the act.”

“Thought you said you only helped on that one part…”

Starlight blinked. “…You’re on point today, Spike.”

“Thank you.” He took a bite out of another sandwich. “…That’s disappointing.”

“Hey, don’t give me that look, I’m not enhancing everything you eat.”

“You’ve ruined me.”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “You’ll live.” She juggled a sandwich in her magic. “…So, where’s Twilight?”

“Adventure,” Spike said.

“Where’d the map send her this time?”

“The map didn’t send her. She went through the Mirror Portal.”

Starlight grinned. “Oh, she’s going to see Sunset? Well, why don’t we join them?”

“No, I mea- oh, that’s right. You haven’t been around the last two days. You don’t know.

Starlight cocked her head. “Don’t know about what?”

“Twilight’s figured out how to use the Mirror Portal to other worlds. She’s exploring somewhere new right now.”

Starlight blinked. “…I go hang out with Trixie for a few days and all the exciting stuff happens.”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, I can join them anyway.”

Spike shrugged. “I mean, you could but they could be far from the Mirror by now doing Celestia knows what. …Actually, Celestia probably has no idea. Huh.”

“Riiight… Probably dangerous to charge in blind alone…” Starlight sighed. “Well, guess I’m doomed to be bored today.”

Spike shook his head. “Come on, we could do stuff! Like… Uh…”

“Ogres and Oubliettes?”

“Well I mean that’s just one of many options…” Spike said, tapping his fingers together, nervously grinning.

Starlight chuckled. “I guess we can do that, Spike. Do we have anyone else who actually knows how to play though?”

“Well, Big Mac’s busy, and I have no idea where Discord is, so… No.”

“If Discord’s not playing, I have some terms.”

Spike folded his arms and smirked. “What are your terms, o’ great mage?”

Starlight grinned evilly. “I get to run the adventure.”

Spike broke out into a cold sweat. “Uh…”

The sound of ominous thunder booming came from Starlight’s horn. “You want to play, don’t you Spike?”

“…Yeah. Can you… Make it not so intense this time?”

“No promises. It is very likely you are going to die in your quest.”

“…Fine. I suppose emotional terror is better than boredom.”

“That’s the spirit!” Starlight squeed. “Come on, your wizard has to come to terms with the true face of the ‘fair Schmarity’.”

“Hey! That’s not fair!”

“Ah ah ah, it’s not against the rules, and it’ll be a good story. Come on, time for some fun.”

Spike winced. The chances of some important character dying were about 100% when Starlight was running the adventure. And yet… Even though his emotions went through a brutal rollercoaster during her stories, they often felt more satisfying than the ones he came up with. It was moments like that when Spike wondered if he really had what it took to be a great dungeon master.

~~~

Starlight slammed her hoof on the crystal table hard, making Spike jump. “The fair Schmarity has betrayed you for her own selfish desires, trading you to Lord Vester for riches and power.”

“Schmarity would never do that-“

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “Really? What about all those times she complained on your little trek? What about her annoyed glances? Her avoidances of you? She also didn’t seem very thrilled about all those times you failed to protect her interests. Though, pfft, I mean, it’s not like you’ve been failing over and over here.”

Spike took in a deep breath. “…And, once again, you’re right. I cast lightning storm on Vester.”

Starlight grabbed a twenty-sided die and menacingly handed it over to Spike. “Roll a 17 or higher. You don’t want to find out what happens when you don’t.”

Spike carefully examined the twenty. He sent off a short prayer and rolled it. It tumbled across the table, ending up in a slow spin on a point. It leaned towards a rest point – 10. Spike slammed his head on the table in defeat before it had stopped rolling, making the dice shift slightly to 17.

Starlight blinked. “…I’m going to allow that. It’s just too perfect.”

Spike beamed. “Really!?”

“Yeah. Your powerful electric energies shoot through the air and impact Vester right in his ethereal brain matter. He is unable to reciprocate to destroy you and at the same time he is utterly baffled that you had enough power within you to injure him in this form.”

Spike raised a fist. “I take him out!” He rolled another die without asking – 20.

Starlight laughed. “You feel the energies and souls of your fallen companions enter you, giving you the power to do what you need. All the suffering, horrors, and wrongdoing you’ve experienced has been leading to this moment. A single moment of righteousness, all you need to redeem it all. Your staff glows with the power of a billion wronged souls and fires a blast of intense magic at the malevolent Vester. He tries to respond, firing off some spells of his own, but they all fall flat to the power of those he wronged. Karma has come to bite him in the rear, forcing his own spirit conglomeration to dissipate into nothing. The dark army will fall without its head and the world will be allowed to rebuild.”

“Awwww yeah!” Spike whooped.

“You have saved the world, dragon mage. Congratulations. But there is one thing left undone…”

“Oh?”

Starlight nodded solemnly. “Schmarity comes up to you, crying more tears than you have ever seen come from her face, and you have seen plenty on this journey. She throws herself at your feet and begs for forgiveness.”

Spike smiled. “I knew it. I lift her up and hug her, telling her it’ll all be fine now.”

Starlight groaned and rammed her face into the table. “Spike…”

“…What?”

She rolled a die in her magic. It was a 6. “You’re an idiot. She takes a shiv out and stabs you in the neck, killing you on the spot. She will claim that you died heroically facing Vester, and will take your place as the hero of the world, even though she sure as Tartarus doesn’t deserve it.”

“But… But… Starlight! I was offering forgiveness!”

Starlight shook her head. “Come on Spike, the one thing I was trying to do with this adventure was to get you to drop the whole Schamrity thing, to see that maybe this character of yours isn’t the best pony! Sometimes you’ve got to just realize that! Sure, she was redeemable, but implicitly trusting that avalanche of crocodile tears? Come on!

Spike blinked. “…Wait, you were trying to get me to realize something?”

“Well yeah, there’s a moral to the story. Morals to most the stories I write for this, actually. There’s a point I was trying to get across.” Starlight shrugged, sitting back in her chair. “Well, there you go. You ‘won.’ World’s saved.”

“…That was a pretty good adventure, Starlight, though… the ending was… Yeah, I didn’t like the ending.”

“I maaaay have been a bit annoyed with you at that point,” Starlight admitted. “Sorry. Tell you what, your death won’t be permanent. In a thousand years you’ll be resurrected, or something.”

“All right then. So, it’s my turn to run an adventure-“

Twilight walked into the room at that moment, startled to find the two of them there. “Oh. Hi. You two look like you had fun.”

Starlight nodded. “Yeah. Now, you and I need to have a talk about your adventures in the Mirror Portal…”

Twilight yawned. “Maybe later. I’ve got some notes I need to file.”

Spike blinked. “...You don’t have your notebook.”

“Mental notes, Spike,” Twilight said. “It was an interesting place, like our world but different. Have to get it down while it’s all fresh in my mind.” She laid her hoof on the map and stroked it, smiling.

“Uh… You want us to get off?” Starlight asked.

“Well you don’t have to, but that’d be elegant.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Eh, we were done anyway.” Starlight cast a spell and put the entire game up in under ten seconds. “Enjoy your… Note scribbling.”

Twilight nodded. “Uh-huh…” She conjured a bunch of papers and laid them out on the table as the two left.

Starlight raised an eyebrow after they’d left the room. “She seems… Distant.”

“Probably just distracted by something that happened. She’ll tell us about it later.”

“COMING THROUGH!” Pinkie screamed, bounding up the stairs. Spike and Starlight shot to either side as the pink blur shot through them. “TOTALLY NOT GOING TO SEE TWILIGHT!”

“Uh…” Spike raised a hand, but Pinkie had already entered the map room.

Starlight rolled her eyes. “Pinkie probably got into the energy drink stash.”

“You have an energy drink stash?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Spike pointed at where Pinkie had just been. “That’s why.”

“Oh come on, she’s not that bad.”

“Yes. She is. I’m going to go get some armor on, there’s no way she isn’t blowing something up with her energy.”

Starlight groaned, using a spell to summon some simple magic armor on Spike. “Happy?”

“…It’s blue and see-through.”

“And stronger than steel.”

Spike shrugged, accepting this. They descended the stairs to the main hall, where Fluttershy, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack were mingling.

“Oh, hi Starlight!” Rarity said. “My, what mischief did you get up to while we were gone?”

“I emotionally scarred Spike,” Starlight said with an innocent smile.

“She isn’t joking,” Spike said, shivering.

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Uh-huh. All right then.”

Rarity pursed her lips. “Didn’t think that was you, dear.”

Starlight laughed. “It was just a round of Ogres and Oubliettes that took a dark turn because Spike was being a numbskull.”

“You and I both know it would have taken a dark turn regardless,” Spike muttered.

Starlight shrugged with a proud smile on her face.

“Huh,” Fluttershy said, scratching her chin. “…What a moment.”

“I could tell you all about it!” Starlight grinned. “Actually might make a good book... I wonder if Twilight would be willing to write it…”

“Ah’m sure she’ll give you time for it,” Applejack said.

“Yeah, not now though. She’s… distant.” Starlight frowned. “What happened through that portal by the way? I’m dying to find out!”

Rarity smiled. “Well, we found a world much like this one – almost every detail was the same. Right down to the other Twilight. They spent so long talking over complicated magics in detail – it’s probably why she’s distant, her head’s swirling with that.”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Yeah, even eggheads can’t handle that much webbing.”

Applejack grunted. “You just like being right.”

“What? I vouch betrayal!”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “Really Rainbow? I seem to recall you fighting for your right to be right on many, many occasions.”

“Wow,” Rainbow Dash said, staring at Starlight. “…Just wow.”

Starlight blinked. “Uh… What?”

Rainbow Dash coughed. “Just… Really, calling that out? Soda in a bomb, Starlight.”

Starlight smiled sheepishly. “Oh! Sorry. Thought you’d be okay with that.”

“She’s just in a bad mood,” Rarity said. “Had a whole debacle with her other self. She lost the race.”

“Hey!” Rainbow Dash blurted.

Spike chuckled. “Lost a race against yourself? Does that mean you won?”

“I… I...” She looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t manage it.

Applejack coughed. “It means it doesn’t matter all that much. It was a thing that definitely happened, that’s about it.”

Starlight looked at Applejack. “…You okay Applejack?”

“Wha? Yeah, totally fine.”

“You seem a little… Nervous.”

Rarity sighed. “She’s fine, dear, just… Well, she wasn’t all that thrilled about meeting herself.”

Fluttershy nodded. “It was a very awkward silence that lasted till the end of all.”

“Uh… Yeah. Sure,” Applejack said. “That.”

Starlight blinked. “Okaaaaaaaaaaay…”

Rainbow Dash nudged Rarity and mumbled something in her ear. “Oh! Right. I do believe we all have homes to return to. It’s been a long day, time for some rest. See you around, Starlight, Spike.”

“Sure,” Spike said, raising an eyebrow as the four mares dispersed.

“Well then,” Starlight said.

Something happened over there and they’re not telling us.”

“Applejack’s really bad at lying…” Starlight frowned. “Though if she’s lying, it’s probably something big. She never lies about much of anything.”

“Maybe they just had something really embarrassing happen?”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “I doubt it. …We should go talk to Twilight about it. Busy or not.”

Spike nodded in agreement. They turned around, setting back up the stairs they had just come down a few minutes prior. They approached the door they heard a loud yell.

“What are you talking about Pinkie?!” Twilight shouted with a venom Starlight had never heard in her voice before.

“You should know better than to ask questions like that,” Pinkie responded, giggling.

“Most ponies at least follow rules.”

“Aha!”

“You get that accusing hoof away from me.” Starlight heard a thud. Had… Had Twilight just slapped Pinkie?

“Look at you. Twilight the great and glorious, spreading her domain! I’ll have a cake prepared for you by sundown!”

“As always,” Twilight muttered. “Look, Pinkie, straight-talk, okay? What do you mean? You never follow any of the rules, you always bounce from one end of the spectrum to the other, and yet you are the most instrumental.”

Pinkie shrugged. “I mean that the tables have turned, that’s it. Surprised you needed to declare straight-talk. Don’t you know me well enough by now?”

“I’ve got plenty of other things to deal with. The good news is that exploitation will be easy. The art of speech is foreign to them.”

“Oh, so they’re all mutes?”

“Pinkie, straight-talk.”

“I Don’t follow the rules, remember?” Pinkie giggled again. “Call me the ‘bozo’ in double all you want, I’m the reason this all works.”

“But you’ve said the tables have turned. Which means it isn’t working anymore. Why?”

Starlight imagined Pinkie shrugging. “Too ambitious perhaps? I don’t know everything, Twilight. The other me didn’t see me coming, as I’m sure you noticed.”

“She can’t escape in her state. There’s no way she’s coming here.”

Pinkie groaned. “That was just an illustration! Yeesh.”

“Illustrations should be restricted to double,” Twilight spat.

“Oh but that’s the art of it! I mean, it’s not like I can do whatever I want whenever I want.”

“…Your shifting of modes is irksome.”

“I know right? But you like it.”

“No, I do not, but I have to admit it is useful at times.” She frowned. “I’d recommend refraining from straight-talk with any of the locals, it’s the only kind they know. With their assumptions in place, manipulation will be easy.”

Starlight gasped loudly.

Twilight sighed audibly from the other side of the door. “Pinkie, the noises of this castle sure are unusual, are they not?”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“I suppose… Neither did I.”

Starlight and Spike took a cautious step back from the door, glancing at each other with worried expressions. Their hesitation would have been their doom had a yellow blur of color not swept into them at high speed, tossing them into a side room. Twilight and Pinkie poked their heads out of the room to see… Nothing.

In the adjacent room, Fluttershy stuffed Starlight and Spike behind a shelf. “Straight – keep quiet if you want to live,” she hissed. She quickly turned away from then and faced a window, putting on a scowl.

Twilight and Pinkie walked into the room, Pinkie sniffing the ground like a dog. Normally the sight would make Starlight chuckle, but now it only sent ice through her spine. Pinkie was almost always able to find them normally…

Fluttershy turned to them. “I see you’re here.”

Twilight nodded. “It’s prudent to find those who hear.”

“Ah, but where?”

Pinkie held up a hoof. “Either here or not.” Twilight and Fluttershy shot Pinkie confused looks. “What? It’s a perfectly valid statement.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “In marginality.”

Pinkie continued sniffing. “Hey Fluttershy, did you see them in here?”

“On the sun.”

Pinkie laughed – hard. Way too hard. “The echelons of irony!”

“What lies beyond the moon.”

Twilight grimaced. “Astrologically speaking, the foremost nature of the universal constants is beyond most plebian minds.”

Fluttershy rolled her eyes. “For what it’s worth, no.”

Twilight turned to Pinkie. “The ears?”

“Are deceptively hidden from my senses, master Twilight!”

Twilight facehooved. “Adieu, then.” She and Pinkie left.

Pinkie turned and giggled. “You know what, this was the perfect conversation to confuse ponies.”

Fluttershy blinked. “In fin.” When she was sure she was alone, she looked behind the bookshelf. “Straight – you can come out now.”

“What… was that?” Starlight asked, baffled.

“They aren’t the ponies we know!” Spike said, waving his hands.

“Thank you Spike, I managed to deduce that.

Fluttershy nodded. “We are not. My Twilight is here to subjugate your people with double.”

“...’double’?” Starlight asked.

“You’d probably think of it as simple lies, but the nuance is far too much to explain at this juncture,” Fluttershy said. “You need to go through the portal and free your friends. They’re in the dungeon of the castle exactly like this one.”

Starlight frowned. “…Dungeon?”

“The area of this Castle that has letter storage.”

Spike raised a claw. “I know where that is.”

“Good. Now get yourselves to the portal and hurry – Pinkie knows things. Her senses have been off lately but I have no idea how long that will last.”

Starlight nodded. “One question – why are you helping us?”

“The light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Uh…”

Fluttershy facehooved. “Celestia damn it’s hard to talk in pure-straight… Just do it, it’s in your best self-interest. I don’t have time to figure out how to express that straightly.”

Starlight let out a breath. “Okay. Spike, we’re going in.” She cast an invisibility spell on the two of them. “See you soon… Uh… Lieshy.”

Lieshy raised an eyebrow. “Eternal detriments, indeed, I don’t see why not.”

“…You’re really going to have to explain that later,” Spike said.

Lieshy twitched. “Straight – get moving already!”

“All right, geez!” Spike said, moving to leave the room. He tripped over an outcropping because he couldn’t see his feet. “Ow.”

Lieshy sighed. “What an evident paradox of fate.”

Starlight put Spike on her back and snuck out of the room, levitating herself down the stairs so as to not make a sound with her hooves. She passed Applejack and Rarity – who hadn’t gone home – speaking in that strange disconnected way Lieshy and Twilight had. Lielight? She found herself wondering how to insert ‘lie’ into the names of all her friends… Liety, Liebow, Linkie, Lack.

…Lack.

She was barely able to contain the laugh on that one.

Yeah, all those names were pretty stupid. She’d have to think of better ones later. She eventually arrived at the Mirror Portal, which was currently being guarded by their Rainbow Dash. She was muttering something about pinnacles for whatever reason. She was none the wiser as the two slipped through the shimmering veil…

~~~

A few hours ago…

Twilight Sparkle stepped out of a wall into a room identical to the one she had just been in except for the lack of a Mirror Portal and associated devices. It was rather empty, save for a few boxes. The area was apparently used

3 for simple storage.

Her five friends came out behind her. They took a moment to look around the familiar surroundings.

“Now what?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“…Now we try to find somepony?” Twilight suggested.

Pinkie grinned. “The best way to do that is to go to Ponyville! Quick, out the front doors! Chop chop!”

Twilight did as suggested, walking through the empty castle halls to the front door. She noticed the castle had slightly fewer decorations in it than her own, though the layout itself was precisely as she remembered it. Even the engravings on the front doors were exact! It just – well it lacked the personal touch.

She opened the doors of the castle and looked out at Ponyville.

“Doesn’t… Look any different,” Rainbow Dash said.

“This world must be extremely similar to our own,” Twilight said. “I’m willing to bet their Applejack is working on her farm and their Pinkie Pie is working at Sugarcube Corner.”

“Shouldn’t their version of you be in the castle then?” Rarity asked.

“Maybe… But she could be out on important princess business.”

“We could just ask somepony,” Fluttershy said.

“Good idea.” Twilight trotted into Ponyville proper. The first pony she saw was a mare she knew – in her world at least. The cream-coated earth pony Bon Bon. She waved. “Hey!”

Bon Bon smiled and trotted up. “Nice weather.”

Twilight nodded. “It is, isn’t it? Anyway, to the point. I’m not the Twilight you know, and I’m looking for her. You see, we’re from another world!”

Applejack facehooved. Bon Bon just looked at Twilight with a delicate smile, though her eyes gave away mild infuriation. She took a few seconds before responding. “Time sure has its way sometimes.”

“...Indeed it does…” Twilight said, furrowing her brow. “But that’s not helpful.”

Bon Bon tensed. ”I’m certain you can render your own assailment.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Bon Bon’s ears laid flat. “…Please…”

Twilight cocked her head. “What in Celestia’s name has you so worried? I may be a bit… Weird, but I’m just asking straight questions.”

Bon Bon gasped – and fainted on the spot.

Rainbow Dash shook her head. “Okay, what in Equestria?”

“I… I have no idea.” Twilight frowned. “Maybe their culture’s different? …Oh no, how many taboos did I just break!?”

“Several,” Fluttershy said.

“How can you know? How can we know it wasn’t a hundred!?”

Fluttershy pointed away from herself. “Uh… That wasn’t me.”

The group turned to see… Another Fluttershy. There was no physical discernable difference between the two pegasi save for the new Fluttershy’s notably grumpier expression.

“Uh… Hi.” Twilight waved sheepishly with her wing. “I… Er…”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “Twilight’s not working right now, too afraid to break a taboo. But not me! I don’t care about that at all right now! Hi! I’m-“

“Pinkie Pie. Straight talk?”

“…What?”

The other Fluttershy facehooved. “For the sanity of golems…”

Pinkie giggled. “That’s a fun saying! I like ‘and that’s how Equestria was made’, but that’s just me.”

“If only just.”

“Oh yeah, probably other Pinkie too. Is she just as hyperactive as me?”

“For the equation, indeed.”

“…What?”

The other Fluttershy took in a strained breath. “Straight talk. Okay. Requirement of the natural endowment of mind apparently… Greetings, I am Fluttershy. You are not Twilight, you are not Pinkie, and you are not Fluttershy.”

“Uh… Yeah,” Fluttershy said.

“I need… You to explain,” the other Fluttershy said, fumbling with her words.

“We’re from another world where things are really similar but pretty different!” Pinkie said. “For one, we don’t talk like you! At all!

“An… Annoyance. I assure you.”

“Why?” Rarity said.

“…I am currently unable to express that feeling in straight-talk. There may be a way, but I do not grapple it.” She glanced around. “It is taboo to use straight-talk in public.”

Twilight groaned. “I knew it… Everything I said was a political blunder!”

Fluttershy put her wing over Twilight. “There there… You didn’t know. You just need to ask for forgiveness!”

“Uh…” Twilight looked at the still unconscious Bon-Bon and to the other Fluttershy. “Sorry?”

The other Fluttershy bit her lip and let out a strained breath. “Never apologize in straight-talk to somepony who isn’t a lover.”

Twilight blushed and covered her face with her wings. “Done talking now!”

Rarity smiled. “Well… I must admit, while this way of speaking is confusing, it sounds like it is quite civilized. I wonder if we could learn?”

“Probably over time,” Applejack said. “Not now.”

Other Fluttershy looked to the sky. “My Twilight is coming. You will not understand the ensuing conversation, be prepared.”

The native Twilight appeared, just as foretold. She looked exactly like Twilight, once again the only difference being in the expression, one of pride. She turned to Fluttershy. “In the labyrinth?”

“The mirrors edge isn’t forged.”

The other Twilight raised her eyebrows. “A land of loss and sorrow?”

Rainbow Dash glanced at Rarity. “I feel like we’re being insulted.”

The other Fluttershy continued. “What understanding? So much is outside the realm.”

The other Twilight laughed – hard. Then she turned to the six ponies and started speaking. “And then the ball started rolling, down, down, down, much further than any could possibly see. In the depths of the realm – that’s you – there is a spark. Thus, lightning comes from beyond with just rule and provides an avenue for intrigue. Doubly beyond these, but for far more than possible, the taboos. Entrapment with a physiological aspect, careful, implied, powerful. Hello!”

Twilight blinked. “…Uh… Hi?”

This was greeted with more laughter. She pointed back to her castle, gesturing they come back with her. Twilight turned to the other Fluttershy – and she nodded.

Pinkie shook her head. “Okay, so the entire time other Twilight was talking, I had a really weird feeling. Pinkie Sense was acting up.”

“She was probably just insulting us,” Rainbow Dash muttered.

Other Twilight pointed at Rainbow Dash and grinned, nodding comically, like an adult would do with a young child. Except more patronizing. Rainbow Dash seethed inwardly. “Okay, so not fair that she can understand us and we can’t understand her.”

“Shh, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight hissed. “Taboo, remember?”

Rainbow Dash fell silent until they were led back into the castle. The native Twilight gestured for them to move forward, a big dumb grin on her face.

Rarity looked at Twilight. “Your counterpart gets far too much enjoyment out of our predicament.”

Twilight sighed. “Yeah.”

The other Twilight chuckled. “What a half, mysterious!”

“Okay!” Rainbow Dash said. “We’re in private now! You can use the ‘straight-talk’ or whatever! Nopony’s going to know!”

The other Twilight shrugged. “All right. Have a nice imprisonment.”

“…Wait wha-“

The other Twilight cast a spell, capturing Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Fluttershy in crystal. Twilight gasped. “Why – why did you do that?”

“Because I see an opportunity with you idiots,” her counterpart responded. “Quite an easy one, I might add.”

“What are you planning?”

“Oh, you see, I already told you. To your face, I might add, not only a few minutes ago. But since you’re incapable of experiencing the double, let me reiterate. I’m going to imprison you all. I’m going to keep all of you here, locked away. I will return to your world and pretend to be you after I’ve harvested enough information from your mind with my magic. I will make sure you can’t use magic and your Pinkie can’t use her shenanigans. There were also a lot of insults – really clever ones, I might add – that would be completely lost in translation to straight-talk. Such a shame, really.”

Twilight lit her horn and Pinkie Pie produced a frying pan. Twilight aimed. “We can’t let you do that.”

“Does the little alicorn want a fight?” the other Twilight snarked, rolling her eyes. “Please, the only reason I haven’t frozen you is because you could break out. I’ve got another plan for you.”

Twilight didn’t let her finish. She tried to shoot a bolt of magic from her horn, but instead only got a migraine.

“Magic circle!” her counterpart laughed.

Twilight looked down – they were indeed standing in a strange magic circle that… Well she was pretty sure her castle didn’t have.

The evil Twilight conjured up a horn-sealing spell. “Can’t have you casting spells when I move you out of there. Be a good girl and accept this willingly, will you?”

Pinkie was having none of this. She appeared next to the other Twilight and hit her alongside the head. “Yeah, how about no?”

“Backups within backups!”

“Hi there!” another Pinkie Pie said, hitting Pinkie Pie across the head with another frying pan. Pinkie went flying – right into a net of cotton candy laid by her counterpart.

Pinkie screeched. “No! Cotton candy nets! My weakness!”

“For today, anyway,” the other Pinkie said.

“Curse you and your identical abilities! Woe! Oh woe!”

“Woe!”

“Enough you two,” the other Twilight said, turning to the normal Twilight. “Now, take this spell or I have to knock you out.”

Twilight ran for the edge of the circle.

A frying pan hit her in the back of the head, knocking her to the ground. This didn’t knock her unconscious. The magic bolt from her counterpart did.

~~~

In a world parallel the two colliding universes, Sunset glanced at the team she had formed for the ‘dimensional explorers’ club. She… was honestly expecting more to show up. But she could work with this.

“Okay, so. Let’s go around introducing ourselves. Name, skills, and why you’re interested in this club. I’ll start. I’m Sunset, I’m good at scientific analysis and have magic powers. I used to be a unicorn and frankly other worlds fascinate me because I came from one.”

Twilight stood up excitedly. “Hi! I’m Twilight and I’m good with technology and have a lot of theories on how magic works and I’m the one who invented all the machines we’re going to use! It’s just such an interesting scientific journey!”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Hey. Rainbow Dash here. I’m an athlete, so, I’m going to be your action girl. I’m here for the awesome adventure.” She looked around. “I’m a little surprised Pinkie didn’t show up…”

“She could be in Equestria for all we know,” Sunset said, shrugging. She turned to their other three prospective members. “Well?”

The young lanky man in glasses adjusted them nervously. “Ah… I’m Micro Chips, I’m good with computers, and I… I always wanted to see how these machines work. I’m sure we can find new scientific discoveries!”

“You bet we can!” Twilight added.

A minty-green girl went next. “I’m Lyra! I uh… …I can play the harp. But I’m also an avid follower of blogs that seek to find the truth in our world! I like to think I’m a master of the internet! I’m sure we can uncover the conspiracy with this! Right? Right?”

A bigger student with heavy green hair went next. “I’m Sandalwood. I like working with nature and animals. I’m mainly here because Micro is, but I’m interested to see other cool parts of nature.”

Sunset grinned. “You’re in luck! If everything goes as planned, today we’ll be heading to a world with a huge jungle and a race of bug-people!”

“Nice.”

Sunset pointed at Twilight. “Take it away!”

She nodded. “Well… Uh, Hi! Princess Twilight Sparkle has given us the magic spell to travel the universes.” She pulled out a circular locket from her pocket. “When I release the magic from inside this device, I will combine it with the power from my necklace and we’ll have created a portal.” She pulled out another locket. “And this one contains the return spell. I’m currently designing a device that can permanently store spell patterns. It should be done soon, but until then, you’re going to have to stand back when I open these portals.”

Everyone stared at her.

“I mean stand back now.”

Everyone except Rainbow did. Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well okay, if you really want to get blown over, be my guest.” Twilight lifted the first locket into the air and popped it open. A swirling ball of light generated in the space between the two halves. Twilight focused her gaze, channeling the magic energies from her necklace into the ball. The energies spiked into an urchin formation and shot forward, hitting the air in front of her like it was a wall, rippling a flat area of spacetime faster and faster until it couldn’t take it anymore. The boundaries between worlds ripped with a soft white glow, revealing a direct passage to a jungle.

Twilight had fallen to her back from the forces, as had Rainbow. The two stood up and dusted themselves off.

“Woah…” Sandalwood said. “Those are some big flowers…”

Sunset gestured to the portal. “Be my guest. Though look out for dinosaurs.”

“D-Dinosaurs!?” Micro blurted.

“Dinosaurs,” Sunset affirmed.

Lyra’s eyes glistened. “Dinosaurs…” she said, giddy.

Sandalwood stepped through the portal first, a stupid grin forming on his face. The slightly wet leaves glistened in the morning sunlight, illuminating the small butterflies flying through the air. “Sweet.”

“It is ‘sweet,’ indeed,” Sunset said.

“Are you kidding Sunset? This is awesome!” Rainbow Dash whooped.

“I was trying to avoid an overuse of the word.”

“There can never be an overuse of awesome.”

“Actually,” Twilight said, raising a finger. “It is a true statement that too much of anything can become bad for you. Moderation is the key to life. If you said nothing but awesome I am sure you would quickly regret it.”

Rainbow Dash sighed. “Way to take the fun out of it. Yeesh.”

Lyra took out her phone and started snapping pictures while Sandalwood carefully examined some of the larger flowers. Micro just… stood there, nervous.

Twilight walked over to him, scribbling some things on a notepad. “Hey, Micro? You don’t have to just stand there.”

“I want to be next to the portal in case some dinosaur shows up.”

The portal closed behind him with a comical pop. He yelped in surprise.

Twilight held up the second locket. “Calm down. This is our way out. Everything’s fine as long as we have this.”

A verdant pterodactyl swooped out of the sky and snatched the locket out of her hand. She stared at the place the locket had been for several seconds before facepalming. “Guys, a pterodactyl just made off with our escape plan!”

Rainbow Dash stretched her neck and cracked her knuckles. “On it.” The blue crystal around her neck flashed and she took off with super speed, leaving a trail of rainbows behind.

Lyra pursed her lips. “No fair, you guys get all the special powers.”

Sunset shrugged. “Maybe we can find you some on our adventures?”

“Powers shouldn’t be the goal,” Sandalwood said. “We should be here to explore, to contact other peoples, to learn about the vastness of existence…”

“To boldly go where no man has gone before?” Micro said.

“Yes. That.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. The conversation was cut off by Rainbow’s return. She held a dazed pterodactyl in one hand and the locket in another. The only problem was the locket was crushed.

“Rainbow!” Twilight scolded.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Hey, it was already crushed when I got there, don’t blame me.”

“Well now what are we going to do? We’re stuck here!”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “No, we’re not. Princess Twilight will be back in this world eventually, we can have them pick us up. …Annoyingly.”

“How long will that be?!”

“I dunno. A day, maybe? Two?”

Micro grabbed his hair. “My parents will freak out if I’m gone for two days!”

Sunset blinked. “Oh yeah. Sometimes I forget you all have lives.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Really? Sometimes?

“Yeah. Okay, a lot of the time.”

“Where are we going to stay until then!?” Micro wailed.

Sandalwood cracked his knuckled. “I can make us a shelter.”

“No need,” Twilight said. “There’s a friendly race of aliens here. Apparently, they call themselves demons, but don’t judge them for that. We just have to make our way to their village. Since Equestrian and English are the same thing they should be able to understand us.”

Lyra’s eyes widened. “…We’re going to meet aliens?

“Yes. Yes we are-“

And then a velociraptor charged at them from behind. They all screamed. Rainbow Dash prepared to give the dinosaur a lesson but she never got the chance, for a large sword flew right into the thing’s skull, killing it instantly. It collapsed in a heap at her feet. She kicked it. “…Well, it’s dead.” She shivered.

“Really,” a new voice said – a red demon, walking towards them. Micro Chips hid behind Sandalwood.

Sunset snapped her fingers. “Anix?”

“That would be me,” he said. “You look like Twilight.”

Twilight shrugged. “Different world, different Twilight. You can call me Sparky.”

“I’ll just call you Twilight unless there’s another reason,” he grunted. “You probably want to go to the village…”

“Yes please,” Twilight said. Lyra furiously took pictures of Anix with her phone. This annoyed him to no end, but he didn’t snap.

“My mount is this way,” he said, taking his blood-covered sword out of the raptor and hefting the raptor itself over his shoulder. Human beings may have been tall, but the Anix was a full head taller than all of them. Sunset figured the only reason he could ride ponies was because his legs had two joints, letting the limbs fold. Interesting.

They all followed him – even Micro, though he stayed as far away from the creepy bug monster as possible.

~~~

Twilight Sparkle – the alicorn – woke up on a crystal floor. Her first thought was did I fall asleep in the library again? She quickly realized this wasn’t the case since there were large crystal bars in front of her, like a jail cell. I don’t have a dungeon…

Oh. Right. I’m not in my castle.

She sighed, tapping her horn with her hoof – as she expected, there was a silence cover on it. Looking at her reflection in the crystals, she saw that it was a smooth black substance with a locked metallic pressure ring at the base of her horn. She wasn’t going to be pulling off any magic like this.

“Ah, dear, you’re awake.”

Twilight turned to Rarity, looking her over. She looked as graceful as ever and was even lucky enough not to have her magic sealed – probably because their captors didn’t think it powerful enough to bother. “Oh thank Celestia, you’re fine. I was worried…”

“At the very least, our captors aren’t complete monsters,” Applejack added. “But they aren’t stupid either.”

“How so?”

Rainbow Dash pointed a wing at the lethargic form of Pinkie. She was breathing extremely slowly, almost unnaturally. Twilight’s stomach leaped into her chest, twisting into knots. “Pinkie…?” She put a hoof to her neck – even her heartbeat was far too slow.

“They’ve drugged her… heavily,” Fluttershy said. “I think they know how strange she can be. So she doesn’t get to be awake.”

Twilight grimaced. “Will… she be okay?”

“So long as we can get it out of her system. I think Zecora knows some brews that can do that.”

Pinkie’s tail started twitching and her cheek began vibrating.

Rainbow Dash raised her eyebrows. “Apparently being asleep doesn’t stop the Pinkie sense.”

“Doesn’t really help us,” Applejack noted. “None of us have any idea what the Pinkie sense even means. Ah think the twitchy tail has meant both falling objects and surprise pie.”

Rainbow Dash shivered. “…Surprise pie…”

Everypony turned to Pinkie, half expecting her to shoot up and throw a surprise pie in her friends’ faces. She stayed where she was.

Twilight took in a deep breath. “Okay. Escape plan. Rainbow Dash, time to put those destroying-my-house skills to the test. Smash through a wall.”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “You got it, princess!” She flew into the air, backed to the far side of the cell, and charged the bars at top speed. Rainbows shot from her tail and sparked in all directions upon impact with the crystal pillars. Despite the impressive light show, the only result of the dash was a loud thump and a pained yell. “Owowowowowowow!”

Applejack looked from the unbroken bars to Rainbow Dash. “…Ah’m surprised you didn’t crack your skull.”

“Well, I probably have a concussion, so that’s the next best thing! Ow!”

Twilight tapped the bars. “…These are stronger than they’re supposed to be.”

Rarity frowned. “Had they been weaker Rainbow Dash probably would have been drugged like Pinkie. We’re facing off against you, remember? As forgetful as you can be at times, you are still very thorough when you want to be.”

“Great,” Twilight muttered. “Of course, that means she also has my weaknesses…”

Fluttershy pondered this. “If only we could deshelve the books in her library to distract her…”

Twilight twitched. “I wouldn’t wish that on anypony…”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Of course… Maybe we can play off her pride?”

“That’s your problem, Dash,” Applejack said.

“Eh, I’m awesome, so I can tell when ponies have egos that are through-the-roof. Other Twi sure does.”

“But how exactly could we take advantage of that?” Twilight asked. “She’s not exactly going to let us convince her to do anything.”

Rarity put a hoof on Twilight. “No offense Twilight but I think you’re underestimating your gullibility.”

“Oh.” Twilight sagged. “Yeah.”

“There’s a problem though,” Fluttershy added. “They’re different enough that we can’t be sure something will work. We-“

They heard a pony walk into the dungeon. They quickly shut up and looked through the bars. Starlight was walking in, carrying… Starlight in her telekinesis. The limp Starlight had a horn-seal just like Twilight did. Twilight smiled nervously. “Would you by chance be our Starlight?”

“No,” Starlight said, teleporting the Starlight she was carrying into the cell. “Through my amusement, imprisoned within your fill.”

“Ah was afraid of that,” Applejack said. Fluttershy walked over to the groaning form of their Starlight, checking her for any signs of harm. She nodded to Twilight, signifying she was fine.

Twilight glared at the other Starlight. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Go ahead.” She teleported away, leaving Twilight alone with her friends.

“That… Darn…” Starlight muttered, rubbing her forehead and trying to stand up. “Ugh…”

Fluttershy steadied her. “Easy Starlight, you’ve just been captured…”

“Well there goes plan A,” Starlight laughed bitterly.

“Ah take it you figured out the ponies who came back weren’t us?” Applejack asked.

“Duh. Wasn’t all that hard.”

“Is… Spike okay?” Twilight asked.

“He’s fine. He’s back in the castle – your castle – watching the other ponies to see what their plan is and possibly stop them from over there. He should be rallying the town sometime soon.”

“What is their plan?”

Starlight shrugged. “I’m pretty sure they want to use their ‘cunning’ or whatever to exert control over us ‘simple ponies.’ But they talk really weird. Like, Luna’s mane, it’s a strange ‘double talk’ where everything has a hidden meaning, and that hidden meaning is the most important part!” She groaned. “What kind of language even is that?”

“One found in this world,” Twilight said. “And since we don’t know how to speak or understand it, they look down on us like fools. They think they can exploit us…”

“They’re right, aren’t they?” Applejack said. “They got all of us captured and unless Spike can do something, there’s not much stopping them from taking over our home.”

Twilight shrugged. “I… I think Celestia’ll know something’s wrong with me. That I’m not myself. And you have a close family, Applejack. They’ll figure that something’s up. As gullible as we may have been, I don’t think they thought this through as much as they think they have.”

“Good point.”

“Though we could still be stuck here even if they’re found out…”

Fluttershy winced. “We need to get home.”

“Portal’s still open. They haven’t closed it,” Starlight said. “If we could get out of here…”

“I already tried smashing it,” Rainbow Dash muttered, nursing the lump on her head. “Wasn’t a great idea, Twilight.

Twilight laughed nervously. “Eh… Yeah, sorry. We’ll get you patched up later. So… What else can we do here…?” Twilight turned to Rarity. “Your magic is free.”

“Yes. Though you know I’m not that great at it.”

“You might not need to be. If we can find the lock and pick it…”

“There’s no lock,” Rarity said. “This is a teleport in-out cage.”

Twilight glanced at the bars. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Wow. That’s a pretty ingenious design. How come I never thought of it…”

“Because you don’t design dungeons,” Starlight offered.

“Fair point.” She furrowed her brow. “There must be some way out of here…” She touched her horn’s cover. “If only I could remove this… Rarity, do you remember that spell I taught you?”

Rarity cocked her head. “Which one dear?”

“The basic laser. I want to see if we can burn it off.”

Starlight grimaced. “I don’t think we need to resort to burning your mane off just yet. Probably won’t even work. Takes a lot of magic to break a silence.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s an idea at least.”

Fluttershy looked at an ant scurrying across the ground. “Hey there little guy. Do you think you could help us? …Oh? Oh, well nevermind. Have a nice day!” She looked up. “The ants can’t break the crystal either, even in small chunks. He’s just here because Pinkie’s got sugar all over her.”

“You know…” Applejack said. “It says somethin’ that none of us are freakin’ out about bein’ captured. We’re just tryin’ to find a way out.”

“We get captured way too much, don’t we?” Rainbow Dash said.

Twilight shrugged. “Yeah. I mean, I’m worried… Okay that’s an understatement, I’m terrified. But… Well, I just don’t feel the need to panic. Yet.

“Good,” Starlight said. “We need to keep our heads…” She glanced at her hoof as if at a watch and tapped her hoof impatiently.

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “We’re tryin’ to come up with an idea. No need to get impatient.”

“No, it’s not that, it’s just…” They heard footsteps approaching, shutting up once again. Soon, the small purple form of Spike was standing before them.

Starlight cleared her throat. “Klutzy…?”

“Draconequus,” Spike said. “I have no idea why that’s the code word though.”

Twilight blinked. “Wait I thought he was back at the-“

Starlight grinned. “That’s what I wanted my other self to think. So, she took the bait?”

“Totally did!” Spike gave the thumbs up. “She’s gone through the portal and is probably searching the castle for me right now!”

“I love it when plans work,” Starlight said. “Now, burn us out of here.”

Spike took in a breath and unleashed a powerful belch of green fire that consumed part of the crystal bars. He burped, smiling at the hole he had created in the imprisoning columns. “I have no idea where I sent those.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Twilight said. “We need to get out of here. Can you burn off our horn-caps?”

“Sure thing!” Spike carefully shot a small flame around Starlight and Twilight’s horns, consuming the silencing devices and sending them… somewhere.

“You know, if you’re sending those to Celestia…” Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened. “Or this world’s Celestia…”

Spike blinked. “Huh. Wonder what she thinks.”

Applejack hefted Pinkie onto her back. “Somethin’ tells me we don’t want to run into her. Let’s move, Twi.”

Twilight quickly teleported them all to the portal. She stepped through the wall, a spell at the ready in case she ran into any unwanted company. The Other Rainbow Dash was quickly captured in a crystal spell.

Rainbow Dash passed through the Mirror and laughed. “Justice has been served.”

Twilight nodded. “I don’t think she can break out, but watch her anyway. You never know with these ponies…” She waited for everypony to come through and then set the Mirror’s dial to Earth with a quick spell. She didn’t want to take any chances that they might have their own backup plan. “So… Now that we’re back, I see a problem. How are we going to deal with their Pinkie?”

“That… is a very good question,” Rarity said.

“I can go get Maud,” Starlight suggested. “She can handle any version of her sister.”

“Do you know where she is right now?” Twilight asked.

“…Not exactly, no.”

“Then we probably don’t have time…”

“Do what she did,” Rainbow Dash suggested. “Freeze as many friends as you can then rush those who are left.”

Spike raised his hand. “Their Fluttershy might help us. She’s… Not on their side. I think. We call her Lieshy.”

Twilight nodded. “That does make things easier… Okay. Let’s go with that. Starlight, I think I should go in first…”

~~~

Twilight Sparkle – the evil one – sat on the throne with her cutie mark, looking at the map of Equestria. She wondered briefly how this castle had been formed in this world. She didn’t think any of the ponies she’d met were cunning enough to manipulate the Tree of Harmony itself into doing their bidding. Perhaps it had given it to them as a gift?

Pathetic, really.

She glanced at the book she had just finished reading – A contemporary guide to the world – and smiled. That had been helpful. None of this world’s peoples knew how to speak properly. This Equestria was just naive and ripe for exploitation. It had been extremely difficult to rise to the top of her own world. Here… she could probably get ponies to go to the moon and conquer it for her.

It was amazing what a superior mind could do when it was applied among fools.

Starlight charged into the room, a grumpy look on her face.

Twilight wondered what was wrong with her, and if she’d found the dragon yet. “Reptile got your tongue?”

“Jello.”

Twilight sighed. So he’d gotten away then. How could any version of Spike actually have any skill at anything? “You realize the outliers?”

Starlight shot her with a furious look. “Straight talk. Now.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. What would the purpose of that be? She’d done enough straight talk today. “Your sound is that of a fecal pond.”

“Porridge.”

Twilight blinked. She… She couldn’t parse what that one meant. She couldn’t admit it, she’d never admit to not seeing the true meaning, but Luna’s horn did she hate the single word responses. So many interpretations… She’d just respond in a generic, yet meaningful, way. Divert the conversation back to finding the Spike. “What are your new buildings?”

“Ah, that’d be known as a distraction.”

Twilight frowned. That seemed a bit too… Literal. Oh, wait, of course. ‘A distraction’ must refer to how she was setting up a secondary method by which to capture him. She needed the details. “Show your work.”

“Uh, no, I’m really just a distraction.”

Twilight blinked. What?

And then a magic bolt hit her horn and sealed the magic within. She heard the sound of her own chuckling. “Gotcha!”

Twilight glanced at her naive self. How did they pull off the double talk? “You cannot reflect. How?”

Her counterpart shrugged. “Well, I’m assuming you’re asking about the double talk? Starlight kinda just… improvised?”

“I honestly can’t believe porridge worked,” Starlight said. “What did you think it meant?

Twilight was not going to dignify that with a direct answer. “Let’s refer to it as sod, hmm?”

The other Twilight facehooved. “Celestia, she’s still doing it. Whatever. Straight talk - you are going to order your ponies back home.”

“Straight talk, well fine then. No. I will not stoop so low.”

“Then we’ll just have to take care of them ourselves. Already froze your Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Rarity. Pretty sure we can take your Starlight and Fluttershy easy.”

“And our Pinkie?”

Other Twilight and Starlight exchanged a nervous glance. “…We have a plan.”

Twilight laughed. “Oh, well would you look at that, their plan falls apart because of the pink one! Shocker!”

“Pinkies are not invincible,” her counterpart said. “I should know. I spend a lot of my time with one. Sometimes more.”

“Oh, you do?” Pinkie said, suddenly sitting in the throne with her cutie mark. Twilight laughed.

Starlight turned to Pinkie. “…We don’t have to fight, you know.”

“Oh, I know. I also know I’m almost guaranteed to lose since the tables have turned. But I’m not about to turn down a good fight!” She produced a giant blue hammer with a Z on it. “Time to smash you with obscure foreshadowing that I don’t even understand!”

The ‘naive’ Twilight grabbed the hammer with her own magic and hit Pinkie across the head with it, tossing her across the room.

“What are you doing?” ‘evil’ Twilight shouted. “Use a chainsaw or something!”

Pinkie pulled out a chainsaw, cackling. “Gladly!” She charged Starlight, sparks flying off the chainsaw. Her targets teleported to dodge.

‘Evil’ Twilight saw an opportunity. She slinked out of the room while her assailants were occupied. All she needed to do was find her Starlight to remove this magic seal on her horn and everything would be fine. These ponies were still stupid, despite the upper hoof they had temporarily acquired. All she needed to do was use her superior mind…

“The sun sure is bright, isn’t it?”

Twilight turned to Fluttershy. Time for a quick test to see if this was her Fluttershy. “I require a present of soliloquy.”

“The last frog you found was the starline,” Fluttershy responded.

Ah, so not only was she the right Fluttershy, but she remembered the moment Twilight had risen to power. Good. Time to brief her on the situation. “The walls close in, the tables turn, the outside fight.”

“Knowledge is not hard to come by.”

Twilight bristled. Now was not the time to be insulting her. “The implosion is imminent, Fluttershy.”

“The direction will surprise you.”

What?

Fluttershy punched her across the face, forcing her to the ground, dazed.

“The path of the servant is done,” Lieshy said, kicking Twilight again, knocking her out.

~~~

Princess Twilight Sparkle and Starlight were having difficulty fighting the murder-crazed Pinkie.

“Pinkie!” Twilight yelled, teleporting out of the way of a dual-sword slice. “You really don’t have to do this!”

“But I waaaaaant to!”

“You can’t stay here – your secret’s out! There’s no more reason to be here!”

Pinkie shrugged. “So? Even if I’m destined to lose, I’m going to have some fun!”

Starlight twitched. “If you know you’re destined to lose why haven’t you forfeited?!”

“Same reason I go on living. Because it’s fun! Woooo!” She leaped into the air and tossed exploding cupcakes around. Twilight caught them all in her telekinesis and shot them back at Pinkie, throwing the pink pony into the chandelier. “Oh! Nice trick!”

Starlight cast a spell to slow Pinkie down, but there was no visible result. She kept moving like a hyperactive pink hummingbird. Starlight grimaced. “Okay, seriously, what is with you? Do you ever get hurt? Can you be affected by anything?”

“Oh, of course I can!” Pinkie giggled. “It all just depends on the context! And you have to surprise me! And there’s no way you can do that!” Her pupils shrunk. “…I’ve just doomed myself.”

Rainbow Dash shot into the room from a window and grabbed Pinkie, holding her tight and crashing to the ground. Pinkie struggled, shouting and yelling, but Rainbow Dash held her tight, not letting her out.

Starlight looked at Pinkie nervously. “…Uh… How? Why?”

Twilight blinked. “She… doomed herself? I… I – let’s not question it, let’s just send them home. Thanks Rainbow Dash.”

“Don’t mention it!” Rainbow grunted. “Man she’s a wriggler…”

“I AM MORE WRIGGLER THAN ANY PONY EVER WAS!”

“Can you cool it? You lost!”

Pinkie grunted. “I know. I just… Why did I have to say that? I didn’t want to fall because of my hubris! The double-decker tables!”

“…You don’t talk like the others,” Twilight observed.

Lieshy nodded, walking into the room herself, dragging the limp form of evil Twilight behind her. “She… is a confuser.”

“I speak in both! So I can grundle your topiaries while following no rules whatsoever!” Pinkie giggled. “Can we get it over with now? Come on Starlight.”

The other Starlight walked into the room, took one look at the scene, and tried to run – but Starlight and Twilight pulled her back and sealed her magic.

Twilight smiled. “And that’s everyone! Time to send you all back and get things back to normal!”

Lieshy shook her head. “That’s not what’s going to happen.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

Lieshy smiled. “I… Don’t want to go back. And… I don’t want to stay here either.”

~~~

Sunset sat next to Mlinx in the village of the demons. “So. You and Anix did… what?”

“A fight for honor,” Mlinx said. “The details aren’t important. He rejected me. I proved him wrong. So we fought. I lost.”

Sunset furrowed her brow. “What does the fight even accomplish?”

“An official ending of the bond,” Mlinx said. “Custom dictates we are not to speak to each other or go on hunting parties together ever again.”

Sunset shook her head. “That’s stupid.”

Mlinx laughed. “…That’s the way things are. I’m sure you have a few ‘stupid’ customs.”

“As a member of two very different worlds, I can say every culture has them,” Sunset said. “Though that doesn’t mean you can’t change them.”

“I talked to Siron about it. He said he understood that I think differently than the others, and that if it were anyone other than Anix he might allow it. But… Anix is the most traditional of all of us.” He pointed. “Look, there he is, avoiding Luna and your friends. He wants nothing to do with anything that isn’t us ‘demons’.”

Sunset shook her head at the scarlet demon’s motions. The regal form of Luna even gestured towards him, but he made no response. Sandalwood put an arm around Luna to comfort her.

The rest of Sunset’s group was doing fine – even Micro, who had gotten over the freaky bug-creatures after about half an hour. Rainbow Dash was racing demons around the village, showing them all up with her speed, though she was annoyed at Veila’s ability to just fly on command. Twilight was talking to Siron directly, taking notes on their culture and asking a million questions. Lyra… was just taking pictures and giggling to herself oddly.

Mlinx cocked his head. “What is the green one… Lyra right? What is she doing?”

“I… I really don’t know,” Sunset said. “She’s a little… out there.”

“Ah, like Fef?”

“No, that’s… Another kind of crazy entirely.”

The two of them laughed.

Then princess Twilight walked into the village, Fluttershy behind her. She waved to Siron and he came right over. “Ah, Princess. Here for your friends?”

Twilight blinked, looking at Sunset. “Ah, no? Didn’t even know they were here.”

Siron chuckled. “Well they’re here, and they need a way back to their home.”

Sunset blushed. Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Did you forget a return spell?”

“No, a pterodactyl took it.”

“Ah,” Twilight chuckled. “I’ll get you all home. But first… Siron, this pony behind me is not the one you know.”

“Oh?”

“She comes from a world where everyone spoke in veiled lies. Their culture bred deception, manipulation, and other unsavory things. She does not wish to stay in my world – too ‘nice’ apparently – so I thought maybe she could come here?”

Siron raised his head. “Are you dumping more citizens on me?”

“It’s just a request, Siron. I can probably find another world for her.”

Siron nodded. “She shall be welcomed. What shall we call her?”

“Lieshy,” Lieshy said. “That’s what they call me. Stamp the papers.”

“…Hmm?”

Lieshy facehooved. “Sorry. Habit.”

“That’s her double-speak,” Twilight said. “You’ll… probably have to get used to it. It’s how she’s spoken her entire life.”

Siron nodded. “Curious.”

Twilight smiled, turning to Lieshy. “I hope you will enjoy it here! I was planning on staying a little longer to introduce you to people and ponies, but apparently I have to save some humans. See you around!”

“Until the next sunrise,” Lieshy said. “The doubles will collide to one.”

“…Riiiight. Sunset, gather your people.”

Sunset sighed and nodded, still really embarrassed they had to be bailed out. This was supposed to be a friendly little competition between the ponies and the humans, not the ponies helping the humans at every turn.

They needed an edge…

 

Chapter Text

Cross Mask

“So, let me guess,” Rairty said. “You found another one?”

“Actually, I found several,” Twilight said, gesturing at the Mirror Portal. “I let it run while I did all that paperwork yesterday.”

“Ah was kinda hopin’ we’d get more than a single day’s worth of break,” Applejack admitted.

“Oh come on Applejack, this is something new and never before explored!”

Rarity raised a hoof. “Didn’t Starswirl make this Mirror? And a few others like it? And what about that ‘limbo’ place or all those things Discord shows us?”

Twilight blinked. “Fair point. Still, it’s not something most ponies get to explore, and we’re making all kinds of new and interesting friends!”

“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash cheered. “And there’s so much awesome around every corner!”

“Uh… Sometimes awesome action isn’t good,” Fluttershy said.

“Ah, pfft, really?” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “It’s not like we’re picking fights, we’re just defending ourselves when things get too hot.”

Pinkie giggled. “And having fun while doing it!” She and Rainbow Dash bumped hooves.

Applejack sighed. “So, do we know if the place on the other side of that mirror is safe?

Twilight smiled. “I have a spell for that now.” She lit her horn, creating a white spark. “I’ll send it through the portal, and if it comes back green everything’s good. If it comes back red it’s not. So I’ll prove to you that it’s all fine.” She sent the spark into the mirror and it shot back all on its own, glowing a red color.

“…Ah…” Twilight said. “Well, it’s a good thing we checked!” She went over to a large notebook and wrote next to the location the Mirror was currently set to: unsafe.

Pinkie winked. “Just try another one!”

“Yeah…” She pulled a lever, changing the spell in the globe to another confirmed location. “I should have listened to you sooner, Applejack.”

“No, really?”

Twilight smirked. “Yes, really.” She sent another spark through the Mirror, this time coming back with a satisfactory green result.

“Onward!” Rainbow Dash shouted, flying through the portal. Rarity rolled her eyes and followed her through in a calm and dignified manner. She came out the other side at the base of a round tower in the middle of a simple town. The tower had what Rarity could only assume was a clock affixed to it, though she couldn’t read the time of the ornately decorated circle. She saw what she thought were images of the moon, sun, and maybe stars, but it was hard to tell. Was it noon? Morning? Evening? The clock itself was rotating to tell the time, so she had no ‘noon’ reference point at the top, making what would normally be a difficult puzzle impossible.

She eventually decided it was gorgeous and that was all that really needed to be determined at the moment. The rest of the town was… notably less striking. The buildings were simple constructions, usually square and made of stone, many of which had thatched overhangs shading numerous people with shops. Most of these people were human, though they all had dull hair colors and simple peach skin - not to mention a high quantity of absurdly pointy ears. Strikingly there were a few non-human races, beings Rarity didn’t have words for. There were a couple large rocklike creatures with huge bellies and a couple short wooden creatures with round mouths below leaves sprouting out of them instead of hair.

A few of the locals had noticed the six ponies, giving them odd looks. Nothing fearful or angry, mostly just gestures of confusion. Rarity couldn’t understand what they were saying, but Twilight was about to fix that. She lit her horn, walking up to two of the rock people who were having a conversation. She sat down next to them and listened for a while, allowing the spell to do its magic.

“What.” “Horse.” “Think it can.” “Sell?” “It’s staring.”

Twilight figured there were enough words translated to issue a greeting. “Hi! Keep talking, trying to learn your language.”

The two rock people looked down at her and then at each other. One pointed at the other, demanding he think of something to talk about. The other shrugged, grunting something about not having any idea what to talk about when talking about things was what they needed to do.

Rarity smirked. “Dears, you’re having a conversation now aren’t you?”

Evidentially, some of that didn’t translate properly since they gave her odd looks. She sighed and pointed at the Clock Tower. “Talk about that.”

They took this to mean they should walk over to the Clock Tower and bask in its glory. At least they were talking about it, which helped the translation spell immensely. Within a minute or two it had a working understanding of the native language.

“There we go!” Twilight said. “Hi! I’m Twilight Sparkle, and these are my friends! We’re new here, as you can probably tell.”

“You are welcomed!” One of them said in a voice that was deep, but not as scratchy as one would expect from a being composed largely of rock. “I am Durinlo, and this is Timon. What brings you here, travelers from afar?”

“Exploration,” Twilight said. “Could you tell us anything about where we are?”

Timon laughed heartily. “You walked into the center of town without even knowing where you are?”

“We teleported,” Applejack said. “From another world.”

Durinlo raised an eyebrow. “Are you from the land across the sea?”

“No,” Twilight said. “We come from a place called Equestria. We actually came from that shimmering spot in the Clock Tower wall over there.”

Timon looked at the area, squinting his eyes. “That soft sparkliness definitely wasn’t there yesterday.”

“We weren’t here yesterday,” Durinlo pointed out.

Timon laughed again. “This is true!”

Durinlo bowed slightly to Twilight. “In that case, welcome to our land! This is the town of Termina, a quaint place in the outskirts of a kingdom called Hyrule.”

“Interesting. And what do you call your planet?”

“…Your speech-changer isn’t working. You just said ‘planet’.”

“Ah…” Twilight nodded. “I guess you don’t have a word for that and the spell didn’t realize that… World. What do you call your world?”

Durinlo glanced at Timon, who just shrugged. Durinlo scratched his head. “…The land is called Ardent…”

“Good enough. Just wanted a name.”

Rarity looked their forms over again. They wore no clothing, unlike the humans walking around, and had a strange mixture of fat and muscle to parallel their rocky backs. There were also faint patterns on their bodies that may have been tattoos, maybe not. If they were natural they were most impressive in the regularity of their angles.

“What’s your race, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Goron. We are gorons.” They fist-bumped and bumped bellies, showing off their impressive girth. “We are the people of the mountains and land itself! We are steadfast, strong, and dependable!”

Twilight smiled. “I have no doubt. We’re ponies. I’m an alicorn, Rarity over there is a unicorn, Rainbow Dash is a pegasus, and then Applejack and Pinkie here are earth ponies.”

“I’m also a pegasus,” Fluttershy said, raising a wing.

“Never heard of talking ponies before,” Timon said, laughing again.

Rainbow Dash flew up to his head, smirking. “You sure like to have a good time, huh?”

“That I do, rainbow flying pony!”

“What do you like to do for fun?”

“Arm wrestling and races!”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “I doubt I could beat you in arm wrestling, cause I don’t have arms… But I don’t think a race would be fair for you.”

Timon pounded his chest. “Not fair? You’re on, pony.” He pointed at the archway leading out of town. “First one out to the field is the victor.”

“What’re the stakes?”

“A hundred rupees!”

Twilight facehooved. “We don’t have your currency.”

Durinlo blinked. “You must have money of some kind.”

Twilight reached into her saddlebags and produced a few bits. “This is what we use. We call them bits.”

Durinlo picked one up in his large hand and examined it. “Gold. Valuable. Each of these is worth twenty rupees, easy.”

“Then we have a deal!” Rainbow Dash whooped. “Ready Timon?”

“Yes. Three…”

Rarity sighed. “We’ve been here less than ten minutes and already we’re spectators in another race…”

“Go!” Timon yelled. Surprising everypony present, he curled himself into a ball and rolled across the cobbled road of the town at high speed like a tire. Rainbow Dash quickly snapped out of her astonishment at the surprising agility of the maneuver, using her wings to blast towards the gate at a much higher velocity. Even with his head start, Timon did not manage to get out of town quickly enough.

Rainbow Dash smirked. “Not bad, didn’t expect that from you.”

Timon laughed. “Everyone always thinks Gorons are slow! We are not! We’re just not runners!”

“Well, I still won. You owe me.”

Timon jogged back to Durinlo at a much slower pace. “She won.”

Durinlo sighed. “You always wager too much…” He pulled out five red crystals from his pocket and handed them to Rainbow Dash.

“So, each of these is a bit?”

Twilight shook her head. “Probably not. Gold is a valuable commodity here. That’s likely worth quite a bit more than five bits. At least here.” She examined one of the red crystals. “Back home this would probably fetch a price of about thirty bits, I’m thinking.”

“…Bleh, currency, booooring.”

“Aha!” A new voice said – young and male. The ponies and gorons turned to see a kid in a blue shirt pointing at Rainbow Dash. “I was right! Money is boring!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Uh… Hello young man.”

He ignored her, looking right at Rainbow Dash. “You, tell my mom that money isn’t interesting!”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “I’ll tell anyone money isn’t interesting. But why do I need to?”

He pointed at a large countertop a tall woman was running. She was examining many different colors of rupee with a magnifying glass and putting them in various chests. “She won’t stop talking about them!”

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. “Is she a banker?”

The boy blinked. “…Yes?”

Fluttershy smiled warmly. “Then it’s her job to talk about them. You shouldn’t take it personally.”

The boy threw his hands into the air. “Moooooooom!” he called, deciding to ignore Fluttershy.

She looked up from a purple rupee. “Yes?” she called

“Money is boring! This flying horse agrees with me.”

She looked at Rainbow Dash, raising an eyebrow at her alien body. “…That’s nice. Hey, you, flying rainbow horse.”

“Uh… yeah?”

“Come here, would you?”

Rainbow Dash landed right in front of her, five friends and the boy close behind. The gorons shrugged and went back to their business.

The woman smiled. “So, money is boring?”

“Yes?”

The woman stood tall and took in a breath. “Do you realize that currency, in and of itself, is the lifeblood of a good economy? Why, it comes from a point deep in the past where people decided to leave behind the primitive methods of barter. Without currency, we would be stuck without society, without reason, and-“

Fluttershy coughed. “I don’t think she finds money useless, she just finds it boring.”

“…Yeah,” Rainbow Dash said. “It’s just boring.”

The woman blinked. “…Oh. Well as long as you realize it’s important.”

“Trust me, we do,” Rarity said. “I run my own business back home, it’s quite the nightmare to keep track of all the funds. Yet, oddly exhilarating.”

The woman clapped her hands. “Oh, you own a business back home? Well, if you lived here I’d be offering you a loan right now but we can just forget about that. What do you do?”

“I design clothing. Beautiful clothing.”

Applejack smirked. “For a bunch of ponies who don’t normally wear clothes.”

“I still make a living!”

“Yeah, still. A bit silly.”

“Coming from the only mare here actually wearing an article of clothing,” Rarity said, pointing at Applejack’s hat.

“Uh…” Twilight gestured towards her saddlebags.

“Doesn’t count, too practical.” Rarity turned back to the woman. “Regardless, I am Rarity.”

“Eliza,” the woman said, shaking the outstretched hoof.

The boy groaned. “No… You were supposed to make her stop!”

Eliza rolled her eyes. “Just ignore my son, he’s taken a bit of a rebellious streak as of late.”

Fluttershy smiled. “I can see that. But don’t dismiss him, okay? Sometimes they just need love.”

“EEEEEWWWW!” the boy said, squirming.

Eliza chuckled softly. “I’ll keep that in mind. Regardless, what can I do for you?”

Twilight blinked. “I… I have no idea. We’re just exploring, looking for interesting things to do.”

Eliza pursed her lips. “Well, there’s a dance festival this evening themed around hidden identities. You’ll need a mask to participate, though in your cases I’m not sure exactly what they’d hide…”

Rarity’s eyes sparkled. “A dance festival?” She turned to Twilight, eyes as big as she could make them.

Twilight chuckled. “Fine, we can check it out. How long until… evening?”

“Three hours. Better find your masks fast. There’s probably a vendor around who’ll sell them, but they’ll be busy.”

“We better hurry then,” Pinkie said. “Rainbow Dash! Be prepared to spend your earnings!”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Eh, sure. Masks sound cool. Will they fit on our faces though?”

“They probably have masks for those bush-things,” Rarity said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. Will you be there, Eliza?”

“I plan on it,” she said.

“Then see you there!”

“Oh, I’ll see you, but you won’t see me. The whole point of the masks is to hide your identity.”

“Ah,” Rarity said. “…That does sound interesting. Until later then, I suppose.”

The six friends set out, looking for a mask shop. There were plenty of shops – it seemed at times that this town was nothing but residential houses, shops, and the Clock Tower. Rarity found that somewhat odd, but decided not to judge the town based on its layout. It worked for the inhabitants.

Then they heard an echoing laugh behind them; the laugh of a man amused with something morbid, something that should not be laughed at under any circumstances. The laugh of someone mad delighting in suffering, quietly, as if only slightly tickled.

The laugh of someone who knew death all too personally.

The ponies turned to see a tall, human man standing over them. His eyes were squinted, almost shut, and his mouth was twisted into an eternal smile that was just too perfect. His ears were larger and pointier than any of the others they had seen and his purple cloak rippled with a wind that none of the ponies felt. On his back was a tremendous knapsack filled with all number of strange knick-knacks and devices, many of which gave off a magical vibe Rarity could detect. Most of these objects were masks of many different colors, sizes, and designs.

“Hello, my little ponies. I’m the Happy Mask Salesman, and I heard you needed some masks!”

Rarity already didn’t trust this man, and Twilight apparently shared her opinion. The princess looked up directly at the Happy Mask Salesman’s narrow eyes. “I’m sorry sir, but I think we’ll go with masks that aren’t enchanted. It’s a simple party just for tonight. Thank you for offering though.”

“Oh, but I assure you purple alicorn, you can use these masks for far more than just a party. And if you are concerned about any…” His expression and posture shifted to anger for a split second. “…dark magics…” his mouth shifted back to a smile and his pose returned to normal seemingly instantly. “I assure you, none of the masks I am willing to sell have such power. Here.” He pulled a yellow, foxlike mask off his bag and held it out to Fluttershy. “This is a Keaton Mask, enchanted with the aura of the keaton foxes, which will allow you to bring them out of hiding and speak to them!”

Fluttershy hesitated only a moment before grabbing the mask in her hooves. “That sounds… nice.”

“Fluttershy,” Twilight said. “We probably can’t afford that.”

“Oh, it costs a mere hundred rupees… or five bits.”

Rarity raised her eyebrow. He’s been scouting us out. But we do have plenty of bits…She considered trying to fight his insistence to sell them magic masks, but then she saw it – a beautiful pearly white mask hanging off his bags, adorned with the design of a brilliant ruby eye with three eyelash marks. It stared into her soul – and she felt a connection.

“Ah!” The Happy Mask Salesman said, suddenly in front of her, holding the mask in his hands. “This is the Mask of Truth! A beautiful work of art that will not only allow communication with the ancient Gossip Stones of the land, but also let you see the truth of the matter in many situations.”

Rarity stroked it with her hoof. It was so smooth, so pristine… and it called to her. “…Twilight?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Fine, we can buy some magic masks. So long as no dark magics show up on them.”

The Happy Mask Salesman put his hands to his chest. “I would never do such a thing! I assure you, all my products are completely clean!”

Pinkie appeared on his back and pulled out a black round mask with a skull design on it.

“Wait, that one’s not-“

She slapped it on her face, giggled, and promptly exploded herself across the street. “I’LL TAKE IT!”

The Happy Mask Salesman looked stunned for a moment, then shrugged. “That’s the bomb mask. It explodes. I don’t sell it because that’s not something you can survive, but… Well, it seems I was mistaken.”

Twilight blinked. “Who even makes that kind of mask?”

“I have no idea,” he said. “I merely collect the things and sell the beneficial ones.”

“And the others?”

“Sealed away,” he chuckled. Then he shot her a death glare. “Don’t get any ideas.”

Twilight took a few steps back. “I won’t…”

Fluttershy put her mask on, fitting the yellow fox-face on perfectly. “Huh. Enchanted to fit any face?”

“Yes!” the Happy Mask Salesman bowed. “Only quality materials for my customers.”

Rarity put the Mask of Truth on and didn’t feel any different. She could see through it just as well as she could see with her own two eyes, which was a little disconcerting, but not all that unexpected.

She jumped when Pinkie’s mask exploded again, tossing Pinkie back to the group where she landed upright. “Whee! This is fun!”

“Please don’t blow up anywhere near us,” Applejack said.

“Ah, I’m not that carele-“ the mask exploded again, charring Applejack and launching Pinkie into the air. She landed flat on her face, the mask somehow squishing along with the rest of her body. “I’m okay.”

“Ah’m not…” Applejack muttered, scratching soot out of her eyes. “Hey, got a mask for me?”

The Happy Mask Salesman was at her side, holding a rocky mask with a simple face drawn into it. “This is the Stone Mask. It might as well make you invisible!”

“Might as well?”

“Well you still exist and can be seen but nobody notices you.”

“Ah.” She took it in her hoof. “…Rainbow Dash, don’t even think about it.”

“Don’t even think about what?”

Applejack just put the mask on. Rainbow Dash laughed. “Hey, mister Mask guy? I can totally still see her. And notice her. What gives?”

“Look again,” the Happy Mask Salesman said, hand to his mouth. Rainbow Dash did look again.

She blinked. Then she blinked again. “Okay, where’d she go?”

Rarity cocked her head. “Really Rainbow Dash? She’s right there!” Rarity pointed.

Rainbow Dash rubbed her eyes and gawked. “Woah… She is. How didn’t I see her? How did you see her?”

“Mask of Truth,” Twilight explained. “Applejack… Wherever you are, could you take off the Stone Mask? When only Rarity can see you it’s a bit… weird.”

Applejack took it off. “Ah’m not sure if this’ll be good or bad at the party.”

Fluttershy jumped into the air. From her perspective it was as if Applejack had just suddenly appeared and started talking.

Rainbow Dash decided she was done waiting. “Okay Mask guy, where’s my mask?”

The Happy Mask Salesman produced a mask with a beak and white feathers. “The Breman Mask. With this you will be able to lead animals and other beings of lesser will with a simple march.”

“…I’ll take it.”

“And as for you…” the Happy Mask Salesman turned to Twilight. He produced a terrifying looking mask of blackness and red eyes. “The All Night Mask.”

“…What’s it do?”

“When you’re wearing it, you won’t fall asleep, no matter how tired you are. Good for late night cram sessions or guard duty.”

Twilight levitated it to herself, scanned it, and put it on. “Okay then. Thirty bits for them all?”

The Happy Mask Salesman nodded slowly. “Of course. Though if you had your own masks I would happily trade for free.”

“Don’t have any,” Twilight said, taking out thirty bits and levitating them into his hand. They vanished on contact with him. “There you go.”

“It was a pleasure doing business with you. Until we meet again!”

“You going to the festival!?” Pinkie asked.

“Alas, no. I am referring to something…” He was suddenly standing behind them with a more sinister look on his face. “…further down the line.”

Twilight glared at him. “…You know, I really don’t appreciate you trying to scare us like that.”

“Oh, really?” He took a few steps back, rising to his full height. “Maybe you need to be scared though. Evils hide in this land. I’ve seen legions of darkness thunder across the land. I’ve seen the moon threaten to crash into the planet. I’ve seen horrid artifacts used for the destruction of many. This world is not as welcoming as you may think, my little ponies.”

Rarity’s eyes widened. He used the word planet. And the phrase ‘this world’. “Sir, are-“

He was gone.

Applejack shivered. “He gave me the creeps.”

Twilight nodded, taking off her mask. “I think that’s just who he is. Creepy.”

“Are the masks safe?” Fluttershy asked.

“I think so,” Twilight said.

“They are,” Rarity said, tapping her own beautiful headpiece. “I… I think that’s what this feeling is. I know they’re safe.”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “So… You can read minds now or what?”

“No… I just get inklings of truth, I believe. I have no idea if any of that stuff he said about darkness was true, though I doubt it. But I feel certain about the safety of these masks. They won’t hurt us.”

“Then we’ll use them,” Twilight said. “Then study them when we go home. I’m very curious how these enchantments work.”

Rarity smiled. “Good. Now, I do need to learn more about this festival so I can observe the proper rituals. I am going to speak to Eliza about it.”

Pinkie exploded again. “And I’m going to play real-life hot potato!”

Rarity shrugged. “You… do that, dear.”

~~~

“Okay, so, here’s all you need to know about the festival.” Eliza cleared her throat. “You wear a mask and you dance. There’s some symbolic reason about not seeing your true face or something, but basically remember not to take your mask off and you’ll be fine. The dance will last until you want to go to sleep. There will be food everywhere, and most of it will cost a fortune.”

Rarity shrugged. “I… guess that’s simpler than I thought it was. Is there any story or legend to it?”

“There probably is, I don’t know, it’s not rupees, so really it can’t be all that fascinating.”

“Er… Well, what do you think of my mask?”

“Looks great.”

Rarity paused. Yeah, that definitely wasn’t true. “…You haven’t even looked at it.”

Eliza glanced up and smiled. “It really does look great.”

Rarity took in a breath to calm herself. “Of course. Well, I must be going then…” She trotted away, frowning. Of course, Eliza was just trying to be nice, right? No… No, she just didn’t care. Rarity knew she just didn’t care.

Wow, the mask really worked. She saw the truth of the matter. If she hadn’t been aware that was the mask’s enchantment she probably would have just commended her own instinctual skill with these matters. It was a very subtle feeling…

She could root out lies and find truth. However, unlike Twilight she didn’t really have any desire to analyze the exact capabilities of the mask – it was nice to know it could do special things but it really didn’t matter much beyond that. She decided she should just explore the town for a while, see who she ran across and what colorful customers she could find.

After wandering a bit, she found herself in north Termina, watching a group of boys playing, all of them wearing similar getups to that of Eliza’s son. She watched them from afar, tossing a ball to and fro, laughing. Then one of them spiked the ball right into another’s face. Rarity gasped as the boy fell over and hit his head on the cobblestone, hard.

She rushed to his aid, lifting the boy’s head up and checking him over. He would be fine – but he was going to have a nasty lump on his head. Rarity glared at the boy who spiked the ball.

“It was an accident!”

No it wasn’t. “No it wasn’t, you did this on purpose.” She glared at him – the design of her mask only serving to heighten the intensity of the expression, rather than obscuring it. He backed down and looked at the ground, ashamed.

“Apologize,” Rarity demanded, leaning the hurt boy up.

“S-sorry…”

“Good.” She turned to the boy in her hooves. “Is there a hospital nearby?”

“Yeah,” a boy said. “Right over there. We can take him miss, don’t worry.” They all lifted him up and helped him walk to a place that was probably understaffed, but Rarity didn’t worry. She knew he’d be fine.

She smiled under her mask – this felt good. She wondered if her friends were getting as much out of their masks.

There was an explosion and Pinkie sailed over Rarity’s head, Bomb Mask still firmly planted on her face. “Wheeeeeeee!”

Rarity shook her head – best not to question Pinkie, as usual. It was worthwhile to question Rainbow Dash, who was pursuing the pink missile with a dozen birds flying in formation behind her. “Come on, she can’t launch away from us forever!” The birds cawed in agreement.

“Yes she can…” Rarity muttered, smiling to herself. They’d be doing that back and forth until the festival started, no doubt about it. It was nice, having certainty about that. Having certainty about anything. This mask was turning out to be quite the blessing to her. Simply divine!

Applejack walked up to her, mask and all. “Hi Applejack!”

“Hey. Uh…” She took off her mask and stared into the eye on Rarity’s mask. “Hey, could you-“

“I can take the mask off, since it bothers you,” Rarity finished for her, sliding her mask off. “You have to admit, it is gorgeous.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “It’s a one-eyed thing that makes everypony feel like they’re being stared at.”

“Well, yes, but I believe that’s the point. It’s letting everypony know I can see the truth of the matter. I’ve already had little inspirational inklings about a half dozen things!”

Applejack blinked. “Interestin’. Ah’d personally rather rely on my own judgment than what a mask says, but Ah suppose Ah’m already Honesty.”

“That you are. You’d have no need for this beautiful thing. Though if you really want it you can have it, I could try out your mask for a while.”

“Ah’m gonna keep this. Less chance of Dash getting’ ahold of it.”

Rarity chuckled. “She really wants to cause trouble doesn’t she?”

“Ah can just imagine her prankin’ us all for the rest of the day, and we’d have no chance to even see her. …Well, Ah guess you could, with that mask.”

“I can see all that is hidden. I should really try to find one of those ‘Gossip Stones’ that mask salesman talked about… I can speak with them.”

“Well, Ah dunno what one of those are.”

“I will know it when I see it,” Rarity said, tapping the mask. “And I will strike up a rousing conversation with a rock. …It’ll be an experience.”

“Everything’s been an experience since we’ve been out here…” Applejack said, frowning.

Rarity cocked her head. “Applejack, what’s wrong?”

“Can’t you tell?”

“Mask’s not on,” Rarity said.

“Ah… Right.” Applejack looked into the distance. “It’s just, we’ve been doing this a lot lately. Ah know this is only the third world we’ve been to, but it’s been taking up most of our time. We always had adventures, yeah, but never this frequently, and it’d never been this… intense for so long before.”

“Oh, I’m sure you can handle it.”

“It’s not that. Ah’m more wondering if this is really a good use of our time.”

Rarity frowned. “Really Applejack, we’re making new friends and exploring new worlds. I think that’s definitely worthwhile!”

“Maybe…” Applejack said, watching Pinkie sail over them again, still pursued by Rainbow Dash. She fell silent, the conversation drifting into an awkward lull.

Rarity looked around and slid her mask back on.

“Where you goin’?” Applejack asked.

“I’m going to find one of those stones. Ask around, see what there is.”

“Good luck.”

“I’m sure I’ll find one eventually.” She chuckled. “Actually, I know I’ll find one eventually. See you at the festival, Applejack.”

“Sure thing.”

Rarity had hardly gone a few feet before she noticed Fluttershy talking to a young red-haired woman tending to a cow. She decided this was interesting enough to deter her quest for the Gossip Stone.

“Oh, hello Rarity!” Fluttershy said, her mask still on her face. “This is Romani! She runs a nearby ranch and takes care of these beautiful cows! Did you know cows don’t talk here?”

Rarity shrugged. “I do now. Though…” She looked at the cow closely. “…She wants onions right now.”

Romani rolled her eyes. “She always wants onions even though she knows it makes her milk taste sour. I take it that’s a genuine Mask of Truth then?”

Rarity tossed her mane back. “Why, yes! Have you seen one before?”

Romani smiled. “Yeah, few years back, a certain hero had one. He didn’t use it very often though.”

“Why not?”

Romani shrugged. “I don’t know. Never asked.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “…It was a bit offputting, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t think that was the only reason he avoided it…” she shrugged. “But now’s not the time to dwell on the past, now’s the time to get ready for a dance festival!” She put on her own mask – a simple cow’s head. “Moo.”

Fluttershy chuckled. “Flift.”

“…Is that what the keaton says?”

“I… I’m not sure,” Fluttershy said. “I talked to one. He… He really liked puzzles. I think Twilight would have fared better against his riddles…”

“What was he like?” Rarity asked.

“Well, golden fox, three tails, very playful. Though quite a bit smarter than me…”

Rarity put a hoof on Fluttershy. “He probably just collects puzzles and riddles, he may not actually be all that smart.”

“You think so?”

Rarity tapped the Mask of Truth and chuckled.

Romani crossed her arms. “Now, I’ve never met a keaton, but they are pretty well known for being intelligent creatures.”

“They may be known for it, but that doesn’t mean they are,” Rarity said.

“Huh. You learn something new every day.” She paused for a moment. “Do you mind if I ask something?”

“Go ahead,” Fluttershy said.

“What exactly are you?”

“Ponies,” Rarity said. “I’m a unicorn, she’s a pegasus.”

“I’ve heard of your kind…” Romani said. “I thought you were just legends though. I also expected you to be… bigger.”

“What does that mean?” Fluttershy asked.

“Horse-size,” Rarity said. “We’re ponies.”

“Oh, I see. You’re just a small version?”

“Well I don’t know,” Rarity said. “I have no idea what the pegasi and unicorns are like here. We’re from really far away, a place called Equestria.”

Romani chuckled. “What a fitting name.”

“What does that-“ Rarity paused. “Huh, I suppose it does mean ‘horse land’ doesn’t it?”

“You didn’t realize that until just now?”

“It’s not something we really think about.” Rarity sat down, thinking of all the other places in Equestria… She’d known Ponyville was literally “village of ponies” before, but… Appaloosa? That was a pun on a certain kind of pony and apples. Canterlot? Based on the movement of hooves known as a canter…

“Fluttershy, our world is filled with places named after horse puns. Nothing but horse puns.”

“…Weird,” Fluttershy agreed.

“How did all these puns get accepted? Who named all these things? And who keeps just going along with it?”

Fluttershy cocked her head. “Rarity, you okay?”

“…I’m just a tad confused at our culture…” She twitched – the Mask of Truth wasn’t helping her find any answers to her questions. Perhaps because they didn’t exist.

Good gravy, I’m turning into Twilight. I don’t need to know the answers to everything. She shook herself out of her confusion and turned back to Romani. “So, what’re you doing for the festival?”

“Selling milk.” She patted the cow on the side. “Everyone loves the milk from Romani ranch, and since today’s a special day, it’s time to sell it personally. And probably do some dancing.”

“How much for the milk?” Fluttershy asked.

“Five rupees. But, seeing as you’ve never had it before, your first cup is free.” She took a mug out of her pack and started milking directly into it. Rarity and Fluttershy waited patiently as the mug filled up.

“Hey…” Rarity said. “…How do you think Applejack’s cows get milked? We don’t exactly have… hands.”

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know. I do think that mask gets you to ask a lot of questions.”

“Oh, sorry-“

“It’s not a bad thing!” Fluttershy said quickly. “It’s just something I noticed.”

Rarity put a hoof to her chin, wondering exactly how much the mask was making her question things. She was certain it wasn’t zero – but if that was the case, what else in her mind was it affecting? …Probably not that much.

Romani stood up and handed the mug to Rarity and Fluttershy. “Drink up!” Fluttershy took a sip first, shivering a little as she did so.

“This is delightful!” She handed it to Rarity. “It’s a bit strong,” she warned.

Rarity rolled her eyes – how could milk be strong? But then she paused. It was strong, wasn’t it? But… what did strong mean? There was no inkling of help there. The mask was apparently very selective and spotty over what inspirations it decided to give her. She shrugged and took a swig.

The liquid was thick, creamy, and full of flavor – a bit too much flavor. The intensity of the milk hit her tongue like an anvil. She reared up on her hind legs, stumbling backward a few steps. “My… This is rather rich. Delicious, divine, but my Stars…

Romani chuckled. “That’s the usual reaction. But people keep coming back for more. It’s a very vital drink, apparently almost as good as an enchanted health potion.” She patted the cow on the back. “I don’t know what she does to make it so good, but she’s a blessing to the farm.”

Rarity looked at the mug in her hoof and took a sip, expecting the impact of flavor this time. She shivered. “…I can see the appeal…”

Pinkie popped up next to them without exploding. “Oh cool!” She grabbed the mug and drank the entire thing in one swoop, somehow without taking off her mask. “DELICIOUS!”

Romani’s eyes widened. “You just… chugged it.”

“Yep! And boy was it tasty! Not as good as cider though.”

“Most people end up in the hospital after attempting that.”

Pinkie giggled. “I’m a pony, silly. Anyway, I have to jet, Rainbow Dash is still chasing me with her army.” She leaped into the air and exploded, flying over a nearby building. Rainbow Dash flew overhead in hot pursuit with a flock of birds behind her

“Your kind is… Unusual,” Romani said.

“No argument here,” Rarity said. “Oh, by the way, do you know where I can find a Gossip Stone?”

Romani nodded. “There’s one in town, behind the Clock Tower. You’ll know it when you see it.”

“Thanks. It was a pleasure.”

Romani smiled awkwardly. “Uh… Same?”

Fluttershy chuckled. “Don’t mind her, she’s being fancy.”

Romani shrugged. “Never did understand that…”

Rarity rolled her eyes – not that anybody could tell – and walked towards the Clock Tower. She found Twilight and one of the wooden bush people sitting next to each other, staring at it.

“Uh… Twilight?”

“I’m trying to bore myself into falling asleep,” Twilight said. “It’s not working.”

“Told you,” the bush muttered in a high, squeaky voice.

“Shush! You’re making me more interested in talking!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Is it really the time to be testing the magic in your mask, Twilight? There’s a festival soon, and I doubt staring at such wondrous architecture will make you bored enough to sleep.”

Twilight groaned, putting her face in her hooved. “You’re right…”

The bush twitched. “What am I, chopped liver?”

Twilight looked up at him. “…You did say your name was Liver.”

“It is. Chose it myself.” He rustled his leaves, turning to Rarity. “Maybe you’ll be better. Name’s Liver, I consult on everything from architecture to politics to art. I’m what’s known as a Deku Shrub if you haven’t figured that out by now. So, just to clarify, you are all from another world.”

“Uh, yes,” Rarity said.

“This is going to bring great business. I can add ‘culture consultant’ to my impressive list of consulting endeavors.”

Rarity sighed – this guy wasn’t any good at being a consultant. This guy just didn’t like taking orders from people and wanted to be in charge of his own business. Not really all that deceptive, but very delusional in his own greatness.

Still, she could probably ask him some things about the culture and he’d give more or less correct answers.

“So, Liver, explain the importance of this Clock Tower.”

“No idea. Legend states that it just appeared here one day and people decided to build a town around it. No one knows what makes it tick, and no one knows if there’s even an interior. Apparently, some hero in recent years found a way in but he didn’t tell anyone how that worked.”

Now Rarity was curious. “Would there be any way to find that out?”

“If you can get the Gossip Stone to talk, maybe. But nobody can get those things to talk.”

Rarity smirked. “I’ll be right back. Enjoy your… sit.”

“We will,” Twilight said, staring at the clock again.

“No, we won’t,” Liver muttered as Rarity moved behind the Clock Tower. The back face of the tower was blank, though still constructed with an excellent regard for symmetry. A single round statue stood in the pavement there, motionless. It had a number of spiked protrusions on top of it, and a single decorative eye was engraved in its center.

She knew it was the Gossip Stone the moment she saw it. She walked right up to it and cocked her head. “Hello?”

It said nothing. It remained as motionless as a statue should be.

Rarity frowned and tapped it with her hoof. It bounced back from her like it was made of rubber. “Boing-oing!”

“AUGH!” Rarity jumped back.

It looked at her, twisting its rubbery body without a hint of difficulty. “What’s the problem there miss? Never seen a Gossip Stone before?”

“N-no but – how? Stone is not rubber!”

“Beats me, it’s just the way I am. So, you got ahold of a Mask of Truth didya? Discovering the fun parts yet?”

“…No?”

“Ah, well then I wish you luck with that. You’re in for a ride! Anyway, what you want to know? I know lots of things!”

Rarity put a hoof to her chin. “What are the ‘fun parts’?”

“I may be a Gossip Stone but I won’t take the fun out of things, that just wouldn’t be sporting.”

Rarity twitched. “In that case, how do we get into the Clock Tower?”

“You need the moon to be out to do that. There’ll be a big one tonight, I’d suggest coming back here then.”

“…You aren’t very helpful are you?”

“Well, you’re not exactly some big hero on a quest so I don’t have to tell you anything. I’m just here to talk. I can tell you that Eliza really likes money to an extent that isn’t good and Romani secretly drinks that strong milk nightly. Addiction is a powerful thing.”

Rarity blinked. “I… I’m not sure what to do with that information.”

“Exactly. I’m a Gossip Stone, no rule that this has to be useful.

Rarity leaned in. “Know anything about the Happy Mask Salesman?”

“He and I have a deal. I don’t say anything about him and nothing bad happens to me.”

Rarity shook her head. “What is it with people and being so violent all the time?”

“I don’t do philosophical questions. Just a bad idea.”

“Well, in that case, what should I ask?”

“Ask what to do next.”

“What should I do next?” Rarity deadpanned.

“Go to that festival already, it’s about to start.”

“…Oh. Right. …Well, goodbye then.”

The Gossip Stone made no response. It once again looked like a perfectly normal stone statue with no hint of a rubbery structure.

This world was certainly unusual.

~~~

The festival began with fireworks. Everyone had masks on, and most had robes over their bodies to hide the rest of their features as well. The town became a shifting mob of sheets with flat faces – a ghostly image. Lanterns of all colors lit up the town, and people ran into the streets dancing every dance imaginable. Musicians stood outside the various buildings, playing every song they knew, producing a mixed cacophony of noises that somehow managed to have a unique beauty to it.

Rarity trotted down one of the streets, witnessing six couples in blue masks dancing around a large barrel. Their dance was one focused primarily on the legs, kicking in and out repeatedly with ever increasing speed. They switched their dancing partners every few seconds, spiraling around in a strange flowery pattern.

She moved towards them, curious about what they were doing. Eager, even, to become part of it. But then all twelve of them turned to look at her – staring at her with their masks. She knew they did not want her presence. She sighed and turned around, looking to find someone else to involve herself with. Someone to dance, to be a part of this culture. As poor as this town obviously was, they obviously knew what class was.

And she was going to be part of the class. She just needed to find an open group.

The barrel in the midst of the dancers exploded, shooting a brilliant crimson firework into the sky behind Rarity. She didn’t turn around to appreciate it. It was not for her.

There – she saw Pinkie. And, of course, Pinkie was the one dancing with everyone, masterfully standing on her hind legs and spinning some people around a goron minstrel with a rather large guitar. The moment Rarity started walking over, Pinkie grabbed her and threw her into the dance. “Stand on your hind hooves and just let the dance carry you!” she cheered, spinning Rarity around in a short dance before tossing her to a person in a pig’s mask.

She heard him snort.

He wanted nothing to do with her.

She was tossed to a smaller person; a woman, the Mask of Truth told her. This woman was distracted, didn’t even notice Rarity. Was busy thinking of something else. Someone else.

Next was a goron who lifted her up and laughed. It was probably Timon, only dancing because he knew who she was. Only because of a previous connection…

Rarity took in a sharp breath as she was tossed to the next person. This person danced with her kindly, carefully, appreciatively. He must have felt sorry for her. He did feel sorry for her. And after he thought she needed no more consoling, he tossed her away.

He didn’t know she could see the truth.

The next one thought her form was ugly. The next one thought the dance itself was stupid. The next one hated her because she couldn’t dance properly.

She tore herself from the dance, stumbling to the side of the street. While leaning against a wall she bit back tears.

“Hey…” Pinkie said, walking up to her. “What’s wrong?”

She’s only doing this because she feels like she has to. “Nothing, Pinkie. Nothing at all. I just need a breath, is all.”

Pinkie shook her head, taking off her mask to reveal a concerned face. “Rarity, I can tell when something’s wrong, even if I can’t see your face. Something’s got you sad.”

She really seemed concerned… But no, the mask had told Rarity that Pinkie was only doing it out of obligation, and that had to be true. The mask knew everything. “…Pinkie, get back to your dance.”

Pinkie frowned. “Rarity…”

She needs to go back. “Pinkie, go have fun. I’ll be back.”

Pinkie shook her head, putting the mask back on. “…Okay.” She bounced back to the party, unleashing a burst of confetti from nowhere.

Rarity slunk away. So this is what people really thought at parties and events – they judged each other. They judged her, deeming her unimportant. Ugly. Alien. Maybe she didn’t belong out here, in the other worlds… She would just be pushed back in every way. Pushed to nothing, pushed because they were different. Because people had their own desires. Because of the truth.

Even her own friends had that. Everyone had that. She had it.

Certainty…

She stood tall at the edge of a street, looking into an alleyway. The dust and grime told her the people were dark here. The trash told her they cared not. How could she have not seen this before? Why only now was she seeing this toxic atmosphere?

Two people stood in the alleyway – one wearing the cow’s mask. Romani. The other was tall, probably a man, wearing a mustached mask. The tall man grabbed Romani by the arm, hard. She cried out, but no one heard.

No one but Rarity. She activated her horn and tossed the burly man back with her telekinesis, dumping him in a trash can, where his kind belonged. She walked up to Romani.

“T-thank you…” Romani said, distantly.

She isn’t all that thankful. She’s distant. She has mixed feelings. You messed something up.

Rarity took a few steps back, trembling.

“…Rarity?”

Obligation. Culture. That’s all she cares. She just wants you out of her sight so she can sort through things.

Rarity took off at a full gallop, tears streaking down the bottom of her mask. She couldn’t take it anymore. She was done with this – done with the people, done with the festival, done with the dancing. She’d just lock herself in her house forever and eat all the ice cream she had. That’s all that would help her now.

Only it wouldn’t. She knew it. It was more truth. Everything was horrendously disparate. Everything she saw had a dark twist, a nasty eventuality, a devastating realization. Nothing was clean. Every last thing she laid eyes on lashed at her already broken psyche.

She ran for home… But came to the Clock Tower’s back first. A back with a large gaping hole in it. She paused, tear streaks still plain on her face.

“See? There it is. Only you can see it,” the Gossip Stone said. “The night reveals the truth.”

She walked towards the hole – the doorway – without speaking.

“What, no thank you? …All right then. Enjoy.”

She walked into the darkness, the light from the outside vanishing the moment she stuck her head in. Her eyes took a moment to adjust – but adjust they did. The interior was simple, made of stone, and had a spiral staircase leading up. There was a lack of clockwork mechanisms to drive the spinning disc, but this impossibility didn’t bother her. She ascended to the top of the Tower absent-mindedly.

She arrived, standing atop a round flat roof at a height from which see the entire town and quite a bit of the surrounding grasslands as well. It was beautiful – but tainted.

She was not alone. There was a man in green wearing a rather unique cone hat that drooped down his back. Numerous weapons, potions, and other miscellaneous artifacts lined his person and the magic within him more than strong enough to register with Rarity’s meager magic sense.

He doesn’t want me here.

She started back down the stairs-

“Don’t go,” he said, turning to her. He had no mask. His face was that of a middle-aged man, but his eyes were young and full of life. He extended a hand.

Rarity stared at him a moment, not sure what to make of the mixed signals she was getting.

“Take off that mask. Nobody needs it up here – and Masks of Truth tend to cause more problems than they solve.”

Rarity took it off, gulping. She wiped her eyes, realizing slowly that he could see she was crying. “I…”

“Don’t apologize for your emotions,” he said. “They’re a part of us. The things we do because of them we may be responsible for, but we are not in control of them.”

Rarity blinked. “…Wise words.”

“Well, I have a Mask of Truth myself,” he said, taking one out of his backpack. “I know what it’s like.”

“…It just tells you the horrors of everything.”

“No… it tells you the truth of things, sometimes.” He held it to the light. “But the truths it tells you are so vague that it’s hard to discern them from your own intuition. It’s impossible to tell the two apart.” He sighed. “It becomes a horrible self-fulfilling process.”

“…So it lies?”

He shook his head. “No… You just think it’s telling you things when it isn’t.”

Rarity looked at the mask in her hooves. “…I’ve hurt some people because of this. Pinkie… Romani…”

“Romani will understand. She doesn’t know everything, but she understands people.”

Rarity nodded. “…How could I have thought those things about everyone?”

“When you’re wearing an oracle, you only hear what you want to.”

Rarity looked down at the town. “Do I really want to think those things?”

“On some level, you do. On some level, I wanted to think everyone was an enemy. I wanted them all to be servants of a great evil.” He laughed. “The only one who ended up being a servant was someone I thought I trusted. Dismissing all the inclinations the mask actually gave me.”

“That… that sounds horrible.”

“It was.”

Rarity looked at her mask again.

“You’re thinking about chucking it over the edge?”

“Yes…” Rarity admitted.

“I wouldn’t. It’s still a powerful mask that can do great good. But it’s a horrible thing to view the world through.”

Rarity nodded, placing it on the back of her head. She extended a hoof. “I’m Rarity.”

“I’m Link,” he said, shaking her hoof. She felt a warming power, a courage, flow through her.

Rarity smiled. “Charmed.” She glanced down at the festival. “…They’re still dancing.”

“They always dance.”

“Why aren’t you down there?”

Link shrugged. “It’s… It’s deceptive down there. People lead fake lives behind their masks. With them on, they feel like they can do anything. And that’s a truth. I can’t bring myself to be down there with so many people doing horrible things. I can usually figure out who they are.”

Rarity shook her head. “Part of me wonders why.”

“I honestly have no idea. This festival is much older than I am, or any of the elders. They do it because of tradition. In the morning there are just as many scared people as those who had a wonderful time, and they always forget about that by next year.”

Rarity pursed her lips. “Some of that ugliness was true.”

Link nodded. “People are a paradox. We are ugly. But we are also noble.” He laughed. “I’ve met many of both on my adventures…”

“Oh, care to elaborate, mister Link?”

“Just Link, no mister. And I won’t mind elaborating if you talk about yourself a little.”

Rarity chuckled. “Well, I don’t do as much adventuring as you probably do, judging by all those artifacts you have and that impressive sword, but I do have my fair share of excursions. I think it’d be best to start with the day I met my best friends…”

The two of them talked the night away while what tradition commanded continued on below.

In the end, it didn’t matter all that much.

~~~

“Well, the mask works,” Twilight said, standing in front of the shimmer that led to Equestria. “It’s, what, 3 AM? I’m not even remotely feeling like falling asleep. I feel like I’m about to fall over, but you know, that’s nothing.”

Pinkie giggled. “Yeah!”

Applejack took off her mask. “Okay, done with this mask. We better be goin’ home, Twilight.”

Fluttershy nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I’m beat. And this… party wasn’t really that nice all the time.”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “How do you mean?”

“Let’s just get home. …Where’s Rarity?”

“Here,” Rarity said, coming out from the back of the Clock Tower, Link behind her. She shoved the Mask of Truth in Twilight’s hooves. “That thing is dangerous. Careful with it, Twilight.”

“…Okay. Who’s your friend?”

Link bowed. “I’m Link, your highness.”

Twilight facehooved. “Great, you told him I was a princess.”

Link smirked. “I might have bowed regardless. You look like a leader.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I do not!”

Rainbow Dash facehooved. “Yes, yes you do.”

“You are a shining star of leadership, darling,” Rarity said.

Twilight shrugged. “Okay, sure, I’m the leader. What do you do Link?”

Link smirked. “I’m just an adventurer.”

“I bet you’re more than just a simple adventurer.”

Rarity nodded. “He’s a lot like us, dear. I’ll tell you about it later – I can tell you need sleep. I don’t need the mask to see that your body is done with all this.”

“But I feel fine!”

“When you take off that mask of yours you will collapse in a heap,” Rarity said.

Fluttershy giggled. “You probably will.”

Twilight smirked. “I’ll prove it to you!” She took off her mask – and fell asleep on the ground, in a heap.

Pinkie laughed heartily. “Well, we need to get Twilight to bed! We’ll probably be coming back here! See you later Link!”

“Later,” he waved as the six of them left through their portal. He smiled contently to himself, his spirits having been lifted slightly by the sight of six colorful equines.

~~~

Later that night, long after the six ponies from another world had left, hours after most the dancers had gone to bed, another portal opened. Sunset Shimmer stepped out of the gap in reality. She took a moment to appreciate the night air and the appeal of the unique quiet a town had after a large festival.

But, well, it was night. She probably wouldn’t be welcomed here just yet, since even the inns were probably unmanned. She’d just have to come back later when the world would be more responsive to her presence. She was about to head back when she saw something.

There was a man in green talking to another man in purple. The man in purple sent shivers down Sunset’s spine just from the way he stood – unnatural.

“Is it still safe?” the man in green asked.

The man in purple laughed, and suddenly there was a purple mask in his hands. Its primary shape was that of a heart, but it was far from an image of affection. It had two eerie eyes that glowed slightly, two colored horns on the rounded top and eight spikes along the bottom edges. Even in the darkness, Sunset could see the jarring tribal designs all around it. That mask was evil.

“Put it away!” the man in green said. “It’ll call to someone!”

“It’ll do that anyway,” the man in purple said, having somehow put the mask back in his pack without Sunset seeing. “But rest assured, it is safe in my possession.”

“You know…” a new voice said, this one feminine. “Those ponies came from another world. What’s to say they don’t have the ability to take it from you?”

“Midna, they wouldn’t do that,” the man in green said, addressing his faint shadow.

“They would not,” the man in purple said. “And I’m more than capable to defend against otherworldly threats, ye of little faith.”

“We’re putting a lot of faith in you…” Midna muttered.

“But I’m the only one who can resist its call, and you know that from personal experience.”

The man in green nodded. “It’d be better if it was destroyed.”

The man in purple laughed, the sound making Sunset shiver again. “I’m open to suggestions!”

The man in green said nothing in response. He just shook his head.

“Hey,” Midna said, suddenly. “I think we’re being watched.”

Sunset leaped back through her portal and closed it faster than even she could comprehend. It took a moment for her to realize how hard she was breathing and how terrified she felt.

Twilight blinked. “…What happened over there?”

“I probably just heard a conversation I really wasn’t supposed to hear,” Sunset said.

“…Want to investigate?”

Sunset shivered. “Normally I would, but… I don’t think I want to mess with something that evil.”

Twilight blinked. “Okaaaaay….”

Chapter Text

Home Calling

Spike walked to the Mirror Portal room, a cup of piping hot tea in his hand. It was far too hot to drink at the moment, so he was wandering around while it cooled. He had expected to find Twilight and the gang preparing for another adventure, but they weren’t here. Maybe they’d taken an off day or something, though they had gone almost every day in the last week. He’d heard tales of new friends, awesomeness, explosions, and strange games. At first he’d felt left out, but now he realized that getting involved would probably drain a lot of his time, and he was not the mad machine of productivity Twilight was. He, like any normal living being, needed more than four hours of sleep a day.

He glanced at the Mirror Portal. It was on, connected to some far off world, like it always was. Usually the default was Earth, but Twilight was forgetful and often forgot to switch it back until Sunset yelled at her through the communication journals. Speaking of which, one of them was on a nearby table right now. He would have opened it, but that would have been rude. The private correspondence between Twilight and Sunset was none of his business.

He found himself staring at the globe of magic above the Mirror Portal, the device that contained the glowing pattern of a far away world. This particular cloud seemed to be a half and half mixture of vibrant rainbow and dusty desert colors. The colorful contradiction drew him in and soon he had no idea how long he’d been standing there.

He checked his tea – still too hot. He really needed to get a control on his fire breath when heating things up. He may have been fireproof but heat was still uncomfortable.

Something extremely fast shot right past his ear, setting him on edge. This something hit the wall behind him with a pang! He didn’t even have time to turn around before another one shot through the gap in his legs, denting the floor beneath him. A third one flew right through his teacup, shattering the piece of porcelain and pouring steaming water on his hand. He screamed and ducked for cover, the sudden heat serving as a good reminder that he should get out of the way.

More of the tiny objects – bullets, Spike’s mind finally concluded, drawing on what he knew of humans from Twilight – shot from the portal, bouncing off the crystal walls. No others came close to hitting Spike, but he knew his chances of escaping unscathed lowered the longer those bullets kept flying.

“TWIIIIILIIIIIGHT!” he yelled.

Twilight leaped out of the portal, performing an athletic roll while holding a magical shield up, deflecting several bullets. Her friends poured out of the portal right behind her, ducking out of the way of the bullet stream. Amazingly, there wasn’t a single bullet wound on any of them, though they were ragged and covered in dust.

“Close the portal!” Applejack yelled.

“On it!” Twilight said, using her telekinesis on a nearby lever. She was unable to change it fast enough – a giant man stepped out of the portal, so large that Spike wasn’t sure he was human despite his peach skin, red shirt, and giant gatling gun.

He pointed a finger at Rarity. “SPY!” He yelled in a deep, thundering voice.

“What is that, the catchphrase of your people!?” Rarity retorted, exasperated.

The heavy man readied his gun to tear Rarity to shreds, but Twilight wasn’t having any of that. She grabbed him in her magic and threw him back through the portal. Then she changed the destination to somewhere else, letting out a sigh of relief.

“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “That showed him!”

“…Do we know why he was attacking us?” Fluttershy asked. “Why they were all attacking us?”

Pinkie shrugged. “I think we interrupted them in the middle of something. Probably shouldn’t hold it against them.”

“They kept calling me a spy and shooting at me!” Rarity wailed. “Then there was that man who hit me with a baseball bat!” She rubbed the back of her head. “I’m going to be lumpy for at least a day!”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Nobody can see that bump, Rarity.”

“Maybe I care about how much it hurts rather than how it looks!”

Rainbow Dash raised an incredulous eyebrow.

“Okay, so it’s both. Whatever. I still have a right to complain!”

“It must be horrible there…” Fluttershy said. “Always fighting…”

“Fluttershy, we were only there for, what, ten minutes?” Twilight said. “We don’t know if they’re always fighting.”

“Pretty sure they are,” Pinkie said. “It’s a big game to them!”

Twilight twitched. “…Fair enough. Regardless, it seems we ended our adventure early… I’ve got about a dozen other worlds we could check out, and we’ve got plenty of time-“

Applejack raised a hoof. “Twi? Ah’m gonna have to pass. Ah’ve got work to do. Haven’t been doing as much on the farm as Ah need to lately.”

Twilight nodded. “That’s fine Applejack, we’ll see you tomorrow then-“

Applejack shook her head slowly. “Twi, it’s a bit more than just takin’ a day off. Ah need to stop doin’ this.”

Twilight stopped flipping through her book of discovered worlds and looked Applejack in the eyes. “…What are you saying?”

“Ah’m sayin’ these little adventures of ours are gettin’ in the way of my life and my responsibilities. Far more than they should. So Ah’m checkin’ out, goin’ to my farm and doin’ what’s needed. Ah’m sorry, but this just isn’t meant for me Twi.”

Twilight sagged. “I’ll respect your decision Applejack, but… Are you sure?”

“Very sure. In fact, Ah’m surprised the rest of you haven’t thought about this. How much of our lives are we putting into this exploration? Twilight, you’re a princess. Have you been taking care of what you need to?”

“I – of course I have!” Twilight said, flustered.

Applejack raised an eyebrow.

“…Okay, I’ve been loading a lot of it off on Spike…”

Spike blinked. She had? …He supposed he did have more work than usual, but he didn’t really mind. Should he mind? He didn’t know; he’d have to think on that one.

Applejack nodded. “See? You’ve had to give up some stuff too. And it’s fine if you want to give that up, but my life is at the Apple Farm, not here. Ah suggest you – all of you – think about what you want to do here. Ah don’t think any of you have really thought about all the time you’re sinking into this.” She adjusted her hat and smiled. “See you girls around. Ah’ll be at my farm, where Ah belong. Hope you girls enjoy whatever it is you decide to do.” She walked out of the room, leaving five ponies speechless.

Twilight gulped. “Well…”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Ah, whatever, let’s just go to a new place already.”

“Rainbow, I think she’s right,” Rarity said. “We should think about this. I have a boutique, after all…”

Twilight nodded. “Applejack does have a point. …Let’s take a break today. Meet back here tomorrow if you still want to go somewhere, okay everypony?”

Everypony nodded.

“Good. I want you to know that, whatever you decide, I’ll respect it. And… Well, that I need to think as well. I’ll let you girls use the Mirror even if I don’t though, so no worries.” She put a hoof to her chin, walking to a nearby wall.

The other four ponies stood still, in awkward silence.

Twilight turned and looked at them. “Uh… you girls can go now. Okay?”

“Oh. Right,” Fluttershy said, shaking her head. “See you tomorrow?”

“Hopefully,” Pinkie said, walking out instead of bouncing like normal.

Rarity took a breath. “Time to go sort out our lives then, I suppose.”

Soon, Spike was left standing alone in the room, feeling a little existential. He sat down, holding his legs close.

He wished he still had that tea. It would have been drinkable by now.

~~~

A few miles out from Ponyville there was a giant cloud construction known as the Wonderbolt Academy, where pegasus stunt fliers were trained and one of the more common places the actual Wonderbolts practiced their stunt shows.

Rainbow Dash had quickly found herself in one of these practice sessions after the earlier conversation at the castle. Flying always helped clear her head, and extreme flying was just better in every imaginable way. She flew across the length of the clouded academy at speeds close to that of sound itself, leaving a complex trail of rainbows over the runways embedded in the cloudy ‘ground’. Other pegasi – both students and fellow Wonderbolts – cheered her on as she picked up speed.

She wasn’t going for a rainboom this time. They’d all seen that trick before. Even though it was her signature move and by far the showiest, she was always looking for something a little more interesting to perform for the audience. She checked behind her to make sure the rainbow trail of pegasus magic was perfectly vibrant, which it was. She smirked to herself and angled herself directly upward, twisting her left wing slightly to turn her body in a corkscrew motion. The rainbow trail behind her became a twisting ribbon, spiraling behind her at an ever-increasing frequency. Soon, a tall and narrow tornado formed around the rainbow ribbon, coursing with the energies of the wind and air itself. When she felt as though she should stop climbing any higher in altitude, she pivoted her body around and kicked the rising tornado with her hoof, forcing a discharge of static energy throughout the cyclone. A bolt of lightning drove itself through the swirling rainbow, destroying it in a single instant with a thundering roar.

Rainbow Dash went temporarily deaf from the thunder but she could see the cheers and applause coming from the ponies on the ground. She gently glided down to the runway and landed gracefully, smirking.

As her hearing returned, she could hear the shouts and commendations from the other pegasi. She grinned.

She loved her job.

The grin vanished in an instant as she remembered what Applejack had said earlier. Would traveling through the worlds keep her from doing this? If she was forced to choose…

Spitfire, the fiery leader of the Wonderbolts, walked up to her. “…You okay, Crash?”

Rainbow Dash started nodding – then shook her head. “Can I… Talk to you for a minute?”

Spitfire raised an eyebrow. “Sure. Here or the office?”

Rainbow Dash looked around at all the ponies. “Office.”

Spitfire’s expression became concerned. “Well all right then.” The two of them flew to one of the larger cloud-mounted buildings, entering the top floor. Spitfire sat at her desk, shoving all the paperwork off to the side of the desk, probably ruining a few students’ test scores in the process. “What’s on your mind Crash?”

Rainbow Dash bit her lip. “Well… Hard to explain. How about – well, think about it like this. What if you had been doing something for the last week or so that was so awesome and full of adventure that you’d forgotten about doing most anything else.”

“Was this why you missed last practice?”

Rainbow Dash blushed. “Eheh… Maybe, but let me finish. So you do this thing, right? And it’s awesome and great and could change the world. But then one of your friends says you need to think about what you’re giving up, what you’re not doing, that sort of thing. And you realize that by doing this thing you’re neglecting your childhood dream that you spent so long trying to accomplish, squandering it.”

“Ah,” Spitfire said. “You’ve found something more interesting than flying stunt shows.”

“N-no!”

Spitfire facehooved. “Crash, let me tell you something. All we really do is fly in complex patterns so ponies can have a sense of awe. In theory, we’re a special ops military unit for Equestria, but there’s never any battles so we’re rarely called in as that. If you’ve found something that can really change the world, I’d take it.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “…Spitfire? Are you saying that…”

Spitfire interrupted with a sigh. “…I didn’t join the Wonderbolts all those years ago to become a stunt flier, Rainbow Dash. I joined to defend Equestria and make a difference. But this is what we became. It’s a fine life, don’t get me wrong, but I often feel like there’s something… missing. And I’m rather stuck here. You though… you’re not.”

“Are you… Telling me to stop being a Wonderbolt?”

Spitfire laughed. “Oh hay no! …Guess I was laying it on a little thick there. I’m just saying you should pursue what’s valuable. You’d know this if you thought about your Wonderbolt history more, but many Wonderbolts have taken time off to pursue other interests, and more than a few come back later. Why, I remember Fleetfoot vanishing for two years!” She laughed. “I still have no idea what she did.”

Rainbow Dash frowned. “I still don’t know if I want to.”

“Hey, your decision. You are one of our best fliers and your tricks make the shows worth seeing for a lot of ponies. But if I were able to elope, I would.” She glanced at a piece of paper.

Rainbow Dash frowned. “I really don’t know. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life, Spitfire, you know that. I’m happy here. But I’m also happy there.” She grabbed her head. “Ugh, why do decisions have to be so hard?”

Spitfire laughed. “No offense Rainbow, but that’s just life itself. You’re going to have to choose one way or another, or find some third option. Just don’t refuse to decide.” A wistful look appeared in her eyes. “That never ends well.”

Rainbow Dash looked out the window at the many pegasi, young and old, doing stunts in the brilliant sunlight. She bit her lip, still not knowing what to do. “Spitfire, this was my life. I’m happy here. I love my job. I don’t know if I’ll love adventuring as much as I love this.”

“It’s your life. All I’m telling you is what I’d do. But then again, I’m not known for being satisfied with life. If you are satisfied, I wouldn’t throw that away. Very few ponies can actually consider themselves happy with life.”

“I know… Ugh. Why does thinking about things have to be so hard?”

Spitfire laughed. “I’m tempted to say that your question is also your answer.”

“…What?”

“You aren’t a thinker. You’re a pony who acts based on instinct and feeling most of the time. That’s pretty knuckleheaded of you, but it makes you who you are. If your mind fails you, follow your gut.”

“My gut is a twisted knot that doesn’t even know which way’s up!”

“Now, is that from the decision or the trick you just pulled out there?”

“I don’t know!” Rainbow Dash rammed her head into the desk. Spitfire patted Rainbow Dash’s head with her wing.

“There, there, it’ll be fine.”

“…That doesn’t help.”

Spitfire shrugged. “Well then pony-up and make a decision. I’ll support you whatever you do.”

~~~

Suddenly Pinkie Pie was standing over two adorable fillies by the name of Pound and Pumpkin Cake. “Hello!”

The twins smiled at her and raised their hooves excitedly. Pinkie grabbed them and swept them into a big hug. “Aren’t you two just the most adorable things?”

They nodded in unison. Pinkie giggled. “Well, I need to talk to you two about something. Usually I’d go talk to Gummy, but he’s surprisingly unhelpful today. I mean, just look at him!” She pulled a small toothless alligator out of her mane and set him on the floor. He blinked, remaining motionless. “See? He’s just being existential again! Come on Gummy, snap out of it! We do not fall to the forces beyond our control!”

Gummy licked his eyeball.

Pinkie facehooved. “These moods of yours. What am I going to do with you? Tsk tsk tsk.”

Gummy did nothing at all.

Pinkie returned to the twins. “See? I’m not crazy.”

This prompted the twins to laugh. Pinkie glared at them. “Oh, so you find that funny do you? Do I look crazy to you?” She giggled. “Of course I do, what am I thinking. Hey! You’ve sidetracked me, you rascals! I’ve got something important to talk to you two about!”

They stared at her, giving her their absolute attention.

“So, it looks like I’ve been given the opportunity to go on a grand adventure that will be bigger than anything any of us can imagine! But to do that, I’d have to see you two a lot less, and probably stop working at the bakery. I mean, I suppose I could just leave your parents with a stockpile of random pastries, because those aren’t hard to make.” To prove her point she pulled two cupcakes out of her mane and gave them to the twins. They ate the pastries in one gulp.

“Buuuuuuuuut there’s something about working in that bakery. And, well, I guess to be completely honest, I could probably work at the bakery just fine, I’d just need to manage my time. But what the real problem is… is I won’t be able to celebrate the birthdays of every pony in Ponyville! It can’t be done!” She leaned on a chair that hadn’t been there a moment before, putting her front leg to her forehead. “Oh the horror! A pony in Ponyville not getting a birthday cake from me!”

The twins looked at her, sadly.

“And it’ll only get worse. You can’t tell anyone, because they don’t know this, but I know that soon this whole series of tiny adventures will get blown way out of control. I’m so nervousited about it! I could be part of the biggest amazing thing ever! But… It’ll also be hard if I’m involved. I could be so helpful to everypony, but I would have to be put through so much…”

They looked at her questioningly.

“I don’t know exactly what, sorry. There’ll be both good and bad. There’ll be good and bad regardless. It’s what life is, really.” She giggled. “But I have a choice. I can stay here and be the party pony of Ponyville… Or go out and become… Something else.”

She fell silent, looking down at the ground. “…It should be easy,” she said. “All I have to do is realize that there’s something bigger than me. And I can be a part of it. Why am I so selfish!? Why do I want a simple life in a simple town!?” she groaned, slumping to the ground. “Everything outside is so exciting, so powerful, so amazing. There’s almost definitely a world filled with nothing but giant donuts and it’s almost guaranteed that I will find it one day! That is, if I go. If I don’t… I just stay here with you, with the ponies I know.”

She stood up, looking in a window and seeing her reflection. “…Who am I kidding. The problem’s not the bakery, the problem’s not the other ponies in Ponyville, it’s me. And just me. I’m scared.”

The twins walked up to her and hugged her. Pinkie giggled. “Yeah… Hugs are always welcome.” She wiped a tear away, looking out the window, out into the existence only she was aware of. She caught glimpses…

She had a choice. She could stay or go.

The end result would probably be the same regardless of her choice. But…

But she could make a difference.

If she was willing to put herself out there. To welcome the danger and the coming sorrow.

“…The sadness will come anyway,” she said to herself.

The twins looked up at her.

“It’s okay, not you. You two are safe.” She giggled. “Look at me, I’m starting to cry for no good reason. Silly Pinkie, you’re not juggling lives in your hooves.”

Gummy stared at her.

“Stop giving me that look,” Pinkie muttered, shaking her head and wiping her eyes. “I am thinking, Gummy. Thinking hard.

Gummy blinked.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. You were always right. Sorry for being mean to you earlier, you didn’t deserve that. Sometimes I need a healthy dose of existentialism!”

Gummy licked her hoof.

“Awwww, thank you Gummy!” She pulled him and the twins into another hug. “Thank you all! I think I know what to do now!” She set them down, stuffed Gummy back into her mane, and bounced into the main room of Sugarcube Corner, taking her position at the counter next to the blue form of Mrs. Cake.

“Hey Mrs. Cake!”

Mrs. Cake’s ears perked up. ”Pinkie, you’re using that tone of voice...”

“What tone of voice?”

“The tone of voice of ‘I did something and now I have to tell you about it, please don’t be mad’. What did you break?”

“What?” Pinkie said, aghast. “Nothing! I broke nothing! I just spent some time seriously thinking about my life! You know, healthy things for healthy ponies to do healthily! Everypony needs to do some deep thinking from time to time.”

Mrs. Cake blinked. “…And what were you thinking about?”

“Well, life, but you want something more specific. I was thinking about adventures, alligators, two awesome little fillies in the other room, baking, parties… And if I’m going to go exploring with my friends long term or stay here in Ponyville.”

“And what did you decide?”

Pinkie grinned. “You’re about to find out! Just you and nopony else!” She winked and giggled.

~~~

Animals.

Fluttershy loved animals.

Fluttershy loved animals more than ponies a lot of the time. She understood animals when she didn’t understand ponies. Their desires were simpler, their lives quieter, and they were just so much more fluffy. Well, most of the time. Fish and reptiles weren’t fluffy. And neither were bugs. And… Okay so a lot of things weren’t fluffy but she liked the fluffy ones because they were so huggable. And a big snake was huggable as well; you just had to know how to hug it right. Fluttershy was one of those ponies who knew.

Presently, she was hugging all the animals that lived at her house – the snakes, the bears, the rabbits, the squirrels, the bees, the hummingbirds, the turtles, the strange squishy things that didn’t have official names but she called frishen, Rexy, and the other innumerable types of animals. She was in bliss as she did this, all her worries vanishing by simple contact with hundreds of animals. Her house was a haven. Not as good as Sweet Feather Sanctuary, but that place was the animals’ home, not hers. There was just something about her treehouse that made her feel glad to be there.

Though she was starting to feel a little crushed by the sheer mass of animals around her…

“Okay! Enough hugs for now!” she said. They all backed off without so much as a growl of fuss. “Thank you,” she said, sitting down on her couch and taking a deep breath – and finally allowing herself to think.

Applejack was always the one to point out what should be obvious. Really, she wondered how Twilight, Rarity, and Rainbow managed to go to other worlds that often given their jobs. But Fluttershy knew she didn’t really have a job – she just cared for animals and the Sanctuary, things that she definitely didn’t get paid for. She lived off the welfare of others these days, though years ago she had lived off the welfare of animals and the forests. She had to admit, even though the food her friends provided was tasty, she did miss forest berry salad sometimes.

But really, what was she leaving behind when she went through that Mirror? She had little to no responsibilities. She was mainly worried about the adventures themselves. As much progress as she had made over the years, she still wasn’t all that keen on constant danger and adrenaline. Did she want to keep going? That was the question. The time she spent with her friends was precious to her, and she had to admit the places they went that didn’t have danger were beautiful and fun. She even had some animals from those other worlds here right now.

Rexy was the most obvious of these, having refused to leave after he was healed, standing now as a sort of sentinel for Fluttershy’s house. He did have to eat a lot, which scared some of the other animals, but they were slowly realizing that Rexy knew who was off limits. Harry the bear had even ridden Rexy for a while in one of the most adorable scenes Fluttershy had seen with two apex predators. Usually they were a lot less adorable than that.

But that was the way life was.

A plate hit her in the face. Fluttershy shook her head and glared at the white rabbit that had thrown the dish – Angel Bunny, simultaneously her most beloved and most infuriating animal. “Angel! That is not how you greet ponies!”

Angel grabbed another plate and pointed down at it with his finger. Then he pointed into his mouth.

Fluttershy gasped. “…Did I forget to feed you!?”

Angel nodded vigorously and glared at her.

“Oh my gosh I’m so so so sorry Angel I… I completely forgot, I think I was caught up in the moment of coming home and hugging everyone…”

He threw the other plate at her and folded his arms. This time the plate shattered on impact.

“Ow! Angel bunny! I am getting you food!”

Angel folded his arms and glared. He held up a calendar of the current month and pointed at the current week. Red x’s were around three days.

“I fed you on Thursday…” Fluttershy said, nervously.

Angel took a book off a shelf and showed her a complicated salad with a cherry on top. He pointed at the cherry and growled.

“I thought we discussed eating food even when it doesn’t have cherries, Angel.

Angel made a slicing motion over his neck and threw his arms into the air. He pointed at Fluttershy and made a noise that was supposed to be threatening, but just sounded cute.

Fluttershy sagged. “You… You’re right. I… I have been forgetting to feed you and I’ve been neglecting you and…” she burst into tears. “I’M SORRY!” She grabbed Angel and pulled him into a hug. “I’LL NEVER LET YOU STARVE AGAIN!”

Angel rolled his eyes and accepted the hug.

“I’ll… I’ll have to call off the adventures…” Fluttershy said. “I’ll need to stay here and keep you fed…”

Angel nodded, sure in his victory.

“Fluttershy…” a deep, amused voice said, coming from all directions.

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow, a smile coming to her previously sad face. “Discord…”

The moment she said the name, a creature that could only be described as an abomination against nature appeared in a flash of white light. His body was snakelike in shape, composed of both scaled and furred sections. His legs were different, one ending in a hoof and the other in reptilian claws. His hands that of a paw and taloned hand, while his head was a mix between a pony and a goat with both a deer and a unicorn horn on his head. He was Discord, spirit of chaos. And he just so happened to hang around Fluttershy’s house a lot because the two were good friends.

“Fluttershy!” He called, pointing at Angel. “You know he’s toying with you, right?”

“Uh… no?”

Discord snapped his fingers, making large glasses appear on his face and a whiteboard appear on the wall. He quickly scribbled a diagram of Angel eating the salad without the cherry on top and getting berries from the forest. “The rabbit gets food on his own. He just wants to be doted over like a prince.”

Angel shook his fist at Discord in cute rage. Discord chuckled, flicking the rabbit’s ears with his talons. “I’m sorry, did your diabolical plan completely fail?”

Fluttershy looked at Angel, narrowing her eyes. “You really did didn’t you? You were fine without me!”

Angel nodded slowly, ashamed. He grabbed his heart and drooped his head.

“Oh… Angel…”

Discord raised a hairy eyebrow. “Hmm? What is it now?”

“…He just wanted me to spend more time with him.”

“You already spend a ton of time with him,” Discord said. “More than you spend with me I might add.”

Fluttershy nodded. “That… is true.”

Angel grabbed her by the neck and pleaded with his big rabbit eyes. Fluttershy hugged him close. “...You really do want me to stay, don’t you?” She looked at her other animals. “…You do too…”

Discord snapped his fingers, appearing in Fluttershy’s hoof as a rabbit similar to Angel. “But Fluttershy, the animals don’t have to tell you what to do! They like you, but your friends like you as well! And sometimes you just need to get out and have some fun! Whatever kind of fun it is your friends are planning. I’m sure it’s absolutely delightful.”

Fluttershy nodded slowly, pursing her lips. She looked from Discord to Angel, unsure. “I don’t know…”

Angel pleaded.

Discord huffed. “That rabbit knows nothing but how to manipulate you. You’ll see him every night.”

Angel punched Discord in the face. He reverted to his normal chaotic form. “Why you little…”

“Discord, no swapping of Angel’s body parts.”

Discord sighed. “Fiiiiine.”

Fluttershy looked at Discord’s eyes, her gaze steady. “…You really think I should stay on these adventures? I… I feel like I should stay here.”

“And let the rest of existence not see your beautiful face and your kindness?” He snapped his fingers, opening a chaotic portal of his own making to a land filled with darkness and lightning. “You had the power to redeem me, and there’s a lot more out there that could stand some redeeming, if I do say so myself.”

Angel squirmed.

Fluttershy, years ago, would have looked at the thundering landscape and screamed, preparing to hide under a couch until it went away. Not she just stared at it, eyes reflecting the lightning. She nodded slowly. “There is a lot I could do… Animals I could save and put in the sanctuary… Ponies who need kindness… I’ve already seen horrible things done in worlds without kindness…” An image of Lieshy came into her mind. The other version of her was trying hard to adjust from a world built on half-truths, but she was still struggling. So many people and ponies struggled.

Was she meant to help them? She felt compelled to…

She took a deep breath. “I’m going to go think about this for a while. Angel, Discord, play nice while I take my walk, okay?”

The two begrudgingly nodded while shooting daggers at each other with their eyes.

“And Discord, close that portal, okay? It’s scaring the birds.”

~~~

In a world parallel, Sunset Shimmer was staring at a computer screen blankly.

Congratulations! Your application to Wolfe University has been completed! You will be contacted within two months about acceptance!

Sunset continued to stare intently at the large blue words on the screen. She didn’t move. She barely breathed. The magnitude of what she’d just done weighed on her.

“…What are you doing?” Twilight asked.

“I just applied to college,” Sunset said, voice hollow, as if the soul had been drained out of her.

“That’s awesome! Where’d you apply!?”

“Local, Wolfe. Best college in the state,” she deadpanned.

“What are you planning on studying?”

“…Not sure,” she admitted. “Part of me wants to go into physics… But there’s also psychology, anthropology, sociology…”

“Go into physics,” Twilight said. “Tell me what it’s like.”

“…Sure,” Sunset said, still distant.

Twilight finally picked up on her tone. “Hey, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“I’m still not sure if this is what I want to do. Drop everything and march off into an education system in a world I’m not even from. I could go home to Equestria and become a high mage without much effort, serving in Twilight’s court. Or Celestia’s…” She wasn’t sure she was ready for that though. “But, well, here I am, applying to a university so I can learn about science and maybe change the world? I don’t know. I’ve only really cared about this place for, what, a little over a year? Am I really devoting myself to it?”

Twilight sat down next to her. “Well, that’s your decision. You could also go to college, get your degree, and run to Equestria and not have to pay back any loans!”

Sunset smirked. “You know I’d just grab some gold from Twilight to pay for it. It’s not too hard to make money when you have magic at your disposal.”

Twilight shrugged. “I suppose… You do have a big decision to make soon.”

“To think I never would have even thought about it had Pinkie not pointed it out to me.”

“She has a way of saying just the right things and just the right time. Or the complete opposite.”

Sunset chuckled. “That she does…” She looked away from the computer screen. “Well, I don’t have to commit for sure yet. I can always run back to Equestria if I want. I do know that I don’t want to get a job flipping burgers.”

“Here’s what I think. I think you should go to college, see if you like it. If you do, stay, and decide after you graduate if you want to use that knowledge in Equestria or stay here. If you don’t, leave and go back to the land of colorful equines. I’m sure we can visit you from time to time, and you us.”

“That’s… a nice and logical way of looking at it, thanks Twilight. But… Unless we can get that dimension dialer working visiting will be somewhat annoying to accomplish…”

Twilight’s face became a canvas for the biggest grin her face had ever held.

Sunset’s pupils shrunk. “You didn’t…”

“I DID!” She pulled a disc out from her shirt. There, affixed around her neck like a piece of jewelry, was a flat device made of numerous adjustable dial rings with a circular screen in the center. She used her fingers to quickly dial a location by twisting the many rings. When she hit a known coordinate, the screen flashed a green check. She then used her magic on it, activating the spell within and opening a gateway large enough for a person to walk through to a mysterious land where the grass was orange and the trees looked like pom-poms.

“…Where is that?” Sunset asked.

“No idea!” Twilight said. “Twinkie sent over some new coordinates a day or so ago, and that was one of them.”

Sunset frowned. “Still relying on ‘Twinkie’s’ spells, huh?”

“Yeah. Not like anything other than magic can open a portal, though. Even the sphere used magic despite the amazing power source it had…”

Sunset blinked. Then she looked back at the computer screen. Then a mischievous smirk appeared on her face.

“…What?”

“Challenge accepted,” Sunset said. “I’m going to find a non-magical way to traverse the universes.”

Twilight blinked. “I… I’d have no idea where to even start!”

“That’s the fun part, Twilight.” Sunset rubbed her hands together. “Twilight, I’m going to study physics. I’m going to figure this out…”

Twilight smiled. “I’m glad you got that sorted out.”

“I’m going to need a really, really big binder,” Sunset said. “And some more books. Mostly on quantum mechanics. And all those papers you’ve written about the nature and effects on magic you’ve never published.”

Twilight blushed. “A-all of them?”

“Yes. Even the ones you think are useless. There could be something useful. We’re going to figure this out, Twilight. Then we can explore without leaning on ‘Twinkie’s’ understanding.”

Twilight smiled. “This is going to change the world!”

“You bet it is! All we need to start is to know how exactly these spells open up portals…” she frowned. “But how to do that…”

~~~

Rarity walked into her boutique.

It looked exactly the same as when she had left it. The dresses were still in the window, the mannequins were all arranged neatly, and all her fabrics were put away in the correct shelves. The floor was clean, the design beautiful, and the sewing station just the perfect level unkempt to appear busy, but not frantic.

And yet she couldn’t look at it normally.

How long had she spent in the boutique lately? An hour or two a day? Less?

The boutique may never have actually been busy, and usually if a client needed anything they could just find her later or have someone tell her… But there was still the principle of neglect. This place wasn’t being cared for, despite how it looked. It was uninhabited. Closed.

And yet, even when she had been here, she hadn’t really had much work. She sewed and designed, sure, but most of her actual jobs involved beautifying the town for events, not clothing. Ever since she’d established her other shops in Manehattan and Canterlot she’d been popular – but the work was largely out of her hooves. It had been bumpy there for a while – stressful, frantic, insanely busy – but after it settled… Well, everything ran itself.

She was in charge, but she didn’t really do anything anymore. She couldn’t design everything, and what she did design was produced by Coco and Sassy in the other locations with their own hired hooves while she lived here with hardly a customer. They all went to the more prestigious locations in the big cities…

She had never really thought how much she had let control of her enterprise slip. It could probably function pretty well without her at this point. She still produced plenty of designs in her free time, even if she didn’t sew all of them. It was an odd thought, one that was slightly demeaning, but true. Had she realized it at any other time it probably would have sent her into an emotional funk that could only be cured by tubs of ice cream.

Oh, ice cream, that sounded simply divine. With her magic she levitated some ice cream from a hidden freezer and started eating. She wasn’t stressed enough to make a mess of the ice cream, but she was stressed enough to forego eating at a proper pace. A fourth of the gallon was gone in a matter of minutes.

She ran her hoof over her sewing machine. “Old friend… what do you think I should do?”

The sewing machine offered no response, as expected. Rarity rolled her eyes at her antics – what was she thinking, talking to something that couldn’t talk back? Preposterous. She sat down in her chair and took in the air of the boutique again, expression shifting from smile to frown every few seconds. She had so many memories here, so much in pursuit of her dream. So much success. She was easily rich at this point and could afford to buy a mansion in a far off exotic country. But she stayed here because it was her home.

In the end, the classy society was overrated, she supposed. Even though it was delightful, when she was here with her friends and neighbors, here at home, she was happier.

And there was something about those adventures. So much… daring. So much culture. So much surprising beauty. The romantic quality of jaunting off to new lands on a daily basis was just so tantalizing. There had been that difficulty with the Mask of Truth, admittedly, but she thought she was a better pony for having experienced it. She felt more full of life out there in the unknown.

She was surprised by how much she loved it. And she got to enjoy it with her best friends in the world. Well… Some of them at least, now.

“…Am I really considering closing the boutique?” she asked herself.

“WHAT!?”

Rarity looked up from her stupor to see a pony on the other side of the counter – her little sister, the white unicorn Sweetie Belle. She had her purple curls held to the sides of her head, her hooves pressing stressfully into her skull. “What are you talking about!? CLOSING!?”

“Oh, Sweetie, dear…” Rarity chuckled. “Surely you’ve noticed I’ve been out a lot lately. I’m just thinking of closing this location here since I’m not here often enough to warrant it. I could move everything to my house, take simple orders from people when they asked, but otherwise go explore with Twilight and the girls.”

“But but… The boutique is an important part of Ponyville! It can’t just be… closed!”

Rarity frowned. “I… I suppose not. But nopony comes here all that often. It’s… Well, it’s about as busy as it was before Twilight came to town, which is to say hardly anypony comes in here anymore.”

Sweetie frowned. “I… I mean, yes, but come on! Rarity, this is your dream! You… This is your life!”

Rarity smiled. “I wouldn’t be giving up on fashion dear, Stars no. The other locations will still make my designs and I’ll run them, but it’ll be mostly hooves-off.”

“But… But ponies like this boutique!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Well, I suppose I could hire someone to run it for me, like Coco and Sassy do, but I don’t know anyone in town who has the requisite tastes besides you and the Doctor.”

Sweetie smirked. “The Cutie Mark Crusaders can find you somepony.”

Rarity blinked. “Really? Your friends could do that?”

“Yeah, we’ve managed to get a lot of connection in helping ponies get their cutie marks. That said…” Sweetie frowned. “You sure you have to close it? Can’t you just stay? I’m pretty sure the town would feel different without your presence. So many look up to you.”

“Dear, they can find other role models…”

I look up to you…” Sweetie said, sagging.

Rarity had to fight back a momentary urge to cry. Sweetie Belle was just so precious and adorable. Rarity couldn’t believe she used to find her very existence annoying. She smiled. “Oh, Sweetie… Sometimes things change. You changed, after all. Maybe I need to find some way to grow up as well. When a goal is reached, a new goal must be made…” She paused. ”…Or maybe you’re supposed to be satisfied with where you are...?”

“I don’t know,” Sweetie said. “All I know is I’ll be sad if you aren’t here, doing what you’ve always done.”

“Hmm…” Rarity said, hoof to her chin. “I’m at a crossroads in life… Ah, how poetic.”

“…You feel the need to burst into song?”

“Oh goodness me, no, I was just reminded of a poem I read a while ago by the poetic legend, Rippling Frost. A crossroads…” She imagined the two roads splitting, one side leading to adventure and beauty, the other leading to a life of fashion and business.

Both sides were very tantalizing.

~~~

Twilight stared at the Mirror Portal the following morning, face blank. Spike stood next to her, drinking his tea.

“Spike, should I stop?”

Spike blinked. “What?”

“Should I stop exploring? Should I return to my duties as a princess and fulfill them in every way I can? Should I ignore the call to learn everything I can? Should I sit down and stay put or go out and risk it?”

Spike shrugged. “I really don’t know. I don’t mind staying here and doing the princess work, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I know you don’t mind, it’s…” She took a breath. “It’s more about what the right decision is. I want to go out there and explore, and I’m coming up with so many reasons why I should. But the more I go, the more I’ll have to neglect public appearances, celebrations, friendship consultations…”

“Well, by going out there you help other people in faraway places that don’t know of the magic of friendship,” Spike said.

“That’s true…” Twilight said. “But… But… But it still feels wrong, somehow.” She began to rock her head side to side, thinking.

Spike took a step back – he knew what was coming.

Twilight took in a deep breath and began to sing.

I’m a princess, leader of my kind

But now I’m asked to leave them behind

For the gateway before me has shown

That the worlds outside are so alone”

She took a calm breath, spreading her wings.

“Out there in the beyond there is fire

Ponies stuck in life’s deep mire

Great wonders to discover for all

True friends who lie just beyond this wall

Waiting to be found…”

She flew into the air, spinning in a slow corkscrew fashion.

“I hear the cosmos calling my name!

Demanding that I come forth to them!

I hear the cosmos calling my name!

Singing with a melodious hymn!”

She teleported to the room with the map, and her cutie mark suddenly appeared on it over her castle.

I am called

I am sung

I am brought

I am seen

I am taught

I am lured

I am the one

My destiny is to leave this place

My calling to find what lies beyond

But my soul that lies beyond this face

Belongs to my friends and to our bond”

She teleported back to the Mirror Portal, placing a hoof on the rim, breathing hard.

“Oh what does this mean, oh Harmony

My destiny seems split in two; three

Called to beyond I cannot resist

But what would happen if I desist?”

She took a step back – and heard hoofsteps behind her. Some ponies were returning. She didn’t know who.

“I hear the cosmos calling my name!

Demanding I lead friendship to them!

I hear the cosmos calling my name!

Singing with the power of all!

I hear the cosmos calling my name!

Singing the song…

Singing the song of us…

Trapped in this sphere of our own making…”

She landed, took a breath, and turned to see who had come back.

Pinkie and Rarity stood there, smiling at Twilight warmly.

Twilight smiled. “So… No Fluttershy or Rainbow Dash?”

“Not that I see,” Rarity said. “Sorry dear. I guess it just wasn’t for them.”

“That’s fine,” Twilight said. “We all have our hopes and dreams… Not all of us can align on one goal. Nor should we.” She turned to the Mirror Portal. “But I have to go. If I don’t… I don’t know. I’m called. I know I’m called. There’s something out there I need to do. I don’t know if you have to be with me to do it, but I would like it if you joined me.”

“We’ll be with you until the end,” Rarity said.

“Even those of us who aren’t here!” Pinkie said. “You’re our friend Twilight.”

Twilight nodded. “So… Why did you two decide to come back?”

Pinkie giggled. “I felt like I needed to, in the end. Ponyville can go without a few parties. Plus, this way I get to make so many more friends! It’s great!”

Twilight smiled. “Yeah. I felt called as well. Rarity?”

“I… Well I realized my business is able to operate without me. Not a particularly pleasant realization, but I just made it official. Sweetie and the CMC are out looking for somepony to run the boutique while I’m gone. I’m still the manager, but no longer do I need to stand at the counter all day. There’s… Not all that much traffic in Ponyville anymore, admittedly.”

Twilight smiled. “I’m glad you came. Well… Where do you girls want to go?”

“I don’t know…” Rarity said. “I do believe somewhere new. What do we know about the places we haven’t been yet?”

Twilight shrugged. “Not much, besides what’s safe and what’s not. We could probably look into a few of them with a spell though…”

Pinkie grinned. “Yeah! Let’s do that!”

Twilight turned to the Mirror Portal and pulled a lever.

~~~

Rainbow Dash stood in front of the doors of Twilight’s castle, staring. Her expression was blank.

Fluttershy walked up to her, concerned. “…Why aren’t you going in?”

“…I don’t know if I want to,” Rainbow Dash admitted.

Fluttershy gasped. “You? Not sure if you want adventure and awesomeness? What happened?”

“I’d have to stop being a Wonderbolt. I’m not sure I want that, even if it is temporary. I’m pretty sure I don’t want that. But… Behind this door, there’s the Mirror, and there’s so many new things...”

Fluttershy nodded. “I know…”

“Wait, why are you here? I figured for sure you’d stay away! You’re, like, the pony among us who likes adventure the least! Plus, your animals!”

Fluttershy shook her head. “It’s not that simple… My animals can all take care of themselves, especially with the Sanctuary there. And even if I may not like the danger… We do help ponies. We saved the demons and redeemed their Luna. We helped people in Termina. Then there was that colony of mushroom people we saved from a forest fire. We do great good out there.”

“That’s true,” Rainbow Dash said. Then she laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Look at us, the ponies you’d think wouldn’t hesitate to go on an adventure or avoid it, the ones having the most difficulty.”

“Yeah…” Fluttershy said, staring at the doors alongside Rainbow Dash.

“…Are either of us going to go in?”

“I don’t know.”

“Same.”

“You should go in,” Fluttershy said. “You’re the awesome pony who could save everyone with your amazing tricks and acrobatic stunts. You’re built for danger.”

“…You should stay. You have the animals to take care of and you aren’t the best at handling it when it gets tough.”

They were silent.

Fluttershy shook her head. “I can handle it.”

“Yeah. And I’m already doing what I want with my life.”

The two stared at each other for a moment. Then they burst out into laughter.

“And here we are!” Rainbow Dash said. “Failing miserably to convince the other to do what we think they should do!”

Fluttershy nodded. “The more we argue, the less they want to do what we say!” She shook her head. “...That was a confusing sentence.”

“That it was,” Rainbow Dash said, furrowing her brow. “I’m Loyalty though… Leaving you would be against that.”

“But you’d be Loyal to your team, to the Wonderbolts,” Fluttershy said. “They do need you, regardless how much as they may say otherwise. It’s the same with my Kindness – do I be Kind to my animals, or to the many people and ponies who need it elsewhere?”

“Can’t do everything,” Rainbow Dash said.

“Definitely not,” Fluttershy chuckled.

There was silence.

Suddenly, Fluttershy stood up. “I’m going in.”

“…Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“What made you decide?”

“I realized that, if I devoted myself to my animals, that would be a step back for me. I’d be shying away from those who need kindness rather than those who just want it.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “I… See.”

“You coming?”

Rainbow Dash looked at Fluttershy – her eyes, her outstretched hoof, her soft smile.

She put out her hoof.

She retracted it and shook her head. “I… I can’t.”

Fluttershy nodded in understanding. “It’s okay Rainbow. It’s not an easy decision. You are where you want to be in life – that’s not something many ponies can say about themselves. You should be happy about it.”

“I feel like I’m betraying you.”

“You’re not,” Fluttershy assured her. “Nopony has to share their interests with all their friends. If neither of us went in there, it would still be okay. We all need to make decisions in the moment.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. Fluttershy grabbed her and pulled her into a hug. “See you later, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow Dash wiped some tears out of her eyes. “You too, Fluttershy.”

They completed their goodbyes. Fluttershy waved as Rainbow Dash flew back to the Wonderbolt Academy. Fluttershy took a breath, turned, and walked into the castle. She entered the room where Twilight, Pinkie, and Rarity were, standing in front of the Mirror Portal.

“Rarity?” Fluttershy said. “You came!”

“That I did. And I see you did too. Should we expect anypony else?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “No. Rainbow Dash isn’t coming.”

Twilight nodded sadly. “Well, that is her choice. She’s happy where she is. Perhaps in a few months we’ll all realize she was the smart one.”

“I doubt it,” Pinkie said. “The can of worms is open! There’s no closing it now!”

“So…” Twilight said, looking at her three friends. “This is our team?”

Fluttershy glanced around. The excitable Pinkie Pie, the fabulous Rarity, the regal Twilight…

Four friends, going on a trip, a mission, as friends to seek out interesting people and to bring aspects of Harmony wherever they could.

“Yeah,” Fluttershy said. “This is everyone.”

“Oh no it isn’t!”

The four ponies looked to the doorway to see Starlight Glimmer standing there, a smirk on her face. “It’s about time you girls let me in on one of these mysterious adventures, considering I had to deal with the aftermath of one already.”

Twilight laughed. “Sure, Starlight. Come on in. You don’t have anything else to do today, do you?”

“Not at all! I get bored a lot in this castle.”

Fluttershy smiled. “Well, this will be perfect for you.”

Starlight winked. “You betcha! So, Twilight, where we going today?”

Twilight shrugged. “My spell only told me it was tropical and humid. I’m hoping for a beach instead of another jungle.”

“I’d like to meet a squid,” Fluttershy said suddenly.

Everypony chuckled jovially. “Me too!” Pinkie shouted.

Twilight set the Mirror Portal to the new location. “Let’s go then!” At that point, her cutie mark glowed, telling her that she had just solved the friendship problem she’d been called to in the middle of her song. She grinned – the tree of Harmony was giving them its blessing. If that wasn’t a tangible feeling of being on the right path for her destiny, she didn’t know what was.

The five mares bounded through the portal, ready to have a good time.

Spike finished his tea. He wondered if Rainbow Dash was going to be up for some Ogres and Oubliettes while the others were gone sometime later.

 

Chapter Text

Spectacularium

In a world not far removed from Equestria, the sun shone down on the landscape, blanketing the lush greenery with a slight azure tint. The sky was a simple blue, adorned with a small gathering of wispy clouds and a filament of blue-purple magic coursing through the heavens from north to southwest, shifting with an aurora effect. The aurora’s soft glow was easily trumped by the intense light of the sun, but magical reflections would occasionally flash through the shadows of large trees, bringing light to dark locations. The land itself was covered in lush grass and tall evergreen trees, the edge of a mountain forest. A single dirt road ran through the landscape, meandering around the landscape at a mostly constant elevation. It deviated from its level course only to circumvent a small stone obelisk covered in violet glowing runes.

The Mirror Portal connected to a loose rock a fair ways from the mysterious obelisk. Five ponies stepped into the new world, ready for anything the world might throw at them.

“Another day, another world,” Starlight said, looking around with a smile on her face. She crossed her eyes to look at her horn – it was buzzing slightly. “There’s a lot of magic here.”

“No kidding…” Twilight said, looking at her own horn with concern. “It’ll be really easy to channel too much energy here…”

Starlight cast a simple light spell and instead conjured a ball of magic with the light intensity of the sun. She quickly dispelled it but she had already blinded everypony.

“Starlight!” Rarity wailed. “What did you do!?”

“Too much magic,” Starlight muttered, rubbing her eyes. “Our sight should come back in a few seconds. Ow…”

Pinkie fell over. “Oof. It’s hard to bounce around when you can’t see.”

“Then stop bouncing around,” Fluttershy suggested.

“Silly Fluttershy! One does not simply stop bouncing around!” She fell over again. “Oof.”

Starlight squinted – she could make out shapes again. Rarity let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, good, grass. I never thought I’d be so happy to see grass.”

“Don’t go overboard and eat the strange grass,” Twilight warned.

“Already did!” Pinkie said, “It’s tasty!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well… Still not easy to see, but we’re at the edge of a forest, evergreen. The air is very open and there’s an oversaturation of magic here. I don’t know if that’s just the way this world is or if we’re in a special location…”
“The sun’s blue,” Starlight said.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Starlight, that’s just your eyes-“

“The sun’s blue,” Starlight insisted, holding out her hoof and examining it. “I’m not seeing a normal pink tint here. I’m seeing a purple. You’re a much deeper purple than usual. And Pinkie’s violet.”

Twilight blinked. “…A blue sun… That doesn’t make any sense! Stars aren’t actually blue that’s just the name we give them! All stars emit colors across the entire spectrum! Even if there were a spike in blue it wouldn’t create this drastic a difference!”

“Other universe,” Rarity offered. “Maybe the stars here aren’t the same as stars in our world.”

“Isn’t our sun unusual anyway?” Starlight pointed out. “I mean, it’s smaller than all the others and Celestia controls it. Why should we expect every sun except our own to act like Earth’s?”

Twilight shrugged. “Good point. Maybe it’s just the saturation of magic that’s making it blue, I don’t know. But… it is definitely blue.” She poked the grass. “Makes the green things look bizarre.”

“I think it makes them taste better!” Pinkie cheered.

Starlight chuckled. “Your opinion has been noted.”

“Yay!”

Twilight pointed at the obelisk. “That looks interesting.”

Starlight squinted at the runic construct. It was composed of a smooth, dark stone and was twice her height. The violet runes didn’t care about the blue light blanketing over them, popping out as if they didn’t belong. She briefly wondered if their color was some kind of optical illusion, given how they seemed to shift as her eyes darted around the runic edges. There was also a much higher concentration of magic around the stone, extending up to the edge of the road.

“Looks like they built around its magic bubble,” Starlight said.

“I wonder why…” Twilight said, flying closer to the obelisk, careful not to enter its bubble. She examined the grass around it, noticing hundreds of tiny flowers growing in between the blades that weren’t in other patches of greenery.

“It makes flowers grow?” Fluttershy wondered aloud.

“Could be a side effect of the magic it’s producing,” Twilight said. “I can tell it’s something relating to life – a pure essence of some kind. It might just literally be producing a ‘flower’ spell pattern that’s so strong the area around it is sympathizing.”

“Uh… what?” Fluttershy asked.

“It’s making the area around it want to be flowers,” Twilight said. “It’s extremely strong and concentrated, more so than most magics in our world, and it seems to be very permanent.”

“Let’s take it home and study it,” Starlight said.

Rarity blinked. “Starlight, I don’t think it’s ours.”

“Nopony’s been around here for a long time. This road is unkempt and I don’t see any sign of habitation whatsoever. Nopony owns this thing. We could just take it and learn how to use it.”

Twilight furrowed her brow. “It would fit through the mirror portal… But I don’t know, it’s pretty powerful. Probably dangerous. I certainly don’t want my insides thinking they have to be flowers.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I don’t think we should mess with it.”

“Oh come on Fluttershy!” Starlight said. “Where’s your sense of discovery? Look, it’ll be fine, watch.” She lit her horn and surrounded the obelisk in her telekinesis, careful not to channel too much energy. She tried to lift it up, but found it rooted firmly to the ground. “Well this thing doesn’t want to move…”

“Stop!” Fluttershy called. “You could be defiling a grave for all we know!”

Starlight was about to retort when the obelisk’s runes flashed brighter for a moment. A dozen purple lights shot out of the obelisk and gathered together on top of the monument, forming a violet wireframe. The resulting being was essentially a skeleton of lights with four legs, a tail, and a head without any defining features. Flowers popped into existence all around it.

Starlight felt the magical bubble around the obelisk extend to encompass them. Her stomach did a flip-flop, a sure sign of it wanting to become a flower but not being able to comply. She didn’t let this deter her, however. She took advantage of the surge of magic to fire a laser at the beast. She made direct contact, but the power of her blast caused so much knockback she went flying into a nearby tree. The creature of violet light disintegrated into dozens of light shards, only to reform almost instantly.

Fluttershy squealed, running away. The creature tried to pursue her but was hit by a lesser laser from Rarity. It charged Rarity, only for Twilight to grab the creature in her telekinesis, holding it firm. “Stop it…”

The beast did not stop it. It unraveled itself, worming out of Twilight’s telekinesis in multiple parts, coming together behind her. It lunged for her neck with reckless abandon, crashing into a hasty magic shield with enough force to flatten itself. Any normal creature would have broken all its bones, but luckily for this beast it didn’t have any bones. It reformed once again, ready to envelop Twilight in a snare of violet light.

A giant sword flew through the air, driving itself into the best’s framework. The beast shattered, trying to reform, but one of its strands was now stuck on the sword’s blade, struggling.

“Ah suggest you all get out of the circle like the yellow one did!” a familiar voice yelled. “The golem won’t stay down for long!”

Rarity didn’t need to be told twice – she ran first, followed closely by Pinkie. Twilight took a moment to think about what she’d just heard but quickly decided now was not the time for deep thinking.

Starlight took up the rear after recovering from her daze, glancing behind her to see the violet strand of the beast known as a golem free itself from the blade. It met with its brethren, forming into the full beast once more. It charged Starlight at full speed, managing to look ravenous despite not having a face.

Starlight raised a shield, easily smashing it. She leaped out of the circle just as it reformed, jumping after her – disintegrating into flowery dust the moment it tried to leave.

“Huh,” Starlight said. “…That was interesting.”

“It tried to kill us!” Rarity wailed. “How is that interesting!?”

“Have you ever seen anything like that? A creature made of strands of light?”

“Girls, we can talk about this later,” Twilight said. “We have somepony to thank.” She turned to their savior, using her telekinesis to grab the sword inside the magic circle and giving it back. The orange mare grabbed the sword with her hoof and put it on her back alongside another sword of similar construction. The mare looked exactly like the Applejack they knew, with only one major difference besides the swords.

She had two antlers.

The Applejack blinked. “…What’re you staring at?”

“The antlers,” Pinkie said, eyes wide.

“What, you never seen a deer before?”

Fluttershy cocked her head. “Uh… Well not ones like you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Twilight cleared her throat. “We’re from really far away – another world in fact. One where the sun isn’t blue, where there aren’t golem-creatures made of light, and there aren’t deer-ponies.”

The Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Really!” Pinkie said. “We came through that shimmering portal in that rock right over there.”

“…Ah guess there is somethin’ there…” She walked over to it to investigate, sticking her head in. She pulled it out. “That… was a lot of crystal.”

“It’s my castle,” Twilight said. “A gift from the Tree of Harmony – do you have a Tree of Harmony here?”

“Ah have no idea,” she said. “Doesn’t ring a bell at least.”

Twilight nodded. “Well, I’m Princess Twilight Sparkle, this is Rarity, Starlight, Fluttershy, and Pinkie.”

“Your name sounds familiar…”

Twilight smirked. “There’s probably a version of me in this world with an identical or at least similar name.”

“There ain’t no way. Ponies don’t just have duplicates.”

“Your name is Applejack,” Starlight said.

“…How’d you know that?”

“We’ve met several versions of you. Granted, none of them are deer, but you still look like them.”

Applejack shrugged. “Ah guess that’s interestin’.”

“It really is!” Twilight squeed. “The differences between alternate versions of the same pony are always fascinating! I happen to know another me who’s a great scientist and another who’s a complete jerk!”

Applejack raised her eyebrow. “So, okay, you’re all from another world. Ah’ll accept that. Why in Lai did you come here and get attacked by a golem?”

“Exploring!” Twilight answered. “We’re here to explore, make friends, and help ponies where we can!”

“We need a better mission statement,” Starlight said.

“It is just a work in progress,” Fluttershy added.

Rarity pursed her lips. “I still think it should be ‘to discover and bestow beauty’.”

“Too cheesy,” Pinkie said. “What we need is a goal set around cheese itself!”

Starlight facehooved. “Pinkie…”

Applejack looked between all of them. “This is perhaps the stupidest argument topic I’ve ever heard.”

Twilight blushed sheepishly. “Riiiight… Sorry about that, we’re still working out the kinks to this. We’ve only been doing this a month or two.”

“It shows.”

Starlight coughed. “Well, why don’t you tell us about your world? What’s it like here? What do the ponies do?”

Applejack looked to the blue sun and grimaced. “The world is in darkness and despair. Our lives are defined by struggle that goes unnoticed by the evil Queen Luna, ruler of the ‘civilized’ world. She cares not for our struggles and stamps out any town that complains with her impressive army. My world is a place of slaughter – slaughter of my friends and family, and slaughter of the armies that assault us. It is my life’s quest to dethrone the Queen and bring in a new era of peace and harmony to our land.”

The group of five ponies stared at her blankly.

“Y’all are free to go running back to your home now, pretend like you never saw this place.”

Twilight shook her head. “We won’t do that. If there is an evil Queen hurting your world… We can help stop her.”

Pinkie nodded in agreement. “You betcha! We’re out here to be adventuring heroes! Basically what you are, but on a larger scale!”

Applejack shook her head. “All of those who have stood by my side have fallen. Ah wouldn’t dare let you risk your lives for something you don’t know.”

Pinkie pulled a giant hammer out of nowhere. “I’m pretty sure we can take care of ourselves.”

“And we can leave at any time,” Twilight said. “This world is close enough to ours that I can just open a portal under my own power.”

“And, among other things, the Tree of Harmony sent us here,” Rarity said. “Apparently it saw into this world and deemed there was a friendship problem that needed fixing.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Friendship problem?”

Starlight shrugged. “It’s a term we use to describe our missions. The Tree of Harmony wants ponies to get along. For all we know it could mean deposing your queen and restructuring your society with harmony in mind. That’s what happened when I was the ‘evil queen’ after all.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Come again?”

Starlight smiled nervously. “I brainwashed a town. They stopped me.”

“How in Lai can you let her travel with you?” Applejack asked Twilight.

Twilight smiled brightly. “She’s proven herself time and time again to be reformed. That thing with the town was deep in the past.”

“Not somethin’ Ah would do. Ah also wouldn’t talk about my dark past in the open like that, it’d give ponies the wrong idea.”

Starlight blinked. “You are probably right about that.”

Applejack sighed. “Well, it looks like Ah’m not goin’ to be able to get rid of you, so looks like you’re with me for a while.”

“What’s the plan?” Pinkie asked.

“There’s a town a couple miles to the north called Peri. There’s a sage there Ah’m going to meet who will give me the location of the Spectacularium now that Ah’ve accomplished all the tasks of purification.”

“…The Spectacularium?” Fluttershy asked.

“You really aren’t from ‘round here… It’s an ancient temple made of crystal that made many distinct prophecies in the deep past, all but a few of which have come true. It is the holder of all answers, and it will tell me the secret to defeating the Queen.”

“That sounds amazing,” Twilight said. “Do you think it’d answer our questions as well?”

“Maybe? Ah really don’t care, so long as it can tell me what Ah need to know.” She turned around. “Enough dilly-dallying. Ah’m ready to go. You can come or not.” She started walking without another word.

“She seems… nice,” Starlight said a few seconds later.

“She’s been through a lot,” Fluttershy said. “We should try to be understanding.”

Twilight nodded in agreement, setting off after Applejack without another word. They followed the winding path through the trees, leaving the obelisk and its violet lights behind, returning once again to a world shrouded in blue.

About a minute later Starlight felt the excess magic drop away to levels that were still high, but no longer absurd. “What just happened?”

“We just left the range of the Sigma Runes,” Applejack said. “There is a giant runic artifact inside that mountain that fills this entire area with power.”

“What exactly are these runic artifacts?”

“Ah dunno, they’ve just always existed, probably built in ancient times by somepony long forgotten. They shape the very landscape on which we walk. You’ll see what I mean when we enter the range of the Crusted Runes.”

“How long will it take us to get there?” Rarity asked.

“Right now,” Applejack said. They turned a bend in the path and the scenery abruptly changed. The mountainous forest gave way to a flattened desert. The change was so abrupt it looked like the mountains had chunks sliced off of them at the edge of the desert.

Fluttershy stuck a hoof into the desert. “There’s no moisture in the air at all over here…”

“Hope you girls can survive the heat, because we’ve got to walk through this area for the next hour or so.”

Starlight used her magic to summon bottles of water. “Ready.”

“Neat trick. Hope it works for you.”

“It will.”

~~~

Starlight chugged her tenth bottle. “How… How is it so dry…” She created another one and handed it to Fluttershy, who splashed it in her face.

Twilight gasped. “I think… The spell is one of dryness… So it’s drying us from the inside out…”

“Is drinking water even helping!?” Rarity wailed, downing another bottle.

“No,” Applejack said, still walking strong. “You just have to deal with the heat until it’s over.”

Twilight took a break from her drinking. “How are you okay?”

“I’m a deer. We are one with the environment. I’m more curious as to how Pinkie over there is just fine.”

Pinkie gasped like a fish. “I’m still dry as a bone!”

“And yet you were bouncing around like a ping-pong ball just a few minutes earlier. That is not a sign of dehydration.”

“And check,” Rarity said.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing big. It’s just that every adventure, a few things always happen. Chief among them is somepony questioning Pinkie. Word of advice: it never works, stop trying to understand her. …Stars, I wish I could tell that to everypony who’s about to ask.”

Pinkie pouted. “But Rarity, it’s fun when they’re baffled!”

“That may be true but it does get old for some of us after a while.”

Applejack shook her head. “You five make no sense collectively.”

Starlight doused her head in water. “Yeah, that’s not news to us.”

“How much longer until Peri...?” Rarity asked.

Applejack grunted. “Closer than last time you asked.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything!”

“Armonia’s will, you’re whiney.

“This is not whining, Applejack, this is complaining.

“You don’t want her to start whining,” Fluttershy warned.

Starlight blinked. “Wait, we don’t?”

“Definitely not!” Twilight blurted, laughing nervously while tossing more water into her face. The water stayed on her face instead of evaporating quickly. “…Huh?”

“We left the Crusted circle,” Applejack said. “You don’t have to keep dousing yourself in water.”

“Drat,” Rarity said, tugging at her mane. “This is going to be a nightmare to curl again… Extreme humidity changes are no good for any mane.”

Applejack shot her a look. “How can you care about your looks at a time like this?”

“It’s called being dignified.”

“Dignified ponies are pompous halfwits who serve the Queen.”

“Did you just call me a halfwit!?”

“That’s what you take issue with in that sentence?”

“I’ll have you know I’m a qualified seamstress who is very successful!”

“I bet you actually do serve some evil Queen!”

“I’ll have you know that our Luna is not only a very good and kindhearted mare, but she also is a Princess, not a Queen, and rules alongside her sister Celestia as equals!

Applejack took a step back. “…Your world makes no sense.”

“How so?”

“There is no way the Sun and Moon could live in harmony. There must be a lie somewhere.”

“There’s no lie,” Twilight said. “I’m the personal student of Celestia and a good friend of Luna’s, in our world at least. They had a falling out a while back but they’ve learned a lot since then.”

Applejack shook her head. “There’s something fundamentally wrong with your world.”

“Actually it seems to be one of the normal ones,” Twilight said. “Most of the worlds we find are similar to ours in one way or another. Yours is one of the exceptions.”

“More reason for me never to leave this world,” Applejack muttered. “We’re entering the grasp of the Slanted Runes.”

“The wha-“ the ponies suddenly walked into a horrendous gust of wind, blasting them from the side, threatening to knock them over. They could no longer hear each other, but they saw Applejack point further down the path towards a town. As they approached, the winds died down and they could make out the simple stone houses. There were perhaps a few hundred inhabitants and a dozen or so fields that grew numerous kinds of produce. Ponies of many kinds walked around – alongside the standard three races, Starlight could also make out some deer and even a seapony poking its head out of a river. In the center of town was presumably the obelisk of the Slanted Runes, a stone pillar two stories tall with light blue-green runes on it. It was most likely responsible for the giant whirlwinds around the town.

Starlight also noticed something odd as she walked in – there were a couple hybrid races. She saw a deer with wings fly across the sky and a pony with two antlers and a horn. “…Hybrids?”

“Yeah?” Applejack said, eyebrow raised. “Isn’t your friend a unisus?”

Twilight blinked. “I guess I would look like one… I’m called an alicorn where I come from. And I wasn’t a hybrid… I was made.”

“You aren’t an alicorn here. Alicorns also need the antlers and fins to be real. So maybe get off your high horse, hmm?”

Twilight was taken aback. “I am no-“

“Take it easy, Twilight,” Rarity said.

Applejack kept walking.

Fluttershy looked around at the inhabitants of Peri. Most of them had smiles on their faces, going about their lives with a grin. It was a lot like Ponyville, if a little smaller. “…These ponies look happy to me.”

Applejack grunted. “Don’t let this place fool you. They’re just unaware of the Queen’s horrors. They’re protected by the wind.” She pointed. “Come, the sage’s this way.”

Fluttershy held up a hoof. “I think I’ll stay out here and talk with the locals, if you don’t mind.”

“Ah really don’t care.”

“Don’t get lost,” Twilight told Fluttershy.

“Don’t worry Twilight, I know how to take care of myself.” She trotted off to talk to the seapony. They struck up a conversation quickly and seemed to be enjoying each other’s company, but Starlight soon lost sight of them as her group entered a round house with no windows.

In the center of the room was a crystal ball. Behind it, a pony sat, dressed in robes that covered every part of her except the mouth. She spoke with a dry, level voice that was nonetheless young. “Why did you bring others here?”

“They won’t leave me alone. And Ah’ve done all you asked me to do, so Ah’m a little low on patience. You said you can show me the Spectacularium.”

“That I can. Are you sure you wish your new companions to know?”

“Ah really don’t care. Ah’m headin’ there the moment you tell me and there’s nothin’ anypony can do to stop me.”

The sage nodded slowly. “That much is true. You’ll be glad to know they aren’t allied with the Queen, at the least.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to give away free information.”

“It’s not every day prophecies can be challenged.”

“What do you mean?”

The sage paused. “I mean that since the five entered the world, all certainty in prophecies has vanished.”

Applejack’s eye twitched, turning to Twilight. “What did you do?”

“N-nothing!” Twilight stammered.

“She speaks the truth,” the sage said. “It is merely the fact that the prophecies did not take into account the possibility of other worlds existing.”

Applejack glared. “Ah’m still goin’ to be the one to dethrone the Queen, right?”

“At this point nothing is certain, though it seems likely,” the sage answered.

“Then let’s get this over with and tell me already. Ah’m tired of runnin’ your errands.”

The sage nodded, glancing at Pinkie for a moment before touching the crystal ball with her hoof. With her other hoof she took off her hood, revealing her face. Everypony gasped – not because she looked exactly like Pinkie except with straight hair, because that wouldn’t have been all that unexpected. It was because of her eyes – they glowed like moons in the night, their brilliant blue color illuminating the room. There were no whites to the eyes, only the giant blue voids with a pupil of ever shifting shapes. The black dot became a square, an octagon, five circles, a star… Shifting around all sides of the glowing globe, independent of the other eye. The crystal ball glowed a soft pink, producing a magical effect around Applejack. A small gilded key floated out of her satchel and into the sage’s extended hoof, the final task complete when it touched her hoof.

The crystal ball flashed, showing an image of a pointed dome made entirely of crystal similar to that of Twilight’s Castle. Around it were six tall runic obelisks in six familiar colors. The color scheme of the Elements of Harmony sure was everywhere.

“That doesn’t tell me where it is,” Applejack said.

“Look at the scenery.”

Applejack did. “…There’s no sunlight…”

“Underground,” Rarity said. “There’s no plants around at all.”

“That still doesn’t tell me where underground,” Applejack said.

The sage and Pinkie facehooved.

“Ah’m not an idiot…”

“Yes you are,” the sage said. “I sent you on the quest to the Dragon Tunnels last to get that key. Well it just so happens that this key can open a door in the Dragon Tunnels to the Spectacularium now that I’ve given it my enchantments.” She handed Applejack back the key.

“Which door is it?”

“You can figure that out on your own.”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “The really, really big red one.”

The sage looked at Pinkie. “You are much more forthcoming with information.”

“Eh, looks like I don’t get the specifics you do. Must be fun, being able to see everything you want.”

“It does allow me to guide the path of the world.”

Applejack snorted. “Give me a break. You just wanted me to gather fancy artifacts for you.”

“I never claimed to be altruistic.”

“You should have sent me for just the key and gotten me to the Spectacularium sooner. The longer the Queen is in position the more suffering occurs!”

The sage shook her head and closed her eyes – plunging the room into near-darkness. “You are so headstrong… Whatever. I’m done here. Go fulfill your destiny, if it still holds merit.” She put her robes back on and walked out. “You will not see me again.”

Applejack grunted. “Ah still have more questions!” She rushed outside – but the sage was gone. “…How in?”

“Same way I can do this,” Pinkie said, suddenly appearing in a faraway bush. “There’s tricks we Pinkies have.”

“…What kind of pony was she?” Starlight asked.

“Oculus,” Applejack answered. “The ones with weird eyes.”

“What do those eyes do, exactly?”

“Dunno. Ah just know Oculi tend to know things. That one in particular.” She started marching off.

“Uh… Applejack?” Rarity called. “Where are you-“

“Going back to the mountains.”

“But night is starting to fall…”

“Don’t care. If you need sleep, stay.”

Twilight shook her head. “We don’t have to walk all the way back. Now that I know where we are, I can teleport us back. It’s as simple as remembering where we were. Just need to find Fluttershy first…”

The obelisk of Slanted Runes flashed for a moment, summoning a wireframe blue-green creature that stood like an ape with a sword. Twilight, Starlight, and Rarity tensed.

Applejack held up a hoof. “This golem protects the town. Don’t fear it. Be afraid of whatever it detects coming.”

“What could have set it on edge?” Rarity asked.

Applejack sighed. “Probably the army…”

“The army!?”

“ATTENTION PERI!” A male voice boomed from the edge of town. “I AM COLONEL TURNER. IF YOU ARE AWARE OF IT OR NOT, YOU ARE HOUSING THE FUGITIVE KNOWN AS APPLEJACK, WANTED FOR TERRORISM, MURDER, INSURRECTION, AND TREACHERY. WE REQUEST THAT YOU GIVE HER OVER TO US. WE WILL COMPENSATE YOU HANDSOMLY IF YOU DO.”

“No they won’t,” Applejack muttered, readying both her swords. “This is going to get ugly.”

Twilight glanced around at the many townsponies turning in their direction with angry looks in their eyes. “Applejack, you seriously aren’t thinking of…”

“They’re going to try to turn me in. Ah can’t stop now.”

“Ah, Applejack, did you get some companions with conscience?” The voice of Sunset Shimmer said. Everypony turned to see a mare on top of a nearby building – she had a horn, antlers, and a tail that ended in a mouth with many sharp teeth. “Perhaps you should listen to them.”

Applejack grit her teeth. “Sunset Shimmer. This is the last time you get to destroy the livelihood of my ponies.”

“You’re the one destroying their livelihood Applejack!” Sunset spat. “All you can see is your stupid quest!”

“You’re the one with the army around this town, ready to attack despite the wind and the guardian golem!”

“The golem’s smart enough to realize you are the threat,” Sunset said. “Otherwise it would have attacked me by now.”

“It hasn’t attacked me has it?”

Sunset’s tail snapped hungrily. “It’s just waiting.” She lit her horn, summoning a giant fireball between her antlers. The antlers glowed slightly, and the fire was sent into the ground, transforming the grass around Applejack into fiery snake tendrils. Applejack’s own antlers sparkled and she drove her hooves into the ground, turning all the grass to dust. She whirled around, deflecting the golem’s blade with her own two weapons, barely able to resist the tall construct’s stature.

Sunset leaped towards Applejack, tail ready to remove the hero’s head from her body.

Starlight cast a teleport spell forcing her, Twilight, Rarity, Pinkie, and Applejack back to the Mirror Portal.

Applejack put her swords away wordlessly. “Thank you. That was significantly less bloody than usual. Though Ah would have liked to end that Sunset’s plans then and there.”

Starlight shook her head. “How can you keep going through all this? Why haven’t you broken?”

“Because Ah can’t.”

Twilight suddenly screamed. “FLUTTERSHY! WE LEFT FLUTTERSHY!”

Starlight sighed. “I know, but we had to get out-“

“Wait. You knew you were leaving her behind!? And you left her anyway!? What if she gets hurt!? I’m going back!”

“Don’t,” Applejack said. “They probably haven’t killed her. They’re fans of capturin’ and using them as leverage later. You’ll just get yourself captured because they’ll manipulate her with you. Our best bet is to use the Spectacularium.”

Twilight growled. “I bet Pinkie, Starlight, and I can-“

“Do you want to take your chances with an opponent you don’t know? Sunset is brutal, dangerous, and relentless.”

“The same could be said about you,” Starlight muttered.

“I have to be. She just serves the Queen.”

Twilight shook her head. “Fine. We do it your way, Applejack. This Spectacularium better have some good answers.”

~~~

Fluttershy was talking with the seapony – Germanium – when the announcement went off. She froze, realizing that the town was about to be under siege.

“Oh no…”

Germanium narrowed his eyes. “You said you were with an Applejack…”

“Yes, I mean, yeah, it’s probably her, but I don’t know…” She bit her lip. “Remember what we talked about?”

“Yeah?”

“She’s the reason why. I have to stop this before something goes wrong…” She saw her friends out in the open… Fighting a version of Sunset with far too many horns and the guardian golem of the town. Starlight teleported them away before Fluttershy could do anything.

Fluttershy gulped. This couldn’t be good.

Sunset looked at the guardian golem and nodded in respect. Then she stamped her hoof on the ground in rage and screamed. “ALL RIGHT! Is there ANYPONY here who talked to APPLEJACK or ANY OF HER NEW COMPANIONS!?”

Germanium raised a hoof. Fluttershy stared at him, a look of betrayal on her face. “Germanium…”

“Sorry, Fluttershy. You seem nice. Just tell her what you told me and you should be fine.”

Fluttershy wanted to say something back, but Sunset had already walked over. “Yes, citizen?”

“This pegasus came into town with that group.”

Sunset turned to Fluttershy, tail snapping like a barely restrained guard dog. “Is that so?”

“Y-yes.”

Sunset conjured some hoofcuffs around Fluttershy’s legs. Sunset teleported the two of them away, placing them in a large tent lined with a bedroll, numerous bladed weapons, and a handful of books. “So, pegasus. Why were you associating with a well-known terrorist?”

“You’re not going to believe me, but I’ll tell you anyway. We’re visitors from another world and Applejack was the first pony we met.”

“You’re right, I don’t believe you.” She lit her horn.

“…There wouldn’t be a chance that you’re preparing a truth-detecting spell, is there?”

“No. It’s a torture spell. It will get you to tell me whatever you know.”

“H-how about we just use the truth-detecting spell!?”

“…Why? You could have some way to trick it. It’s not very reliable. You’re just afraid of pain.”

Fluttershy nodded vigorously. “Y-yes. And I know I can’t give you the answers you want…”

Sunset growled. “I want to know where Applejack is going. Tell me that.”

“The Spectacularium. I don’t know where it is, I wasn’t in the tent when they talked to the sage.”

Sunset stepped back. “…She knows where it is now?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t talk to them after they talked to the sage. You came before that.”

“So acting quickly was a bad thing?!”

“You had no way to know,” Fluttershy said.

Sunset stared at her for a moment. “…You really have nothing to hide, do you?”

“No. I’ll tell you whatever I know.”

“Why?”

Fluttershy sighed. “I don’t think I could lie to you and… Well, I don’t think the way Applejack’s doing things is right.”

“It doesn’t take much of a brain to realize that.”

“It’s… different than that. She seems like a hero who’s willing to stop at nothing to dethrone an evil Queen. …Tell me, what has Applejack really done?”

Sunset frowned. “All right. I’ll go along with this for now, pretend you really have no idea. Applejack is a terrorist from a distant town on the edges of the kingdom that was inhabited only by deer. Then for whatever reason a member of the court was brutally murdered there for seemingly no reason. I ordered an investigation to bring whoever killed him to justice. The investigation found out it was Applejack’s brother, but the town came together to kill the team to cover it up, not realizing they had already sent word to me. I brought the army in, planning on taking every deer into custody and figuring out the whole mess. They decided they wanted a war instead of a simple intervention. They refused to let a single one of their number get arrested for anything, blind in their stupid bond. They eventually had to be slaughtered, killing way more of us than we did of them. Applejack survived, somehow, and ended up catching wind of a prophecy that declared there would be a hero from a slaughtered village to dethrone the Queen. She took up the mantle and has been destroying entire towns that are loyal to the Queen, and we can’t stop her!” She slammed her hoof into the ground, shaking the tent. “Do you have any idea how much pain she’s caused?!”

Fluttershy shook her head.

“I’m the last living member of my family!” Sunset screamed. “My partner, a mare who looked at lot like your unisus friend, was killed by Applejack in combat! And yet, try as we might, we can’t stop her! We try to use any of her followers against her, but she always chooses herself over them. We’ve tried hitting her with overwhelming odds but she’s just too strong. We’ve tried conscripting the golems now, but even that doesn’t seem to work!”

Fluttershy sagged. “I’m… I’m sorry. We haven’t helped, have we?”

“No, of course not! You all show up and now you’ve ruined yet another chance!”

“…Have you ever considered that you might be being too aggressive with her?”

Sunset growled. “What do you mean?”

“Your constant anger and spite is just giving her more reason to fight you. I can see why she thinks you are evil at least – you constantly try to kill her and exploit her in any way you can.”

“Well then why don’t you think I’m evil? Huh? I’m pretty angry at you aren’t I?”

Fluttershy took in a deep breath. “Because you’re passionate. And you’re telling me what you feel. I know you mean what you say. Even if you might be biased… You are telling the truth. She’s killed so many…”

Sunset frowned. “…I’m still not sure if I believe you about the other world thing.”

“There’s a portal in the forest next to the mountains past the desert. I’m sure Twilight won’t mind me taking you there to sho- Sunset?”

“…Her name really is Twilight…”

“Yeah? I – oh. Your friend…” Fluttershy tried not to cry. “I’m so sorry…”

“How can Applejack not see it? The face of her!?”

“I don’t know,” Fluttershy said. “I just met her today. As I’ve just met you.”

Sunset nodded. She undid Fluttershy’s hoofcuffs with a spell. “I’ll be upfront. I’ve done many of the horrible things she’s done. You shouldn’t think of me as some kind of hero. I’m just doing what needs to be done.”

“That’s… More or less her attitude, I think. Except she thinks she’s the hero.”

“That’s nothing new,” Sunset said. “Though usually when her followers tell me this they don’t think she’s wrong.”

“I’m not a follower,” Fluttershy reminded her.

“Well then… Maybe you can help me. Who’s right?”

“…Excuse me?”

“Applejack or me. Who’s in the right.”

“Uh… You’re both wrong.”

Sunset blinked. “…Come again?”

“From what little I know, it… looks like you and her have both made many, many mistakes to get you to this point. A personal war of vendetta.”

“What else can I do?”

Fluttershy smiled. “Well… You could refuse to use any underhanded tactics. You could be honest. You could own up to what happened at her home.”

“That was their fault!”

“It wasn’t just their fault, was it?”

Sunset blinked. “…No.”

Fluttershy put a wing around Sunset. “It’s okay… You thought you were doing right. That’s not all that matters, but that doesn’t mean nothing.”

“How… How in Lai did you do this?”

“Do what?”

“Get me to talk?!”

“It’s… a skill I have. I was also really terrified of being tortured and spoke a lot of that without thinking. Still pretty terrified.”

“I’m not going to kill you, there’s no reason to. You’re free to go, even.”

“I still need to get back to my friends. The best way to do that is stay with you.”

“Guess we can go check out that portal…” Sunset muttered, rubbing her eyes. “It’s the only lead we have…”

Fluttershy nodded. “…Remember, try something different this time, okay?”

Sunset twitched. “She still needs to die…”

“Do you?”

Sunset gulped. “…Maybe.”

Fluttershy sighed. “Don’t think that…”

“I’ve done the same things she’s done for roughly the same reasons! If she deserves to die, I do too!”

Fluttershy failed to keep the tears from falling down her face. “But… But that’s just so sad. You’re a pony who cares, and cares deeply!”

“Yeah, so? That might not be a good thing!”

“You haven’t turned your back on connecting with others though.”

“Armonia damn it, how are you so good at this!?” Sunset blurted. “I don’t even know you and yet I’m pouring myself out to you!?”

“Maybe the time was just right. I was called here by the Tree of Harmony after all… I think I needed to be here, to help you see.”

“…Well, now that you have, now what?”

“I need to resolve the ‘friendship’ problem. I need to end the fight between you two, one way or another. And my friends are going to help.”

Sunset nodded. “I… I hope you’re right. I hope your ‘Tree’ know what it’s doing.”

“It always does. There hasn’t been a failed mission yet. Though they’re not always what we think they are…”

~~~

In a world of humans and high school, Sunset sat on a stage next to several other students, tapping her heels nervously. There was a huge crowd – everybody and their parents had shown up for this. That was to be expected, but it was still a lot of people. Sunset may not have had as much difficulty speaking in front of people as a lot of her classmates did, but there was still a nervous feeling in her gut.

It had all happened so fast…

She had been working on the dimensional adventurers club, traveling around for fun, and then Principal Celestia had told her she was the valedictorian and needed to give a speech at graduation. Sunset had tried to deny it, saying she’d had an unfair advantage over the students given how old she really was, but Celestia insisted that she deserved the honor for all the other things she had done, if not for her grades. So there was a speech to make.

And then it was graduation.

Pinkie hadn’t been kidding about it coming quickly...

She felt like there was so much she hadn’t done… Hadn’t really explored that many worlds… Hadn’t really accomplished what she set out to do… Hadn’t spent enough time with her friends…

But time marched on, and she had to deal with it. And that meant giving this speech.

And it sure wasn’t going to be a boring one like all the others she’d heard over the years.

Principal Celestia had finished giving Sunset Shimmer an introduction – it was time to go up there. She took a breath and walked to the podium. She glanced at Rarity and Fluttershy, both of whom were sitting in the row of graduating students. Both waved encouragingly. Sunset swore she could hear Pinkie screaming her name from somewhere in the back.

With a smile on her face, she gripped the podium.

“You all do realize all the insane magic and problems you’ve had over the last four years are basically my fault, right?”

This prompted laughs from the audience and baffled looks from some of the parents. Good. Already this was better than most other speeches. Her grin became a smirk and she leaned in.

“Think about it. For most of my time here, I was the worst bully imaginable. And after, what, a year of good behavior you give me this medal and tell me to address the entire student body? You are all way too forgiving. I was a manipulator, a liar, a deceiver, a girl who wanted to be worshipped. Hey, Pinkie, I see you bowing, stop it.”

More laughter.

“I could go on and list more disgusting features I used to have – anger, insecurity, rage, vanity, excess… The list goes on and on. The original draft of this speech was just me being a thesaurus for five minutes on how garbage I used to be. Worst idea ever. I would have ended up with actual garbage all over me had I gone through with that. So let’s forget about all that – just like you all did.”

She beamed at them all.

“It was rough, but the forgiveness all of you showed me after I hit my low… It speaks for this school. You saw me show my true colors as a literal demon, only to welcome me back into the fold. Not all of you came to me at once, but eventually I was welcomed. And… Well, first of all, you’re all insane! Secondly… Thank you. It makes this school mean so much more to me than just a place to learn things or make myself ‘popular.’ This school, Canterlot High, has shown me what it means to be forgiven. It taught me, more than anything else, mercy.”

She grabbed the valedictorian medal hung around her neck. “Had I not learned that, I think we all know I’d be up here giving some horrendous speech about how great I am and how all you suck. But it doesn’t matter how great I am, or how great the school system wants me to be. There’s more here than just education and a place to hang out. There’s a family here. And I have no doubt that, when I’m gone, it’ll continue to go on just as brightly as it did before. So here’s my shoutout to you – all of you – who were willing to see another side of someone. For that, I thank you.”

She leaned back and sighed. “I really wish I could stay with you all, but time marches on. Life’s not something we can run away from. So keep it crazy, my friends, and you can make life worth living.”

She bowed – and the audience entered into applause. She smiled, walking off the podium and to her seat.

Now she could go have fun exploring other worlds all summer.

Then… college, she guessed.

She wondered if it’d be like she was expecting.

~~~

The Dragon Tunnels were exactly what they sounded like. Spacious tunnels in the earth filled with dragons.

Except all the dragons were just skeletons littered around everywhere.

“…What is this place?” Rarity asked.

“A dragon burial ground,” Applejack answered. “This is where they took their dead since they lacked the patience to dig large enough graves.”

“Do any dragons live in here?”

“There was one. It’s dead now.”

Twilight shivered. She thought the odds were pretty good that Applejack had been the one to slay it, probably recently. Rainbow Dash probably would have found that awesome… Twilight just found it another way this world was too brutal. But having seen what that Sunset was like… They really did need to stop the Queen. Though she knew the Tree would never send them to do it by pure force… There was probably something in the Spectacularium that would help resolve this. Something only they could find.

She wondered if she could ask it what the friendship problem actually was. She still wasn’t clear on that.

“Hey, should we figure out what questions we’re going to ask?” she asked aloud.

“How to get rid of the Queen,” Applejack muttered. “That’s all Ah want, and all Ah need.”

“I’ll ask it what’s really in the blue flavor!” Pinkie Pie announced.

Rarity furrowed her brow. “I think… I’ll want to know about you, Applejack. You don’t tell us much about yourself.”

Applejack tensed, but kept walking deeper into the caverns. “Ah could care less. Ask away. There’s nothin’ to tell.”

“Why don’t you tell us about you so we don’t have to ask?”

“No,” she said. “Ah’m not talking.”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “You’re afraid you’ll form a connection with us.”

“Ah don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Dear, I can tell that you’re lying. No Applejack is good at it.”

Applejack twitched. “Do you want me angry? Because you’re gettin’ there.”

“No, of course not.”

“Then shut up and mind your own darn business. We have a mission. Nothing else matters. Getting all friendly only makes us weak.”

Twilight shook her head. “Applejack… That’s not the case, and I think you know it. Friendship makes ponies stronger and gives them something to lean on when the going gets hard. Friendship is magic. It’s how I got my wings, it’s why Starlight’s traveling with us, it’s why we’re here in the first place.”

“Then things are just different in your world.”

Twilight nodded. “Maybe. But that only makes us want to help you more.”

“You’re all a bunch of idiots.”

Pinkie giggled. “Yeah, so?”

Applejack grunted. “Done listenin’.”

“You said that already, and yet you kept talking!”

Applejack made no response. She just kept walking forward.

Twilight sighed. She wanted to say something – she really did – but she couldn’t. Applejack didn’t want to hear it. The deer ‘hero’ was a tragedy. After she was done with her quest, what would she even do? She defined herself so much by this single goal. What would life mean to her after it was over? Would it mean anything?

Applejack turned a corner in the tunnels and came to a large red door. She took the key out and placed it in the lock, turning it. The doors recognized the key, pulsed with the light of dozens of multicolored runes, and slid open all on its own. Applejack marched into the darkened interior, followed by the other four. The interior was much like the rest of the Dragon Tunnels: rocky, spacious, and empty. There weren’t even any dragon bones this far down. The floor became steeper and Twilight was slowly becoming aware of a powerful source of magic beneath them.

They eventually came out into a much more expansive cavern that was so large they couldn’t see the other end. The six runic obelisks – which Twilight just knew were the Runes of Harmony – glowed in the distance like lighthouses in the night around a shimmering blue crystal dome.

The Spectacularium.

Twilight saw a tear roll down Applejack’s cheek. She’d been looking for this thing – the answer – for Celestia knew how many years. Twilight suddenly felt like she could never understand what was going on in the warrior’s head, never empathize with the intense emotion in this moment. Applejack had finally shown a crack in her tough exterior. Who knew what was flashing before her eyes right now?

Twilight didn’t. This was just an adventure she’d come in near the end. It had little impact for her. This realization struck her as rather messed up. Because of her position, she was distant to the issues – all of her friends were.

Was she missing something because of this?

“C-can you teleport us closer,” Applejack stammered.

Twilight nodded. “Of course.” They were soon inside the boundaries of the Runes of Harmony, all five of them filled with serene power. Before them stood a giant door, through which was a hollow interior with seemingly nothing inside. But the five ponies knew better than that.

“So, you finally arrived.”

Twilight turned to see a version of Starlight standing on a nearby outcropping of rock. She was hornless, but that didn’t mean she had no magic. Two arcs of rune-covered material extended from both her sides, forming a circular pattern when viewed from head-on. The runes glowed the color of Starlight’s magic, and some of the runes had embedded themselves in her flesh instead of the arcs. It looked painful.

Applejack drew her swords. The unicorn Starlight grabbed her with her telekinesis. “Calm down!

“She’s an arcei!” Applejack yelled. “Blasphemous!”

“She might be able to tell us things!”

“That I can,” the arcei said, glancing into the Spectacularium’s interior. “I am Starlight, though it wouldn’t surprise me if you already knew that given your companion. I am a… caretaker of sorts.”

Twilight glanced at the struggling Applejack. “…Why does she want to kill you?”

“I fused myself with a golem, creating a race that has no right to exist,” the arcei answered.

Applejack’s jaw dropped. “You’re the first arcei!?”

“Yes,” the arcei said.

Pinkie nodded slowly. “Yeah, this would be a lot more interesting if we’d been a part of this story from the start.”

“You’d be surprised how little it actually matters.”

“So… What is the Spectacularium?” Rarity asked.

“It’s an ancient device created by the rune-makers. I have no idea who they were, all I know is that they made this place to answer their questions before they vanished from Lai. I have my theories that they were slain by their answers, but I cannot prove this without asking a question myself. Which I will never do again.”

“Then why do you live here?”

“Because I detected a surge of magic here larger than anything I’d felt before. It was something I could only describe as a man of light running away from a unicorn.”

Twilight’s pupils dilated. “…Did this happen a couple months ago?”

The arcei looked surprised for the first time. “…Yes. Why?”

“That… That was the crystal man who had the device that allowed us to start traveling dimensions.”

The arcei frowned. “Interesting. Very interesting, in fact. It seems our worlds are connected in more ways than one. Perhaps there is fate beyond what the Spectacularium can see.”

“Can you just let us in already,” Applejack muttered, having finally stopped struggling.

“I’m not stopping you. I’m just warning you. It’s changed since the man of light was here.”

“How so?” Starlight asked.

“It gained a mind.”

And with that, her arcs glowed the colors of magic and she folded herself up into nothingness. Twilight had no idea if what she had just done was even magic. Maybe that was something to ask the Spectacularium…

…What had the arcei meant, it had a mind?

Applejack didn’t care – she walked right into the big room, and the others followed close behind her. In the center of the Spectacularium, there was nothing but magic.

And then there was something. A thread of magic appeared, forming into an E like rune shape. Then it became a Y. Then a 6. It never settled, shifting through shapes as fast as the ponies could make them out. The color kept shifting as well, gradually, like a passing rainbow.

They felt it touch their minds. They felt an intelligence.

It spoke to them through their thoughts. The two prophecies that remained – that Applejack would defeat the Queen, and that the Spectacularium would return and make prophecies again one day – were no more. Things had changed too much to ensure their occurrence. Not the least of which was the existence of the Spectacularium’s intelligence. Its power. It could no longer simply live like it did, focusing towards one goal. The rune-makers did not foresee their creation attaining a new level, becoming the conscience of magic itself.

But it would answer their questions one last time. Whatever each of them wanted to know most.

The Queen can be defeated if you simply reveal that her dead sister was given an honorable burial and has a secret shrine within the royal palace, despite the sun’s evil deeds. The Queen visits it daily and has regrets. If the people realize that she doesn’t have that conviction and in fact holds the most horrendous figure in history as a good memory, she couldn’t possibly hold power.

Nopony resents you for your past actions, they are all truly your friends. You should stop second-guessing.

You will not outlive your friends.

You will find love one day, and it will be beautiful.

The answer to your deepest yearning is protected. But you knew that. You also know this intelligence’s birthday. The blue flavor is an anomaly beyond logical answers. You are one side of the coin.

The Spectacularium’s intelligence allowed them to wonder what answers were to whose questions. Those who asked the questions knew. But they all heard the answers.

The Spectacularium was now ready to self-destruct.

“WHAT!?” Rarity yelled.

Starlight teleported them out. The moment they left the premises the crystal center of the Spectacularium shattered, leaving only the six runic obelisks to light the cavern.

Applejack smiled. “Ah have it! Ah have the answer! The way to depose the Queen!”

“…Didn’t that answer seem a bit… odd to you?” Twilight asked. “It seems like she just cares about her sister…”

“Who cares? It’s a way to get the tyrant off the throne. Ah’ll take any weakness Ah can get.”

“You’re in luck, then.”

The five ponies turned around to see Sunset and Fluttershy standing a few meters away. There was no sign of any army, golems, or anything. Applejack drew her swords.

Fluttershy held up a wing. “We aren’t here to fight. We’re here to talk.”

We!?” Rarity blurted. “Fluttershy, you teamed up with this… maniac!?

“That really is how I come off…” Sunset sighed. “Yes, she has. But she’s also made me realize something.”

Applejack lowered her sword slightly. “…Ah’ll bite. What happened?”

“Applejack, we’re killing the world we love.”

“You don’t love anything!”

Sunset shook her head. “I love the ponies of this nation, and I fight to keep you from killing them. But I fought blindly, violently, and without any thought about what I was destroying in the process. It was a single-minded goal. I didn’t see the destruction – and this little pegasus came along, said some things, and suddenly I see.”

“How does this change anythin’? You still serve the Queen, and Ah have to get rid of her.”

“Applejack, I’m the one responsible for everything that’s happened to you, your town, and your family. The Queen doesn’t even know what really happened to start you on your quest of vengeance. Only I know.”

“But she lets ponies like you run things!”

“I made a mistake!” Sunset yelled. “And you’ve made a mistake as well! We’re both wrong!”

“Ah don’t care!” Applejack roared. “Ah’ll do anything to stop this madness!”

Sunset looked ready to scream again, but Fluttershy put a wing around her, silencing her. “Applejack, I know you’re angry. But… what if she’s really the one who did everything to you? What if the Queen had almost nothing to do with it?”

“Destiny isn’t that cruel,” Applejack said. “Ah’m the chosen hero, destined to save the world from the evil Queen.”

“…Where in the prophecy does it say you’re a hero, or that the Queen is evil?” Sunset asked.

“Does it matter? Why would there be a prophecy about a little deer fighting against a Queen if the Queen wasn’t evil and the deer wasn’t the hero?”

“Because it’s a realistic prophecy about real things?”

Applejack growled. “You think you can stop me…”

“I’m willing to pardon everything,” Sunset said, gulping hard. “You may have killed her and everyone I held dear, but I did the exact same to you. If I walk free, you should as well. All you have to do is agree to stop. I’ll resign from the military if you do. We’re destroying the world with our fight, Applejack. It has to stop.”

Applejack stamped her hoof. “Ah don’t think you realize that if Ah stop this will have all been for nothing!

“It is for nothing,” Sunset said. “I’ve had to accept that. All my fighting only made you angrier and killed more ponies. I’m sorry.”

Applejack threw one of her swords, embedding it in Sunset’s side. The blood splattered all over Fluttershy, like a claw across her face. She stood strong, holding Sunset up despite the wound.

Sunset coughed, blood flying out of her mouth onto the ground. “I… I suppose this is what I deserve…”

Applejack’s eyes were wild. She grabbed her other sword. “STOP DOING THAT! YOU ARE EVIL AND YOU CANNOT CHANGE! THERE’D BE NO POINT!” She threw it – only for Twilight to grab it.

Applejack turned around, charging her – but Starlight grabbed Applejack in her telekinesis and pinned her. Applejack’s antlers glowed and the ground began to shake like an earthquake – but Pinkie leaped in, smashing Applejack with a squeaky hammer and knocking her out. It was over. For now, at least.

Everypony ran to Sunset. Twilight cast a spell on the wound – but she didn’t know the advanced healing magic required. “S-sunset…”

“Take her… away from this world…” Sunset said, gagging. “Neither of us can be here…”

“Don’t say that,” Fluttershy said. “You can still do well! You have so much to do!”

“There’s no way you’re getting me to a healer in time…”

Starlight looked at Twilight. “Crystal stasis.”

“Crystal stasis,” Twilight agreed. The two of them used their horns, encasing Sunset in a crystalline cage, freezing her inside. “I don’t want to teleport her like this. But we can get her to a healer.”

“What about… her?” Pinkie asked, pointing at Applejack.

Twilight sighed. “Tie her up.”

Fluttershy wiped some of the blood off her face and stared at it. She gulped.

“Hey… It’s okay. We’ve got her,” Pinkie said, hugging Fluttershy.

“Everything’s so brutal… I tried… I tried so hard…”

“You got one of them. That’s good Fluttershy. That’s good.”

~~~

Sunset awoke a little later, her wound already healed by magic from some unknown healer. It had the unusual stiffness magical healing always had, but at least she was alive. She was mildly surprised to see Twilight standing over her.

She didn’t know what to say.

“You don’t have to say anything. I’m also not her, sorry.”

Sunset nodded. “What… happened to Applejack?”

“We have her tied up. She’ll be in your custody.”

“I’ll have to take her in. The ponies will want execution…”

Twilight nodded. “We could take her. There’s a world of demons who like to take in ponies.”

“No… I can’t just let her run away. That was hasty of me. But… I’ll argue for her life. I have sway, I can get the Queen to give her life in prison instead, despite what she’s done.”

“…And?”

“…I’m going to visit her. We really aren’t that different. She just ended up on the wrong side…”

“What is the Queen like, really? I’m curious.”

Sunset laughed painfully. “A bit clueless, to be honest. Despite her age she seems to have a childlike aura about her a lot of the time. She switches from old and wise to young and energetic. She’s a delight to be around.”

Twilight smiled. “It does sound like Applejack was misguided… There’s part of me that thinks the Pinkie sage was just manipulating you all, by the way.”

Sunset frowned. “It’s possible. Though why, I don’t have any clue.”

“Well… We’ll return to our world now. We might meet again. Might not.”

“Actually…” Sunset coughed. “As a general within her majesty’s army, I’d like to establish official relations with your people.”

Twilight blinked. “Really?”

“Really. You helped me. It’s the best I can do for you in return. Put in a good word.”

“Well… Not what I expected, but cool. We aren’t really a big part of our nation though. We mainly just explore to help ponies.”

“Doesn’t matter. I have power, I’m going to use it for something good for once. Remember you have a friend here.”

Twilight smiled. “I will.”

Then her cutie mark started glowing, signifying a job well done. She sighed. “I was hoping we’d be able to do better than that.”

“…Huh?”

“The Tree of Harmony just told me we did what we came here to do. I’m not sure if that was to become friends with you, get you to help us, or to resolve the tension between you and Applejack… Possibly a combination of all three. But I really thought we could help her as well.”

“She’s more determined than me,” Sunset said. “It’s one of those neutral traits…”

Twilight nodded. “I hope you can show her the way, given time.”

“Somehow I doubt it, but I have to at least put in the effort. Atone for my sins…”

Twilight smiled. “I knew a Sunset like you. Ashamed of what she’d done, she ended up living with those she hurt, and they became her closest friends. Maybe there is parallelism in the cosmos.”

“Maybe… I hope so.” Sunset smiled. “…Thank you, Twilight. Just… Just for talking.”

“And thank you for not torturing Fluttershy.”

Sunset chuckled. Twilight left the room, telling the girls it was time to go home.

 

Chapter Text

Into the Fire

A dimensional portal ripped through the fabric of space-time into Sunset’s living room - which, given the miniscule size of her house, meant it took up most the space between the couch and the TV. Sunset, Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and Lyra all walked through the ring laughing.

“It’s always such a delight to visit the mushroom people!” Twilight managed as the portal popped shut. “So cute!”

“I got a video of the one doing the dance!” Rainbow Dash said, holding out her phone. “So sweet.”

“Not ‘awesome’?” Sunset ribbed.

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Well, it’s that too. But that goes without saying.”

“Then why do you say it so much?”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Because. It’s awesome.

There was silence for a couple seconds. Lyra broke the silence with a slight snicker, sending everyone into a collective laughing fit lasting for at least a minute. They stopped only because they were starting to run out of breath.

Sunset fell onto the couch. “So, you girls want anything? I’ve got some of those amazing pocket nacho things.”

“You’re the only one who thinks those are amazing,” Lyra said.

“I’ve got other food, if you don’t want that, yeesh.”

Twilight shook her head while fingering her necklace. “Sorry, I’ve got a trip to NASA tomorrow, need extra sleep for it. Can’t stay.”

“I drank far too many of those shakes, not hungry.” Rainbow Dash laughed – then belched loud enough to knock herself over. “Ow.”

Sunset turned to Lyra. “What about you?”

“Uh… Will you be mad if I say I wanted to eat with my folks tonight?”

“Not at all,” Sunset said. “It’s okay, I shouldn’t expect you all to stick around every time. See you next week!”

Twilight waved. “See you!”

Soon, Sunset was the only human being in her house. She took in a deep breath, leaned deeply into the couch, and grabbed the remote. She pointed it at the TV, ready to turn it on and gel over random entertainment until she fell asleep, but something stopped her. She found herself staring at the remote’s power button, contemplating how it turned things on and off. If she turned the TV on, she turned her brain off. That probably wasn’t good, come to think of it. But if she didn’t she’d just have to realize that she was completely alone in this house.

Too late, she thought. She set the remote down and looked around the living room. The furnishings were simple and uninspired – a clock, a couch, a TV, and a random painting Sunset had hung without much thought. Pinkie had given it to her. It was of a beautiful woman made entirely of fire writing in a study, herself as the only source of light in the canvas. Knowing Pinkie, this could be the most in-depth and meaningful painting on the planet, or it was just random. There was no telling with her.

The clock ticked.

Sunset stood up, deciding not to watch TV. She couldn’t waste her mind all summer. She had a big project ahead of her. One I could be working on right now, come to think of it. She set out across her small house, entering what had once had the dual function of dining room and schoolwork space. These days, it was a place to store all her designs. The walls were covered in equations, schematics, and random musings written in hasty handwriting. Most of the scrawling only she could read, the rest was by Twilight’s much neater hand.

She set her hand on the biggest sheet of paper, placed in an honorable position atop the round oak table. Two arched spikes, connected to each other through the ground. The perfect shape to tear a hole in reality, angled for maximum focus at the center, and yet separated like two lines ready to open a set of double doors. She was certain this was the basic design, and she knew she could make it work… with magic.

It wasn’t a question of power – she was certain a small power plant could form a connection to Equestria easily enough – it was a question of methods. In their experiments, Sunset and Twilight had discovered how the spell opened a portal. Regardless of if it was attached to the Mirror Portal or just summoned on the spot, the spell always manipulated gravity forcefully, drawing the fabric of space-time to a single point then pushing. The pushing part was difficult enough to understand, but it wasn’t the problem. It was the manipulation of gravity. She had no idea if that was even possible without magic.

She looked for her notes on the subject. They weren’t where she left them. Somebody had probably come in here and messed it up. Primary suspect: Rainbow Dash. As if it could be anybody else. That girl never listened…

Sunset found the notes on the floor after a few minutes of searching. Forgetting her momentary annoyance with Rainbow Dash, she was absorbed in her own musings…

Gravity cannot be bent with known technology or materials. Quantum mechanics has not identified a graviton, so it’s impossible to even start work on that. Controlled gravity surge with mass would not function. Wormholes are a possibility, but negative mass has not been proven. Consider attempting to create some with magic as a proof-of-concept, then work backwards. Alternatively, find a universe with highly advanced technology and convince them to answer some questions or provide assistance.

Now there was an idea. The only problem was they hadn’t found any universes with advanced technology yet. They’d found plenty of worlds with high magic that had gone to the moon and other planets within the system, but the best non-magical world they’d found was a bunch of strange furred creatures living on two different planets that were essentially just Earth and Mars analogues. No teleportation, no gravity manipulation, no wormholes.

Apparently similar universes were clustered together. Most of the other universes Sunset and her friends – and the ponies in Equestria – had explored were simply different versions of Equestria itself. Earth was a bit of an oddball, though there were a few other Equestrias with copies of it as well. And yet, no two universes were exactly the same… Just similar. Some more than others. Even the demon’s jungle resembled prehistoric Equestria. Then there were the occasional oddballs like the worlds with the mushroom people…

But if she believed anything, it was that the multiverse was a lot bigger than what they’d seen.

She pulled out another piece of paper, examining the ‘map’ created of explored universes, a bunch of dots with labels connected by lines of a length determined by the energy required to travel. Some of the lines squiggled since the numbers didn’t line up properly on a two-dimensional surface, but the idea was the same. Most everything was clustered around Equestria and Earth, with a couple more distant worlds, Ardent being the furthest away. The place where she’d seen that mask…

She pushed the thought of the evil out of her mind. If she wanted to find more advanced technology, she’d have to go further out. She pulled one of the portal-devices out of her pocket and twisted some of the dials, testing out some of the connections, letting it drain some power from her necklace for a moment. It lit up green, displaying how much energy it was using to connect to… She checked her list of coordinates. The world of doublespeak liars.

“Yeah, let’s not go there,” she muttered to herself. She flipped open a large magical journal, laying it flat. The most recent message she’d received from Twilight was a table with a few more world coordinates, most untested. She plugged one at random into the device…

It turned red.

Not enough power.

Sunset grinned, tucking the journal into her jacket and allowing the device to draw more power from her necklace. The device couldn’t drain the relic completely; the magics were too fundamental for that. But it took five whole minutes to power it up to green.

She looked at it, curious.

This would lead her somewhere far away. It was using more power than Ardent by a fair margin, not quite double.

Sunset glanced out the window. The sun was setting. Was she really going to go to another world, all on her own, this late? She felt like that would be irresponsible, even though she had literally no responsibilities. She didn’t work tomorrow, her friends were out doing things…

She shrugged, holding the device out and activating it. The surge of energy blew several of her papers around, driving Sunset even further up the wall.

“You know what? I’ll clean that later.”

She looked through the portal, glad that these direct rips in space-time weren’t as mysterious about the destination as the Mirror Portal’s connections, although they definitely weren’t as permanent. The sky through the portal was red and something fiery was flying through the sky. The world was that of a city filled with many stone buildings, though the roads weren’t paved.

She likely wasn’t going to find what she was looking for here.

But the fiery object in the sky was enticing… There was no way she could just close the portal now and not have a closer look.

She stepped in.

~~~

In a world where the sky was red and the earth was made of pillars, two men fought.

One was a tall man with a body fit for an emperor. His muscles tensed and his hair whirled as he shot his hands forward, unleashing a torrent of fire from within brighter than the cosmic blaze from above.

His blaze hit a shell of carefully constructed rock, shattering it and revealing the occupant inside. The target was little more than a boy cowering in a defensive posture, blowing air from his body to keep the licking flames from burning him. He was covered with blue arrow tattoos that pointed to his hands, feet, and forehead; the latter matching the creases formed in his face from his intense concentration.

The fire pushed him back into the stone pillar, a blunt point ramming into his back where a scar interrupted the flow of the tattoos. The sharp pain awoke something within him that had been lost. Energy flowed through his body freely where once it had been blocked.

The fiery man stood tall over the rubble, taunting the boy. “Come on out, Avatar! You can’t hide in there forever!” He smirked slightly, continuing his berating, oblivious to the energy shifting beneath the rubble.

The Avatar shot out of the rubble, eyes an intense white, tattoos glowing with the power of spirits unknown to both combatants. He grabbed his assailant by his long, wispy beard. The man swiped at the Avatar, aiming for his vulnerable neck with a flaming slice, but the Avatar stopped the movement with his other hand. With a kick, a pillar of earth shot out of the ground and threw the man aside.

The Avatar flew into the air, a bubble of wind whirling around him fast enough to be visible from afar. Fire shot from his hands, feet, and mouth, showing the landscape a five-limbed monster of pure heat. The Avatar’s opponent could only stand and stare at what was taking shape before him.

The tentacles of fire coalesced into a ring, taking its place alongside the whirlwind of air. Next, rocks flew up from the ground, shrinking as they were crushed into dense conglomerations, forming a second ring. To complete the set, water was drawn into the air from the nearby sea to form a ring, giving the Avatar the appearance of an atom of the elements.

Then the Avatar started attacking again. With a face as impassive as that of a statue, he tore the pillars of earth from their positions in the ground, throwing them at the man. The man used his fire to blast into the air like a rocket, avoiding the oversized rocky assault. He attempted to throw a few bursts of fire at the Avatar.

The attacks were blown away by intense winds, filling the air with intense light once again. The Avatar pursued, face steadfast, eyes featureless. Fire, water, earth, and air flew at their target with accuracy, power, and beauty beyond anything seen before. All four elements worked in unison, ready to corner their enemy.

With a blast of fire, the man attempted to gain some distance. He may have been arrogant, but he wasn’t an idiot. He knew when he had to change strategies. This fight would no longer be won through brute force. He’d have to think.

Unfortunately for him the Avatar wasn’t giving him time to think. Waves came from nowhere; crashing over him and sweeping him along like nothing. Chunks of earth fell on him, destroyed only by quick flaming clouds from his fists. Air flew through his body, changing his direction.

Something as simple as fleeing became difficult.

He rocketed away, forcing fire out of his hands and feet, pushing his speed to the maximum.

And yet, the Avatar gained. He looked ancient, monstrous – unnatural. With a quick movement, a trail of water wrapped around the flaming feet, extinguishing the heated power. The rushing water enveloped the man, tossing him to the top of a pillar of earth. He gasped, the wind knocked out of him by the impact.

The Avatar raised the earth around the man’s feet and hands, pinning him. The man gritted his teeth.

The Avatar spoke with the voice of many. Men young and old, women of all ranges; they spoke alongside his own boyish vocalization in a haunting harmony. “Firelord Ozai. You and your forefathers have devastated the balance of this world, and now you shall pay the ultimate price!

All four elements formed into a single, devastating point. Air took the center, spiraling water and fire around it in a corkscrew while forcing chunks of earth along with it. The spearhead of the Avatar rushed the Firelord’s chest, aiming right for the heart.

Ozai turned away, unable to face his own death.

But it never came.

There was a noise – something that could only be described as sparkling – and he heard the attack bounce away from him.

He opened his eyes, surprised to see a circle of a purple, translucent substance between him and the Avatar. It was unlike anything he had ever seen.

A purple winged unicorn appeared next to him, angrily staring at the Avatar. Both men stared at it in disbelief.

“Run!” she said. “I’ll keep him busy!”

Ozai and the Avatar stared at the winged unicorn, still disbelieving.

She shook her head. “Don’t have time for this…” She lit her horn. In a flash of purple, Ozai was on a faraway rock pillar, barely able to see the shape of the winged unicorn and the Avatar in the distance.

He didn’t waste any time to see what happened next. Surveying the landscape, he knew this battle was lost. In the distance he could see his entire fleet of Fire Nation zeppelins smoldering on the shore. Sozin’s Comet would leave the atmosphere eventually, and the boost to his power would be gone. It was time to cut his losses and accept what fate had given him.

His four limbs unleashed a torrent of fire and he rocketed across the sea towards his kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Avatar was screaming.

You freed him!”

“Of course I did!” she yelled back. “You were going to kill him!”

He-“

“Did he need to die?!”

The white energy vanished from the Avatar, returning him to his normal state. The winged unicorn’s expression softened. He no longer looked like a monster. He looked like… a boy.

“Maybe not…” the Avatar said.

“Good. Then I’m glad I-“

“But he did need to be stopped!” he shouted, his face now fully capable of showing true, passionate anger. “He was a horrible man! This was when we needed to stop him!”

“I’m sure he couldn’t have been-“

“Do you see that over there?!” he yelled, pointing at a patch of scorched earth at least a mile long. “He was going to blanket this entire continent in fire, killing all the resistance he could! He was defeated! But you stepped in and stopped me from ending this! You… You unicorn-bird!”

She took a few steps back, turning to look at the devastation. She gulped. “I… I didn’t know.”

“How could you not know? He’s been waging war on the entire world for decades!”

“…I’m not from this world. This is the first thing I saw. I… I felt like I needed to act…”

The Avatar rammed his foot into the ground, knocking off a chunk of earth. “Go back to where you came from.”

“But… But I can help you catch him! And find a way not to k-“

“You’ve helped enough!” the Avatar yelled, the energy flowing into him again. “You are not welcome here!”

The winged unicorn whimpered. She lit her horn and teleported away.

The Avatar let the energy flow out of his body. He fell to his knees and roared. He stayed there, motionless, for a long time, contemplating how everything had fallen apart at the last moment once again.

An airship eventually drifted near him, unloading three people.

“Uh… Aang? Did you do it?” one of them, a young man in blue, asked.

“No,” Avatar Aang said. “He got away. Some… thing with unusual bending saved him. He’s going back to regroup. We haven’t won yet.”

“But… But we will! The airships were destroyed and Ba Sing Se’s been liberated!”

“And Ozai is still free, Sokka.” Aang stood up, looking at where the alien form had been. He frowned. She’d seemed nice, but misguided. Definitely the wrong place at the wrong time.

She had ruined everything with a single action.

~~~

Sunset walked around the city and did what she normally did when coming to a new world – observe quietly. She wasn’t being sneaky, but she wasn’t walking up to people and talking. She noted, curiously, that they were speaking a language she could understand, no need to use the translator spell at all. Which was probably best because she did not have that particular device on her at the moment. Probably not a smart move, come to think of it. She made a mental note to always bring it with her from here on out.

The inhabitants of the city were all standard humans. It had been a bit unusual to discover most humans didn’t have the neon colored hair and pastel skin, but in the end it didn’t really matter. Her yellow skin tone wasn’t that unusual, so she was only getting occasional sideways glances. She was left alone, allowed to wander freely. They probably thought she had a disease or was born wrong, or something.

She looked up at the flaming power moving across the sky. She’d heard a few people call it Sozin’s Comet, even though it obviously wasn’t a comet. It was too on fire for that. It was definitely powerful though – she could feel the cosmic energy in the air all around her. If only she were a unicorn right now, she could experiment with it.

She walked through another street, passing a bunch of kids playing a game with… a stack of black war tanks. She blinked – she’d overheard conversations suggesting there’d been a war in the city recently, and several of the buildings had looked rather damaged, but… Well she hadn’t seen any tanks until now. The kids were punching the ground, drawing pieces of earth up into the air and kicking them over the black metallic pillar.

So, magic definitely existed in this world. It was not a form she’d ever seen before – it was channeled through the movements of the entire body rather than a single body part, like the horn or hands. As she watched the earth get tossed around like volleyballs, she noted that the movements of the body allowed more power to be put into it. It was more a physical exercise than a mental one.

She had to admit; the sight of children tossing rocks over war machines was as delightful as it was poetic. A smile was creeping up her face.

“I see you appreciate the beauty of freedom.”

Sunset turned to her left. A large old man with a spiky gray beard stood there, looking at the children with a pleased smile.

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. I may not have any idea what’s going on… But it’s great.”

The man smiled coyly. “There was a war. This city, Ba Sing Se, was under the control of a brutal enemy that had been laying siege to the entire world. Today, this city was freed, and I have faith that the war has ended.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “…Why are you explaining this to me? I mean, I’m glad, but that all sounds like it should be public knowledge.”

The man laughed. “You obviously aren’t from here. I have no idea how you managed to get in here without knowing, but that really doesn’t matter. What matters is I saw you looking at those kids with a smile – and that’s all I need to know about you.”

Sunset smiled. “Well I’ll tell you more, I’m not really trying to be secretive.” She held out her hand. “I’m Sunset Shimmer.”

“I’m Iroh,” he said, shaking her hand. “Welcome to the newly liberated Ba Sing Se.”

“Glad to be-“

“TRAITOR!” Someone screamed. A man in black and red armor ran out of a nearby building, pointing at Iroh.

Iroh sighed. “Again…?”

The man thrust his fist forward, producing a fireball. Iroh nimbly dodged the attack despite his large figure. He took a breath, channeling energy into his body.

Sunset twisted her leg, planning on kicking the man over. She felt cosmic energy flow into her, traveling through her head and to her foot, producing a fiery spark at the end. The kick made direct contact with the soldier’s armor, blanketing him in fire in addition to knocking him down. He groaned pathetically.

Sunset stared at her foot. “What!? I can’t use magic like this! What just…?”

Iroh raised an eyebrow, dropping his fighting stance. “Well, that’s not the reaction I was expecting.”

Sunset punched the air. She felt the energy of the Comet flow into her again, and a fireball launched into the air, dissipating quickly. She stared at her hands in disbelief. “Could I always use magic…?”

“I wouldn’t call it magic,” Iroh said. “It’s called firebending. It channels the chi within you to produce changes in the elements.”

Sunset stared at her hands, a smile slowly creeping up her face. “It’s not the same… You’re right. But it’s close enough.” She pushed her hand into the air, launching out a burst of fire. “Yeah!”

Iroh laughed. “Now I’m the one who has no idea what’s going on, but it’s still delightful! Would you by chance be some spirit? A witch perhaps?”

“Spirit? No… I’m a human. Well, not really, obviously not the same type of human as you, and I used to be a unicorn.”

Iroh took this in stride, chuckling. “Looks like fate is having a fun time with the world today.”

“Multiple worlds,” Sunset said. “I’m from another place entirely.”

“I should probably be surprised at that…” Iroh mused. “Would you like to continue this over some tea?”

Sunset nodded cheerfully. “I’d love some tea.”

“I used to own a teashop right over here… It should still have what we need.” He led her through the streets of Ba Sing Se, past many signs of a recent battle. Yet, despite the destruction apparent in most places, people were walking around happy. Even those working themselves ragged rebuilding did so with a smile on their face, as if this was an honor. She even saw a few of the enemy soldiers working alongside them. It was simultaneously an image of past suffering and future peace.

Iroh found his old teashop boarded up, but he didn’t let this stop him. With an agile finger, he burnt the edges of the boards and tore them off. He delicately opened the door to reveal a dark interior. He grinned. “Hasn’t even been touched!” He set to work, quickly lighting a fire with his bending and pulling a teakettle out of a nearby shelf. He dusted the dishes off and found a sealed container of water, pouring it in the kettle, humming to himself all the while.

“The firebending must make it a lot easier to cook.”

“Oh it certainly does, but sadly few of us ever bother to learn the culinary aspect of our power. It’s usually all about the fighting.”

Sunset nodded, accepting a cup of tea from Iroh. “Your kind was the one leading the war, weren’t they?”

Iroh nodded. “It’s been a long war. I even fought in it myself – tried to capture this very city.”

Sunset smiled. “Well, as you said, you’re pretty sure it’s over now. And you helped free this city. I may not know all the details… But that looks pretty good to me.”

Iroh chuckled softly. “Just going with the first story you hear? You know nothing, how can you know I’m telling the truth?”

“I don’t, really. But you haven’t been afraid to tell me anything, and you also looked at those kids with a smile on your face. They are here because of your actions, from what I can tell.”

“It’s nice to hear that from an outsider. All I usually get to hear is encouragement or hatred based on the side I’m on.” He took a sip of his tea. “…I suppose the leaves got stale.”

“It tastes fine,” Sunset said.

“You’ve never had good tea then! We’ll have to remedy this!”

“Sure. As long as you teach me the culinary arts of firebending.”

Iroh laughed. “I would be foolish to turn down such a delightful and mysterious student. We’ll have to wait for the Comet to leave though – starting your journey with empowered firebending will ruin your expectations.”

Sunset shrugged. “Fair point. How much longer until it leaves?”

“A few minutes?” Iroh shrugged.

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Well that’s unhelpfully vague.”

“It gives us time to get to know each other. If I’m going to be teaching you anything, I have to know who you are.”

“What do you want to know?” Sunset asked. “There’s a lot I could say.”

Iroh pointed at the necklace. “What does that mean to you?”

Sunset lifted the red crystal up so she could look at it. “I’m… not sure. It’s a crystal with magic properties that allows me to feel what other people are feeling and thinking if I touch them directly – it’s why I wear these gloves, so I don’t accidentally trigger it. As for what it means… I guess it’s a reminder that I’ve moved beyond my past. I wasn’t always the best person. I have a feeling you know what that’s like.”

Iroh nodded. “Fighting a war on the wrong side, as a general no less, does weigh on a man as the years pass by.”

“You had it worse than I did then. I was on the right side – then I betrayed my mentor and tried to take great power for myself. I didn’t actually get to fight a war. I might have if I was allowed to continue, but I was stopped by some good friends.”

Iroh chuckled. “Now I’m curious… Does that crystal of yours work both ways?”

“No. And it only works for me, sorry.”

“Seems rather unfair to everyone else then, if you can see into them but they can’t see into you.”

“It might be,” Sunset admitted. “But it helps a lot. Many people don’t want to say what they’re feeling, and the only way to get them to talk is to call them out on it.”

Iroh nodded slowly. “Do you think that perhaps you need to look into me?”

“No? You seem to have it together and appear trustworthy.”

“Appearances can be deceiving. Though you are right.” He took another sip. “So, you were once a unicorn?”

Sunset nodded. “My original world was one filled with magic. I was a powerful mage, the personal protégé of Princess Celestia herself - the leader of our nation. I specialized in fire and light magic, though when I betrayed her I ran to another world, became a human, and lost my magic powers… Even this crystal didn’t give them back. But…” She snapped her fingers, shooting fire into the air. “Something about this world has given me something.”

“That does explain your reaction. Though I do wonder if you always had the power within you, and it was just the Comet that awakened it.”

“It’s possible. Magic does exist on Earth – the human world I live in now – just not as powerful. Maybe I just hadn’t tried hard enough before…”

“Could be you were trying too hard,” Iroh suggested. “Sometimes struggling for the thing you want with reckless abandon gets in the way of actually obtaining it.”

“You’re full of all sorts of wisdom, aren’t you?”

Iroh chuckled. “And you’re full of… I believe the word the young people are using these days is ‘spunk’.”

Sunset snorted.

“Is that not the word?”

“I have no idea, I don’t live here. But if it is the word I’m never going to be able to take it seriously. It sounds like something Rainbow Dash - one of my friends - would say. Alongside ‘sweet’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘rad’.”

“She sounds like quite the handful.”

Sunset had some difficulty sipping her tea through her chuckles. “She’s rather headstrong. ...Who am I kidding, she’s really headstrong and oftentimes I wonder if she even uses that brain of hers.”

“I have a nephew like that, Zuko. No matter what he’s doing, he has a reckless determination about him. You have no idea how long it took him to realize the war was a bad idea.”

“...What’s he doing now?”

“Currently? Challenging his sister in the Fire Nation capital to ensure the war ends. I have confidence he can do it, since he’s not alone. Actually he’s probably already done it and just waiting for us to go see him.”

“Well, why don’t you?”

His face became home to the largest and stupidest grin Sunset had seen in awhile. “Because I’m having tea with a beautiful young woman! What kind of fool would I be to pass that up?”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “You’re quite the character, Iroh.”

“I try.”

The red light flowing through the window dimmed, giving way to a bright blue sky. Sunset felt the intense power from the Comet leave her body. She suddenly felt… empty.

She stood up and walked outside. She took a deep breath and tried to channel energy through her body. She punched forward.

A tiny spark of fire appeared and then vanished. She smiled sadly. “…Looks like I need training.”

“Your form is good, for a beginner,” Iroh said. “You lack an understanding of the flow of chi, however. Try feeling your soul – reach for the energy in your heart and toss it out along your arm, like throwing a ball.”

Sunset took a breath, reached toward her chest, and punched out. A slightly larger tuft of fire came out.

Iroh smiled warmly. “Promising.” He quickly looked up into the sky.

“Huh?”

“I heard something. It looks like we’ll have to put this on hold…”

A strange white creature Sunset could only describe as a flying lemur landed on Iroh’s shoulder. Iroh smirked. “Ah, Momo.” He stroked the creature and took a piece of paper off the lemur’s back. He frowned upon reading it.

“…Not good news?”

“No…” Iroh said, folding the paper up nicely. “The war isn’t over. The Firelord has not been defeated. He escaped, and will perpetuate the war as long as he is able…”

Sunset grimaced. “…Should I go then?”

“No… I think you’re here for a reason. Come with me, we’re going to steal a tank.”

Sunset nodded. “On the way you’ll need to tell me more about this Firelord.”

Iroh laughed. “You’ll be begging me to stop before I’m even half done with all the stories I could tell!”

“You’re on!”

~~~

In the capital of the Fire Nation, a prince was preparing to become Firelord. The man known as Zuko stood at the edge of the Fire Palace, looking at the beautiful blue sky. He smiled.

He knew in his heart that the other missions had succeeded. Ba Sing Se was free, his father was defeated, and the war was over. He and the Avatar would lead the world into a brand new era, one without a century-long war. One where the three nations lived together in harmony.

However, like the scar across his eye, there would be a constant reminder of those who had done wrong in the war. It would be a difficult job to remedy this literal and metaphorical burn, and he wasn’t sure he could do it well enough. But he knew he had to.

He glanced downwards, at the Palace courtyard. He could see his sister chained up to a grate down there, screaming and yelling every few seconds. Nobody had tried to move her to the prison cells yet. She was far too… insane and dangerous at the moment. He could still see her belching fire at nothing in vain attempts to release her undying rage and developing insanity.

She was a sad sight, to be frank. A powerful woman who had run the Fire Nation for all of a day before losing her grip to paranoid madness. As horrible as she was, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She was still Azula, his sister, despite all she’d done.

“Hey, don’t feel bad, okay?”

Zuko turned to his companion, one of the Avatar’s great friends, a waterbender by the name of Katara. Had she not been here, they would not have been able to stop Azula and take control of the Fire Nation directly.

“I’m… Well I do,” he admitted. “But I also feel… complete. Like we’re finally done. Even though there’s a lot left to do, the war’s going to be over. Almost no one alive even remembers what the world was like without war. It’s going to be amazing.”

“Yeah,” Katara said, leaning on the balcony and allowing her loops of hair to drift in the soft breeze. “…Hey, there’s something bright over there.”

Zuko put a hand over his eyes, looking into the distance. There was a bright fiery point coming at them from the direction of the sea. “A rocketing firebender…” He said. “Not many benders have the power to do that.”

“Aang?”

“Why wouldn’t he just airbend? Much easier to fly with that.”

“Iroh?”

“Possible. I’ve never seen him rocket though. He’d just take a boat; he never wants to get anywhere quickly. Unless…” Zuko frowned. “Unless something’s gone wrong.”

Katara’s eyes narrowed. “We should be prepared.”

Zuko turned behind him to an aid. “Tell the men to be ready. The war may not be over yet.”

The armored man nodded and ran into the palace.

Zuko narrowed his good eye, studying the spark in the distance closely. “Let’s go to the ground and meet them.” With a quick burst of flame he leaped off the balcony and landed on the ground below. He caught Katara, setting her down next to him. The two stood tall, awaiting the arrival of the spark. Several ranks of soldiers filed in alongside them, mostly Fire Nation soldiers, but a couple of earthbender warriors lined up alongside them.

Zuko’s eyes widened in fear when he saw who the star was. “No…”

Ozai landed on the ground, leaving a small crater in the cobblestone with his fiery landing. He breathed in and out with impressive force, tired from rocketing across the sea without the power of the Comet for the last leg of the journey. “Yes, Zuko… Your Firelord has returned…”

Zuko glared. He entered a fighting stance alongside Katara. “You’ve been weakened. You can’t take us on.”

“I don’t have to. Guards! Seize them!”

“No!” Zuko yelled. “Don’t listen to him! Do you want the war to continue? Do you want your friends and loved ones to suffer as we attempt to destroy the entire world for our own selfish gain? Seize my father. End this madness.”

Ozai stood tall despite his lack of energy, towering over most of the people in the courtyard. “You are going to listen to my traitor of a son rather than me? What has he done for you besides produce false hope and perform foolish actions? He’s a traitor. I, on the other hand, have brought you glory and power. We are on the verge of ending the war with our victory. Today has been but a minor setback. Do you want to make this century of suffering and sacrifice of the Fire Nation mean nothing? If we end this war without getting what we came for, it was all pointless. Now, I give you an order, seize my son.

No soldier moved.

Zuko smiled. “It looks like there’s a standoff here, Father. I think they want us to fight, and they’ll side with the winner. And you can’t win as you are.”

Ozai’s fist tightened until his knuckles became white. Then he smiled. “Then so be it.” He threw a punch of fire at Zuko, who was barely able to deflect it behind him. Katara unleashed a torrent of water from her pouch, dousing the Firelord. He jumped out of the way before she could turn it to ice, sending out an arc of fire towards Katara that Zuko deflected – only this time he deflected it into one of the soldiers.

In reaction, they sent a beam of fire at Zuko. One of the other soldiers sent that fire back, only for an earthbender to step in and launch a rock at Ozai.

Ozai grinned. “Perfect.”

Katara bit her lip, finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the sudden chaos of attacks. Earth and fire flew in all directions, and it was getting harder and harder to simply defend herself…

Then Ozai grabbed her by the neck. She screamed – and all the fighting stopped in an instant.

Ozai glared at Zuko. “You lose.”

“Father, fight me, one on one. The rite of Agni Kai. For honor.

“I will honor the rite later, my son. I agree that we will fight, as we always should have, tomorrow. But the life of this girl rests in your hands right now, regardless of the outcome of the rite.”

Zuko curled his hand into a fist, and for a moment it looked like he was going to try something. But he dropped it and sagged.

“Take him away,” Ozai ordered. “And the girl too.” He shoved her into the hands of a nearby fire soldier. “All of you are extremely lucky I don’t execute you on the spot for hesitating.”

“Woo-hoo!” Azula yelled from her chained-up position. “Goooo Dad!”

Ozai’s eyes twitched. He strode over to Azula.

“Hey, do you mind getting me out of these things? I-“

He slapped her. “All of my children have ashamed me. You are to be banished like Zuko was those few years ago. Your mission is the same. The Avatar.” He tore the chains off her hands without care for her wrist. She screamed as part of it broke. “Leave. Now.”

Azula’s fingers crackled with electricity. Like Zuko, for a moment it appeared as if she was going to try something. But she didn’t. She bowed and ran off.

Ozai took in a furious breath, turning to watch his two prisoners be taken to the dungeons. He briefly considered having the girl killed. She had no say in the Agni Kai… But no, she could be useful. If his intelligence was correct, she could be used to lure in the Avatar.

He pointed at a soldier. “You. Prepare a small balloon and get a pilot. Have them sail to the wreckage of the fleet with a message for the Avatar and my brother. Tell them I want to meet and… work out our differences.”

~~~

In the land where pillars of earth rose into the air, a Fire Nation tank drove up and parked. Iroh popped his head out of the tank, grinning. “Hello!”

Aang forced a smile. “Hello, Iroh. Nice tank.”

“Thanks, we examined dozens of different models before settling on this one. She’s a beaut’.”

“…We?” Aang asked.

Iroh crawled out of the tank, allowing Sunset to come out as well. She waved. “Hi! I’m Sunset. I hear you’re the Avatar, master of all four elements!”

“Uh. Yeah.” He blinked. “Is it ‘weird people show up for no reason’ day, or something?”

Sunset blinked. “Maybe. Why do you ask?”

Aang frowned. “That… Will take a while to explain.”

Iroh leaned against the edge of the tank, surveying the charred landscape. “Then forego telling us that story and tell us what happened with Ozai.”

“Those stories are related… I had him,” Aang said. “I unlocked the Avatar state and had him pinned in the rock. I was ready to deal the final blow… And then some unicorn-bird showed up and stopped me with some kind of purple spirit-energy!”

Sunset paled, but said nothing.

“Then she made him vanish, telling him to get away while she dealt with me. It only took me about a minute to get her to realize what she’d done, but… He was already gone.”

“He probably went back to the Fire Nation…” Iroh said.

“Oh no!” Aang grabbed his head. “Zuko and Katara!”

“Indeed…” Iroh said, sighing. “We’ll have to hope they were able to get out in time. Sunset, why don’t you tell Aang what you know.”

“Huh?” Aang said.

“I… I think I know who came through here,” Sunset said. “She’s a friend of mine. Twilight Sparkle, exploring different worlds just like I am.”

Aang twitched. “Did you know about this!?”

“No! I didn’t even know she was here! It’s a complete coincidence!”

“It may not be as much of a coincidence as you think,” Iroh commented.

“Well, even if there is some ‘fate’ at play here, I had no clue about this until you said something.” She took the journal out of her jacket.

“What are you doing?” Aang asked.

“Writing Twilight. She’ll see this and we’ll get to set things right-“

“No! I don’t want her to get involved again and mess things up further!” Aang shouted. “In fact, you should go back before you rui-“

Iroh held up a hand. “Aang, it’s okay if you don’t want this ‘Twilight’ Involved. But you cannot judge a person based on the actions of another.”

Aang took in a breath and let out a slow sigh. “I am sorry, Sunset. Please, just don’t contact her.”

Sunset closed the journal. “Okay. How can I help then?”

Aang shrugged. “I don’t know… Ozai’s protected by his entire nation once again…”

Iroh nodded. “The Fire Nation has been beat back significantly for the first time in years. There is still hope to win through the art of war alone. While not ideal, there is still a possibility.”

Momo appeared on Iroh’s shoulder again, this time pointing into the air. The three of them turned to see a small Fire Nation balloon drifting their direction.

“It’s… unarmed,” Aang noticed.

Iroh frowned. “It probably carries a message.”

“Maybe Zuko defeated Ozai?”

“…It’s possible,” Iroh said.

The balloon landed next to them and a simple Fire Nation pilot stepped out, reading from a scroll. “Avatar Aang and General Iroh are cordially invited to the Palace of the Firelord for a banquet, over which the future of relations between the Fire Nation, the war, the Avatar, and the rest of the world will be discussed. Firelord Ozai wishes it known that this banquet is to work out the differences between the various parties. Transportation has been provided for you.”

Iroh frowned. “This… is unexpected.”

“Maybe being saved from me made him rethink everything?” Aang suggested.

“Or he has Zuko and Katara captured, and just wants us where he can see us”

Aang frowned. “Probably. …We can’t really refuse, can we?”

“Who knows what he’d do to them otherwise…” Iroh muttered. He pointed at a nearby member of Aang’s party. “Gather everyone and head to Ba Sing Se. It’s liberated. Use it as a stronghold. I no longer know if this war will end soon or last several more years. Be prepared.”

“You got it!” The small woman said, running off to tell the others.

Iroh turned to Sunset. “…Would you mind coming along? Your skills would be appreciated.”

Sunset glanced at her necklace and nodded. “I’ll try to read him.”

Aang looked like he wanted to object. He took one look at Iroh and decided not to push it; Sunset was coming along. The three of them piled into the balloon and rose into the air, heading over the sea toward the Fire Nation. The sun was setting. It would be night by the time they got there.

Sunset leaned on the side of the basket Aang was on. “So, you’re the Avatar. Chosen hero of this world. Iroh’s told me a lot about you.”

“And I don’t know anything about you.”

“From another world, used to be a unicorn, used to be a horrible person, I know Twilight, and I’m also apparently a firebender.”

Aang blinked. “…That was fast.”

“I explain it a lot, especially since I travel so often. It’s a good way to sharpen your storytelling skills. I could probably write a book at this point.”

“I haven’t had time for that,” Aang said. “Ever since I woke up it’s been nonstop fighting against the Fire Nation. I was looking forward to all of it stopping…”

Sunset looked at Aang with pity. “You’ve been given far too much responsibility all at once…”

He raised an eyebrow. “Look who’s talking. You’re not that much older than me.”

“I’m well into my twenties. I just look like a teenager due to a spell inconsistency.”

Iroh laughed. “You learn something new every day!”

“Spell?” Aang asked.

“Where I come from, we don’t bend. We use magic to do any number of things. Magic is more about the mind than the body, so I’m pretty sure it isn’t the same thing as chi, though as a unicorn I could cook up quite a storm of fire.”

“So you basically just use magic instead of chi to bend the elements?”

“Oh no, magic can be used for other things. Teleporting, shields, lasers, healing, growing, transforming… Every unicorn worth their salt can lift things with magic, the rest of the tricks require training.”

Aang nodded. “…Do you think I could learn to use magic?”

“…I don’t know. I didn’t think humans could, but here I am discovering I can throw fire with my fists. So… Maybe? You want to try?”

“…No.”

Sunset could sense he was still livid about what Twilight had done. “All right. Fair enough.” She turned to Iroh. “So, do we have a plan?”

Iroh gestured to the messenger in the balloon with them.

“On it,” Aang said, lifting the soldier with a gust of air and tossing him into the water, closer to shore. “And now we can talk.”

“So, the plan is I don’t have a plan,” Iroh said.

Sunset and Aang facepalmed.

“Ozai has us where he wants us. We have to go to this banquet and talk to him. Our only edge is Sunset here, who can tell us what he’s planning after a simple shake of the hand. After that…”

“Make it up as we go…?” Aang said.

“Well that is what you usually do,” Iroh chuckled.

Sunset bit her lip, holding tightly to the journal in her jacket. She could call for help, but… Twilight had already ruined things once. What were the chances she messed up again? Higher than Sunset wanted to admit. Maybe Aang was right.

Should I even be here? Is it possible for me to make it even worse?

~~~

It was highly unusual for the banquet hall to be set this late at night, but Ozai knew he wouldn’t be able to rest until he dealt with this insulting slice at his power. Had that unicorn-bird not appeared, the war would be over and the Fire Nation would have fought for nothing.

He was not going to put himself in that kind of danger again. This time, instead of coming to the Avatar, the Avatar was coming to him, along with the only real remaining threat to Ozai’s power: Iroh. But this time it wouldn’t be brute force… The time for brute force had been when Sozin’s Comet was in play. It was time for other tactics.

For one, he actually wanted to hear what they’d say to him. It would be quite the experience to know the Avatar, as well as what Iroh really thought.

Ozai did not expect there to be a peaceful resolution to this meeting. Nor did he want one. That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to have some fun and let them think they had a chance.

The double doors to the red hall opened, revealing three figures. Two were easily recognizable to him – the large figure of his brother and the childish figure of the Avatar he had seen only a few hours prior in close combat. The Avatar’s expression was that of barely contained rage. Ozai knew he wouldn’t try anything though, such a move would be a suicide mission not likely to work, for the entire Palace was crawling with guards and soldiers.

The third figure he didn’t recognize. She was a young woman with unusual yellow skin and brilliant red hair. Her clothing didn’t match that of any of the nations, though if he had to place her he’d say Fire Nation. Perhaps an estranged colony or band of traitors.

Ozai nodded, maintaining his professional appearance. “Brother. Avatar. And…?”

“Sunset. Sunset Shimmer,” Sunset said, holding out her hand.

“You could call her my new apprentice,” Iroh said with that big smile of his.

Ozai smirked – even in dire situations, Iroh knew how to keep his chin up. An admirable trait, even if he was a traitor. He shook Sunset’s hand. There was a feeling vaguely like a static shock, and for a split second Ozai thought he saw light in the crystal. This meant nothing to him – the slight shiver that went through Sunset did. She was terrified of him, and angry. As he expected they all were.

Good.

Iroh shook Ozai’s hand without incident. For a split second, they both smiled. These were not pleasant smiles; these were the smiles of brothers remembering a time when things were better, but also plotting each other’s downfall.

Aang refused to bow or shake Ozai’s hand. The Firelord was not surprised by this action. The boy did not understand the nuance of politics and meetings. As insulting as it was, there was no way Ozai could get any more furious with the Avatar, so the slight was meaningless.

They sat at the long table decorated with food. Ozai at one end, Iroh, Aang, and Sunset at the other. Everyone knew that there were dozens of soldiers watching from nearby, ready to intervene at a moment’s notice, even if they couldn’t be seen.

Ozai knew that the Avatar and Sunset weren’t used to the decorative walls of fire along the room’s edges. To him, it was comforting. To them, the decorations were sinister. Perfect.

“Where’s Azula?” Iroh asked.

“Banished,” Ozai stated matter-of-factly. “Sent her on the same errand I sent Zuko on a few years ago.”

“May I ask what she did to deserve that?”

“Went insane and lost control of her position of power,” Ozai stated. “But that’s not why we’re here, and you all know it.”

Aang nodded. “You said you wanted to work out our differences?”

“That I do,” Ozai said, delicately taking a grape and devouring it. “You see, it has become clear to me that this war is rather devastating to the Fire Nation in addition to the rest of the world. You may not think so, but I assure you, many tens of thousands of my people have died and lost their livelihood for this war.”

“It is not like you to feel concern for our people,” Iroh noted.

Ozai shook his head. “It’s not a concern, Iroh. It’s a fact. And if the war were to end now without any gain from the Fire Nation, all the years of fighting and loss will mean nothing. The number of individuals driven solely by revenge in our people is extreme. Even if it is the right move to end the war, many of the people just won’t allow it.”

Sunset whispered something in Iroh’s ear. Ozai wondered what she could have possibly known. There was no way she knew about his soldiers being unable to choose between him and Zuko? No… She wasn’t there. But she might have deduced. She was definitely here to play the role of a wildcard, not only to provide some unknown assistance but to play off Ozai’s paranoia.

Iroh cleared his throat. “Such things can be dealt with, Ozai. Most will follow the royal family without question, and those that don’t can be made to comply.”

“It is not so easy as you think. Not all are intellectuals like yourself.”

“What do you propose then?” Iroh said.

“Do we just let you conquer everything!?” Aang blurted.

“No,” Ozai said, sitting back. “I don’t think you have the influence to arrange that. What can be done is to create a ‘victory’ for the Fire Nation. It will not be feasible for us to run the entire world, but we can make it seem that way.”

“How so?” Iroh asked.

“If the population centers of the Earth Kingdom and both Water Tribes were under our control, I could declare the war a victory and end the fighting so long as the remaining people didn’t take up arms.”

Iroh frowned. “I do not have power over the Water Tribes.”

“But you do have influence over Ba Sing Se. They’d make you their king if they could.”

Iroh folded his arms. “That leaves the Water Tribes.”

“I fully believe that once a treaty is struck with the Earth Kingdom – Ba Sing Se in exchange for peace with the rest of the kingdom not under Fire Nation control – the Water Tribes will soon follow.”

Aang frowned. “If you just wanted to declare victory and be done with it, why didn’t you do this when you had Ba Sing Se under your control?”

“Because I had not been reminded of my own mortality,” Ozai spat, letting his calm exterior drop for the first time. “Being pinned atop a rock pillar and being saved at the last minute by providence does things to a man.”

“You still don’t believe the war was wrong, though,” Sunset said, speaking up for the first time in the conversation.

Ozai had to fight to look at her without visible contempt. “Why would I? It’s all any of us have ever known. It’s our drive as a nation. This war is our goal. What would we do without it?”

“You seem pretty handy with technology. You could pursue progress.” She shrugged. “Just a suggestion.”

“What is your point?”

Sunset ate a grape. This annoyed Ozai for some reason. “My point is that, you don’t believe the war was wrong. You still want domination and plan to extort your subjects for fire Nation dominance, even if you no longer think conquering the whole world is viable. And what’s stopping you from holding onto the population centers for a decade then launching an all-out assault on the rest of the world anyway? I doubt they could stop that. What you have is just a long-con.”

Iroh, Aang, and Ozai stared at Sunset, surprised.

Ozai sat back. “Even if that is the case, that would result in a quick end to this war and all the death. Why not consider it?”

“You’re asking for a surrender,” Aang said.

“In a way, I am,” Ozai said. “A direct surrender would be ideal, but the people will not accept a drastic measure such as that. I’m just calling for you to use your influence to change how the future will play out – will the war be long and hard, or end quickly?”

Iroh took in a breath. “Ozai, you know I’ll never turn over Ba Sing Se.”

“Are you sure?” Ozai said, smirking.

“Just bring them out already,” Iroh said. “Lay out your real terms.”

Ozai scowled. “Fine. Bring them!”

Two guards walked in, dragging Zuko and Katara. Katara had fresh lash marks all over her body and was too weak to look up. Zuko stared ahead with an intense fire in his eyes.

“Katara!” Aang yelled, standing up. Iroh held up a hand, keeping him from acting foolishly.

“Your real terms?” Iroh reiterated.

“If you don’t do what I want, they die,” Ozai said.

“Your own son Ozai?”

Ozai’s face darkened. “Perhaps. I do owe him one final Agni Kai. It will likely be to the death if you don’t comply. As for the girl, I can have her throat slit right now.”

“No!” Aang shouted, standing up.

Ozai smirked. “As expected. Iroh might be able to put his love aside for his cause. But you can’t. Luckily for you, you don’t have to betray anyone to save the girl. You just have to give yourself over to me. I won’t even kill you; I’ll just keep you locked in my dungeons for eternity, ensuring that another Avatar does not come. You’ll even get to spend your life with her, won’t that be romantic?

Aang faltered, sitting back down.

“I’ll take that as your acceptance. As for you Iroh… Brother…” Ozai smirked. “I know you probably have some sort of plan, some sort of agency. Some secret society that will continue acting even once you two are out of the picture. All you have to tell me is everything about them. Then you live, Zuko lives after losing the Agni Kai, and I’ll get to lead the Fire Nation to a new age. I’ll even declare victory before the entire world is under my thumb. I’m no fool.”

Iroh stood up and took a breath. “Yes, you are.”

“Come again?”

“You can’t see the world’s beauty. There is no real glory in war, there is no future in bloodshed. You talk of those driven by revenge. More war will only lead to more revenge, until we destroy this world we call home. Your war cannot end in your victory. It can only end in your defeat, or the destruction of everything.”

Ozai’s face twisted into a scowl, his composure falling away. He slammed his fist on the table. “Are you really willing to go through with this? I’m not an unreasonable man Iroh. I keep my word. All that I’ve said, I will follow through with. There is no deception here.”

Iroh looked Ozai in the eyes. “Do you, by chance, not really want to kill your son?”

Ozai faltered. “I will if I need to.”

“…I’m not sure about that.”

“Do you want to test me?”

“I don’t need to. I know you care for your children, despite everything. You can’t bring yourself to kill them. Just banishment, quests of honor, and reinstatement. You won’t do it.”

Ozai slammed his fists on to the table. “Maybe I should just kill you then.”

“You tossed me in prison before. You will do it again.”

Ozai roared. This time he lit the table on fire when he slammed his fist into it, breaking it down the middle and pouring all the food off. His hand was still aflame as he stood there, staring at the broken piece of furniture.

He turned to Iroh. “Agni Kai, brother.”

“Such a duel would mean nothing,” Iroh said.

“Then we’ll fight without any rules or honor!”

Aang stood up. “No you won’t. We’re talking here.”

Sunset quickly took a book out of her jacket and scribbled furiously into it. Ozai leaped over to her and swiped it out of her hand. “WHAT is THIS!?”

Sunset stared at him in abject fear. “…A journal.”

He flipped to the last page. He couldn’t read what was written. But he was able to see some purple words appear before his eyes, as if written by an invisible hand. “What. Does. This. Say!?”

“…Already here…” Sunset said, surprised by the words.

“Who’s already here!?”

Aang shook his head. “No, we do not need her!”

Ozai lost all composure. “Guards, take them all away! You!” He pointed at the soldier around Katara. “Do it.”

Katara braced as the soldier readied the knife. The blade vanished with a flash of soft white energy.

Ozai’s confidence fell. Soldiers began to storm into the room, but a barrier of white magic separated the dining table from the incoming soldiers. With a flash of holy power, a tremendous white unicorn-bird appeared in front of him, towering over him by at least a full foot. Her pastel mane shifted as if blown by an absent wind. She glared right at him, speaking with a voice both melodious and wise. “Firelord Ozai?”

Ozai regained his stature. “Yes. You are trespassing on the Property of the Royal Family.”

The white unicorn-bird ignored him. “I am Princess Celestia. My protégé saved you from death. While that action may not have been a mistake on its own, letting you escape was. You will face judgment for your crimes.”

Ozai frowned. “My armies will fight you.”

“I have armies of my own,” Celestia said. “This palace is surrounded by my many ponies, ready to challenge you for power right here. I don’t think you want to go that route.”

Ozai glowered. He knew she was right. She could be bluffing – but something told him she alone could defeat him. At the very least she could teleport him far away and deal with him later. She just wanted him to order his men to stand down.

To surrender.

Oh, how the tables have turned.

He found himself considering it. If he fought back, he doubted they’d let him live. He couldn’t run in this position. He couldn’t manipulate anyone with his soldiers sealed out.

But was he really willing to give up all that the Fire Nation had worked for all these decades?

It really was a cause bigger than him.

No… No. He would have to fight. If he died, that would just fuel the fire of his people. They would keep fighting out of a desire for revenge. The Fire Nation would not be snuffed out!

He pointed at Sunset Shimmer, unleashing a bolt of fire in her direction. She yelped, flailing her hands around, managing to deflect the oncoming torrent.

Ozai did not get off a second shot. But it was not Celestia who attacked him. It was Aang.

“You don’t have to die,” Aang said, grabbing Ozai’s head and chest. “But you can’t continue as you are.”

Ozai felt the very chi inside him – his soul – react with that of the Avatar’s. They mingled, twisted, and warped around each other. Ozai felt the Avatar encroach on his own being, so he fought back. He pushed the boy’s weak spirit out of his own with pure determination, using his power to alter the Avatar’s essence. He felt the boy, all alone, crying out for help…

And then Ozai felt hundreds of spirits at once, the voices of all Avatars that came before. In an instant, Ozai was flooded with power from beyond possibility, beyond his pathetic understanding. The energy of a spirit long forgotten to all present flooded Ozai, twisting the chi connected to his inner fire.

He fell back, hitting the ground. He groaned.

Aang stared down at him.

Ozai threw a punch – but no fire came out. He stared at his fist. “Wh- what did you…”

“I took your bending away. Like I should have done on that pillar. You won’t be able to hurt anyone with it ever again.”

“N-no!” He yelled, standing up tall. “That’ll… Ruin their will to fight! That will…”

Sunset punched him, knocking him out and singing his face. She twisted her wrist. “That felt good. It was so unpleasant having those emotions in me.” She shivered. Iroh chuckled despite himself.

Celestia dropped the shield surrounding them and stared at the many soldiers. “Your Firelord has fallen. You should now go.”

Slowly, wordlessly, all of them filed out.

Celestia turned to Aang, a pained smile on her face. “Avatar. There is somepony who wants to talk to you. Are you willing to hear her out?”

Aang looked at the fallen form of Ozai. “…Yeah.”

Twilight dropped the invisibility spell she had on, walking towards Aang. “I am sorry. I couldn’t stay away like you asked. I had wronged you – I had to set it right.”

“It’s…” Aang sighed. “Well, it’s not okay. But your heart was in the right place. I didn’t want to kill him either. You’re forgiven.”

“We have not fully repaid our debt,” Celestia said.

Iroh blinked. “You haven’t? You fixed the problem you caused! Don’t feel obligated to do anything else!”

Celestia smiled. “Well, don’t consider it part of the debt then. I’m doing it anyway – your world is recovering from war. My world is not. We will provide you with the aid you need to rebuild your society.”

Aang, Iroh, and Zuko bowed in Celesita’s direction. “We… Cannot tell you how much this means to us,” Iroh said. “For such a gift, we would owe you.”

Celestia smirked. “To continue the back and forth of repaying, how about this. Twilight here hasn’t bothered to inform me of any of her extra-dimensional escapades until now. So, I am creating plans to hold a meeting of multiple universes, to sort out how we should all interact with each other. All you have to do to repay us is have some of your leaders show up and play nice. Nothing more will be expected of you.”

“N-nothing?” Zuko said. “You… You are far too kind.”

“Yes, I’m told that may be a fault of ours…” Celestia said. “Apparently being naïve about conflicts has gotten Twilight and her friends into trouble more than once…”

Twilight blushed. “Yeeeah… Sorry again.”

“Now…” Celestia looked at Aang. “Do you think you can convene the world leaders to discuss how I am to give aid to you all?”

Aang looked at Iroh. Iroh chuckled. “Sure, we can do that. But first…” Iroh grabbed Sunset. “This girl is going to show me her home and make me some tea.”

“What!?”

“You said you wanted to learn, and I can tell I’m not going to get another chance for a vacation for a loooong time,” Iroh said.

Sunset blinked. “Uh… Sure. Okay. Sounds good!”

Twilight looked at Sunset. “Do you need a quick way back? It can’t be easy to get this much power into your device.”

“No, I got it, just… give me a few minutes.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Okay then…” She turned to Aang. “I… I still don’t feel like I’ve done enough for you. I stole your moment as the hero. What you were meant to do.”

Aang smiled sadly. “Don’t worry about it. You… You aren’t as bad as I thought, and I was pretty angry. But if I do think of something, I’ll let you know.”

“Okay! Good.”

Sunset smiled. And just like that, everything was set right.

~~~

Azula watched Iroh and that fiery girl walking down a street.

She grinned – she’d been right. Her father had been defeated, in the end. Good thing she didn’t leave right away. Serves the old man right, slapping her like that. She wasn’t Zuko. She’d never be Zuko.

They were talking about something Azula didn’t care about. All she wanted to do was watch them. The girl was holding a strange device that glowed red. Azula didn’t want to make her move on Iroh just yet, because she didn’t know what it did. She’d wait…

The device turned green, and the girl’s face lit up. She activated it, tearing a hole made of unusual strands in the air itself. Azula could see a sprawling city with dozens of houses. Automatic carriages rode by across black roads. Sunset and Iroh stepped through.

Azula leaped through as well, making barely a sound as she entered. The portal closed behind her with a pop. She leaped into a bush before Iroh could notice her. “That’s a lot of effort for something that lasts only a few seconds,” Iroh noted.

“Well, your world is very distant from this one. Now… Oh great. I just realized, we’re on the other side of the planet. I came to your world in Ba Sing Se, and exited in the Fire Nation. Just my luck.”

Iroh laughed. “I suppose I’m in for a longer vacation then?”

“Probably. Come on, let’s see if the translator spell already knows how to speak Mandarin, or whatever’s actually spoken here.”

Azula watched them walk away, a smile creeping up her face.

A whole new world for her…

~~~

On the other side of the planet, in Sunset’s house, Agent Tempest Shadow rooted through Sunset’s many notes. Since the fiery girl had neglected to clean them up, the agent had full freedom to examine whatever she wanted without fear of getting caught by misplacing a note. But all of it was nearly impossible to read. She had to snap photos and send it to the tech department so they could attempt to use computer algorithms to detect letters. It was a horribly annoying process.

There was one note she could read through that caught her attention. One probably written by Twilight.

Observation: it seems like time flows at different rates in different universes. I had previously thought the constant shifts in hours were because of different planetary rotation periods or magic, but this is not the case. Using two synchronized watches, I found that the one I left home had let seven hours pass while the one I took had let six and a half hours pass. Similar results occurred in other universes. This explains why Sunset talks about Equestria as if it’s experienced multiple years since the demon incident, but how it’s definitely only been one year from here. This time discrepancy warrants further investigation.

Very interesting.

 

Chapter Text

Visiting Hours Have Begun

Twilight’s entry hall had never looked so regal in all its history of occupation. She’d never bothered with the official banners of Equestria before, nor had she gone all out on ordering tables. Usually she wasn’t entertaining the leaders of a handful of different worlds – the regular simple stuff wasn’t going to cut it. Instead she had procured carefully furnished oak tables covered in intricately embroidered tablecloths. There were numerous images of famous smiling Equestrian figures, even a picture of Starswirl, bell-adorned hat and all. The Mirror Portal itself had been moved from its secluded space to the honored position at the base of the stairway, facing the front doors. The lighting glinted off it at a pristine angle.

In other words, the hall was amazing.

Twilight looked at her two decorators with a look of utter panic. “What if it’s not good enough!? What if some of them consider smiles condescending and insulting?! What if having images of historical figures who are still alive is bad form!? AUGH!”

Rarity and Pinkie stared at Twilight with raised eyebrows.

“It could happen!”

Rarity continued staring at her.

“Hey, there have been more than a few times where I’ve messed up with these things, okay? I don’t want today to be one of those times! Celestia’s coming here to see what we’ve been doing and it has to look great or… Or…”

“Or what?” Pinkie asked.

“I don’t know! Something! A planet could explode!”

Pinkie giggled.

“It could happen!”

“My, is there an echo?” Rarity wondered aloud.

Twilight spread her wings, flustered. “Look, I get that I may look a little paranoid right now…”

“May?”

Twilight ignored the question. “…but the thing is we don’t know what the other cultures are like all that well! We always visit them – they never visit us! We’re weirded out by them all the time! They could get angry!

Pinkie grabbed Twilight by the cheeks. “Twilight, calm down. Remember who’s running this thing behind the scenes. That’s right, me, the number one party pony. I’ll keep everything under control at all times. Trust me.”

“I… Pinkie you’re a little-“

“Shoosh. Trust Twilight. Truuuuuuust.

“Uh… Okay. I’ll trust you Pinkie.”

“Good, cause you won’t see much of me. Behind the sceeeenes, remember?” She mysteriously walked backwards behind a potted plant. Twilight didn’t need to investigate to know she was gone.

“…Right. Pinkie’s got this. All I have to worry about is making sure everybody doesn’t want to kill each other and to get everyone to agree to sit down and talk oh Celestia that’s a lot to worry about.

Rarity sighed. “Twilight, dear, if you’re nervous and flakey like this all those things are more likely to happen.”

“We’re doomed!”

“Twilight Sparkle! Get a handle on yourself! You are a Princess and you need to hold yourself with dignity for the visitors!”

Twilight was startled into silence by Rarity’s sudden fire.

“Better, but you look a little too terrified.”

Twilight whimpered.

Rarity sighed. “If it makes you feel better, you’ll never be alone. Fluttershy, Starlight, and I will all be here. Not to mention most of the people coming are friends. You don’t need to feel afraid of them.”

“I know. I know… I know…”

Starlight walked out of the Mirror Portal. Twilight screamed at the sudden addition of a pony to the room, falling onto her back. Starlight blinked, ignoring Twilight’s outburst and instead noting the Mirror Portal’s new location. “Huh, moved it for the meeting then? Is that why it wasn’t on the same tree?”

“Probably,” Rarity said. “Dear, what is that you’re holding?”

Starlight glanced at the flat, electronic device in her hoof. “Souvenir.”

“Interesting. Meet anyone new?”

“I was just on another Earth, nothing special. Turns out that Sunset never turned good. Had to run quickly.” She snickered. “Turns out she really doesn’t understand that four legs are faster than two. She also forgot I had a horn!” She gently tapped her horn with the screen.

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Yet another escapade. Don’t go anywhere else for the moment, the meeting will start soon.”

“Augh! SOON!” Twilight said, shooting back up to alert and ready. “Are we all certain everything’s fine? Are we?”

“No,” Fluttershy said, walking into the hall. “But, really, should we be? That’d just ruin the experience. I may think Discord’s distracted for the next few hours, but can I really know?”

“Oh no. If he comes in…”

“Twilight, the point is not to panic. The point is to realize you can’t watch everything, you can’t stop time, you just have to go with what you can see. And I think the castle looks fit for a royal banquet, by the way.”

“This isn’t a banquet!”

Fluttershy put her wing over her face. “Twilight…”

“She’ll be like this until the meeting actually starts,” Starlight said. “Then instinct will kick in and she’ll perform amazingly like the Princess she is.”

“Why are you all so confident in my abilities!?” Twilight blurted.

“Because they usually come through,” Rarity said.

Twilight groaned. “Why…”

Fluttershy patted her gently on the back. “There there… It’ll be fun, you’ll see. You’ll be worried and then you’ll be talking to Mlinx and introducing him to Queen Luna and-“

Sunset and human Twilight walked out of a portal of their own creation. Fluttershy screamed and fell on top of pony Twilight.

“Oh. Hi Sparky, Sunset,” Rarity said. “Decide to drop by after all?”

Sunset grimaced, the portal popping shut behind her. “Only for a little while. It’s technically early morning on Earth and today is the first day of classes at Wolfe University. So I will have to abandon you all.”

“Aw...” Starlight said. “I was looking forward to hanging out again.”

“Sorry, got another life. Not to mention all the sushi… So much sushi…”

Sparky raised an eyebrow. “I thought you loved your job and it was Iroh’s training sessions that drained you.”

“Can’t they both?” Sunset said, chuckling tiredly. “Why did I ask him to teach me…”

“Because you like using fire and it fulfills a part of you that you didn’t realize was missing.”

“When I ask a silly question, assume I don’t want a poetic answer.”

Sparky winked. “Oh, really?”

The pony Twilight – Twinkie – finally managed to stand up. “Well, it looks like you two are the first to arrive. Ambassadors from Earth!”

“Ambassador. Single,” Sunset pointed at Sparky. “I don’t have any claim to Earth.”

“It’s still a check off the guest list!” Twilight said, marking her guest checklist. She decided to read it off. “Let’s see… The demons, the ponies of Lai, the Elemental Nations… Those are all who I expect to show up actually. Ardent, the Binaries, and the mushroom people got invitations but I don’t think they’ll listen. We’ll set the Mirror Portal to them anyway, see if anyone’s there.”

“Aren’t you forgetting someponies?” a new voice questioned.

“Who-“ Twinkie paled. “Riiiiiiiight.” She turned around, face to face with the royal sisters Celestia and Luna. Celestia’s flowing, magical mane of pastel colors contrasted with her darker sister’s starry mane. Luna herself was of a slightly shorter stature than Celestia, though she still towered above all normal ponies. Images of the moon adorned her regalia and her eyes were a wise, piercing green.

Twilight folded her ears back and smiled nervously. “Sorry Princesses, I guess I didn’t think I needed you on the list…?”

Luna rolled her eyes. “It is no problem, Twilight Sparkle, my sister is just giving you a hard time.”

Celestia chuckled. “Oh, Luna, don’t ruin it! I could have drawn that out for a few more minutes at least.”

Sunset tried to look interested in one of the banners on the wall. She tried to look very interested. So interested that Celestia wouldn’t ever try to bother her-

“My, that’s quite an interesting banner, is it not?”

Darn it.

Sunset laughed nervously. “Why, yes, yes it is, I should congratulate the designer!”

“Here,” Rarity said.

“Yes! Good job Rarity! How great!

“Sunset…” Celestia said.

“Yes…….?” Sunset gulped, turning around slowly.

“We should have lunch sometime.”

“…Okay?”

Celestia smirked. “Good. Tomorrow. Noon. Be late at your own risk.”

“Eheheheheheh… Wait! I might have classes then-“

“I’ll just come to Earth then, eat lunch with you there.”

Sunset paled. “I…”

“Is there a problem with that?”

“…No…”

“Good. Pleasure to see you again.” With a bemused expression on her face, she walked off to the stairway. As soon as she was out of sight Sparky burst into laughter.

“You are terrified of her!”

“We didn’t exactly part on the nicest of terms Tw- Sparky.”

“You saw her at the showdown with that Fireguy, right?”

Sunset blinked. “Yeah, but that was business, and we didn’t really talk…”

“I’m sure the lunch will go fine,” Twinkie offered. “Also, Sparky, do not call the Firelord the Fireguy, okay?”

“Oh no… is that a cultural insult?!” Sparky gasped.

“I don’t know! It might be!”

“How many cultural rules do you think we break just by standing around normally!?”

“I DON’T KNOW!”

Luna blinked. “…Mother of… They’re reinforcing each other.”

“Run,” Starlight said. “Run while you still can.”

“This is far too fascinating to flee from.”

Sparky and Twinkie shot Luna a look. She just fixed them with a knowing smile. “I may not be my sister, but even I have to admit at certain times the difficulty of others is… amusing.”

Twilight and Sparky groaned. “They just don’t understand us…”

~~~

In a dense jungle not far removed from the crystal castle, a different Luna paced.

“Are you sure this is the right tree?”

Siron shrugged, leaning against a large flower, slowly eating it petal by petal. “I have never seen it. I could not say for certain.”

Fef raised her fuchsia fists into the air. “I trust what they told us! This is the exact tree the Mirror Thing will find!”

Lieshy raised an eyebrow. “The repeated patterns raise the fog.”

Fef put two hands on her hips and pointed the others at Lieshy. “Translation!”

Lieshy rolled her eyes. “The trees all look the same so it’s easy to make a mistake.”

Fef blinked. “…That makes sense. Dammit, Lieshy, why can’t you always talk like a normal person? I know you know how!”

“There is no such thing as a normal person. Conversations, even in your ‘straight talk’, still rely on context and clues from what I’ve seen. For instance: ‘letting the cat out of the bag,’ a perfectly acceptable phrase in double.”

“That’s not a reason.”

Lieshy allowed herself to smile slightly. “It’s fun.”

Siron chuckled. Luna frowned. “I’m not sure fun at the confusion of others is… harmonious.”

“Harmony is not all there is to seek in life.” Lieshy pointed a wing at Luna. “We can’t call you Luna over there, there’s going to be another one.”

“…Oh. What should I be then?”

“Mistress,” Siron said. “A title, rather than a name.”

Luna looked downcast. “A title I am not proud of…”

“It carries power with it. You can take great pride in your power without exalting your past actions.”

Lieshy raised an eyebrow. “The shark’s maw encroaches on your railway.”

Siron bent his legs so he was closer to Lieshy’s eyes. “The strain on the rope is golden.”

Lieshy smirked. “The glass is half full of potential.”

“For the love of Moons please stop!” Fef moaned. “You agreed that a society built on double-whatsis was bad!”

“While true, that doesn’t mean double is worthless.”

Fef grabbed the sides of her head, grunting. Luna sighed. “This… hardly seems like a dignified set of ambassadors. We’re rather rowdy.”

Siron shrugged. “That’s the way we are. We should not be ashamed of it. We are warriors.”

“I’m not,” Lieshy deadpanned.

“You’re a mental warrior.”

“…Potatoes in a row.”

Siron was silent. Lieshy took this to mean he was unable to parse the meaning of the phrase, which was good, since it was nothing more than a disgruntled expletive. Sometimes the simplest ideas were the hardest to convey in double. A flaw in the system, she supposed.

It was in that moment a nearby tree sparked faintly, signifying the connection of the Mirror Portal. It was not the tree Fef had pointed out. It was the one on the opposite side of the clearing.

“Not. One. Word.” Fef muttered.

“Two words,” Lieshy said.

“What did I just say you little – ohmygosh Luna your mane looks adorable when it blows like that!”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “…You already said this.”

“I know. I think. But diddly-darn it looks so… sparkly…

Lieshy raised her eyes. She lived with these knuckleheads. Admittedly, the three with her were great friends and good people to talk to. At least when Siron wasn’t busy, when Fef wasn’t having an attention span shorter than a bumblebee, and Luna wasn’t wallowing in the darkness of her past. She actually felt at home here, even though most of the inhabitants of the village were no match for her linguistic wit, the place still gave her a sense of community.

One that didn’t exist in her original world.

Starlight peeked through the portal, appearing before them as a disembodied head affixed to a shiny tree. “You guys coming in yet, or what?”

Siron raised a hand, circling it with another in a gesture Lieshy knew meant ‘time passes us by.’ “It does appear we’ve delayed pointlessly.” Without another word, he walked towards the portal. Starlight ducked out, allowing him to pass through. Fef pranced in next, followed by Lieshy herself.

Lieshy once again found herself in the entry hall of Twilight’s castle. The basic shape hadn’t changed – the double doors were the same tremendous blocks, the stairs still curled up in a symmetric pattern, and the space was as bright as ever. It was easy to see that a lot of care had been put into making the place appear as brilliant as possible. She saw ornate tables, historic paintings, and even a chandelier that slowly shifted through all the colors of the rainbow.

Lieshy’s Twilight had never bothered to decorate the castle this well. She’d cared little about the thoughts of others besides how moldable they were.

Lieshy was not surprised to note that her group was not the first one to arrive. There were several dozen humans she presumed were from the Elemental Nations, all talking in mixed groups, often discussing only with members of their own world instead of members of others. Lieshy understood the politics between the various nations was tense, although she didn’t know the details. Secondhoof information was not much to go off of, even for one as observant as her.

The humans were far from the only group there. She saw some ponies that definitely didn’t belong in this world, namely a Sunset who was part deer, unicorn, and… ‘mawlie’ was the term for the ponies with the mouths for tails, right? She wasn’t sure. There were a few other oddball ponies around her mingling with the others, most of which passed Lieshy’s attention quickly and were simply classified under ‘Other ponies of Lai.’

There were a few oddball attendees who didn’t look like they belonged with any group. Sunset and Twilight – or Sparky – were the first of these that Lieshy noticed, though she also saw a strange girl made of purple shadow and a couple large creatures completely buried in fur.

Lieshy let her gaze fall upon an interesting sight – two versions of Luna. One was the moon princess of the world, the other a conglomeration of all the races of Lai. The Queen was the same height as the other Luna, though she had the horns of a deer, the toothed tail of a mawlie, the fins of a seapony, and the alien eyes of an oculus.

Lieshy nudged her Luna – Mistress. “You should go talk to them.”

“Oh, they look busy, I wouldn’t want to…”

Lieshy raised an incredulous eyebrow.

“Eheh… All right. I’ll… Try.” Nervously, she strode up to her other selves. The native Luna – who Lieshy was already coming to think of as Moona – noticed Mistress and welcomed her in with a wing. Lieshy considered eavesdropping on their conversation, but decided against it. She was much more interested in a different meeting of alternate versions…

Sunset looked down at… Sunset.

“We’re going to need to figure out a naming system,” the hybrid pony said.

“I don’t want a stupid nickname like ‘Twinkie,’ got it?” the human asserted.

“I know the feeling. One of us could be Sunset, the other could be Shimmer.”

“Seems unfair that one of us gets to keep our first name. What if I call you Soldier?”

“…Not a fan of that idea. How about we just come up with new names entirely?”

The human shook her head. “That could take forever…”

Lieshy interjected. “Can I throw a boomerang into the wire?”

“…Are you asking if you can suggest a name?” the pony asked.

“Yes.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Lieshy pointed at the human. “You are Sun.” She pointed at the pony. “You are Set.”

Sun raised an eyebrow. “I’m not so sure that’s great…”

Sparky tapped Sun on the shoulder, stopping whatever she was going to say. “Factoring in likely time dilation, you have twenty minutes until your class.”

“Holy fruitcake on a stick! I have to go now!” Sun ran for the Mirror Portal frantically; just in time to witness a man in green arrive. Sun paused to look at him cautiously for a moment before shaking her head and running to the controls of the Mirror Portal, returning to Earth in haste. Lieshy heard Iroh’s hearty laugh fill the space.

Set raised an eyebrow. “Guess we won’t need to worry about the name thing then.” She extended a hoof. “I’m Sunset, but you know that.”

“I’m Fluttershy, but I go by my nickname these days. Lieshy.” She shook the outstretched hoof.

“Seems like you got shafted with the nicknames.”

“It works for me. I’ve grown to appreciate it.”

Sunset raised her eyebrow. “How can you appreciate a name that brands you as a liar?”

“Because it’s wrong. The lie and the shy create a paradox. A… Well I’d call it a twisting eclipse, but I think the way you’d describe it is the truth makes it a lie but the lie makes it true.”

“…Gotcha.”

Lieshy smiled innocently. “Your leftovers are showing.”

“…What? You’re one of those double-talkers, aint’cha?”

“What do you think?”

“Definitely,” Sunset muttered something incoherent under her breath. “It was… Nice meeting you.”

“Egad, the leftovers return in full force,” Lieshy deadpanned.

Sunset quickly got out of the interaction. Lieshy felt rather proud of herself, she still had it.

“That wasn’t very nice, you know.”

Lieshy saw her counterpart walk up to her. “It was harmless.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I mean, probably, but that doesn’t change anything. It was an awful lot like how your fellow ponies acted. Manipulation.”

Lieshy rolled her eyes. “I’m not trying to extort anyone for my own gain. It was just for the sake of my amusement.”

“That’s just a lesser form of the same problem. Just because you can run circles around ponies and make them uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should.”

“You and your friends mess with each other all the time. I believe you call it good natured ribbing.”

“That’s… Not the same thing. We know each other.”

“Why does that really make a difference? If a relationship is going to involve fun mockery and foreplay, why not start with it from the gate?”

“Because there’s this thing called tact.”

“Tact is just a lie, and not the kind I like at that,” Lieshy asserted.

Fluttershy sighed. “I’m just trying to help you here, Lieshy. Ponies will resent you for what you’re doing.”

“Will it make them want to extort me and everypony around them?”

“…No?”

“Then I’m fine with it. I’ll be who I am, regardless of what they like or not.”

Fluttershy took in a deep breath. “Assertiveness can be a flaw.”

Lieshy pondered this. “The barrels turn in many directions.”

“Lieshy…”

Lieshy chuckled awkwardly. “Sorry. It means almost everything can be a flaw or a benefit depending on the situation. The turning represents the benefit or pain, the directions refer to differing viewpoints, the barrels bring to mind images of large objects of impact, referring to the importance of the assertion and direction. And ‘many’ because the issue is not black and white.”

“You really do pack a lot of information into one thought… I don’t think the direction is so vague all the time though. You should try to make friends, not push ponies away.”

“We both know I’m not going to change because of a conversation.”

“I know. I hope you’ll remember this conversation when something does go wrong.” Fluttershy shook her head. “Enough of that. This is supposed to be a happy place with a promising future. Everyone’s going to start helping each other!”

“Idealistic,” Lieshy said. “The cultures here are so very different. The Elementals are used to war while the Lai are used to a brutal peace. Your ponies are all about friendship and understanding while the demons are all about glory in brutality. Not to mention the oddballs. I have no idea about the human Twilight’s world, nor that green guy, nor those fuzzy people, nor that shadow girl.”

“Sparky’s not here to represent anyone, she’s just the inventor of the portable portal. No it doesn’t have a name. The green guy’s Link, a friend from a world called Ardent. He could be here on official business, but I doubt it. Ardent doesn’t seem to care much about us. The fuzzy people are the Binaries. No magic at all, so they find us… a bit scary. And… shadow girl?”

Lieshy pointed at the girl made of purple shadow with a pink striped hat and similarly colored curls that might have been hair. Her eyes were not visible, but her mouth was, curved in a slight innocent smile. She was talking to a man in red robes.

“Huh…” Fluttershy said. “I have no idea who she is. She’s talking to Firelord Zuko though.”

“I bet you never thought you’d need to know all these important people, huh?”

Fluttershy laughed nervously. “Never in my wildest nightmares did I think this much would be put on me… But I am helping them. That’s why I’m out here, even if it isn’t my comfort zone.”

“I wish there were more people like you,” Link said, walking up with Rarity at his side.

Fluttershy blushed. “Thank you.”

Lieshy raised an eyebrow. “Do you really? Would it really be better if people left their comfort zone regularly?”

Link smiled, kneeling down so his eyes were level with hers. “You’re a contrary one, I can tell.”

This guy’s smart. “While that may be true, you didn’t answer the question.”

Link nodded. “True. I really do wish that. You probably do as well and are just poking me to see how I’ll respond.”

“It’ll sharpen your mind.”

“Sometimes you just know things without thinking,” Link asserted.

“Bowtie blubber.”

“…What?”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Her people talk in this bizarre double-speak almost all of the time. It’s a mix of half-truths and metaphors designed to tie your brain in a knot.”

Lieshy cleared her throat. “It essentially meant ‘that’s absurd,’ by the way.”

Link blinked. “I can’t imagine a place like that.”

“You’re derailing the conversation,” Lieshy said.

“So?” Link stretched his arms. “I think I’m just not in the mood for a conversation where I’m dragged around for your amusement.”

Lieshy shrugged. “Have it your way. Enjoy the ignorance.” She turned and walked away, angling her back toward Rarity.

“Lieshy!” Rarity yelled. “That’s rude!”

“He’s being rude to me, is he not?”

“You’re railroading him,” Rarity muttered.

Lieshy smirked. “Maybe I was railroading you.”

Rarity blinked. “…My…”

Fluttershy sighed. “Lieshy…”

Lieshy let herself smirk, walking back to them. ”What?”

“Please, stop treating conversations as… as a game. It’s hurting ponies.”

“No.”

“Lieshy… It’s not good. Surely you can see that you’ve hurt Rarity’s feelings and have put Link on the defensive.”

“So? Their minds could stand to be sharpened.”

“I say!” Rarity blurted. “My mind is just fine!”

“That may be so,” Siron said, walking in on the conversation. “But Lieshy here is a warrior of mind. How will she keep her skills active and ready if she doesn’t spar constantly?”

Link looked up at Siron, sizing him up. There was a slight trace of contempt in his expression taht wasn’t present when he was addressing Lieshy. “Siron, is it?”

“Yes.”

“You should know there are other things besides skill and strength if you’re a leader.”

Siron leaned down until his four eyes were level with Link. “My physical and mental strength is what makes me worthy to lead. It is what defines our worth.”

“What place do the weak have in your society then? Slaves?”

“No. Just pity. I can tell you are a strong man yourself. I can also tell you are livid with my perceptions of power. Why?”

“All people are equal.”

“Such an assertion is extremely foolish. Some have power over others. Some can do more things than others. Some of us are given powers beyond understanding while others are limited to simple, menial tasks. Everyone may have a purpose, but some are greater than others.”

“What about care? How can you care for your people if they’re lesser than you?”

“I-“

Princess Twilight teleported between the two of them, pushing their faces apart. “Okay! Enough of that! We won’t be fighting here! This is a place of peace and friendship, not distrust and arguments!”

“But that’s exactly what it is,” Lieshy muttered. Fluttershy nudged her.

Siron and Link took a step back from each other. They did not stop glaring at each other.

“Did you two hear me!?” Twilight snapped. “You’re both different! Just deal with it! There’s no way everyone here is going to agree on everything!”

The two silently turned away from each other and went their separate ways.

“Link!” Rarity called, running after him. Lieshy went after Siron, flying until she was level with his head.

“I appreciate you backing me up, but it was unneeded.”

“I needed to gauge the ‘Link’ fellow. He’s dangerous.”

Lieshy raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“He’s an idealist, like the ponies of this world, but he’s not naïve. He’s seen how the world is broken. People who can stare darkness in the face and come out like that are dangerous, unpredictable, and uncontrollable.”

“Is he a real threat?”

Siron looked directly into Lieshy’s eyes. “No. He’ll never have any reason to act out against me.”

Lieshy’s expression remained flat. “Ah.” She didn’t believe a word of what Siron had just said.

~~~

Princess Twilight Sparkle sighed. “And those two were the third standoff I broke up today! The pony Sunset had to be called off Celestia! I caught Zuko and one of the Water Tribe people yelling at each other!” She covered her eyes. “I just… Augh!”

Iroh patted her on the back. “There there… Yelling happens. Peace, war, it doesn’t matter. Diplomacy always ends up with yelling at one point or another. You shouldn’t be hard on yourself about it. I’m sure you’ve done your fair share of yelling in your time.”

Twilight nodded slowly. “Yeah… But you seem to have it all under control. Your people respect you and you just have this… aura about you that makes people respect you and like you.”

Iroh laughed. “You speak as if you lack that skill.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I’m a nervous wreck, Iroh, I don’t have things under control! I-“

Iroh grabbed her by the shoulders. “Twilight, I don’t have things under control either. The Earth Kingdom is demanding all the other Nations treat it with respect, the Northern Water Tribe has adopted a stance of isolationism, and there are numerous Fire Nation vigilantes wandering the world seeking revenge of their own. These things bother me. The only difference between you and me is that I’m older and am used to the constant feeling of everything falling around me.”

Twilight blinked. “Really?”

“Really. Well, that, and I can’t stand digging through scientific studies. Too dry. Don’t know how you manage.”

Twilight giggled. “The understanding is its own reward.”

“That explains a lot! I never understand anything!”

Twilight facehooved. “Sweet Celestia…”

“How do you know she tastes sweet? Looking like candy does not make you candy.”

“It does if you’re Pinkie Pie…” Twilight glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see the pink pony there. She wasn’t. The table behind her had just been cleaned though. The party pony was around.

Twilight turned back to Iroh and saw sadness in his eyes. She cocked her head. “What is it?”

“I want to run a tea shop,” he said. “I was looking forward to passing the baton on to the next generation. To living a simple life. But it looks like that won’t be the case… I was chosen as the ambassador for all nations. I don’t rule, I represent. I’m never going to be let go now, never going to retire. The worlds are changing too much too rapidly. I’ll always be needed…”

“Who’s to say you can’t still own a teashop? Rarity still owns her boutiques, even though she doesn’t spend much time in them.”

“There’s something about a personal touch, Princess. Living the tea…”

Twilight smiled sadly. “…When this settles down a little, I’ll see if I can do anything for you. Get you a tea shop in a place where you can keep an eye on things. If we don’t move the Mirror… Maybe inside this very hall.”

Iroh laughed. “I’ll consider your offer. But I will not be able to take it up for… years, probably.”

“The offer will remain,” Twilight said. “You deserve it. You deserve so much more than you’ve been given.”

Iron grinned. “I thought you didn’t like it when people praised you.”

Twilight blushed. “Galloping gazelles, this is just some bizarre cycle of positive reinforcement isn’t it?”

“I leave that deduction up to you. Also, watch out.”

“Huh?” Twilight did not watch out. Aang ran to her, a rush of air blowing her across the face and turning her mane into a bird’s nest.

Aang smiled. “Hi Twilight. So, I’ve talked to a lot of people now but… I can’t wait. Teach me magic.”

Iroh laughed. Twilight raised an eyebrow as she used her magic to straighten her mane. “Are you sure now’s a good time?”

“I don’t see why not,” Aang said. “You’re just talking to Iroh.”

Twilight turned to Iroh. “Do you think he can?”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea. I may know a lot but I don’t know the full capabilities of the Avatar.”

Twilight nodded. “Okay. Aang, you can still bend in here, correct?”

Aang nodded. He created a ball of air in one hand, a ball of fire in the other, and stomped on the ground to dent the crystal floor. A nearby glass of water blasted its contents into the air. “Still got it!”

Twilight smiled. “All right. What about the... other form of bending you know?”

Aang faltered. “I… Don’t think I should bend the energy of others except as a last resort.”

“Good. Sometimes... Power can go right to your head. But you shouldn’t be afraid to use it if you need to, Aang. Who knows what it can do?”

Aang nodded solemnly.

“Okay, first lesson. Forget everything you know about bending. Magic is not focused through motion of the body, like the powers of a pegasus.” She raised her wing and blew a gust of wind into Aang’s face. “That… Was a bad example. I’m not good at my pegasus magic. But you get the idea, it’s basically control of the air and water to produce weather effects.”

“I’ve bent cloud before, is it like that?”

“…Probably? You’d have to talk to my friend Rainbow Dash about that one, she’s good at it. But the point is that actual magic of the arcane is not like that. True use of magic always involves the mind and a focal point. In unicorns, it’s the horn.” She tapped her glowing point. “For dragons, it’s their fire glands. Some pegasi can use their wings to cast actual spells and certain earth ponies have discovered how to use their hooves. I only know one human who actually uses magic – that version of me over there – and she channels through her hands.

Aang looked at his hands. “So… How do I use them?”

Twilight smiled sheepishly. “Okay… for unicorns it comes naturally, but I’ve done studies. You have to pull the energy of magic from around you into your focal point. This should produce a glow of some kind.”

Aang took a deep breath, held his right hand in front of his face, and focused. The fist vibrated slightly.

Then it burst into flames.

Iroh chuckled. “I think you’re trying too hard, Avatar.”

Aang let the fire dissipate. “The other elements all had a mental state associated with them… passion, peace… Does magic have one?”

“Thoughtful, if any,” Twilight offered. “A sort of lack of emotion. This isn’t always the case, but it’s how it is for me.”

He tried again, careful not to put any power into his hand, keeping the fire at bay. He tried to reach out, to feel the arcane energies around him. He took a breath. “I’m… going to try something.” His body became rigid and his eyes lit up with the intense white of the Avatar State. He focused on the hand, trying to draw the energy to him… But still, nothing.

“Looks like I don’t have anything…”

“The Avatar State only draws on what previous Avatars have learned,” Iroh said. “If no Avatar ever learned a technique, no help will come.”

“I have an idea,” Twilight said. “I can force magic into your hand for you, so you know what it feels like.” She lit her horn and forced magical energy into Aang’s hand. The arrow tattoo on the back of his appendage glowed a soft purple.

He grinned, focusing on the energy in his hand, unleashing a purple spark of energy. “Yeah!”

“Now, see if you can replicate that. Try to draw the energy in yourself. That’s required.”

Aang nodded, readying his hand. He willed the energy to flow back into his hand, to flow into his body…

But nothing happened.

Twilight sighed. “Well, you could probably cast magic if you had someone putting it in your hand constantly, but it doesn’t look like you have it. If you do I’m not sure how to awaken it.”

Aang smiled sadly. “It’s okay. I guess I may want too much.”

Iroh put his hands on Aang. “Even if that is true, which I doubt, you should never stop trying new things. Who knows what you may find?”

“Something really cool, hopefully.”

~~~

Celestia smiled, walking up to the three Lunas. “Hello, sisters.”

The Queen yelped in surprise. “C-Celestia!”

Celestia nodded. “I am not the mare you knew. Which, from what I hear, is a good thing.”

“I… It is… I…” She couldn’t restrain herself. She rushed Celestia into a hug. “I...”

This didn’t surprise Celestia. She warmly held the unusual version of her sister. “It’s fine. It’s never easy to do what needs to be done.”

“I’m sorry!” she blurted, backing up. “I did not need to do that-“

“I do not mind,” Celestia said. “Though I hope your subjects won’t think any less of you.”

“They will…” she said. “But I think Sunset can keep the ones here under control.”

“Good. Sister! What are you calling yourselves now?”

Her sister shrugged. “I’m Moonie, that’s Queenie, and this is Missy.”

The Mistress Missy waved sheepishly. “…Hi.”

Queenie wiped her face, the action punctuated by a nip of her tail. “Celestia, thank you for having us. It’s a delight to see so many happy faces.”

“Glad I could make your day,” Celestia responded. “To be fair, this was all Twilight. She feels bad about not telling me anything of these other worlds she’s been visiting and went the extra mile to make this ‘perfect’.”

Queenie gasped. “She didn’t tell you? Sunset told me the day after it happened!”

“Why’s that a big deal?” Missy asked. “She was having fun and didn’t think you needed to be bothered.”

“It’s not that big a deal,” Moonie said. “My sister is just letting Twilight believe it is.”

Queenie raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t seem like it’d be very helpful…”

“It’s not. It’s just fun,” Celestia said.

Queenie grinned. “Finally, somepony who understands! Tell me, do you walk into guarded rooms from the same direction twice?”

“I’m known to mess with the guards on occasion…” Celestia admitted.

Moonie let out a sharp chuckle. “Oh, ‘occasion?’ Why, just last week I recall a guard running down the halls, raising the alarm because of an ‘overly large swan honking loud enough to tear down the castle walls’.”

“Sister, that’s not what he said. He said there was a ‘big honking swan singing the walls into oblivion!’ The wording’s important.”

“Yesss!” Queenie cheered inwardly. “All my advisors always tell me to act more regal but that’s just so annoying. If I act regal ponies won’t identify with me and I’d never get to have any fun.”

“Careful,” Celestia said. “A regal aura is important to obtain, at least on some level. Ponies believe their leaders need to be wise and powerful. If a normal pony is on the throne, they’ll start wondering why they aren’t on the throne.”

Queenie blinked. “Huh. I wonder why we never have that problem… Actually, you know what, we do, Sunset did tell me about that Applejack character. I completely forgot about her! Can’t believe my loudest prisoner slipped my mind. Huh.”

Missy cocked her head. “…Do you have many prisoners?”

“Oh yes, the dungeons are filled with monsters, beasts, and cruel ponies.”

“…How many?”

“Several thousand? Why?”

“…Seems like a lot.”

“It is,” Moonie said. “Our prisons have maybe a thousand prisoners across the nation, total.”

“How can you do that?” Queenie asked.

“We let most of them go after a while, thinking they’ve learned their lesson,” Celestia said.

“Weird. Not bad, I suppose, just weird.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “You’re the one with a mouth on your tail.”

The tail seemed upset at this remark. Queenie only laughed. “Why, so I do! I had no idea.”

“…Does it eat?” Missy asked.

“It does. Doesn’t need to though. But food tastes different in the tail, so feasts can be quite interesting. You all will never know the joy of dual ice cream melts.”

“I’m sure Twilight can whip up a race-change spell,” Celestia said.

Queenie stared at her slack-jawed. “You… You have a race-change spell!?”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Yes. Do you not have one?”

“…It’s highly illegal.”

“Why?” Moonie asked.

“It’s because…” Queenie blinked. “I actually don’t know, but it is. The idea of forcibly changing your identity is blasphemy against Armonia herself.”

“…Who?” Missy said. Moonie and Celestia shot her worried looks.

Queenie took a breath and let it out slowly. “Okay! Okay. Okay. I’m not going to freak out. I’m going to maintain a level head and HOW THE FLIPPING FRACK CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHO ARMONIA IS!? She’s the creator of everything!”

“…Maybe she’s just the creator of your world,” Celestia said, face serious. “We’ve never heard of her.”

“Then who created your world?”

Celestia looked to the ceiling. “There was a Star.”

“…A what?”

“The Stars in the night are beings of great power. Our legends say they have a society of their own, and that one Star fell to our planet long ago, creating our sun and moon, providing Equis the spark of life and Harmony. Of course, nopony knows if these legends are true or not. My sister believes them, Twilight doesn’t. I myself am undecided. I know the Stars are out there, but they don’t seem to care about us one way or another.”

Queenie took a breath. “I’m… I’m sorry, this is a lot to take in. It… It didn’t occur to me that things would be this different. That each world would be created another way. …You shouldn’t flaunt the race-change spell around. My ponies would be out for blood.”

“It’s not a common thing anyway. Extremely difficult.”

“Good. But now I’m curious… Missy, what legends does your world have?”

“There are two spirits, one of the blue moon and one of the gray moon,” Missy began. “They… Always existed, and so did the world beneath them. The demons don’t really have much in the way of legends.”

“You were in direct contact with the spirit of the gray moon, though,” Moonie observed. “Did you learn anything from that?”

Missy hung her head, silent.

“…I’ve been to the moon,” Moonie said.

“What!?” Queenie blurted. “Are there no end to the surprises!?”

“No,” Moonie said, continuing. “It’s a lifeless rock with nothing on it… except nightmares. Physical, evil, horrid nightmares. They controlled me for a time. Made me do evil things. I saw many horrible things. I understand. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“Thank you,” Missy said.

Queenie stared ahead blankly.

“…What is it?” Celestia asked.

“N-nothing. Shouldn’t we start the official meeting sometime soon?”

Celestia looked at the clock. “I suppose so. There wasn’t really a set time for the mingle period to end.”

“Might as well be now, then. Moonie, Missy, excuse us, we have politics to discuss.”

Moonie smirked. “Normally I’d argue that I have as much a right to be there as my sister – which I do, by the way – but I’ll leave the politics to you all. Enjoy.

“Yaaaaaay,” Queenie muttered, walking towards the center of the hall and sitting down at one of the tables. Celestia looked at her with concern for a few moments – for such a chatty mare, she sure had wanted to end that conversation quickly. But she was right, they might as well start now. With her magic, Celestia conjured a large bell.

With a ring, the conversation in the main hall was silenced. Celestia cleared her throat. “We’re ready to start the official discussions. Will Queen Luna, General Sunset, Twilight ‘Sparky’ Sparkle, Harrier Boxen, Iroh, and Siron please join me at this table.”

Twilight “Twinkie” Sparkle appeared next to Celestia. “Sure you don’t need me?”

“I’m sure, Twilight. Just keep talking and making friends. Do not think what you’re doing is unimportant.”

“Yes, Princess.” She vanished.

Siron arrived at the table first, sitting down next to Queen Luna. “So, you’re a little bit of everything then?”

The Queen nodded. “Everything natural, at least.”

“Those beautiful eyes don’t look natural.”

The Queen smirked. “They are, believe it or not. They also tell me that your motives for that comment aren’t altruistic. Nice try.”

“It seems you have me at a disadvantage!”

“You’re just used to ponies not being able to read your expression.”

Celestia smirked herself. “Siron, pleasure to finally meet you face to face.”

“The pleasure is mine.”

The Queen snorted. Siron’s left hand became a tense fist, but he said nothing.

Twilight “Sparky” Sparkle arrived next, sitting down and delicately setting a box of machinery on the table. She said nothing, nervously glancing around the three powerful individuals at the table.

“Twilight… There’s no need to be worried.”

“Gotcha…” Sparky managed.

General Sunset arrived, sitting on the other side of Queenie. “Remember, your Majesty, don’t just blurt whatever you think out.”

“They have a race-change spell here, Sunset.”

“…I’m sure they have a good reason.”

“This world wasn’t created by Armonia.”

Sunset blinked. “Okay, while that’s a good reason, that just raises more questions.”

“I’ll be sure to answer any and all questions about that you may have at a later time,” Celestia said. “We have slightly more pressing matters to deal with at the moment.”

Harrier Boxen arrived next – a creature made entirely of fur that resembled a mop slightly shorter than a human. He grunted a short greeting before sitting next to Sparky. She tried to inconspicuously scoot away from him. Despite her effort, the movement was loud, jarring, and very noticeable. She turned beat red and tugged on her sleeves.

Iroh arrived last, walking at a leisurely pace to his seat next to Siron and Boxen. “Can I be the first to say I never expected to be sitting at a table with a unicorn-bird, a red bug, a purple woman, and a pillar of wispy fur.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Boxen asserted in a frank, business-like voice.

Celestia nodded. “I want to start by thanking all of you for coming. These new worlds are confusing and baffling to us all, it helps to get us all on the same page.”

“Here here!” Queen Luna cheered.

“We are leaders, ambassadors, scientists, and representatives of our worlds. Through my student Twilight, we have been brought together. Some encounters went well.” She nodded at Siron. “Some went poorly.” She glanced at Iroh. “And, in the end, we are here to figure out what to do with these interdimensional doors that have been thrown open, together. But one thing I want everyone to know for certain is that we will do it together. Everyone, this is Twilight, or ‘Sparky’, a version of my student and a great inventor. Why don’t you show everyone what you have?”

Sparky took opened the box and took out several devices nearly identical to the one around her own neck. “These are portable dimension dialers. When powered, they can open any portal you want. Just input coordinates by turning the dials like so and you can go to that location. You’ll have to find out how to power it yourself, but I’m sure most of you could work something out. Go ahead, take one. They’re, uh, not charged so you can’t open a portal at the moment.”

“I could charge it with my magic,” the Queen observed.

“Yeah, er… Please don’t. Anyway, you should know that the screen will be red when it doesn’t have enough power to translate. It’ll turn green once it does.”

“How will we know what to put in?” Iroh asked as he fiddled with one.

Sparky levitated a bunch of large books from the box. “Twinkie – the other Twilight – has created these books. She calls them the Directory. Every coordinate known to function has been put in these books. If new ones are discovered, she will write a note in one book and it’ll be sent to all the books. If you write something in your book, it’ll translate to all the other books as well. So, uh, yeah. Everyone will have access to the same coordinates and all the basic information known about each one.” She sunk back into her seat.

“Thank you,” Sunset said, bowing to her. “We look forward to visiting the rest of your worlds.”

Boxen tensed at this. “Is… our world in there?”

“…Yes. Why?” Celestia asked.

“We’d… Rather unwelcome visitors not drop in.”

The Queen raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so we’re not welcome then?”

“Any of you arriving on official business would be allowed and even encouraged. But many of you have primitive security measures. The demons, for instance, have none at all. Any of them could just drop in and disturb the peace at any time.”

Siron shrugged. “He’s not lying. We are good at destroying peace.”

Iroh furrowed his brow. “I have no qualms striking the Harrier’s world from the Directory. Surely in the future there will be other worlds we wish to keep secret from one another for security reasons.”

Celestia blinked. “That… was not something I foresaw. But I do see Boxen’s point.” She opened one of the Directory books and found the Binary universe. With her magic she removed the coordinates from the book, leaving just the name and notes. “Done. Does anyone else wish their world stricken from the Directory?”

There was silence and a bunch of shaking heads.

“Good. Then we can actually begin. We need to establish what our relations to each other are going to be. And to do that we will need neutral territory for everyone to meet. As proud as I am of my student and of this grand crystal hall, it is definitely a show of power on our part. It is not proper to continue conducting our business here, making everything rather unfair. We will need to select a location.”

Iroh chuckled. “Princess, if you mind, Siron and I may have a solution for you, if you’ll listen to what he has to say for a moment.”

Celestia smiled. “By all means Siron.”

Siron nodded. “Few of you are aware of this, but my world experiences extreme forest fires every year. The entire jungle around us will burn down, and after the smoke clears our tribe travels until we find a new area of the jungle to call home. We are currently three days overdue for this fire.”

“How terrible!” the Queen said.

“It makes us stronger,” Siron dismissed. “However, this time I don’t want to travel to another part of the jungle. I wish to travel to another world. The representatives of the Earth Kingdom have already offered to give us one of their forests.”

“In exchange, they will help us set up the neutral territory for the Elemental Nations,” Iroh said. “In a way, serving as its first citizens.”

Siron nodded. “Their world is the best for us. They understand warriors and struggle on a great scale.”

“How does this help us with the original problem?” Boxen demanded.

Siron snorted. “Because, fluffball, our original jungle will be abandoned. I’m sure you can build a fireproof building there with your oh-so-great technology.”

Boxen leaned away from Siron, silent.

Celestia pursed her lips. “It’s certainly an option. Do other tribes exist in that jungle, Siron?”

Siron shook his head. “We conquered the other tribes. I haven’t run into any others for decades.”

“Any objections or alternatives?” Celestia asked.

“Isn’t there a world with nothing but grass on it?” Sparky asked.

“Yes,” Celestia admitted. “But the soil is made almost entirely of pony bones. Nopony has any idea why, but I’d rather not chance it.”

Iroh frowned. “So there are horror stories out there in the other worlds.”

“There is probably much worse out there than we could ever imagine,” Sunset pointed out.

“But also much better!” the Queen asserted.

“Regardless, any objections to building it in the demon jungle after they leave?”

There were no objections. Boxen looked unsure, but his small beady eyes were hard to read.

“Then that’s where it will go.”

Sunset shook her head. “Politics never goes this quickly back home.”

Iroh laughed. “It helps when you’re not all at each other’s throats.”

“Next… Aid,” Celestia said. “The Elemental Nations need it most, we need it the least, and the rest of you are somewhere in the middle. But we should divide our resources so we all stand strong-“

“Actually…” Iroh took a breath. “Celestia, as ambassador of the Elemental Nations, I am sorry to inform you that we have to decline further offers of aid.”

Celestia blinked. “…What?”

“Yeah, why’d you turn down free help!?” the Queen asked. “It’s free!”

“It’s invading our culture,” Iroh said. “You’ve helped us get on our feet, we appreciate that, but you need to understand that your ponies are building things their way. Not that the houses are too small or anything, but it’s built to accommodate the way you think. The towns are colorful, out of place, and don’t have an identity like that of their nation. They’re already feeling ostracized from their nationality.”

Celestia was speechless.

Iroh smiled sadly. “Please don’t hold it against us Princess, and don’t take this as an insult to your hospitality. We’re extremely grateful for what you have given back to us. It’s just that you’re putting your stamp on it, doing all the work, when we want to do the work and have our own identity from it. You’ve done enough. We’ll take it from here.”

“I… Okay, Iroh, if that is what your people wish… The rest of you…?”

Boxen bristled. “Our stance is similar. We do not need your magic in our world. We are not recovering from a war.”

“I’ll take it!” the Queen said. “Apparently we’ve got several broken and destroyed towns, and we can’t have that.”

“I’m against it,” Siron said. “I already refused assistance in establishing our home in the Earth Kingdom’s forest.”

Celestia nodded, having regained control of herself. “I see. As you all wish. Just know that all you have to do is ask, and we will help if we are able. This does mean we don’t have much to talk about relating to aid then.”

“To the main issue then?” Iroh asked.

“Yes. Concerning exploration.” Celestia lowered her head. “We’ve encountered many, many different worlds. We’ve helped some – and come dangerously close to ruining others. Simply exploring has shown us that we have great power. As a group, we need to decide how to manage this. How to minimize the damage to other worlds and maximize the help. How to deal with first contact and interference. Right now, no rules exist. This should change.”

“Finally, something reasonable,” Boxen said. “Naturally, first contact should be conducted in secret, and only after a long recon mission should revelations be allowed.”

“Why long?” Sunset asked. “Why not short?”

“Because an assessment needs to be made if they are ready to come into the fold of the multiverse, to prevent unfortunate incidents of those not prepared.”

Siron pointed a finger at Boxen. “What are you implying?”

“Nothing at all.”

“Lies,” the Queen said. “My eyes tell me all I need to know. You think his kind is far, far too primitive to be allowed at this table.”

“And your mental tricks are indecent, if you wish to be honest. Clearly you do not understand the nuance of diplomacy.”

The Queen bristled, but Sunset calmed her down with a gentle touch.

“I propose we not stay hidden at all,” Iroh said. “But that we be sure not to interfere until a certain amount of information is known. All should be allowed to know what we are, but we cannot take the risk of making something worse.”

“But what if there’s death just around the corner?” Celestia said.

Iroh’s face clouded over. “…Sometimes you’ll make the wrong decision for the right reasons. It’s better than doing the wrong thing for the perceived right reasons.”

Celestia sagged her head. “I say we just need to create rules that establish what can and can’t be done based on the situation. We’re out there to help people, after all.”

“Not necessarily,” Sunset said. “We are also out exploring to further our own worlds. Discovery, after all.”

“Not to mention furthering of our own spheres of influence,” Boxen pointed out.

“People… We need to work together on this,” Celestia pleaded. “I know we think differently, that we all have different ideas. But we need to put that aside and come together in unity. We-“

“Why?” Siron asked.

The table fell silent.

“Why do we need to be unified? We are all different nations. Different tribes. We are not the same. We can be allies, friends even, but we are not the same.”

Iroh furrowed his brow. “Unity is still better than division.”

“Is it? If we are all one, where is the struggle? Where are the trials that make us stronger? Greater? What point would there be?”

“Siron, not everyone agrees with your view of the world as a warrior,” Celestia asserted.

“Exactly my point, Princess, why should we feel pressured to make agreements with each other at all? Why not take these threads of alliance here and all do our separate thing! The best will get stronger faster, and we’ll find out what worked in the end. We-“

Pinkie appeared from nowhere and grabbed the table. She flipped it over, tossing the books and devices onto the floor violently. Strapped to the bottom of the table was a strange gray box with multicolored wires framing a large red timer…

With six seconds left on it.

Five seconds.

“BOMB!” Pinkie said, throwing the table into the air.

Celestia blinked. Bomb? Who would – how? How would a bomb –

Four seconds.

Celestia lit her horn, trying to cast a teleport. She hoped she had time to get it away. Far away… She couldn’t send it to Ponyville. Which direction was Ponyville in?

Three seconds.

She had to think about it too hard - she wasn’t going to get it out. She’d probably be fine now thanks to Pinkie throwing it, but it would still kill some of the visitors.

Two seconds.

Just send it somewhere, anywhere, any – what was Link doing waving that sword around?

One second.

He traced an hourglass pattern in the air, unleashing a truly powerful spell… And the table was gone. A window was also somehow broken. They heard an explosion in the distance.

Link walked back in through the window, breathing hard. “You’re all safe now.”

“H-how did I not see that…” the Queen said, face pale.

“Bad luck,” Pinkie explained, face haunted as well. “It needed to get that close to going off, apparently…”

“These ponies tried to kill us!” Boxen shouted.

“They did not!” Iroh roared, standing to his full height to snap Boxen out of it. “They’ve done nothing but be kind to us and patient! This was the work of some other party! A group that wants all or some of us dead!”

Siron slammed his staff into the ground, sending sparks around him. “COWARD! COME OUT AND FACE US IF YOU WISH TO CHALLENGE OUR POWER!”

There was no response.

“Clearly not any of my warriors…” Siron muttered. “Fef’s the only one here anyways.”

“Who’d dare try this?” Sunset demanded.

“You tell me,” Iroh said. “There are a number of nationalist parties from my world that would love me dead, but I hear your Queen isn’t very popular.”

“That’s only part of the picture! We have enemies from within, yes, but none of them even knew about this!”

“What about spies?” Boxen blurted.

“I would see them,” the Queen asserted.

“You didn’t see the bomb!”

“…A fluke.”

“Please!” Celestia said. “We need to be calm and relaxed. Think through this logically. Has anyone looked out of place, shifty, or untrustworthy this entire gathering?”

Sunset pointed at Siron.

“Besides Siron.”

“What a rousing endorsement…” Siron growled. “Were you one of my warriors, you’d be challenged to a duel right now, red pony.”

“I accept. Later, though, bug.

“Sunset, please, you could be killed. Don’t,” the Queen said, worried.

“It won’t be to the death,” Siron asserted. “Even if she deserves it…”

“What about… …That shadow girl?” Sparky said all of a sudden. “The… The one I’ve seen wandering around. Doesn’t belong with any group.”

Siron pointed at his warrior. “Fef! Bring me the shadow girl! Now!”

“Yes Siron!” Fef called from across the hall. Two earthbenders she was talking with filed in line alongside her, charging across the room quickly.

Boxen shook his head. “This is pointless. We should all just return to our worlds and let the ponies handle the investigation.”

“Then the assassin would get away,” Sunset pointed out.

“GOT HER!” Fef said, dragging the shadow girl across the hall with her yo-yo string, the girl’s hands encased in rock. She was crying.

Siron narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”

“V-vivian…”

He pointed his staff at her. “Vivian, why did you make that bomb?”

“I d-didn’t!”

“I don’t believe you.” He raised his staff – only to be stopped by Celestia.

“No, Siron. There are other ways.” Celestia kneeled down, lifting Vivian up and breaking the rocks off her hands. “Child, do you mind if I look into your mind? I won’t tell a soul any of your secrets. I’ll just prove your innocence.”

Vivian sniffed, wiping her face with her hands. She nodded silently. Celestia touched her horn to the shadow being’s hat, touching her mind. Vivian shivered, but smiled. “…That felt… warm.”

Celestia smiled. “I try to make it at pleasant as possible.” She turned to Siron. “She’s innocent. She came alone, stumbling across the Mirror Portal when it was left open. She’d been enjoying herself before this moment. I hope you’ve not scarred her for life.”

Siron took a sigh. “…Apologies, Vivian.”

“It’s… It’s okay. Someone just tried to kill you. You… You can be angry.”

Siron folded his arms. “Who then? Who else was mysterious?”

Sunset looked at Boxen. “Lieshy.”

Boxen nodded. “Lieshy.”

Siron blinked. “There’s no way… There’s…” He paused. “…Mother of the Moon, she certainly has the skills to mask her true intentions.”

Lieshy looked up from her position atop a char a couple tables away. “…The spotlight bleeds the color of lies.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes. “Lieshy, now is not the time for your double. This is serious. Did you do it?”

“No,” she said, incredulously.

“That’s the tone of a guilty woman,” Boxen said.

Iroh frowned. “…I think it is more the tone of an arrogant one.”

“Close enough.”

Celestia walked up to Lieshy. “May I?”

“You may not like what you see. But au revoir regardless.”

Celestia touched her mind – and frowned. “…You think in metaphors and images.”

“Did you ever wonder why it’s difficult for me to speak straight?”

“Immune to the mental tricks,” Boxen said. “Suspicious.”

Sunset walked to Lieshy, face angry. “I knew somethin’ was wrong with you.”

Lieshy’s arrogant annoyed expression vanished slowly as she realized what was happening. “This… You can’t be serious.” She turned to Celestia. “I saved your ponies!”

“They’ve been fooled before…” Celestia admitted.

“I’ve lived with your people!” she shouted at Siron.

“And we are not known for our intelligence,” he said, pointing his staff at her. “You could have pulled the blinds over us.”

Lieshy frantically looked around. “Anyone? Anyone?”

Some voices chimed in from the crowd.

“You tricked me earlier!”

“You just sound untrustworthy!”

“You made my wife cry!”

“All of this is just a sick game to you!”

Lieshy’s gaze finally rested on Fluttershy. Fluttershy stared at her sadly. “I don’t believe you’re guilty. But I can’t refute what they’re saying, Lieshy.”

Lieshy’s harrowed expression gave way to a disturbing smile. She laughed. “Well the nexus has held a council and decided on soul-damning Tartarus for the broken lamppost! Grab a mirror, wave it, do the chicken dance why don’t we? The last mountain has driven itself through dark matter’s height.” She held out her hooves. “Take me away, then.”

“Wait!” Link shouted, dragging a man in Fire Nation armor behind him. “It’s not her!”

“How do you know?” Siron grunted.

“I used one of my… items to follow the scent I found on the bomb. It was this guy.” He dumped the dazed soldier in front of Iroh.

Iroh leaned down, removing the helmet. “…Larry?”

“Death… Death to ponies…” the man muttered, obviously very confused.

Celestia blinked. “Is he usually like this?”

“…Dazed? No, of course not. But I have to admit, it’s not all that surprising he’s a Fire Nationalist. He had an anger streak.”

Celestia leaned down to Larry. “Mister Larry, do you mind if I touch your mind?”

“STAY BACK INVADERS!” He belched fire out of his mouth, singing Celestia’s eyebrows.

“…Well I’m not doing it without his consent… …I liked those eyebrows.”

“There’s enough evidence for me,” Boxen said. “I suggest execution.”

“Seconded,” the Queen voted. Sunset nodded in further agreement.

“And I make four...” Siron said. “…Can it be by my hand?”

“No,” Iroh said. “He will be given a chance to see his family first. I do not vote for execution, you have the majority.” He stood Larry up and handed him to a couple Earth Kingdom soldiers. ”You know what to do.”

He was taken away.

Lieshy let out a sigh of relief. “I… Funny. The universe wants me to learn.”

Celestia walked up to her. “Our world has a habit of doing that to ponies. You could write me a letter about what you learned.”

“Maybe…”

“But first, we need to continue our discussion about regulations-“

“No,” Boxen said. “This place is not safe. There should not be further debate until a safe location is constructed in the jungle. Until then, Siron’s suggestion will be treated as the decision. We all do what we will until the next meeting. Goodbye.” He walked away to the Mirror Portal without another word, the rest of his furry congregation following suit.

Siron bowed. “I will take my leave as well. Sunset, come with me. We will duel, as promised.”

Sunset smirked. “You’re going down, Siron.”

The Queen sighed. “I’m coming with you all to make sure you don’t hurt each other. …Sorry Celestia.”

“It’s… Okay.” Celestia said, hanging her head. “In reality, I was probably being a little too hopeful about how this would go.”

“I’m glad you understand.”

Soon, only she and Iroh were left.

“I really am sorry about refusing your aid,” he said.

“I believe I understand why you did it,” Celestia responded. “…Go home. See to your people.”

“I think I’ll drop by Sunset’s first, haven’t given her a lesson today.”

“She’s in college, with real lessons.”

“Then I’ll just wait around for a while. I haven’t gotten her to perfect shrimp scampi yet!”

Celestia smiled. “Take care of yourself, Iroh.”

“I will.”

The hall was soon cleared out. A few stragglers remained, finishing up their conversations, but it had did down. The books and devices had been taken, so at least the meeting was a partial success.

Still.

She couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if there’d been no bomb…

She glanced at Vivian and Lieshy. They were talking to each other. Probably bonding over being falsely accused. That was good, at least.

…Still.

She couldn’t help but feel that this was a bad omen.

Twilight walked up to her, crestfallen. “I… I knew this would happen. I knew something would go wrong. I…”

“It’s not your fault,” Celestia said, hugging her once-student close. “I was too much of an idealist today.”

“Celestia-”

“I was, Twilight. Don’t hide the truth. Accept it. And learn from it.”

“...Okay, Princess.”

~~~

Sunset flopped onto the bed in her dorm and groaned into her pillow.

Her roommate glanced at her. “You’re being a whiney freshman. You know this is week one, it’s only going to get harder from here,” she deadpanned.

“Thank you, Sugarcoat, for those words of encouragement!” Sunset blurted.

“Your biting sarcasm could use work.”

“Twilight was not kidding about you.”

“I guarantee she was exaggerating at least one of my traits.”

Sunset took in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. Sorry, Sugarcoat, I just… I had a bad day. The physics professor has assigned homework on the first day due in two days. I mean, I can answer all the problems easily enough, but it’ll take forever to work them out and show all the steps, same thing for Calc III! Then there’s, suddenly, a paper on what I think about philosophy due in the honors class and-“

“You know you don’t have to deal with the terror of General Ed because of honors class. Why are you complaining?”

Sunset stared at her. “…Good point. Still, Calculus and Physics…”

“You’re the one who decided you wanted to take the Physics major and not retake the previous Calculus classes. Freshmen are not meant to take Calculus III. It will kill you.”

Sunset cocked her head. “…How would you know?”

“I had a sister who went through here several years ago. I got to hear nonstop agonizing tears and screams of joy from her. It was intense,” she deadpanned. Ninety-nine percent of the things she said were deadpan, Sunset had quickly learned. It was baffling, yet oddly endearing.

“…Right,” Sunset said. “I’m going to try to get some rest.”

“Then you’ll wake up in the middle of the night and study.”

“Yep. I’d ask how you know that but my brain is done for the day.” She rolled the blanket around herself. “G’night…”

“It’s only 3 PM. This does not qualify as night.”

“Shush…” She yawned, preparing for sleep to take her and the ordeal of the first day to pass into unconsciousness…

Then there was a knock at the door. Sugarcoat got it.

“Sunset, there’s a creepy old man here to see you.”

Oh no.

Iroh laughed. “Indeed I am little one! I should take offense to being called creepy, though.”

“You’re not offended.”

“You have a sense for the truth, don’t you?”

“I have a sense that Sunset’s going to fall asleep if you don’t get to her soon.”

Sunset groaned, sitting up in her bed. “Iroh, can’t we do this later? I just had one heck of a day and-“

“Shrimp scampi, Sunset. Firebending style.” He shoved a bag of frozen shrimp and seasonings into her arms.

She groaned. “Wonderful…” She blinked, glancing at Iroh’s chest. “Iroh, do you have a university nametag?”

Iroh tapped the metal plate on his shirt that said ‘Professor Iroh.’ “I had your Twilight create this. Good for sneaking ingredients out of the cafeteria.”

“You can’t just steal food!”

“Clearly, he can,” Sugarcoat said.

Iroh grinned. “Yes. Plus, it wasn’t going to be put in actual food. I saw the cafeteria dishes. Not worthy for peasants.”

Sugarcoat blinked. “Huh. Nice one. Mind if I use that when describing the food to my fellow students?’

“Not at all.”

Sunset blinked. “…This is all surreal. Am I dreaming?”

“No. And you’ll realize that after the third failed attempt. No more dilly dallying! Sunset - cook!”

“All right all right!” She snapped her fingers, producing a candle-like flame.

“And now we’re playing with fire,” Sugarcoat said.

Sunset ignored her.

She didn’t get to relax for three hours.

 

Chapter Text

Under the Nose

It is time to move in.

Agent Tempest Shadow stood before the statue at Canterlot High. The sculpture’s base shimmered in the sunny afternoon, making it impossible to tell if there was a portal there or if it was just really shiny.

There was an easy way to find out. She could just touch it.

She stood motionless, hesitant. She found herself going down a mental checklist – her gun was safely hidden under her jacket, her sunglass scanners were active, and she had her bulletproof vest on. Not to mention the other useful gadgets she carried on her at all times… She was prepared. She knew it was time to make her move.

But why did she pause here, now?

She shook her head – no, none of that. She was an agent of the United States Government, and she would not let herself falter now. She moved her hand toward the pedestal, expecting to be sucked in…

She just hit solid rock.

The portal wasn’t open right now. She retracted her arm slowly. Turning, she walked away nonchalantly. Nobody paid her much attention.

She pulled out her phone and dialed her boss. “The portal’s inactive at the moment. The operation cannot continue.”

“Well that’s a load of bull. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve got a load of illegally shipped bulls here.”

Tempest heard angry mooing in the background. “I did inform you of the portal’s unreliability.”

“Oh, I’m not mad at you, merely at fortune. I await the day when we can know things for certain…”

“I suggest we attempt again in a week.”

“Bah, I’m tired of waiting. We’re going with plan B.”

“…I am not confident in the validity of that plan.”

“You don’t have to be. Just gather division C and bring in Sunset Shimmer. Today.

“…Yes, sir.”

“Good! Now hurry back, you might miss french toast day.”

Tempest hung up. She was tempted to roll her eyes but decided the gesture would be pointless. She was more than used to the antics of her boss at this point. Slightly crazed, possibly insane, but also very effective. He had a way of making things work.

Would this be the day everything fell apart?

Possibly. Though she always thought this when she went on missions she believed were ill-advised.

She dialed another number on her phone. “Division C, it’s Agent Shadow. We’ve got a mission. Meet me on the corner of Maple and Locust Grove.”

~~~

Starlight returned to Twilight’s Castle through the Mirror Portal, humming a little tune to herself. In her hoof was a small obelisk carved in white runes, the most dominant of which was a cross shape.

Another successful haul. This beauty was able to heal all sorts of wounds by touch alone. It had sure come in handy when she was procuring it, so much danger attacking her from all sides. Thanks to these runes she didn’t even have any scars. This was one of the better items she’d managed to obtain on her journeys.

“What do you have there?” Fluttershy asked, sauntering up to her.

“Souvenir,” Starlight said automatically.

“Oh? What’s it do?”

“It’s a small healing rock,” Starlight said.

“You sure do get a lot of magical souvenirs when you go through the portal alone…”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “It’s just because I’m looking for interesting things when I’m alone. When I’m with you girls we’ve usually got other things to deal with. I just let myself have some fun.”

Fluttershy narrowed her eyes. “That looks a lot like one of the runes from Lai…”

Starlight lit her horn, adjusting the controls on the Mirror Portal with her magic, careful not to let Fluttershy notice. “I wasn’t in Lai, Fluttershy. Plus, trying to take one of those runes would be stupid. Not only would the ponies get upset that they lost a rune, but the golems would be out for blood.”

Fluttershy turned to the Mirror Portal, checking the levers. “…The mushroom people had it?”

“Well they didn’t have it, but it was in some magical alcove in their world,” Starlight said. “You want it? Very helpful. Cleaned up a pretty nasty cut of mine in an instant.”

Fluttershy smiled. “I will if I get an injured animal. Don’t have any though. The Sanctuary’s been doing fine on its own. Rexy is a great guardian.”

“I’d expect so. Anyway, see you tomorrow, Fluttershy. Think we’ll find that world made of donuts yet?”

“I don’t think it’d be safe to let Pinkie in such a place…”

“We’re still going to find it eventually. It’s just a matter of time before we get to witness the apocalypse.”

Fluttershy chuckled. “I hope we find it sooner rather than later. Rip the bandage off quickly.”

Starlight shrugged. She waved goodbye and sauntered off to one of the castle’s basements. The moment she was out of Fluttershy’s sights she let out a harsh breath. “I’ve got to be more careful. They’d never understand…”

“Never understand what?” A deep, amused voice said from all angles.

Starlight tensed – not because she couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, but because she recognized who it was. “D-Discord! Uh… How nice of you to drop by! …Where are you?”

With a flash of white magic the wall right next to her transformed into Discord himself, in all his conglomerated glory. He smirked at her, staring into her soul with his uneven eyes. “Right here, of course, are you blind?”

“Veeeeery possibly,” Starlight said. “What brings you here?”

“Oh, just checking in on Fluttershy. And lo and behold, I find that you are talking to her and decide to listen in. It seems innocent enough, but then, oh but then, I hear you make a remark…” He snapped his fingers, changing his face into a parody of Starlight’s. He let out a comical wail. “Oh woe is me! I was almost discovered! They can never understand me!”

“That’s not what I said!”

“It’s close enough. Still pretty suspicious, if I do say so myself.”

“I just didn’t want to tell her about all the pain I went through to get this,” Starlight said, holding out the rune. “I lost a leg before I got a hold of it.”

Discord narrowed his eyes. “Hrm… You’re covering up the lie with a half-truth.”

“…What?”

“What you just said was true, but it’s not the whole story. You’re being misleading. A wonderfully chaotic move, I must say, but Fluttershy doesn’t like it when that’s done to her. So I suppose I’ll have to grab her and have her demand the truth from you.”

“Oh no. The Stare.”

“Yes. The Stare. Nobody can resist those eyes.”

Starlight shivered, biting her lip. “Please… Please don’t, Discord. If you’re my friend, you won’t grab her. The truth would hurt her.”

“Then tell me. I’m unlikely to be hurt.”

“You… You probably won’t-“ She blinked, thinking for a moment. “Actually, I think you might be able to understand.” She glanced around nervously. “…Is anyone else around?”

“Pinkie. But that’s a universal constant.”

Starlight shrugged. “I think she knows, like she knows so many things, she just doesn’t say. I’ll never understand why… Regardless, this way. I’m going to take you to my… stash.”

“Is it full of energy drinks?”

“Part of it, at least.” She trotted further into the castle’s basement, arriving at a hall with no light in it. She used her own horn to illuminate the way, eventually coming to a stop at a door with her cutie mark imprinted on it. “Magically sealed, only I can open it. You probably could as well if you put your power to it.” She lit her horn, undoing the lock spell. The door slid open, revealing a small room with numerous boxes in it. Many of them contained energy drinks.

“…Why are you showing me a bunch of energy drinks?”

“Not what I’m here to show you.”

He twisted his body so he was standing behind her and looking her in the face. “Why energy drinks though? I never see you drink them!”

“I don’t in public. Pinkie finds them. Then things start exploding. Have to keep them hidden down here, in the stash.”

Discord grabbed one and drank it – prompting a spit-take that lit a nearby box on fire, reducing it to rubber balls. Starlight rolled her eyes at Discord’s chaotic antics. “It’s not that bad!”

“How can you drink these things!?”

Starlight ignored him and walked up to a seemingly empty wall. She lit her horn, unleashing magical sparks on six particular sections. A magic circle appeared in the wall, dissolving a circular path into the crystal. Starlight stepped through, entering a new, even more secret room.

Discord’s jaw dropped the moment he got a look around the new enclosure. There were boxes in here as well but they weren’t full of energy drinks. There were magical artifacts of many different sizes, including more than a few Lai runes. Several boxes were filled to the brim with electronic tablets, phones, and computers. A large television screen was mounted on one wall with several large boxes plugged into it. Propped up next to the screen was a large blue rune with a cat-like golem sleeping on top of it. The unusual items had no unifying pattern – robot heads, scientific equipment, ancient bending scrolls, books – it seemed like she’d taken anything she wanted.

“…You have a problem,” Discord said.

“I’m not a kleptomaniac,” Starlight asserted.

“…What?”

“It means someone who can’t stop stealing. I don’t steal from the other worlds for no reason – I take so we can use these things. You see that table over there? I’m trying to insert one of the runes into a helicopter drone. If possible, I could create an automatic friend that’ll constantly cast protection spells for us! Or look over here, this is a completely normal tablet, right?”

“Too shiny to be a normal tablet.” He snapped his fingers, transforming it into stone. “Much better.”

“Undo that, I was trying to make a point.”

Discord shrugged, reverting it. Starlight smiled, tapping the screen with her hoof. An apple materialized in the air in front of her. She tossed it to Discord. “I’ve enchanted this thing with several spells, each activated by certain buttons in this ‘app’ here.”

Discord looked at the screen, eyebrow raised. “…Why’s it a cookie?”

“I adapted one of the games on this thing. This tablet used to belong to an evil Sunset before I got my hooves on it.”

“Seventeen decillion cookies?”

“Uh… Ignore that number, it means nothing,” Starlight blushed. She shut off the tablet with a quick press of the button. “I also have projects exploring the art of fusing runes together, making masks out of runes, letting these robots use magic… All stuff that Twilight will be very glad I made, all stuff that’ll greatly help Equestria.”

Discord raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“She’s too nice, Discord. Refuses to take anything, doesn’t think about furthering her world. The others do, having taken advantage of our magic and hospitality without giving much in return. I’m just the backup Twilight doesn’t know about. We have their stuff.”

Discord furrowed his brow. “So… You go to universes, take random things you think might be useful, and then work on them here, hoping that in the future Twilight will thank you for what you’ve done?”

“Yeah! That’s it!”

Discord chuckled. “I like it! Completely crazy and doomed to failure, of course, but who cares about that!?”

“…What a rousing endorsement.”

“I do have a question though. What’s the TV for?”

“Ah… When I was in Earth stores, there were a lot of things to take easily. They’re video games unlike anything we have here, much better than those dinky arcade machines. Wanna play? I’ve got a two player game but I’ve never had anypony else down here to try.”

“Not even Trixie?”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “Funny. Trixie. Keeping her mouth shut. What an interesting thought.”

Discord created a blue unicorn sock puppet meant to be Trixie. “Oh Starlight, I assuuuuure you, the Great and Powerful Trixie won’t boast about all the things her best friend is doing! Trixie can keep a secret! Trixie is great at being silent about your thieving exploits!”

Starlight chuckled. “Trixie, the entire neighborhood just heard that. You’ve doomed us all.”

Discord created a sock puppet Twilight. “TRAITORS! ALL OF YOU!” He made the Trixie sock puppet look aghast. “But Trixie wasn’t involved!” The Twilight sock puppet folded her arms. “You were standing nearby and you’re Trixie! GUILTY!”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “That’s enough Discord. Do you want to play or not?” She levitated two controllers into the air.

He shrugged. “Eh, I have time to kill. I need to see if these things of yours are really worthwhile.” He grabbed one with his foot, ready to conquer these ‘video games.’

~~~

“Fire comes from within, Sunset. Reach into your passion and push out!”

“I know, Iroh!” Sunset said, flinging a fireball at a sparring dummy made of a propped up mop and a bucket. “That’s one of the first things you told me!” She did a backwards cartwheel, shooting fire into the air, careful not to burn the track she was practicing on.

“Feel the chi flow through your body-“

“Are you just repeating basic training to annoy me?” Sunset asked, spinning around to generate a small whirlwind of fire around herself.

“I thought that was obvious!” Iroh laughed.

Sunset grunted to herself, standing on one leg and shooting fire out of one of her fingers, hitting the dummy right in the bucket-head. Then she leaped over to the bucket, grabbed it by the handle, flipped it over, and put a flame under it. She reached into her pocket, removing a piece of bacon from a sealed bag and tossing it into the bucket. In two minutes the delectable meat was ready. She removed the flame and kicked the bucket into the air, tossing the meat over to Iroh. He caught it in his mouth, licking his lips. “Well done!”

“This is very, very absurd,” Sunset said.

“So? You’re getting good. A fast learner. Not as fast as Aang, but he had a bit of an unfair advantage over you.”

“Did he learn to combatatively cook things?”

“…I’m not sure that’s a word.”

“Did he?”

“No. He had a more… specific goal. But I fully expect him to discover the art of culinary firebending and fall in love with it. Once he has time to rest, anyway. The world always needs its Avatar.”

Sunset nodded. “I’m surprised you find the time to come here to me.”

“I am as well. It turns out that an ambassador, while an important individual, isn’t needed constantly.”

“If you were an ambassador for Earth the paperwork would never end.”

Iroh chuckled. “Remind me to never be an ambassador for Earth then!”

“They’ll never let an outsider speak for them…” Sunset said, smile vanishing. “Humans have a… problem. At least here. They all think they’re right and will seek out information that confirms what they believe, passing off anything else as lies. Anyone who isn’t them or with them is the enemy, worthy of being hated.”

Iroh raised an eyebrow. “I thought your world was at peace?”

“There are wars happening elsewhere. They’re small compared to what you experienced and to what happened in this world’s past. But they’re there. It’s like people just want to hate each other. I’m concerned what they’d do if they found the other universes…”

Iroh shrugged. “I won’t pretend to have any idea. This world makes little sense to me. Everything’s so prevalent, and yet nobody seems happy.”

“My friends tell me not to worry about it, that I can’t do anything,” Sunset said. “And they’re probably right. For now, anyway.” She shook her head. “Sorry about this. I guess I went a little deep there for a second.”

“It’s no problem. It’s a sign that you know how to think.”

“I have to know how to think or I’m not going to make it in the world of theoretical physics.”

Iroh shook his head. “I don’t mean that kind of thought. I mean the thought directed inward, the thought that helps you see yourself and others for what they are.”

“I try.” She kicked the bucket back on top of the mop. “Well, I should probably go study. Those derivatives won’t derive themselves.”

Iroh chuckled. “There you go, speaking those words again. Such a strange alien language.”

Sunset rolled her eyes, waving as she walked away. She turned a corner, heading to the dorms. She was already considering flopping onto her bed the moment she arrived, but that Calculus homework was due tomorrow and if she didn’t do it now she’d have to rush it. That’d just be bad.

She was suddenly thankful her roommate wasn’t a party animal. Sugarcoat was surprisingly helpful in studying. Sometimes brutal tactless honesty had a point normal encouragement didn’t.

Sunset heard a footstep behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see another student.

It wasn’t. It was a woman dressed in black. She moved too fast for Sunset to react – covering Sunset’s mouth with a hand and jabbing a gun painfully into Sunset’s side.

“You’re coming with me,” she said in a powerful, somewhat arrogant tone. “Don’t try anything. I’m Agent Shadow, and your presence is demanded by the Government of the United States. I’m willing to release you if you’ll come peacefully.”

Fat chance, Sunset thought. She let her muscles relax and go slack though.

Agent ‘Shadow’ (if that was her real name) apparently knew this was just a ruse to gain the upper hand since she produced a pair of handcuffs, ready to imprison Sunset.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where-”

Agent Shadow didn’t let Iroh finish. She pointed the gun in his direction - a motion he was apparently expecting, for he threw fire in her face as she turned to look at him. She was knocked to the ground, leaving Sunset free from handcuffs.

“Let’s get out of here…” Sunset said, reaching into her pocket for the dimensional device. She realized with shock that it was busted. The agent had pressed her gun right into it. “Crud.”

“I used the Mirror Portal,” Iroh said. “It should be open.”

Agent Shadow leaped up with alarming speed, kicking Iroh right in the chest. She whipped her gun on him. “My quarrel is not with you.”

“That’s what you think.” He breathed fire at her, throwing her aim off. The gun went off, hitting nothing. Sunset elbowed her in the gut, knocking her to the ground again. She was prepared for a longer fight, but Iroh grabbed her and ran.

“Why are we-“

“Those kinds of people never work alone,” Iroh muttered. “Where’s your car?”

Sunset nodded, taking the lead. “This way!” She leaped over a bush, heading right for the parking lot, Iroh showing no difficulty in keeping up with her.

Two men in black charged at them from the side, holding guns. “Stop in the name of the law!”

“Drat,” Sunset muttered. “They’re going to start shooting.”

Iroh leaped into the air, putting his hands together. A torrent of fire shot forth from his hands, bright enough to blind the two agents. Only one of their guns went off, again, hitting nothing.

“They’re being very cautious with those guns…” Iroh observed.

“They don’t want to cause a scene. It’d be really bad if someone other than us got hit.” She ran to the door of her car, jumping in. “Mildly surprised they weren’t watching this.”

“They still might be,” Iroh said, taking his place in the back seat. Sunset turned the keys and floored it. She pulled out of the parking spot with the intense and unpleasant screech of burning rubber on a rough road. She tore through the lot of cars at a speed well above what was safe.

She was glad she tossed safety to the wind. A black car began pursuing them at its own reckless speed. A siren went off, alongside red and blue lights.

“They want everyone to think this is just a criminal chase…” Sunset muttered.

Iroh furrowed his brow, looking out the back window. “They’re not gaining, at least. We should be able to make it…”

Sunset paled. There was a red light ahead at a busy road. There was a sea of cars moving across her field of view. “Iroh, I’m going to have to pull a very, very sharp right turn at a speed right turns were not meant to be taken at. Hold onto your lunch.”

Iroh grabbed his stomach and grinned. “Done!”

Sunset shifted slightly into the left lane, making many cars honk at her for intruding on their space. Then she yanked the wheel down to the right, skidding into the intersection in a semi-spiral. The car leaned up on its two left wheels, but didn’t tip over. Sunset was able to floor it, completing the high speed turn without crashing into any cars.

Mostly.

She noticed her left mirror was missing.

She wondered when that had happened.

“They did it as well,” Iroh announced.

“Trained professionals…” Sunset muttered under her breath.

“One’s pointing a gun out of the window.”

Sunset’s pupils shrunk to pinpricks. This was the only reaction she was allowed before a bullet shot through the back window and went straight through to the front windshield, barely missing Iroh and Sunset.

“I have no way to stop that!” Sunset said, hanging a left into a mostly abandoned side street.

“I do,” Iroh said, popping open the skylight and crawling onto the roof of the car. “Tell me if you’re going to turn!” He yelled down.

“Are you crazy!?” Sunset blurted.

“Very.” Iroh looked behind them, now able to see two cars in hot pursuit. A bullet flew past him, nicking his ear. He winced at the pain but maintained his composure. He raised his hands into the air and began to move them in a calculated circular motion, separating his chi into controllable powers. Blue sparks of energy began to come out of his fingers.

Sunset had no idea what he was doing. But she trusted him.

Iroh moved his body back, pushing energy behind him. He pointed a finger towards the pursuing cars, blue electricity crackling around his extended hand. He unleashed a bolt of lightning from his fingers, hitting the metallic cars dead on. The arcs of electricity bounced from car to car with intense energy.

Cars, especially government issue ones, are designed to protect their occupants from lightning strikes, should they ever come. Had Iroh’s attack been a simple bolt similar to the ones in storms, nothing would have happened besides some very disoriented drivers. But Iroh got lucky. Tires, while very good insulators, will blowout if enough heat is put into them. Iroh’s lightning lasted long enough to raise the air pressure beyond manageable levels. Both cars blew out a tire. When combined with the disorientation of the lightning strike itself, the cars spun out.

“…That was awesome.”

Iroh leaped down into the car again. “I’m a firebending master, Sunset. Don’t be all that surprised when I pull out something unexpected.”

“You’re bleeding!”

“Just a nick on the ear. They’re horrible shots.”

“I’m talking about your arm!”

Iroh looked at his left arm. It was drenched in blood. “…Well would you look at that. I suppose I’m in shock then. Keep driving, I’ll treat myself.” He tore off the sleeve on his right arm, wrapping it tightly around the wound. “Went clean through…”

“I think that’s good! I think? I don’t know, TV could lie!”

“Sunset, calm yourself. Get us to the Mirror Portal.”

Sunset pulled onto the curb of Canterlot High a moment later. She ran past the statue – the Portal wouldn’t be there. Twilight had moved the Mirror Portal, so the connection point had moved as well. Twilight was working on figuring out why that was the case, but at the moment Sunset didn’t care. She ran to one of the first-floor windows of Canterlot High, pressing her hand into it.

The portal wasn’t there.

Sunset took a breath. “…Are you sure you came through here?”

“Positive. It appears someone else used it.”

“Well, fudge,” Sunset said.

“You should’ve used a stronger word than fudge,” Agent Shadow muttered, aiming her pistol at Sunset’s head. “You’ve just made a big scene.”

Sunset looked at the street. Yep. There was a black car there. One without a busted tire. She gulped.

“Both of you. In the car. Now.”

Sunset curled her fist. Maybe she could…

“Sunset…” Iroh said, gesturing with his head towards the car. There were other agents with guns aimed and ready.

Sunset was pretty sure they wouldn’t miss this time.

She sighed, putting her hands high into the air. “…Fine. We surrender.”

Agent Shadow produced a pair of handcuffs. “Good.”

They were soon on their way in the custody of people who Sunset doubted were really government agents. To make matters worse, she didn’t have the journal on her. They couldn’t call for help…

And she wasn’t getting that calculus homework done.

Somehow that was the worst part of all this.

~~~

Discord and Starlight stared at the screen with tears in their eyes. The controllers had been discarded a long time ago in exchange for a movie. And Celestia, was the movie emotional.

“That… That was beautiful,” Discord said.

Starlight sniffed. “She gave up her dream so the kids could have theirs… That was so…”

“…Perfect.” He stood up. “This is definitely worthwhile. I’m on your side, Starlight.”

“Thank you,” Starlight said. “You’re welcome to come down here whenever you want. I’ll keep getting new stuff. Just don’t mess with anything.”

Discord snapped his fingers, summoning one of the Directory books to his hand. “I’m going to do more than that. I’m going to help you.”

Starlight blinked. “…What?”

“Let’s go. Right now. Find a world, get something interesting.” He flipped to a random page and pointed at a world marked with UNSAFE. “I’m sure I can get us through here.”

“Discord! We don’t know what’s in those places!”

“Exactly. Ripe for the plundering!” He snapped his fingers, putting Starlight in a blue suit. A spherical bubble surrounded her head.

“Discord this is bizarre. And unsafe.”

Discord smirked mischievously. “You’re already being unsafe and dastardly. I’m just here to improve your experience.” He snapped his fingers, tearing a hole in reality completely on his own power. The world they connected to was monochrome and unlike any word they had seen before. The ‘sky’ was visible in all directions – an unchanging static pattern that belonged on a TV screen in a picture, not all around them. They could see the individual ‘pixels’ that made up the pattern, all identical in size, all somehow forming a single grid even though they should have appeared like a celestial sphere. The world was filled with impossibly expansive chunks of black earth only as thick as a bell tower. They floated on every level, and Starlight knew they extended beyond their sight range.

Discord stepped through and stretched his legs on top of a black chunk. “Well this is something I’ve never seen before. I particularly like this sky. My house could use something like that.”

Starlight stepped out behind him, carefully touching the earth beneath her. It felt like a rock. Like what she’d expect a rock to feel like, a rock that was somehow the combination of all rocks she’d ever felt. “Bizarre…” She used her magic to lift a pebble and toss it back into the room. She waved her hoof in front of her. “This place is airless.”

“Yep!”

“How are we talking?”

“Magic. Mine, of course.”

She walked to the edge of their earth chunk and stared into the abyss below. More static – but also more slabs of earth. All of them were parallel to the one they themselves were standing on. Some must have stretched for hundreds of miles.

“How is there even an up and down here?” Starlight wondered.

“Well that isn’t me,” Discord said, creating an apple that fell upward and exploded in a shower of cardboard. Each brown piece was immune to gravity. “I can remove it if you want.”

“Nah… I like having a down.” She glanced at the portal. “We should probably close that before we suck all the air out of Twilight’s castle.”

Discord closed the portal dutifully. It was then Starlight realized how quiet everything was here. There was no sound and no motion besides her and Discord. She could hear her own heartbeat thumping in her chest.

“We need to name this place,” Discord said.

“What if it already has a name?”

“Does it look like anybody lives here?”

“Looks can be deceiving,” Starlight said.

“I vote for calling it the Graybox.”

“No…” Starlight said, lifting her ears. She listened to the silence. “That’s not it…”

Discord raised an eyebrow. “Whatever. We can name it later.”

Starlight rammed her hoof into the ground. She heard half of the noise that was supposed to come from that action. The part that came from her hoof. No sound at all came from the rock. “This is impossible,” she said. “I’m hitting it, and it’s not giving way, it has to be vibrating. But there’s no thunk, no thud, no skidding noise… Just motion. But motion implies at least some sound…”

Discord facepalmed. “This is another universe Starlight! That may be unusual, even for me, but come on, you’re talking to the lord of Chaos. I could make sounds come from nothing and turn you into sound.”

“Please don’t,” Starlight said. “I don’t think that’d be safe here.”

Discord shrugged. “As you wish.” He snapped his fingers, teleporting them to another slab of rock. Even though they had to have moved several miles, the static sky did not change.

“They must be light-years away,” Starlight offered.

“Or they could always be the exact same distance from you,” Discord said, creating a box of orange peels in front of them. It always stayed precisely one meter from Starlight’s face. She turned to Discord – slapping him in the face with it. “Ow…”

“You should be more careful with the illustrations you create. Your point can always come back to bite you.”

Discord created a pen with teeth. It snapped at him. “Eh, I don’t know. Seems innocent enough.”

Starlight facehooved.

Discord grinned, tossing the pen behind him. It imploded, spraying laughing ink everywhere. Starlight wiped it off her face, unamused. She took in a breath. “Well, it doesn’t look like anything’s here… Just rocks, gravity, and no sound whatsoever.”

“Do you want to go back already?” Discord put his hands to his face, forcing green reptilian tears to fall from his face.

“I already got a soil sample. There’s nothing else to collect. Unless you’ve suddenly learned how to teleport light-years away so we can investigate the static.”

Discord frowned. “There she goes. Ladies and gentlemen, pointing out a limit in my power. Amazing.”

An audience composed of three copies of Discord yawned. The ‘feminine’ one booed.

Starlight summoned an orange with her magic and threw it at the booing Discord. The audience vanished before it made contact.

“Are oranges your attack of choice now?” Discord mused. “I much prefer limes myself.”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “Can you think of anything else to do here besides throw fruit at each other?”

Discord turned into a mouse. “We can have a rat race. Or…” He transformed back into his regular self, except wearing a pilot’s suit. “We can see how far we can fall.”

“Discord…”

“TALLY-HO!” He cheered, stepping off the edge of the rocky slab, falling down into the eternity. Starlight rolled her eyes, wrapping herself in telekinesis and rushing to match his increasing speed. Without air, there was nothing working against gravity. They both kept falling faster and faster.

“Think we’ll be able to see a rock before we hit it?” Starlight asked after a minute of falling.

“I dunno. But you can rest easy, Discord is here! I’ll just bring your flattened body back to life, easy.”

“It’s almost like there’s no danger when you’re around.”

“I know! It’s great, isn’t it? You all should have Fluttershy scream ‘Discord! Save me!’ so I can swoop in and save the day!”

“We all know you can’t hear her when she’s in another universe.”

“You never know, I might be watching anyway…”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “…How fast do you think we’re falling now?”

Discord took out a speedometer from nowhere. “Over a kilometer a second. In two more minutes it’ll be two kilometers a second.”

“…Those numbers don’t mean anything to you.”

“Nope! It’s just what the dealy says!”

“It’s a compass now.”

“Huh. So it is. Apparently up is north.”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “So, had enough of falling yet?”

“Yeah.” Discord clapped his hands, and suddenly they were motionless. Starlight didn’t question how she survived this deceleration. Discord opened a portal back home – and hit rock. Soil poured out of the opening into the world of static.

Discord put on a detective hat and a pipe that blew bubbles upside down. “It seems we’re deep underground.”

“No, really?”

“Easy fix. Just a teleport-“

“Wait,” Starlight said, holding up a hoof. “I see something over there.”

Discord stopped his fingers from snapping. He followed her gaze to a nearby slab of rock. There was, in fact, something on top of it. A tall black rectangle.

A monolith.

Starlight teleported them right next to it. It was about the height of Discord, taking the shape of an ideally proportioned rectangle. It was only as thick as a hoof and it floated above the ground high enough that Starlight could walk under it, which she did. It was made of some black featureless metal that glinted in the light.

“Question. Where is the light coming from?” Starlight asked, ignoring the whine that had started in her ears. Her senses were finally wigging out from the silence.

“No idea,” Discord said, tapping the monolith with his claw. Nothing happened.

“Discord, you could have triggered an apocalypse or something.”

“Yeah, right,” he rolled his eyes.

Starlight returned her attention to the monolith, eyes narrowing. She figured since nothing had happened when Discord touched it, she might as well try messing with it herself. She lit her horn, attempting to touch it with her magic.

It sucked her telekinesis spell dry, right into itself.

Starlight grinned. “…A magic absorption material.”

Discord took a step back from it. “Like that bug Chrysalis’ throne? Eck!”

“Somewhat. That absorbed magic selectively, and with a range. This thing will just absorb whatever contacts it…” She rubbed her hooves together. “We’re taking this home.”

“How? It’ll just absorb any magic we throw at it, and that’s about all we’ve got to throw at it.”

“Only what it’s touching. Discord, create some rockets and put them under this stone slab. We’re carrying this thing up.”

Discord shrugged. “Sure.” In an instant, seven rockets were placed beneath the rock. Starlight cut a circular area of the rock out of the miles-long slab, allowing it to rise into the air. The monolith maintained a constant distance from the rock, effectively moving upward.

“This’ll take a while,” Starlight noted. “Now we are fighting something. Gravity itself.”

Discord conjured a deck of cards. “Care for a game?”

“I don’t see why not. As interesting as this monolith is, I’d prefer not to chance it draining all my magic here. Here is bad.” As the whine in her ear attested, ponies were just not meant to have true silence around them. She tried to focus on the game, but it was difficult. Everything she heard felt wrong. She was certainly ready to get out of this place.

But she couldn’t leave without the treasure.

~~~

Sunset and Iroh sat in a room. It was comfortable enough, like a hotel room. Two large beds, a TV, a desk, and a bathroom. No windows though, and the door was locked with several levels of security in addition to being completely fireproof.

This didn’t stop Sunset from trying to get through. She’d bypassed two electronic locks and had picked a physical keyhole. Currently she was using a wire obtained from a lightbulb fixture to probe a lock situated through the door’s crack.

Iroh glanced at her. “You know, they probably know what you’re doing.”

Sunset held up a busted video camera and three listening devices. “I combed the place. They have no more eyes in here.”

“Then why haven’t they come in to check on us in a while?”

“I have no idea,” Sunset said. “I’m just going to work on getting out since there appears to be an opportunity.”

Iroh shrugged, lying back on the bed. “I’d just wait for our captors to return and tell us what they want. They even treated my wound. No enemy would do that.”

“It means they want something, and I don’t like that…” Another lock clicked open. “Gettin’ there…”

“Come, Sunset, relax and watch TV. I’m personally learning a lot from your news. I just saw the same story run twice on two separate channels. Very different…”

“News is not relaxing…”

“It can be amusing though. Your leader is a riot!”

“Joy,” Sunset deadpanned, continuing her work. She probed the lock – and it clicked open. Then all the other locks opened up as well.

Sunset blinked. “Uh… what did I do?”

The door swung open, revealing Agent Shadow standing there with a keycard. “Four locks. Not bad. But your time’s up. Come on out you two, the boss wants to see you.”

Iroh stretched his uninjured arm and grinned. “Ah, good thing you came now, I was considering taking a nap!”

Sunset twitched. “How can you be so relaxed!?”

Iroh shrugged. “I’m an old man. Getting worked up over things seems like too much work.”

Agent Shadow narrowed her eyes. “Hurry up.”

Sunset stood up, kicking all her makeshift tools out of the way. She reached out for Agent Shadow gently, her ungloved hand ready to get a reading.

The agent kicked Sunset in the gut and shoved her in the shoulder. “You are not going to be doing that. Put your gloves on.”

Sunset groaned, but did as was asked. She stood up, glaring at the agent. “You’ve clearly done your homework.”

“I’m well versed in your capabilities. We clearly underestimated the old man though.”

“Us old folks often know the dirtiest tricks,” Iroh said. Then his face suddenly became serious. “Take us to your leader. I have a feeling there’s much to discuss.”

“That there is.” She put handcuffs on the two of them, leading them into a hallway with many other doors that presumably led to similar rooms. They passed dozens of these rooms before coming to an elevator. The three of them piled in. The agent selected “B12” on the keypad. Sunset ran her eyes across the numbers – highest floor was 3, lowest was B13. This was a big facility. It probably also didn’t exist. At least not the lower levels.

“What’s in basement 13?” Sunset asked.

The agent gave no response. Iroh and Sunset followed her example. They arrived at the basement in a few seconds. The doors slid open to reveal a large, open space filled with computers. Dozens of people in suits and glasses sat at the computers, typing furiously. A few agents stood rigid at the edges of the room, presumably serving as both guards and overseers. Towards the back of the room were several giant screens, one of which showed a map of the world colored in different places. Most were a faint purple, but a few areas spiked in color. The Bermuda Triangle, some place in China, and the state Canterlot High was in were all bright red.

Other screens showed images of people. Sunset saw herself, Iroh, both Twilights, and Pinkie up there alongside other individuals she didn’t recognize. Words flashed by faster than she could read. Magic surge found in… …China researching Arcanum… …conformed haunting in Japan…

“Holy meatballs on a stick. You guys are a paranormal investigations unit,” Sunset muttered.

“That we are!” A loud, jovial, bombastic voice yelled from just beneath the world map. A tall man with pale blue skin and an impressive white beard stood up from his large swivel chair, his black suit shining with premium polish. “I am Director Storm! Pleased to make your acquaintance! Agent Shadow, remove their handcuffs, this is no way to do meet new people!”

Agent Shadow tensed. “But sir, they can-“

“I know they could burn this place to the ground, but since we’ve been rather rude in bringing them here, I think we should extend an olive branch.”

Agent Shadow undid the handcuffs reluctantly, letting Iroh and Sunset free.

Director Storm rubbed his hands together. “Much better! Come up here, my desk has extra chairs. I can even order us drinks. Coffee or tea?”

“Tea,” Iroh said.

“Coffee,” Sunset said.

Iroh looked at her like she was a traitor.

“Hey, hey, I’ll get tea next time! Both are good drinks!”

Director Storm laughed. “Already off to a great start!” As they sat down opposite Storm, an agent with a blank expression delivered piping hot tea and coffee, along with a bizarre rainbow fruit cocktail for the Director.

Iroh extended his hand. “I am Ambassador Iroh, Director, pleased to finally make your acquaintance.”

Director Storm shook the hand. “The pleasure is all mine. And I see you using your injured arm there, trying to show you aren’t afraid of a little pain are you, hrm? I do apologize about the gunshot, I had instructed her to be brought in without injuries. Though I suppose that did end up being true. Not a scratch on Sunset. Don’t you hate it when your subordinates technically follow your orders?”

Iroh nodded. “I was a general once. Many battles were lost by technicalities.”

“Ah, a military man? I myself was one, served as a colonel before coming here. I like this job a lot better.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “What, investigating magic?”

“Precisely!” Director Storm confirmed. “We are the Arcane Investigations Department, tasked with observing the magical hotspots of the world for the United States Government. Unfortunately we don’t exist so there’s no special arcane badge or anything, we just get regular FBI stuff. So disappointing.”

“So...” Sunset pursed her lips. “Let me get this straight. You saw some of the magic happenings going on around the school recently, decided to investigate and watch us, and then became so interested in what was going on you had to capture me so I could tell you how to take control of it for yourself?”

Director Storm laughed. “So close, and yet, so far! We’ve been watching Canterlot High for decades, Sunset, since before I came in the program! Magic keeps popping up around there for no discernable reason – or, well, at least until we realized it was all because of its connection to another world. Thanks to you and your notes, by the way.”

“…You were rifling through my notes.” Sunset blinked. “…I need to apologize to Rainbow Dash. Wait, how did you read them?”

“It wasn’t easy. We had to run most of it through computer algorithms.”

Iroh laughed. Sunset furrowed her brow. “You still want me to tell you how to take control of magic.”

“Goodness gracious, no! You obviously don’t know how to do that and this isn’t some power play. That’s for politics, and we hate politics here. I have numerous Senators breathing down my back and it’s painful when a power play is involved. It goes like this. ‘Hey, can I get some funding to stop a magical disease from exploding all over india?’ ‘No, sorry, if I provide funding to you now they’ll hate the new budget proposal!’ And on and on and on and on…”

Sunset frowned. “You must want something from me to go through all this trouble.”

Director Storm smirked. “That I do.” He grabbed a remote and pointed it at the main screen, switching it from the world map to an in depth schematic that Sunset recognized instantly. A fully 3D rendered version of her non-magical portal. The two spikes were clear. She watched as the model animated and tore a hole in reality.

Then the screen switched to a live video feed. In a large, dark room, Sunset could see two physical spikes protruding from the ground. Her jaw dropped. “You built it!?”

“Well, not precisely. It doesn’t function without magic, and we lack the precise spells you use to travel. But it’s your design. It can draw power from the nearby plant and drive it into a dimensional energy gateway… in theory, anyway. We’re unable to test it. So I decided I was tired of waiting for the brainiacs on level nine to replicate the spell. I brought you here with an offer. I want you to work for us, Sunset. I want you to push this division beyond simple ‘Arcane’ studies – we can make history with a non-magical portal device. You have the new ideas, the genius, and the prerequisite knowledge. You probably know more about magic than this entire facility put together!” He sat back. “Make the portal work and you’ve got yourself a job. It’ll pay for all your education and you’ll get to turn what you’ve been doing in your free time into something more… worthwhile. Isn’t this exciting!?”

Sunset blinked. “You have my broken portal device. You can just use that. Why all this talk of ‘offers’ and a ‘deal’?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Iroh said. “He wants you on their side.”

Sunset raised her right hand and took off her glove. “Director Storm, I do not know if you are altruistic, if you are telling the truth, or if you have some sort of evil plan in the back of that mind of yours. This all seems very, very fishy to me. But you can do something to prove yourself to me, and I think you know what it is.”

Director Storm grinned. Without a word he vigorously shook Sunset’s hand.

She felt his deep passion, his intense joy about life, his devotion, his anticipation… His desire. He wasn’t perfect. His positivity and words were genuine, but power corrupts, and it was corrupting him like it did all other men. He was being honest now, but he was a well-versed liar. He had not gotten to the top without causing bloodshed.

She was witness to several memories. Him throwing a Christmas celebration for all the AID agents. Him killing a man in cold blood with an arcane artifact. Him leading troops in a battle he was not prepared for. Him yelling at some random politician with a fire usually limited to the mouths of bloodthirsty barbarians…

Sunset leaned back. “…You mean what you say.”

“But, naturally, I’m not pure. I’m a horrendously selfish man who just wants to be great. I’m definitely willing to hurt people to do that. But it just so happens that I think huge projects for all of mankind is part of being great. And I think we can help each other here.” He folded his hands and grinned. “So? You want a job?”

“…I’ll have to let the sushi place know I’m quitting ahead of time…”

Director Storm fist pumped. “Yes! We can take care of that for you. I’m sure they’ll accept a Harvard graduate as a worker for now.”

“I haven’t said yes yet!”

“Yes you have,” Iroh and the Director said at the same time.

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Fine. I do have a condition though. I’m not going to be able to keep this secret from certain people I know.”

“You can tell anyone who knows about magic,” Director Storm said. “Well, that we exist at least, and that you’re working with us. You can’t give them details. Good enough of a compromise for you?”

Sunset slid the glove back over her hand. She tried to calm herself – she couldn’t let Director Storm’s excitement make her lose control. “Fair enough. Before we make any plans, what exactly will I be doing besides helping design this portal?”

“You have experience traveling the worlds, yes? You’ll be going through it with our main team with my best agents. Yes, that includes you Tempest.”

“I’m aware,” Agent Tempest Shadow muttered.

“Good!” Director Storm quipped. “You can start work right away! See if you can get old Iroh here home. Speaking of Iroh, Ambassador, I’ve been neglecting you. I do hope this won’t interfere with our agency’s relation to your world.”

Iroh raised an incredulous eyebrow. “You did shoot me.”

“I apologized!” Director Storm put on his best ‘cute eyes’ expression. It worked surprisingly well, Sunset decided.

Iroh smirked. “I’m afraid my opinion of you can only go so far, the people close to me aren’t going to like you.”

“Challenge accepted.”

“Hold it!” Sunset said. “I have calculus homework to get done! I can’t be working on a portal right now!”

Director Storm narrowed his eyes. “...I think we all know you won’t be able to focus on homework now that you’ve heard this.”

“…Yeah,” Sunset admitted.

“Agent Shadow! Take them to level 13, and bring the broken device. Introduce Sunset to the rest of the team!”

Tempest nodded. “This way,” she said, clearly not pleased that Sunset had accepted.

“You know, if we’re going to work together we’re going to have to get along,” Sunset observed.

“I don’t get along with anybody. Not my boss, not my coworkers. I do the job and I do it well. That’s it. End of story.”

Sunset turned to Iroh. “Challenge accepted?”

Iroh nodded. “Challenge accepted.”

“CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!” Director Storm echoed.

“Do you even know what challenge was accepted?” Sunset asked.

“Nope! Don’t care, that was fun to say. Now go have fun!” He waved them off cheerfully.

~~~

“Right, should be back to the right height now,” Starlight said. “Kill the rockets.”

Starlight heard agonizing screams beneath them as the rockets cut out. She facehooved. “I didn’t mean literally.”

Discord shrugged. “You should be careful about what you say around me, Starlight. I could turn anything into a juggling competition at any moment!”

“Just suck the monolith into the room.”

Discord snapped his fingers, creating a portal beneath the monolith. He lifted the gateway upward, transporting the monolith without actually touching it. Starlight grinned – this was working well! She’d be able to leave soon and her ears would be fine.

When half of the monolith was out of the dimension a brilliant red eye shape appeared in its center. The crimson shade was jarring to both of them. Nothing in this world had had any color before.

Then the monolith moved. It touched the edge of the portal, forcing it to close. The interdimensional forces were so strong the black slab was cut clean in two. The crimson eye vanished, unable to fully manifest on half a monolith. The remaining half fell to the ground, kicking up dust – but making no noise.

Starlight examined the place where the cut had occurred. There was no inner workings to the monolith at all. It might as well have been solid metal.

“…Odd,” Starlight said, biting her lip. “That makes me a little… nervous. Maybe this place is inhabited after all.”

“Could be.” Discord shot a magic bolt at the partial monolith. It absorbed the magic. “Still works though.”

“Hmm. Well at least we got something interesting. Come on Discord, take us-“ it was at this point she saw them coming right at them. Hundreds, if not thousands, of monoliths that definitely hadn’t been there before approaching them from all sides. All the monoliths wore the single eye. All of them drifted in their direction, silent, emotionless. Yet, still threatening.

Starlight felt compelled to look up. She paled – the static sky still existed. But there was another red eye directly above them, as if painted. On a hunch, she looked down over the edge to the static below them. There was another eye, but this one was… closed? How did she know it was an eye then?

Gravity suddenly flipped. They fell up, towards the open eye. Starlight was forced to reorient herself, realizing that the open eye was down.

“Discord! We’ve awakened something! Get us out of here!”

Discord snapped his fingers, generating a portal between them and the eye in the static. The monoliths were suddenly right next to them, close enough to disturb the formation of the dimensional portal. They closed in, making a box of red eyes around the two of them.

Starlight summoned a bomb with her magic and tossed it at the monoliths. The bomb hit, exploded, and did nothing.

Discord’s attempt at doing something worked better. He folded space itself into a noodle, creating a pathway out of the monolith box by circumventing three-dimensional space. He created another portal, shoving the two of them through it before the monoliths could react.

They were back in Starlight’s secret stash room. The bottom half of the first monolith was there, as dead as it had first seemed. Starlight glanced back through the portal.

She saw something sitting on a rock, past the swarm of monoliths.

Something purple.

“…Twilight?”

Discord closed the portal.

Starlights ears instantly stopped detecting any sort of whine. She let out a sigh of relief. Then she laughed. “We did it!” She set her foot on top of the monolith chunk. “We have obtained some anti-magic stone! Ha-ha!”

Discord produced a party blower out of nowhere and blew it.

Starlight shook her head. “Tsk tsk tsk. You should stop copying Pinkie’s moves, Discord. It isn’t good for your self-image.”

Discord shrugged. “Originality is overrated. So, Starlight, when are we going to do this again?”

“Again?”

“That was fun. I think it’s about time I put my foot in this dimensional exploration ring, and your lack of regard for rules seems just right for me!”

Starlight grinned. “How about every time I head out? I’ll no longer have to sneak around the Mirror Portal, and we can deposit things right here. Discord, we’re going to get so much awesome stuff.

Discord smirked, knocking the monolith chunk. “You got it! …You think we could make a throne out of this?”

Starlight furrowed her brow. “….Maybe…?” Already, she was thinking about how to turn it into a throne without using magic. Already pushing the memories of the Noise out of her mind.

What Noise? There was no noise.

~~~

“Well, I like the Director,” Iroh said. “Reminds me of myself in many ways.”

“He doesn’t care as much as you,” Sunset said. “He wasn’t lying when he said he was selfish. He really does like power and glory, even if he does like those around him as well. He’s… An interesting character, I have to say. I wouldn’t trust him.”

“What do you think about him, Tempest?”

“He’s my boss,” Tempest muttered. “That’s it.”

Sunset put her hands on her hips. “Come on, every person you ever meet you have thoughts about.”

“People aren’t worth my time,” Tempest muttered. She led them into the elevator again, pressing the basement 13 button. They arrived at the bottom of the base shortly thereafter. It was just the large room they had seen on the screen earlier with the two arches. The only other people in the room were two men in suits talking happily to each other.

“Mike! Ike!” Tempest yelled. “Looks like we’ve got the sun girl on our team now.”

“Nice!” The shorter, pale white man said. “Told you she’d accept! Nobody can say no to the Director!”

“I could,” the dark red skinned man said. “It just happens that I agree with him most of the time.”

“Mike, there’s no way.”

Mike gave no response beyond a knowing smile.

The shorter man – presumably Ike – just shrugged. He went to shake Sunset’s hand – but held it back. “Waiiiit… I don’t want you seeing into my mind.”

“I’ve got a glove on right now,” Sunset said, smiling. “It’s fine.” She grabbed his hand and shook it. “See? No weird stuff. I’m Sunset Shimmer, but you know that. You probably know a lot about me. How about you tell me about yourselves?”

Tempest grunted. “Mike and Ike were once agents of the FBI whose very names are a national secret. Mike and Ike are code names they gained on a very, very classified assignment you will never know about. Mike is an agent with several confirmed kills, combat experience, and commendations. Ike… is his friend.”

Ike frowned. “Really Tempy? Really?”

“And I am Agent Tempest Shadow. And that’s all you need to know.” She shoved the broken portal device into Sunset’s hands. “You’ll know how to make the thing work.”

“Where do I put the spell?”

Tempest pointed at the only spot on the arches that had a light shone on them.

“Ah. Gotcha.” She popped the back off the device, which was easy considering how broken it was. She took out a single silver wafer, the part of the machine enchanted with the spell. She placed it inside the arch. “That was really easy.”

“Wait, that was it?” Ike blurted.

Iroh grinned. “That it was, my young friend. If you don’t mind, Sunset, do you think you can take me home?”

Sunset frowned. “Let’s see… Tempest, controls?”

Tempest shrugged. Mike pointed at a computer in a nearby wall. Sunset ran to it, finding to her delight that the user interface was almost identical to how she imagined it. She adjusted a few parameters involving the portal, and pressed go.

The two arched spikes lit up with a purple energy, coursing with electricity drawn from the power grid. A small point appeared in between them, stretching to match their edges to the arches. The city of Ba Sing Se could be seen clearly through the portal.

“Hrm…” Sunset said, scratching her chin. “We aren’t underground on that end… Something to look into.”

Tempest shrugged. “Finding that out is your job. Iroh, leave now. We’ll be in contact.”

Iroh shrugged. “To the point, aren’t you?”

“Move it.”

Iroh didn’t get a chance to move. A small group of people had noticed the portal and were walking towards it.

“Abort!” Tempest yelled.

Iroh held up his hand. “I know them.” He waved to the approachign group. Sunset could make out an Earth Kingdom girl, Fef, a grumpy looking Fluttershy, and some shadow girl…

“So, old man, you seem to have found yourself an adventure!” the Earth Kingdom girl said, smirking.

Iroh smiled. “What are you doing with such an interesting group, Toph?”

“Looking for you! Nobody wants to go exploring, everybody’s got a bunch of responsibilities. Sokka, Katara, Aang, Zuko, all of them are just too busy. But I’m not about to let this chance go. So I’m gathering whoever I can find to go have some fun with those things the ponies gave us. And you’re going to give us one!”

Tempest looked at Iroh. “You let children command you?”

Iroh and Toph burst into laughter. “Good Spirits, no!” Iroh said. “She’s a friend. And I think an exploration team is a great idea. A parallel to what you’re doing here, as it turns out.” He smirked. ”What are the odds two groups would form at the same time?”

“Extremely low. And yet, perfect,” Mike offered.

“Yeah! I like you!” Fef cheered.

“We are not the same team. All of you out!” Tempest shouted.

“Yeesh. Anger issues incarnate,” Toph muttered. “All right! Everyone follow the blind girl out, as is tradition! Hup hup!”

Iroh laughed, waving to Sunset. “I guess I’ve overstayed my welcome. This was fun. We should do this again.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Something tells me we will. There’ll be no end to the fun.”

Tempest closed the portal, sealing the two worlds apart.

“There. Done. From now on we will do things by the book and follow the rules.” She stood tall. “Such a security breach should not be allowed again.”

Ike shrugged. “Loosen up, will you?”

“The boss is loose. I’m not. That’s how it works,” Tempest huffed.

Sunset shrugged. Frankly, she didn’t care all that much about what Tempest thought. She had a new job… And she was still excited about it. She was sure it was her excitement now, and not Director Storm’s. She now had the resources to actually help build the portal. And probably scientists who could figure out the gravity problem!

There’d be a non-magical solution yet…

~~~

Princess Twilight Sparkle teleported a desk in front of the Mirror Portal. “Okay, so since people are starting to travel to and from the worlds a lot, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the public is starting to learn about the Mirror Portal and what it is. More than a few have actually showed up asking to be let through. Naturally, this is a precious magical artifact and we can’t just let anypony in. That’s where you come in. You’re here to defend this Portal and keep track of who leaves, as well as who arrives.”

A cream-coated mare with a blue-pink curled mane bowed. “You can count on me, Princess.”

Twilight smiled. “You came highly recommended, Bon Bon. Celestia herself suggested you.”

Bon Bon glanced around nervously. “…What does this mean about my cover?”

“You’re still Bon Bon of Ponyville. No secret agent history as far as anyone who comes through here is concerned. You’ll look like a simple secretary. But your job is very important.”

“I won’t let you down.”

Twilight smiled. “I know you won’t.”

She left Bon Bon to get situated with her new desk. She noticed Starlight and Discord walking towards her. “Oh. Hello you two!”

Starlight smiled. “Hi Twilight! Hey, have you, by chance, recently been to a world where the sky was static?”

Twilight blinked. “Uh… No. Why?” “

“Thought I saw you somewhere. Guess it wasn’t really you.

“…And why are you in a spacesuit?”

Starlight smiled brightly. “Discord and I went to one of the unsafe universes with his spell! It was an interesting place. It had no sound Twilight! And the light came from nowhere!”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “Oh really? Awesome! Put what you found in the Directory!”

“I will! Don’t go there though, no air at all.”

Twilight nodded. “Oh, of course. And thanks for being helpful, Discord!”

Discord gasped. “Oh no – I was helpful!” He made his body melt into an agonizing puddle. “Nooooooooo…”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well, if you promise to behave yourself you can come on adventures with us. Okay?”

Both him and Starlight started laughing uncontrollably.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Ooooor not. See you around.” She trotted off, completely oblivious to what was going on right under her nose.

Chapter Text

Triple Point

“Woo-hoo!” Pinkie hollered. “It’s been a while!”

Twilight took her gaze off the Mirror Portal and raised an eyebrow in Pinkie’s direction. “We went through two days ago. The crystal world, remember?”

“Yeah, I’m not talking about that though!” Pinkie giggled.

“What are you talking about then?” Fluttershy asked, curious.

“Well, it’s just been awhile since I’ve felt like this! So good! We’re going to do something fun today, Twilight!”

“You think so?” Twilight asked.

“Well, yeah! But then again I always make things fun so this might just mean nothing for us. Eh.”

“Oh! Before we go in…” Starlight said, reaching into her saddlebags and pulling out a small helicopter drone. “I’ve made… this.”

Rarity looked at the thing resting in Starlight’s hoof. “…What is it, dear?”

“It’s a flying machine.” Starlight lit her horn and the small machine rose into the air. “It’ll follow us around automatically and cast a shield spell whenever it thinks we need it.”

Twilight looked at it and grinned. “That’s pretty amazing Starlight. How’d you get the technology to accept the spells?”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Pinkie said, raising her hoof. “It was her souvenirs!”

Starlight chuckled. “Uh… Yeah! I worked with various otherworldly magics and a drone from an Earth and eventually made this thing. Discord and I tested it, it works pretty well.”

“Oh, so that’s what Discord’s helping you with?” Fluttershy asked.

“Yeeeep! I mean, what else would he be helping me with?”

“I don’t know. It just seems unlike him to do ‘sciencey’ things.”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “He got to shoot chaos magic at a robot for a few hours.”

Fluttershy smiled warmly. “Well that certainly sounds like him.”

Twilight nodded. “That it does. Hopefully we won’t need to test this drone today. I don’t want to spend another day getting shot at.”

“Twilight, we have not visited enough worlds to be jaded to gunfire,” Rarity asserted. “Give it a year or two. Some of us still jump whenever there’s a bang.”

“Right, right, sorry.”

“No need to apologize!”

“But I-“

“Enough chit chat!” Pinkie said, appearing between the two of them. “We’re wasting the time that could be used elsewhere! Perhaps in a world of candy!”

“Is today donut world day?” Fluttershy asked.

“Fluttershy, there’s no way we could know that,” Twilight noted. “We have to go in first. All I know right now is that the other side is safe. Other than that, could be anything.” She took a step forward. “Pinkie’s right though, time to find out!”

She stepped through. The other side was dark. There were no sources of light, and yet she could see her purple hooves as if it were the middle of the day. The sky was a pitch black emptiness, a void of starless despair. The ground was flat, cold, and felt vaguely like plastic. Twilight noted that the ground was a grid – black squares bordered by dark blue glowing lines, each roughly the size of a square meter. She could see precisely fifteen squares in every direction before the blue lines no longer existed, giving way to seeming endless blackness.

“…Peculiar,” Twilight said.

“Why do we even say that anymore?” Rarity asked, taking her place beside Twilight. “This is nowhere near as odd as that infinite forest.”

“True…” Twilight said, putting a hoof to her chin. Starlight, Fluttershy, and Pinkie arrived in the new world along with Starlight’s drone. The robot happily buzzed above Starlight, observing every space it could see.

Twilight took a step forward into the next square. The moment she did so, more squares lit up in front of her. Glancing behind her, she saw that the squares in the back had vanished, replaced with blackness. “Hey, Starlight.”

“Yeah?”

“How many squares away from yourself can you see?”

Starlight glanced at the square she was on, counting in her mind. “…Fifteen in every direction. Exactly.”

“I can see fifteen as well. From where I’m standing. That means I can see squares you can’t.’

Fluttershy blinked. “Um. What does that mean?”

“Not sure yet…” Twilight cast a simple light spell and forced it to sit on the fifteenth square in front of her. “Can you see that Starlight?”

“It just vanished into nothingness for me.” Starlight smirked. “It seems each of us have a limited field of view. There’s no way this place is natural…”

“Ahem,” Rarity coughed. “There are weirder things in the multiverse.”

“All right, fine, I doubt it’s natural. Too many squares, artificial light, forced perspective. Almost like a…”

“GAME!” Pinkie squeed, jumping around in her characteristic way. Bounced out of the last square in Twilight’s field of view, vanishing into nothing in an instant. Twilight felt afraid for a moment – what if Pinkie never came back? They couldn’t see far enough to locate her, and if she needed help there’d be no way for them to give it!

Pinkie came back into the field of view a few seconds later, putting those thoughts to rest for the most part. She stopped right next to Twilight. “I’m here to report that there’s nothing but flat squares in that direction!”

“Nothing but flat squares anywhere,” Rarity said, walking around. “The only feature is… Well what we came out of.”

What they came out of was a simple cube raised out of the ground, borders glowing a soft dark blue. One of the cube’s faces shimmered with the light of the Mirror Portal. Starlight tapped one of its sides. “It’s… Just like the floor.”

“Why’s it raised though?” Twilight asked.

“Could be natural,” Fluttershy shrugged. She looked up. “I’m going to try flying.”

“All right. Just make sure you can still see us. If you can’t, come back down.”

Fluttershy flapped into the air. She was soon much higher than fifteen meters, but they could still see her easily. She kept going higher, but nothing changed besides her getting smaller.

“You can come down now!” Twilight yelled. “There’s no upper limit!”

Fluttershy slowly drifted down to the ground. “It’s… odd not being able to see further when you go higher.”

“Rainbow Dash would hate this place,” Rarity observed. “Can you imagine?”

Pinkie smirked. “AUGH! I can’t see where I’m going! AUGH! Stupid wall! AUGH! Going fast is punisheeeeed! No fair! Lame!”

The girls had a good chuckle at the impression.

“So…” Fluttershy eventually said. “Are we going to go explore, or what?”

Twilight blushed slightly. “Right, right, we do need to look around…” She cast a simple navigation spell so they’d always be able to find their way back here. Not that they needed it, since she had the dimensional device in her saddlebags as a backup, but it never hurt to be careful. They set out in a random direction – compasses didn’t work, so there wasn’t really a north here – and quickly left the sight of the raised block.

A couple minutes passed. Nothing presented itself to them.

“Ugh,” Starlight muttered. “Is there nothing here?”

“That wouldn’t be very fun…” Pinkie said.

“There’s obviously something imposing the field of view on us,” Twilight said. “Though I suppose that could be the universe itself… But if this place really operated on a grid why would we be allowed to stand on corners and move like we do?”

“Cause it’s a game!”

“What a thrilling game,” Rarity deadpanned. “I’m on the edge of my seat with excitement.”

“Girls…” Fluttershy said.

“Hrm?” Twilight asked, looking to her left at Fluttershy.

“I see something over there.” She pointed into the void.

“I don- Oh. Right.” Twilight walked into the same square as Fluttershy. The square was a little cramped with two ponies on it, but they managed without issue. Twilight looked at the furthest square she could see and did make out something. It was a blue pawn, similar to those pieces on the game of chess she’d seen on Earth. “Huh.”

“I want to see!” Starlight said, trying to worm her way onto the same square. The location went from cramped to uncomfortable in an instant.

“Starlight, if you want to see just move one square for-“

“LEMME SEE LEMME SEE!” Pinkie cheered, leaping into the three of them and creating a pony pile.

Rarity rolled her eyes at her friends’ antics, taking it upon herself to move forward. She strode gracefully towards the blue pawn, eyes watching it closely. It was a brighter color than the lines in the ground, bright enough that it spread a little blue spotlight around itself. It seemed alive – even though it didn’t have any moving limbs or body parts, it bounced around slightly like some frog, shifting its weight around to remain comfortable.

It eventually noticed her approaching it. It hopped up and down excitedly.

“Hello,” Rarity said.

The pawn hopped a square closer to Rarity. She took a step back – making the pawn pause. It leaned towards her, as if trying to gauge her reaction to it.

“Can you talk? …Or even understand me? …Or even have ears?”

The pawn made no response.

“Take that as a ‘no’ on all three!” Starlight called.

“Already got that figured out, but thanks anyway!” Rarity called back. She changed tactics, resorting to gestures to facilitate communication. She beckoned for it to come to her. It got the message, hopping over squares one at a time until it reached the one in front of hers. She touched it with her hoof, discovering that it felt exactly like the ground. “Don’t worry girls, he’s harmless.”

The pawn decided that was enough of that, and bounced over to the other four ponies eagerly. Pinkie Pie appeared on its head mid-journey, making it stop to re-examine its life. “Hi! I’m Pinkie Pie! You can’t understand me but that’s okay! Onward, steed!”

The pawn seemed to understand anyway, carrying Pinkie to her friends. Twilight eyed the pawn suspiciously. “Are you sure this thing’s safe? We’ve been wrong before.”

“Well, it probably doesn’t want us dead,” Pinkie said. “It’s kinda like a dog!”

Fluttershy put her wing on it. “…Not like any dog I’ve dealt with. I don’t understand it at all… I have no idea what the poor thing wants!”

“How do you know it’s a poor thing then?” Starlight asked.

“Animal talk,” Pinkie explained. “All cute things are poor things unless Fluttershy is doting over them.”

“Hey! I…” Fluttershy blushed. “I can’t argue with that.”

“Pinkie strikes again!” Pinkie leaped up and struck a power pose. “I win a cookie!” She grabbed a cookie out of her mane and devoured it.

Starlight raised an eyebrow. On a hunch, she pulled a virtual tablet out of her saddlebags. “Hey… Pinkie! My cookie count is down! What did you do?”

“I won a cookie. That’s worth, like, a trillion internet cookies.”

“At this phase of the game-“ Starlight noticed her friends looking at her. “…All right, the game is stupid, I shouldn’t get so worked up over it, sorry Pinkie.”

Pinkie winked. Then she pulled out a cupcake, offering it to Starlight. “Here.”

“How many internet cupcakes is that worth?”

“None, I just grabbed it!”

Starlight nodded slowly, trying desperately to make it look like she understood.

The pawn hopped up and down excitedly again, moving a square away and pointing its head in the same direction. It hopped another square, stopping to point at them, then leaned away.

“…I think it wants us to follow,” Twilight observed.

“Brilliant deduction,” Starlight deadpanned.

“I say we follow it,” Rarity cut in. “It’s the only thing we’ve seen in this entire place. What else are we going to do? Have a sleepover?”

“I do have pillows,” Pinkie said, throwing a pillow in Rarity’s face.

“Thank you Pinkie for your input. I’m going to follow the pawn.”

Twilight nodded. “It seems like the best thing to do.” They fell in line behind the blue being. It wanted to go as far and as fast as it could, but it never let itself get more than seven squares away from Twilight. She figured this meant that the pawn had a smaller field of view than she and her friends did.

Once again Twilight was left to wonder why and not come up with a satisfactory answer. Something had to be keeping track of them to do this. She didn’t detect any high levels of magic, but that didn’t really mean anything anymore.

Their pawn friend led them to an area that had more blue pawns – much, much more. Twilight could count twenty in her field of view alone, and she knew there were even more behind them.

“There might be hundreds… Thousands…” Twilight muttered.

“Well, it’s a society at least,” Rarity observed. “No buildings though… Nothing but them and this grid. What kind of life do they have if they can’t talk? It must be boring.”

“They seem happy,” Fluttershy said. “Maybe they just don’t need anything but each other.”

Twilight surveyed the landscape, brow furrowed. “I still want to know why. What runs this place?” She glanced around – and on the edge of her vision she saw a red pawn. It hopped into the field of view – then hopped out.

“Girls, I just saw-“

From the left edge of her field of view, dozens of red pawns poured out, charging the blue pawns. The blue ones leaped up and ran for the most part, fleeing the red onslaught. Not all of them were fast enough to escape. The red pawns leaped on top of the blue ones, smashing them into a thousand pieces that dissipated into nothing. Five shattered before Twilight registered what was happening.

“No!” Fluttershy said, flying towards the pawn that had led them here. She was too late – it was quickly crushed by an invading red pawn. Fluttershy screamed, Staring at the red pawn with ferocious intensity.

It froze solid, unable to move as Fluttershy inched closer.

“You… Are going… To… Protect these lit-“

The red pawn bolted, as if a switch had been flicked inside of it from ‘stand frozen in fear’ to ‘flee!’ The entire group of red pawns got the idea at the exact same time, fleeing from the ponies’ field of view.

Twilight stared, jaw hanging. “…What just happened?”

“I’ll tell you what happened!” Fluttershy screeched. “A bunch of mean red pawns attacked for no reason and killed a bunch of adorable blue pawns!”

Rarity held a hoof to her mouth. “There are no remains at all…”

“This isn’t any game I’d like to play,” Pinkie muttered.

“We need to help these pawns!” Fluttershy said. “They can’t live like this. Look at them – they’re terrified!”

The pawns did indeed seem to be terrified. Instead of hopping around carefree and amiably, they shivered and huddled as close together as possible.

“We can’t do that,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “We don’t know all the details. We can’t talk to them, we can only go off what we see. And we haven’t seen much. Acting without knowing is likely to cause more problems. More destruction.”

Fluttershy’s face indicated that she really wanted to argue against Twilight’s stance, but couldn’t. She sagged in defeat. “Fine. But we need to do that quickly so more of this doesn’t happen while we’re waiting! How do we find out more?”

“We can’t ask them, so we’ll have to watch them. And since we need both sides of the story, we need to go see what the red pawns are doing.” She took in a deep breath. “They fled that way. Let’s follow them.”

Fluttershy spread her wings and flew away, giving no regard to her usual slow movement.

“W-wait up!” Starlight called after her, galloping at full speed, her drone flying behind her. Twilight, Pinkie, and Rarity took places behind Starlight, attempting to keep up with the driven pegasus.

“Fluttershy!” Twilight yelled. “Slow down when you see them! We can’t let them know they’re being followed!”

“Got it!” Fluttershy called back, showing no signs of slowing.

Rarity turned to Twilight as they ran. “Did… Did we just see pawn creatures die?

“Think about it later, Rarity,” Twilight said. If she was being honest, she said that more for her own benefit. She couldn’t let herself get bogged down by what had just happened now. Her mind couldn’t process it.

Fluttershy flared her wings, slowing everypony down in that moment. They all kept running, but at a slower pace – because Fluttershy had seen the pawns and was keeping them at the edge of her vision. She glowered at them.

“Good job, Fluttershy.” Twilight said. “Now we just have to keep them in our sights…”

While Twilight was finishing that thought, the red pawns arrived in their encampment, taking up positions in a loose coalition of happily bouncing red pawns. None of them could see the ponies, for they were too far away.

Fluttershy blinked. “It… It looks exactly like the blue pawn place…”

“That’s what it seems like…” Twilight frowned. “I think we should go in.”

“What!?”

“Those pawns we were tailing are long out of our sights. The red pawns won’t be able to recognize us. So they should accept us just like the blue ones…” She took a few steps forward. One of the pawns saw her and began shaking in fear. It ran into the sea of other read pawns. Twilight imagined it screaming.

Some of the red pawns looked like they wanted to take a stand, but ran away anyway.

Twilight held out a hoof. “Uh… So we’re terrifying. Great. This makes no sense!

She did not have time to contemplate the senselessness of the situation, for what sounded an awful lot like a gunshot reached her ear. She noticed with some fear that Starlight’s drone had raised a shield directly to the left of her skull, protecting her from a projectile. She’d probably be dead right now without that drone.

To her left, exactly fifteen spaces away, she saw a floating red octahedron. It flashed red, firing another red bullet, which the drone defended as well.

Twilight was done – she had to defend herself now. She fired a magic laser at the diamond, only for it to step out of her field of view.

“What is it Twilight!?” Starlight shouted.

“Under attack! Red diamond! Look out!”

“I see it!” Rarity yelled, firing off a magic bolt of her own. “It’s staying out of our line of sight!”

Twilight saw it to her right. It fired the moment it entered her field of view, but Twilight sent the bullet right back at it – only to miss. “It has the same field of view we do! Next time one appears, try to keep it in your sights!”

“I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE, A DIAMOND!” Pinkie yelled. She ran out of Twilight’s field of view, presumably after the diamond. But then one appeared behind Twilight in the exact opposite direction.

“There’s more than one!” Twilight shouted.

“Got one!” Starlight yelled, latching onto a red diamond with her magic. She encased it in a bubble shield so it couldn’t unleash its bullets and pulled it closer to her. “Keep an eye on it!”

Fluttershy nodded, Staring at it intently.

A red diamond rushed at them from beyond their sight range, fire burning off of it on all sides. With graceful movement, it bounced over Starlight’s and Twilight’s attacks, landing directly on the magic box containing the other red diamond with a fiery burst. With its companion freed, the flame-wielding diamond turned on Rarity, a torrent of flame shooting right at her. Starlight blocked it with her magic, unable to prevent Rarity’s mane from getting slightly singed.

The drone blocked another bullet, this time saving Fluttershy a wound to her chest. Pinkie came out of nowhere, holding a red diamond in her hooves and hitting the fiery diamond across the side with it. “STRIKE! Or FORE! Or something!”

The flaming diamond didn’t hit the ground – it just floated upright, ready for more fighting. It charged, accompanied by more gunfire from a fourth companion.

“How many of them are there?” Rarity yelled, firing off ineffective bolts of magic.

“I don’t know!” Starlight said, tying the one she’d had imprisoned previously and the one Pinkie had brought in down. “I count four so far!”

The flaming diamond unleashed a wave of flame towards everypony. Twilight had to raise the shield to defend this one since the drone was far too weak for the task. The drone caught a bullet from behind, and Starlight took the opportunity to imprison a third diamond. “Just the fiery one left unless we’ve miscounted!”

The fiery diamond launched itself right at Starlight, only to be caught by her telekinesis. “Woo! Full of fire wouldn’t you say?”

Pinkie facehooved. “That’s my job, Starlight.”

“Did… Did we get them all?” Twilight asked, nervously glancing around. There were no diamonds besides the four Starlight had frozen in magic bubbles.

“No more action on the horizon…” Rarity said, scanning the area.

“Good,” Twilight let out a breath. “…I did not want guns today…”

“They weren’t really guns, you know,” Starlight observed. “Just… Gun-like magic-like like… …I’m going to stop this sentence before it gets too out of hand.”

Twilight glanced at the diamonds. “You have them secure?”

“Long as I’m thinking about it, it stays up. Give me a minute or to and I could make it more permanent.”

“Well-“

A yellow pawn appeared out of the corner of their vision and charged. Rarity stopped it with her telekinesis, grunting from the strain. “My… How do you two push so hard all the time?”

Twilight shrugged. She was about to respond when two more yellow pawns appeared, charging. She caught these in her telekinesis, but it didn’t end. More appeared, all needing to be stopped. Soon there were a full dozen yellow pawns frozen by their magic.

“This… Is a bit much to focus on…” Starlight admitted. “Maybe we should consi-“

A yellow diamond showed up. It grabbed a pawn from behind it with an invisible force and threw it at Starlight. Starlight panicked from the sudden movement, unable to stop the pawn from hitting her in the head. It bounced right off of her harmlessly, but she lost her focus on all the beings she was keeping imprisoned. Including the four red diamonds.

The fiery diamond wasted no time at all. Starlight was given a face full of fire without any sort of magical protection. She fell to the ground, singed.

A second yellow diamond appeared out of the floor and attacked the flaming red diamond. Fire appeared in front of the yellow diamond, before exploding onto the red diamond. The red diamond didn’t seem to care – and its associates fired bullets right at the yellow shape. They passed right through without so much as a dent.

Two more yellow diamonds entered the scene, bringing with them more yellow pawns. One broke the grid beneath it and tossed chunks of it at the red diamond and the ponies, while the other attacked with neon chains that lengthened and shrunk with alarming accuracy. One of the chains clocked Fluttershy in the side of the head, knocking her out. The drone stopped the other one from hitting Pinkie.

Pinkie grabbed ahold of a red shooting diamond and smacked a yellow diamond with it. Both the diamonds slumped to the ground, but Pinkie was open to an attack from the grid-smasher. Part of the grid hit her in the back of the head. “OW! That hurt! Tha-“ A chain hit her right in the face. Pinkie twisted around like a corkscrew and fell to the ground.

Twilight unleashed the spell she’d been building up in her horn. “Enough!” She sent out a burst of purple magic energy, a spell designed to stun all enemies. It worked – all the diamonds and yellow pawns stopped moving.

They’d only be frozen a second. She lit her horn again, drawing magic together for a somewhat less complex spell. She latched onto Pinkie, Starlight, Rarity, and Fluttershy with her magic and teleported them all the way back to the blue pawn base. They escaped the battlefield in an instant, out of danger and into safety.

Twilight ran to Starlight first. She could smell the burn. “Starlight!”

Starlight moaned. “Hrng…”

Twilight winced when she saw Starlight’s face – the coat was burned off the right side, revealing the pale skin beneath. Her eye was swollen shut and part of the skin was charred. “All right… Twilight… You can do this…” She lit her horn, trying to remember her first aid spells she had brushed up on for these missions. For a burn… Cool aspect, aloe effect, and… And uh...

She gulped, forcing herself to stop thinking and just perform the spell. A soft purple glow surrounded Starlight’s face, working on the burn wound.

Starlight screamed about a second in. Twilight reeled, and would have stopped the spell had it not been automatic at this point. Starlight screamed the full three seconds it worked on her – and then fell silent.

“S-Starlight…?” Twilight said, nervously.

“You… Forgot…. The anesthetic…” Starlight spat, breathing heavily.

“SORRY!”

Starlight stood up, rubbing her face. “Ow…” her coat was still burnt off that half of her face, and the scent of singed hair was still strong, but her eye was no longer swollen shut. “That hurt worse than the burn, Twilight.”

“Well burns tend to remove your nerves and so it probably hurt more and I’ll stop talking now because you really don’t need to hear that heheh.”

Starlight walked over to Fluttershy, standing her up. “You okay?”

“I’m… Fine. I feel sore though…”

“Your wing is bleeding,” Starlight said, lifting the limb with her magic. “I think a bullet grazed it…”

“Yeah…”

Starlight cast a simple ‘scab’ spell to stop the bleeding. “That’ll work for now.”

Fluttershy nodded. “Thanks…”

“Well,” Rarity said, “now we know what’s going on here. Three-way war.”

“Probably,” Twilight said, sighing. “They’ve been fighting for Celestia knows how long. We… We really shouldn’t do anything here. It’s not our place. …I’m not sure what we could do either, besides fight in the war.”

“I understand,” Fluttershy said. “I… I think” She shook her head. “This is a messed up place. We should leave.”

Twilight nodded. She lit her horn, teleporting the five of them to the raised block.

Or what she had marked as the raised block.

There was no raised block anymore.

“Uh…” Rarity murmured, pointing. “The Mirror Portal is gone.”

“That… That it is,” Twilight said, trying her best to keep a straight face. “How… Great.”

“You brought the device, right?” Starlight asked.

“Oh yeah!” Twilight said, pulling it out of her bags. “I forgot!” She levitated it out in front of her and dialed Equestria. The device had more than enough charge, seeing as she always kept it full when possible. Never hurt to be prepared. She activated it, channeling the magic into reality itself. She saw the familiar ripple of space-time in front of her – but no tear. Just the ripples.

“…Huh?” She activated the device again, this time pushing her own magic into it, trying to accentuate the space-time ripples. She felt something push back against her magic, forcing the distortion levels to remain and manageable lows.

“Twilight, please don’t tell me we’re stuck here,” Starlight said.

“Something’s keeping us here, forcing the portal to stay closed…”

“I take it back, I would have much preferred you just told me we were stuck here.”

Fluttershy curled into a ball. “Something wants us here?”

“That seems likely. There is a… force.”

“It wants to play a game,” Pinkie said with no hint of her usual jovial tone.

Twilight gulped. “That it does…”

“What are we going to do!?” Starlight wailed.

“Someone will come looking for us eventually,” Twilight said. “Discord could probably get us out…”

“Trusting Discord to be prompt and helpful?” Rarity blurted. “That sounds… Less than ideal.”

“Well we can’t do anything from this end! Our spells and machines don’t work!”

“We could find who’s doing this and ask him to let us go,” Fluttershy suggested. “I’m sure we can convince him.”

Twilight frowned, glancing at the glowing grid in the ground. “I could… I could try to trace the power as I attempt to open a portal, but I don’t know if that’ll work. And if something can prevent us from opening a portal, couldn’t it do much worse to us if we angered it?”

Starlight gulped. “Maybe… Maybe we should play the game. Fight in the war. The blue pawns will accept us.”

“No,” Fluttershy said, putting her hoof down. “I will not fight in any war. Ever.

“How would we even win? There’s probably an endless number of pawns!” Pinkie added.

Starlight shrugged. “Defeat the diamonds? They seemed… special. More unique.”

“There was something odd about them,” Rarity agreed. “They didn’t seem limited to the grid and seemed to be smarter.”

“Commanders, probably,” Twilight said.

“Is anyone listening to me!?” Fluttershy interjected. “We are not playing the game! We are finding the pony or person or thing that’s doing this and making them stop!”

“It might not even be a person,” Twilight said. “It might not be able to talk…”

“We have to try, Twilight. Please. For all these pawns who are always fighting…”

Twilight sighed. “Fine, I’ll try again, but I’m burning through the device’s battery. I shouldn’t try this more than once.” She activated it again, using her magic to accentuate it once more. She felt the presence push against her magic again, and she latched onto it. The power tried to pull back, but Twilight managed to get a direction. She pointed. “That way.”

“Where is that way?” Rarity asked.

Twilight frowned. “It’s not the red or blue base, that’s for sure. The yellows maybe?”

“Well, we’re about to find out,” Fluttershy asserted. “Lead the way, Twilight. We’re getting to the bottom of this.”

Twilight nodded absent-mindedly – her thoughts drifted back to the diamonds. Something about them didn’t sit right with her, but she couldn’t put her hoof on what it was. In silence, they walked through the field of squares. They passed by a few blue pawns and saw a red one for a split second, but otherwise nothing much happened on the journey.

Yet, this time, nobody complained about the relatively boring silence. There was a somber mood, and even Pinkie knew to keep quiet when that was the case. It was a mutual understanding between the five of them, even if they all knew they probably should talk about it.

The journey took much longer than the journey to the blue base from the raised cube – but only by fifteen minutes or so. They arrived at a tall, black diamond floating on top of a single square. It was easily the size of Fluttershy’s tree house and was composed of the same material as the ground.

“…This is the center of the warzone,” Starlight said. “I think we’re roughly equal distances from the red and blue bases, and I would not be surprised if the yellow base was over there.”

Twilight nodded. “I think you’re right… But… I wonder what this is?” She scanned it with her magic and came up with nothing. The power had definitely come from here, but it felt no different than the rest of the ground around them. “Hrm…”

“RED DIAMOND!” Pinkie said, pointing at the edge of their vision. Twilight tensed as the four red diamonds appeared. Curiously, none of them attacked. They just hovered there and did nothing, much like Twilight and company were doing. Nobody moved.

Twilight furrowed her brow. “I’m going to walk towards them.”

“Twilight!” Rarity hissed. “What if they’re trying to figure out how to kill us?”

“I… I don’t think that’s the case.” She took a few steps forward. “But you girls stay here, okay? Starlight, teleport me away if there’s trouble.”

Starlight nodded. “Okay. If… If you’re sure.”

Twilight walked towards the red diamonds. One of them turned to the other three, made a strange tilting motion, and left the group as well. This red diamond alone met Twilight. They were soon a single square apart from each other in the shadow of the black floating diamond.

Twilight put a hoof on the diamond – nothing happened. The red diamond leaned against the black one – and half the black diamond’s faces lit up with a red glow.

Twilight frowned. “Only half…”

The red diamond leaned away from the black one and created a ball of fire in midair. Twilight flinched, but didn’t flee – it wasn’t an attack. A smaller ball of fire began to orbit the large ball of fire.

“Are you trying to make me think of the sun?”

The fiery diamond kept doing what it was doing.

“…Right, can’t understand me. Uh… Sun. Sun…” What was it about these diamonds that seemed so off to her? Why was that fire bringing such an itch to her mind? What was it? What were they?

Something clicked in her mind. Not really believing what she had just deduced, she lit her horn and summoned a magical image of a sun – the sun that was Sunset Shimmer’s cutie mark.

The red diamond bounced up and down in joy and confirmation.

Twilight’s jaw dropped. “SUNSET!?”

“What!?” Starlight yelled. “That’s Sunset!?”

“Apparently!” Twilight said. Continuing with communication, Twilight created images of the cutie marks of the five of them, placing the six-pointed star on herself. The diamond that was Sunset jumped up and down in understanding. She turned back to her other three teammates, presumably to yell something at them Twilight couldn’t hear.

“This is beyond weird…” Twilight muttered. “Why were you turned into diamonds? Why’d you attack us? Uh, wait, right…” Twilight used her magic to create an image of sunset, a question mark, and a red diamond. Then a symbol of a sword and shield for battle.

Sunset generated an attempt at a flaming question mark next to the red diamond. Then some fire pointed at the diamond, then at Twilight.

“…Girls?” Twilight called back.

“We look like diamonds to them don’t we?” Pinkie said.

“Apparently.”

“Well that certainly explains a lot,” Fluttershy said.

“And brings up more questions!” Rarity muttered, walking toward Twilight. “For instance, why are we all made to look like diamonds? Why are we forced to play this game? Who wants us fighting?”

“Who are playing the yellow diamonds?” Starlight offered.

Twilight sighed. “Ugh. This just got more confusing…”

~~~

Tempest walked up to her red-haired agent. “Corona, are you absolutely positive it is the ponies?”

“Positive,” Agent Corona – a woman previously known as Sunset Shimmer – responded. “They’ve got the cutie marks down and seem to be just as confused as we are about the whole thing.”

Tempest nodded. “It’s safe to assume the yellow diamonds are similar. Travelers plucked into this sick game by some higher power. Ike, has the central diamond’s readings changed any?”

“Nope. It reacted when the blue diamond – er, Twilight, I guess – touched it, as you saw, but nothing else.”

Corona frowned. “It needs the yellow diamond as well. It probably needs all three colors, actually.”

“Where are we going to find a red diamond though?” Ike asked.

Mike raised an eyebrow. “We’re the red diamonds, Ike.”

“…Oh. Right.”

“How are we going to get a yellow diamond here though?” Mike asked Corona.

“Diplomacy, like we did here?” she suggested.

“Wishful thinking,” Tempest said. “Ponies are naturally trusting and willing to talk, but even they fought at first.”

“We fired first,” Corona deadpanned.

Tempest didn’t dignify this with a response. “I suggest we engage in a capture operation.”

“And how exactly?”

Tempest pointed at the many blue diamonds that were really ponies. “We have them help us. They subdued all of us pretty easily.”

Mike looked at his arm. Currently it was in a makeshift sling. “You don’t have to remind us.”

“All we need is for that blue-magic one – Starlight, I presume – to ensnare one of the diamonds in her magic and bring it here. Possibly by teleport, if they can do that.”

“You really do read up on their capabilities, don’t you?” Corona said.

“I’m well informed so I can make good decisions,” Tempest asserted. “Now, we need to communicate the plan to them. Corona, we know they can see your fire clearly. Use it.”

“…I really wish I was a unicorn right now…” Corona muttered, lighting her hand on fire. “It would make this so much easier…”

~~~

Twilight cocked her head at the flurry of flames dancing before her eyes. “I do not understand.”

Starlight squinted her eyes. “…She’s pointing at herself, then us, then out into the distance. She emphasizes the distance. Does she want us to go somewhere?”

 

“When I pointed that direction she lit on fire. I presume that means frustration.”

“Safe bet,” Rarity said.

“Pinkie,” Fluttershy said, “care to help?”

Pinkie giggled. “Nah, you girls don’t need my help. Just think of it as a game of charades with poorly controlled fire!”

“You know, sometimes you’re helpful, sometimes you’re the exact opposite of helpful,” Starlight commented.

“Thank you! I try.”

Twilight furrowed her brow. “Okay, so… She’s pointing at herself…” She created an image of Sunset’s cutie mark. “Us…” She created an image of her own cutie mark. “And… over there.” She created an arrow image.

The fires from Sunset surrounded the three glyphs in diamond patterns. Twilight facehooved. “Oh. She’s talking about the three colors of diamond.” She changed the images to red, blue, and yellow diamonds.

Sunset’s fire danced around the yellow diamond image, then a burst of fire thrust toward the black diamond, causing half of it to light up with a red color. Twilight blinked. “So we need to get a yellow diamond to touch the black diamond as well. I got it. I was thinking the same thing.” To display her idea, she created a black diamond image with three colored diamonds on top of it. Sunset marked this with a flaming checkmark.

“Okay. So…. How?” Starlight asked. Twilight generated the image of a question mark.

Sunset’s flame pointed at Starlight.

“What does that mean?”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “It means you’ve got to go capture one, silly!”

“Oh. Oh that’s just a great idea! Go attack a yellow diamond and capture it! Do you not remember that they trounced us just a short while ago?”

Twilight nodded. “That I do. But… We have allies now. And we don’t have to defeat them, just capture one and get back here.”

“But the question remains, where are they?”

Rarity smirked. “I have a feeling if we find the yellow base and scare a few pawns, we’ll draw their attention. After all, the game wants conflict does it not?”

“That could work…” Twilight said.

“I still want to know what this will accomplish,” Starlight muttered. “I mean, we’re going to light up a black diamond! What’ll it do?”

“Maybe it’s the victory condition? I have no idea. Honestly it’s our only lead at this point so… We just have to do it. Now… We need to make a fully developed plan.” She took in a deep breath. “This is going to take some masterful communication skills…”

~~~

The yellow base was identical in every way to the red and blue ones except occupied by yellow pawns. Twilight had taken her position – far, far above the ground, so high up that the pawns didn’t notice her, but she could see them. She flew in a circle pattern around the field so she could scope out a much larger area than the world usually allowed. She couldn’t locate the yellow diamonds, so they would have to go with the special plan.

Sunset’s group of red diamonds was closest to the base, ready to move first. Starlight, Pinkie, and Rarity were spread out a bit further out, poised to strike at any single location should it be needed. Fluttershy flew into Twilight’s line of sight, completing Twilight’s mental map of the ground below. “I can’t see the diamonds… But everyone’s in place.”

“I hope this works,” Twilight said.

“I hope they don’t shoot any pawns…” Fluttershy added.

“They’ve been told not to. I’m sure they’ll do whatever’s in their power to keep all the pawns safe.”

“…If you say so.”

Twilight nodded. “We need to start the cycle. Fly in the circle we outlined and try to always stay on the opposite side of it as me. We are the eyes in the sky. We make sure there are no complications. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Then go. I’ll give them the signal.” Fluttershy nodded, flying away on the predetermined path, leaving Twilight behind. Twilight waited three seconds before sending a purple spark to the red diamonds directly below her. She couldn’t see her three friends. But she knew they could see that spark she created. It was go time.

Twilight took off in the same direction Fluttershy went, angling in a circular pattern. She witnessed the red diamonds fire off a few bullets, hitting the ground right in front of numerous yellow pawns. The pawns reacted with fear for the most part, retreating deeper into the base. However, more than had been expected attacked back viciously. Sunset cleverly used walls of fire to keep them back, and those that continued on were blocked by Starlight’s magic. Twilight found it mildly odd that she could see Starlight’s magic but not Starlight herself.

Twilight’s path of flight took the battle out of her sight, replacing the scene with the inner workings of the yellow base. The pawns were moving like a sea from this vantage point. A ‘wave’ of running pawns dominated Twilight’s vision, with a few outliers moving behind or in front of the wave. The alarm had spread quickly through the base, exactly as planned.

Then she saw one – a yellow diamond, rushing through the base, heading right for the source of the battle. Twilight broke off her circular path to follow. It didn’t see her, even though she knew it could if it only bothered to look up. It was too focused on finding the source of the commotion.

Twilight flew ahead of it, sending a magic spark down to Sunset’s group – a warning that a yellow diamond was coming. They were supposed to spread out the moment they got it – but they were a little surrounded. On one side were the yellow pawns, and on the other … blue pawns aggressively attacking? Where did they come from?

Twilight flew further out until she could see Pinkie. She was dealing with a bunch of red pawns, using her bouncy abilities to keep them occupied. Twilight couldn’t find Starlight, and Rarity had encased herself in a magical bubble shield. Twilight prayed that would hold – Rarity wasn’t very proficient in the spell. Twilight grit her teeth - everybody’s mobility had been squandered by the sudden appearance of pawns.

“It was as if they knew we’d be doing this and wanted to mess it up…” Twilight muttered to herself. She flew back over Sunset’s group, which was now within sight range of the incoming yellow diamond. The red diamonds had started shooting the blue and yellow pawns around them directly, shattering them into a thousand pieces that faded to nothing. This pulled at Twilight’s stomach – but she was able to rationalize that they were being overwhelmed and had no choice.

Fluttershy was not able to do any such thing. Twilight saw her dive-bomb from the sky directly at one of the red diamonds, pinning them to the ground. “Fluttershy, no!” Twilight yelled, far too late.

This disagreement gave the yellow diamond the opportunity it needed – dragging the ground beneath the red diamonds and Fluttershy up, encasing them in a blue-black box. Twilight tried to swoop down to assist them – but another yellow diamond hit her from the side.

Twilight didn’t bother to think about how one of the diamonds had gotten this high up – it was probably just a being with wings under that yellow shell. Twilight encased the diamond in telekinesis to prevent it from acting any further. It fell still.

Twilight began to ready the teleport spell – screw the original plan, she had a rogue yellow diamond in her magic, it was time to return to the black diamond and… and…

She stared at the yellow diamond, losing focus. Why… Why did she feel so guilty all of a sudden? Why did she – why did she feel like she couldn’t move? Why were her wings freezing up? Oh Celestia.

She lost her hold on the yellow diamond and dropped from the air like a stone. She couldn’t take her eyes off it – and she knew that if she could see the eyes behind the visage it would be Staring right at her.

Twilight wondered how far away the ground was now. Pretty close, given how small the diamond appeared now. She was definitely moving fast enough to completely blow her brains out simply by landing. But… she wasn’t scared. For whatever reason, she didn’t feel like today was her day. It wouldn’t be a very satisfying ending.

When Pinkie caught her, Twilight just smiled. “Thank you, Pinkie.”

“Don’t mention it. Yellow diamond have the Stare?”

“I guess so…” Twilight regained control of her wings. “You don’t think it’s Lieshy do you?”

“Could be,” Pinkie said, kicking a rogue red pawn in the head, knocking it over. “But that’s not something to think about now. What we need to do is capture one of these diamonds.”

Twilight stood up, rubbing her head. “I… I don’t think I have the focus to teleport us out now, and I don’t know where Starlight is, and-“

The yellow diamond that was on the ground charged them, lifting a block of the ground and tossing it at them. Pinkie drew a solid-iron baseball bat and hit the block right back at the diamond. The block shattered on contact.

“Just grab it or something!” Pinkie shouted, deflecting another chunk of ground.

Twilight shook her head, clearing the fog away as well as she could. She focused on the yellow diamond assaulting them and prevented it from moving with her telekinesis. “Got it!”

“Incoming!” Pinkie said, bringing out a shield and deflecting the yellow chain attack. “We need to get out! That was part of the plan, right!?”

Twilight focused – she had to find everyone. Where were they though? Sunset’s group and Fluttershy were trapped in that rock cage, Rarity was huddling under her magic over there, and who had any idea where Starlight was…

Wait, there was the drone. Hanging around… nothing. What was it doing…?

Starlight decloaked herself, revealing her position to be right underneath the drone. She also revealed a few dozen blue pawns she’d been hiding. They launched from her sides at her command, charging the yellow pawns around Sunset’s prison. Starlight lit her horn, shattering the walls of the prison, and the four red diamonds and Fluttershy ran out.

“Starlight! Teleport!” Twilight yelled.

Starlight didn’t waste any time – she checked the positions of everyone, nodded, and lit her horn.

The flying yellow diamond barreled into Twilight just as the teleport was executed. She lost control of the yellow diamond in her telekinesis, but it was still teleported.

Five ponies, four red diamonds, and two yellow diamonds appeared before the black diamond.

The yellow diamonds tried to fight back, but without the chaos of the pawn war around them, not to mention two of their team members being absent, there wasn’t much on their side. A chunk of the ground was thrown only to be stopped by Rarity, then the yellow diamond was frozen by Starlight.

Twilight shook her head. “Now!” She called, grabbing the yellow diamond next to her and pressing it to the black diamond. Half of the black structure became yellow. Sunset floated up to the black structure and touched it, making half of it red.

Rarity touched the diamond last, presumably lighting the diamond up with blue colors for all the others.

The diamond flashed brightly, becoming white. The whiteness of the diamond quickly raised to a level so bright, it was blinding. But as soon as Twilight considered looking away, it flashed, making everything go white in the most literal sense. The sky and ground became white, with only the dark blue of the gridlines not changing color.

Now, instead of a diamond, there was a strange white cube floating a meter off the ground.

It ‘spoke’ with a reverberating voice that just sounded wrong.

You found the alternate solution,” it said, “congratulations. You’re all winners.”

“Winners of WHAT?” Tempest demanded. Twilight noted that not only could she hear the human agent now, but could also see her as something other than a diamond. The two yellows as well – one was indeed Lieshy, while the other was some girl in green and yellow Twilight swore looked very familiar.

The experiment.

“WHAT experiment!?”

“Hey, calm down,” Twilight said, stepping forward. “I am Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria. I wish I could say I was pleased to meet you.”

“I do not have a name. I was not aware names were a thing until you arrived here. I was not aware speech was a thing until you arrived here.”

“What were you aware of then?”

The grid. And my dominion over it.”

“You did do all of this then!” Fluttershy blurted.

Indeed I did. Everything you see is my doing.

“How could you have made those poor pawn creatures fight each other?!”

They are not creatures. I merely designed them to look alive. They are but fragments of my own subconscious.”

Fluttershy gawked. “Wh… He… Why would you make us think people were dying!?

That was your own assumption. But in truth, I did it to make the experiment more realistic. To give you a motivation to become involved that you, ultimately, turned your back on.”

“…You wanted us to fight,” Sunset asserted.

“Yes.

“Why?”

Because I thought it would be interesting to see how my wars would play out without my knowing exactly what every single move would be.”

Lieshy glared. “The grayscale uncertainty – the insanity caused by loneliness.”

Twilight shook her head. “…You should know we wouldn’t approve of this.”

“Your approval was not my concern. I wanted to see what would happen. I would have preferred you played the game as it was meant to be played, until one color completely dominated, but I knew you might be too smart for that. So I provided this other victory, one that could only be accomplished if you deduced your nature. The only concern of mind was making sure things stayed interesting.”

“What on earth is going on,” the girl asked. “Who’s the arrogant jerk talking, and where is he so I can fling a rock at him?”

“It’s a cube Toph,” Lieshy said. “And probably wouldn’t care if you threw a rock at it. It doesn’t care about much at all, the doorway.”

“The ‘Lieshy’ understands. This was just a game. You won. You’re free to go.

Twilight shook her head. “I mean, thank you for letting us go now, but… This conversation isn’t over. You’ve done horrible things to us. I don’t think we can just let that slide.”

“So?”

“So… So…” Twilight’s features twisted into a mess. “So what you did was wrong!”

“By your definition.”

“How could what you did be right?”

“How can you be so sure there is right?”

Twilight gawked. She had never heard this from anyone else before. Everyone – even the many villains she had seen – believed in a right to do things. A good, even if it was misguided, or if they knew they weren’t part of it. This guy… He couldn’t be serious.

Rarity spoke next. “How can you be so sure there isn’t?”

“I’m not. But why would I care? All I do is exist here, alone, forever with my games. You are the first other beings I’ve ever seen. And you’ve proven to be horribly unsportsmanlike. Not bad, just unsatisfactory. I’ll just continue existing now, you can go home, and we can all forget about this until the next group of adventurers comes through. Hopefully in a few eons I’ll have better ideas. Or maybe they’ll never show up and I can just go back to the way things were. Either way.”

Starlight shook her head. “There’s no talking to this guy. I… I don’t think he can see things the way we do, Twilight.”

“So… we just… go?” Fluttershy said. “Go and forget about all that he put us through without any kind of resolution?”

“I… guess so,” Twilight said, glancing at the faces around.

“Good. Use your devices. I won’t block them now. The game is over.

Twilight took hers out. “…Well, it was good to see you Sunset.”

“Yeah,” Sunset said. “Though, uh, call me Corona out here, okay? Need to get used to that.”

“Right.”

“Also… Sorry, Starlight. I… I didn’t know it was you.”

Starlight rubbed her burn. “Yeah. I didn’t know I was freezing you in magic either.”

“Hey, where’s my apology?” Toph demanded. “I was kicked around a lot!”

“Would you stop?”

Everyone turned to the black cube. Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Why? Do you care?”

“I am annoyed that I cannot start the next game for certain until you leave.”

“Well, maybe we’ll stay around a little longer.” Toph crossed her arms. “Vivian and Fef aren’t here anyway.”

Suddenly both Vivian and Fef were there. “Oh. There you are,” Fef said.

“Go. Now. Actually, I don’t know why I’m being polite. Go or I kill you when I wipe the universe.”

The three teams pulled out their dimensional devices faster than ever before, leaving the dimension in a matter of seconds.

The cube was pleased with this. The entire world returned to black, and a four-color game was started. The cube continued existing as it had. The experience it had just had changed nothing about it.

Meanwhile ponies and humans would spend the next few days wondering about the pointless game they had been in.

~~~

Sunset – or Corona – wouldn’t be allowed to think to deeply about it until she was in her bed that night. For when she returned to the A.I.D. office, she was greeted with quite the surprise. Every conceivable surface was covered in red and green knick-knacks ranging from wool socks to fake presents to glass ornaments. Four separate Christmas trees were set up in the corners of the workspace, and numerous pieces of mistletoe hung from the ceiling. Each computer had a reindeer bobble-head sitting on it, a nearby table had a nativity scene on it, and there was fake snow dusted around.

Corona blinked. “Uh…”

Ike grinned. “Oh yeah! Christmas time! The boss always goes overboard in holiday decorations.”

“HO HO HO!” Director Storm yelled, turning around in his giant chair. He had a bright red Santa hat on, but had apparently decided not to trade away his nice suit to complete the costume. “Are you all ready to get into the holiday cheer?”

“Sir, I have a report to make,” Tempest said.

“It can wait a few minutes, can’t it? Let Agent Corona grow accustomed to her first Christmas here. I’ve already got a gift picked out for you! It’s under the southwest tree, wrapped in the black, red, and green stripes.”

“Sir, it’s rather important.”

Director Storm shrugged. “If you insist. Ike, show Corona around in my stead. Alas, I have a job.” He and Tempest disappeared into his private office.

“Huh,” Corona said, furrowing her brow. “You know, half of the time I wonder how he runs this place.”

Mike smirked. “Most new agents wonder how such an ‘idiot’ could be placed this high. He’s not an idiot. Nor is he foolish. He’s a very thoughtful and careful man. He’s just also decided not to agree with societal norms.”

“It was weird for us at first as well,” Ike said. “And we had worked with an eccentric like him before.”

Corona smirked. “That ‘super secret assignment’ that I’ll never know about?”

“Exactly,” Mike said.

“I could just touch you and find out.”

“Tempest would throw a fit,” Ike said. “Also that’d make Storm’s superiors upset at you.”

“Right… Sometimes I forget he’s not in charge of everything.”

Ike shrugged. “Anyway, welcome to the Christmas office. It’s exactly like the normal office, except decorated to kingdom come with Christmas stuff. He’s bought a present for everyone who works here, and will be elated if people put gifts for each other under the trees. He never asks for any himself. He has everyone open them on Christmas Eve unless there’s a national emergency, then it’ll be the day after Christmas.”

Corona blinked. “And now I just remembered finals are next week. Oh my gosh I am going to die.”

Mike smirked. “You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for.”

“I’m not worried about the physics test! I’m worried about art history! I haven’t lived in this world my whole life, I don’t just know these things like most people do!”

“You shouldn’t worry about your grades,” Ike encouraged. “You’ve already got a neat job.”

“I… True. I do need to pass though.”

“Suuuure you do.”

“You’re projecting, Ike,” Mike pointed out.

Corona shook her head. “Okaaaaay… Ike, was there anything else? Director Storm made it sound like the tour of Christmas was going to take a while.”

“Oh, if he did it, it would,” Ike answered. “Luckily for you I know exactly what to tell you and what you need to know! I don’t need to tell you precisely what each individual in the nativity represents.”

“And for that, I thank you.” Corona smiled. “…I think I like the decorations.”

“You should see it on Halloween.”

“Or St. Patrick’s day,” Mike reminded him.

“…I still have no idea how he put all the green stuff up and down in a day…”

“Could have hired Pinkie Pie,” Corona suggested.

“…I wouldn’t put it past him…”

Mike raised an eyebrow. “That would be such a breach of security.”

“Mike, you and I both know the pink anomaly notices everything.”

Corona furrowed her brow. “Wait, she saw you guys before?”

“Several times,” Mike said. “We considered taking action, but she never told anyone. She just made sure we knew she knew.”

“…I wonder why she never said anything…”

Ike blinked. “I’d think that, as her friend, you would have realized that asking questions about her is kinda pointless by now.”

Corona smirked. “Once you get to know someone, you ask deeper questions about them than why they throw cupcakes everywhere. There are answers to be found, somewhere.”

~~~

The cube detected another portal entering its universe several hours later. An object was thrown in, and then the portal closed.

The cube paused the game – all four colors stopped moving in an instant. It examined the strange device. It had no mind, no words, nothing to tell the cube what its function was. The cube noted that there was a flag design imprinted on the side of it, as well as the word ‘NUCLEAR.’ What could that mean?

The cube never got the chance to answer its question. It was soon no more.

 

 

Chapter Text

Call of the Stars, Part 1

Twilight’s castle had a different sort of beauty about it in the middle of the night. While in the day it shone like a pearl, at night it flickered softly, sending sparks of soft light out in a sort of reflection of the stellar sky above.

Sometimes, when sleep proved difficult for any number of reasons, Princess Twilight liked to come out to her balcony and stare at the stars overhead. Sometimes she thought about what had been going on in her life, sometimes she wondered what the future would bring, and sometimes she just appreciated the natural beauty of night.

How could anypony have ignored this a thousand years ago? She wondered. It’s just so… mesmerizing...

She started examining the constellations. There was the triangle, the bear, the bull, the alicorn, the Handmaid, the dragon, the sphinx, the belt, the noble circle…

She stared at the noble circle. It was several stars in a loose ring around a single, much brighter star. One of the brightest in Equestria’s sky, Sarin. A deep red spark on the blue night.

“Stargazing?” Starlight asked, walking onto the balcony.

Twilight smirked. “Yep. Sleepwalking?”

“No,” Starlight said, yawning. “Though I suppose this could be a dream and I really am sleepwalking in reality.”

Twilight rolled her eyes, returning her gaze to the stars, their luminous points reflecting in her huge eyes.

“Whatcha lookin’ at this time?”

“The noble circle. And what, if anything, is actually up there.”

Starlight raised her eyebrow. “You mean aliens?”

“Maybe. I’m talking more about the Stars though.”

“Stars? But – oh, you mean capital S Stars. Didn’t you say they were just legends?”

Twilight smirked. “Most of the stories about them are. For instance, the idea of one crashing into Equis long ago and bestowing the sun and moon to us is laughable, even more so based on what I’ve seen in the other universes. But the Stars themselves certainly do exist – some of those sparks of light hold consciousnesses.”

“Have you ever talked to one?”

Twilight shook her head. “No. Celestia has, though. She says they’re… rather indifferent to us.”

Starlight frowned. “…When I was little, I used to pray to the Stars. I still do, sometimes. Started again around the time you took me in.”

Twilight smiled softly. “There’s no shame in that, Starlight. Though you didn’t strike me as the type.”

Starlight laughed nervously. “I’m not. Yet I still feel the urge to do it sometimes. To ask for protection. For help. For all of you.”

“…Maybe some of them do listen.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“No, it could be true. There are many different kinds of ponies – there are probably many different kinds of Stars. Some would care more. A large part of me wants to visit them and find out.”

“Well we don’t have any starships, and no universe we’ve come across has had any either.”

“That doesn’t change anything…” Twilight said, holding a hoof up to the stars. “I want to go up there, Starlight. I want to see them, to feel them, to be among them. Maybe to get some answers about our universe.”

“Heh. If only we could find a ship.”

“If only…”

Starlight coughed slightly. “Uh, Twilight?”

“Hrm?”

“There’s something… Well, uh, you know those things I make with my souvenirs?”

“Those things? What about them?”

“Well… You see… They… Uh…”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “…What is it Starlight?”

Starlight let out a long breath. “Eheh… Sorry. No idea why I’m so nervous. I… May or may not be working on a way to get into space. Yes. That’s it.”

Twilight blinked. “…R-really? But you don’t have any idea of all the math involved?! How are you-“

“Discord! And, heheh, brute force magic! That’s all it is. Definitely.”

Twilight frowned. “Starlight? Are you okay? You’re… being a little odd.”

Starlight gulped. “Er, yeah. I think I’m just tired. And crazy. And I may have also been unable to sleep because I was thinking too hard about my place in the universe. Great idea, coming out here to talk about Stars.”

Twilight rolled her eyes, fears put to rest. “Sometimes we just need to think about these things. I’ve discovered it’s always better done with other ponies. I was feeling the same way, really. So thanks for joining me out here.”

“I’m glad I came out. It’s better than wandering the pointless maze of corridors in your castle.”

“They aren’t pointless!”

“You don’t use half the rooms and the floorplan can’t be mapped out on a flat piece of paper.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re pointless!

Starlight chuckled. “It just means it’s a mess to navigate, Twilight.”

“Now that I can understand.” Twilight chuckled, turning back to the light of the stars – and Stars.

“…You really want to go up there don’t you?”

“Yeah…” Twilight said. “The studies of space in all these worlds… The more I read, the more I want to see it with my own eyes. It’s like the Stars are calling me.”

Starlight nodded. She lit her horn, creating a small bubble of magic in front of her mouth. She whispered something into it and launched it into the sky.

“…What was that?”

“A prayer spell. It launches the words into the sky at the speed of light. There’s no way it actually does anything, but it’s symbolic.”

“I… see.”

“No you don’t,” Starlight said, nudging Twilight playfully.

Twilight shrugged. “Fair enough. You’ll have to explain these customs to me at some point. But right now, we really should be in bed.”

“Yeah.” The two of them left the balcony, allowing the night to fall into silence once more.

~~~

The next morning, Pinkie had a question. “So. Twilight. Why the sudden announcement of an instant adventure? Not that I mind or anything, but I think Gummy might be stuck to the ceiling right now.”

Twilight chuckled. “This is why.” She went to the Directory, flipping to the last page. “I was testing the latest batch of worlds for safety, when this happened.” She pulled a lever, setting the coordinates to a specific dimension. When she did so, the green diamond in the Mirror Portal flashed brighter than it ever had before and some sparks went flying off the machinery.

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “While impressive, and mildly concerning, we have no idea what that means, dear.”

Twilight unrolled a scroll in front of them all and grabbed a pen. She scribbled a dot on it. “All right, so. Let me explain ‘distance theory’ as we currently understand it. Let this dot represent our world, okay?”

Everypony nodded.

“This next dot, almost right next to Equestria, is Earth, a world extremely closely related to our own. So close, in fact, that the worlds are basically inseparable. They are connected by a very short line.” She drew a line between her two dots. “A little further out are worlds that are close to ours, but not the same. The world of liars, Lai, etcetera. Curiously, we find worlds like this far out as well, almost as if we’re inside a membrane of pony worlds with others dispersed around randomly, like a pepper in a salt and pepper shaker.”

“…Uh…” Fluttershy said, confused by the metaphor.

“Not important to understand. But if I draw more dots here further out…” She drew several dots and lines in quick succession. “I create a map of the known multiverse. We know of just over a hundred worlds in this map, with some close, and others like the Static world very distant compared to others.” On the edge of the map she drew a single dot to represent the Static. “Now, the longer the path, the more energy it takes to get to a universe.”

“So, I take it this universe takes a lot of energy?” Starlight postulated.

Twilight grinned. “A hundred thousand times more energy than the Static draws. If I tried to draw it on this sheet of paper I’d need to stretch it all the way to Canterlot. It took so much energy that, for the first time, the green thing showed strain. And, to put the cherry on top the universe is safe. Checked just a few minutes ago then called you all here.”

“Well what are we waiting for then!?” Pinkie said. “Let’s go to the furthest reaches of the multiverse already!” Without waiting for any of them, she bounced through the Mirror Portal.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well, guess we’re rushing in head first then.” She shrugged and leaped in herself, passing through the Mirrory Barrier. Traveling felt slightly different this time – whereas every other trip had always felt instant, she could have sworn there was a fraction of a second where she wasn’t in either location. She couldn’t even imagine what that would be.

The five of them appeared in a largely gray hallway with large numbers painted on the walls. It was mostly concrete with a few metallic pipes snaking around, indicative of a deep underground bunker. Judging from the height of the hallway, something human sized lived here.

Twilight blinked. “I… Was expecting something more exotic.”

“Definitely seen this kind of thing before in Earth government bases,” Starlight said.

“When were you in an Earth government base?” Rarity asked.

“I was on a random Earth universe. Upset the government. Had some fun.”

“I wonder how in Equestria you manage to get up to so much without us…”

Starlight shrugged. “I make time.”

“Are you neglecting your other friends?” Twilight asked. “When was the last time you saw Trixie?”

Starlight blinked. “A week?”

Pinkie narrowed her eyes. “Mmm… I’ll be watching you, Starlight. Watching…”

“You already are. I doubt there’s a single secret I have that you don’t know.”

Pinkie giggled. “Yeah… How you doing with your thing, by the way?” She winked cheesily.

Starlight turned beet red. “Pinkie…”

“Hey, I’m not telling.” She held her hooves up in surrender. “You’re the one who brought up me knowing secrets. Like tha-”

Rarity put a hoof over Pinkie’s mouth. “Things are usually secret for a reason, Pinkie. It wouldn’t be decent to shout it out.”

“Duh, I know that! I learned that lesson a long time ago!”

“Flurry’s only a few years old, Pinkie,” Twilight deadpanned.

“Egad! Years! I’m getting old!”

Fluttershy facehooved. “Girls, we haven’t done anything here yet. Think we should look around?”

“Right, right,” Twilight said. “Celestia, we get sidetracked easily. Let’s go… this way!” With a confident grin on her face, she turned a corner in the hallway.

A dozen humans in green military uniforms were pointing guns at her.

“Already with the guns!?” Twilight blurted. “Come on!”

Should I get the drone out?” Starlight asked, poking her head cautiously out from around the corner.

“No… They’re not shooting yet.” She waved at them. “Hi! I’m Twilight Sparkle!”

One of them said something in a bizarre language.

“Of course humans this far out wouldn’t be in the translation spell…” Twilight muttered. She sat down, trying to look as unthreatening as possible. “We come in peace. Please keep talking so we can get the translation to work, okay?”

One of the men said something. No words were translated yet.

“Yep, this is going to be a far-removed language,” Starlight said. “Might take some time.”

“Never could have guessed that,” Twilight deadpanned.

The human man said something again.

“You’re going to have to talk more, I really can’t understand you.”

The man angled his gun closer to Twilight. He gestured to the left, where the other ponies were.

“…Girls? I think he wants us all where we can be seen.”

Fluttershy shrunk back. “Is that… safe?”

“Well, if they were going to just kill us I think they would have already. I say we go along with what they want.”

Pinkie shrugged, trotting into plain view of the soldiers. “Hi! I’m Pinkie Pie!” She waved. Two of them started muttering things to each other – but the leader silenced them. “Hey! Keep talking!”

Fluttershy and Rarity walked into view as well, Fluttershy making sure she was as far back as she could be. The lead soldier seemed pleased with this. He issued a command to his men, and they backed to the sides of the hallway, guns still poised. He himself gestured for the ponies to follow him before he set down the hallway in an ordered march.

Twilight shrugged. “Well, guess what we’re doing? That’s right, following him.”

The five ponies had to line up in single file to get through the men on either side of them. When Fluttershy passed the first set of soldiers, they fell in line behind her, startling her. Everyone tensed for a moment, thinking fighting would break out, but no such thing happened.

Starlight let out a breath. “Good. Everyone here just needs to calm their nerves a bit.”

“Why aren’t they talking?” Rarity asked. “They’re all being dreadfully silent and it’s making our lives more difficult.”

“They’re soldiers,” Starlight said. “They’re trained to say what needs to be said. Speaking out of line will not help them here.”

“Hmm…” Rarity mused.

“I think lots of them would like to talk but they’re scared of the big guy,” Pinkie suggested.

“Or they’re scared of us…” Fluttershy added.

“Very possible,” Twilight said. After a few more minutes of walking, they were led to a medium-sized room with no windows, one door, and a single nondescript table. There was only one chair, and seated in said chair was a middle-aged man with large glasses and brown hair. Behind him was an older man in a blue uniform with a wrinkled frown on his face. Judging from all the colored rectangles on his shirt, he was either high raking, accomplished, or both.

The man in the glasses greeted them with a warm smile. He moved to offer them a seat out of habit, but realized that not only did the room not have chairs, but he wasn’t even sure if ponies needed chairs. He said something to the older man – who just shrugged.

Twilight cleared her throat. “I am Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria, and we come in peace. You cannot understand me, I know this, but please just respond.”

The man in the glasses responded warmly with what was presumably an introduction of his own. Then he pointed to himself and said two words – “Daniel Jackson.”

Twilight smiled. He was trying to translate the old fashioned way. That helped her, at least. “Hi Daniel.” She pointed at herself. “Twilight Sparkle.” Then she pointed at her friends. “Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Starlight, Fluttershy.”

“Hi Daniel!” Pinkie echoed.

Daniel smiled. He gestured at the older man. “O’Neill. Jack O’Neill.” The man simply nodded in confirmation.

Twilight bowed, believing she should show the man some respect. “Now that that’s out of the way, what’s next on your list of attempts to communicate with us?”

Daniel started speaking rapidly, changing the way he spoke dramatically every few seconds.

“…He’s shuffling through languages,” Rarity said.

Twilight facehooved. “That won’t help the spell. Unless he hits one it knows. Which… Doesn’t appear to be happening.”

“Wow, he knows a lot of languages,” Fluttershy commented. “He’s still going.”

“…Impressive,” Twilight agreed.

Eventually Daniel ran out of languages and turned to O’Neill to say something. O’Neill shook his head, responding negatively to something. Their conversation lasted several seconds, but still the translator couldn’t work anything out.

Daniel pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it, covering the table with a sheet of hundreds of written scripts. Almost all of them looked familiar to Twilight, but none of them made any grammatical sense. She smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “Sorry. You’ll just need to keep talking amongst yourselves until we get something…”

“Twilight, I propose finding a way to improve this spell,” Rarity suggested.

“It’s one of the most complex spells around, improving it is much easier said than done!”

“I’m sure you can do it Twilight!” Pinkie encouraged.

Twilight returned her focus to Daniel – he was talking to O’Neill again. Twilight had no idea what it was about, but O’Neill was looking rather tired. As if what was happening wasn’t all that unusual for him, and it was just a sign of “one of those days.” That’s a curious response… Twilight thought.

Then she caught a word come from O’Neill’s mouth. “Again.”

Twilight grinned. “Again!” She shouted, grinning. “You hear that, again! You can hear the world ‘again’ coming from my mouth, a partially translated sentence!”

Daniel turned to her and blinked again. He said a few more words, “again” and “meaning” came though.

Pinkie grinned. “Woo! There it is! Meaning! What kind of meaning? I don’t know! But I do know it’s finally working!”

Twilight nodded, grinning in Daniel’s direction.

He looked right at her and spoke. “Translator?”

“Yes!” Twilight said, nodding vigorously.

Daniel nudged O’Neill. “Speak.” “Again.”

“Again?” “Why?”

“Translator.” “Working.”

Twilight spread her wings, beaming. “Yes! Oh my Stars that took a lot longer than it usually does. Rarely does it need any more than a few sentences to latch onto something…

“Something?” “Slower?” Came through from Daniel.

O’Neill raised an eyebrow. “Speaking.” “Thing.” “There.”

“Faster.” Daniel said. He started talking so fast Twilight could barely hear anything, but the spell was still able to pick it up. The sounds blurred together in Twilight’s mind – and apparently O’Neill’s as well, since he was fixing Daniel with the ‘have you lost it?’ look. But Pinkie was more than able to keep up.

“OhmygoshyouknowtheartoffasttalkingfastwellsodoI! Weshouldgettogetherandhaveacompetitionsomeday!”

Daniel took a breath. “Okay, I understood that entire sentence. I believe your translator has enough words now, Miss Sparkle?”

Twilight smirked. “I believe so. Also, you can just call me Twilight. Though I believe real introductions are in order now. I am Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria, and these are my friends whose names I presume you already know.”

Daniel nodded. “I’m Daniel Jackson, and this is General Jack O’Neill.”

Twilight bowed again. “Nice to meet you.”

O’Neill raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain why you were in our hallway?”

“We’re explorers,” Twilight answered. “We opened a portal to somewhere new and it happened to be in your hallway.”

“…How did you get here, then?”

“Through a portal,” Twilight said. “If you look around the corner where you found us, you’ll find a shiny spot on your wall. That leads directly back to our world.”

“And you’ve traveled to other worlds… often?”

Twilight nodded. “Around a hundred at this point, and we haven’t even been at it for a year! Your world is the most distant one we’ve visited so far!”

“So, let me get this straight…” O’Neill said. “You are a bunch of colorful ponies that go through a portal regularly to explore other worlds?”

“Yep!”

“Daniel, they’re pony versions of us, except instead of space it’s other universes.”

“Yeah, I got that-“

Starlight and Twilight glanced at each other and spoke at the same time. “Did you just say space?!”

Daniel blinked. “Yes? Do you do that as well?”

“No!” Twilight said, grinning. “And neither does any other universe we’ve encountered! This is amazing, we finally found one that can go to the stars! Oh yes oh yes oh yes!”

“Twilight, get a hold of yourself,” Rarity muttered in her ear.

Twilight blushed hard, forcing herself to stop bouncing around. “Ahem. Yes. I and the rest of my people would be very interested to see how you travel the stars. Or to see the stars themselves. Are we on a spaceship right now!?

“Ah, no,” Daniel said. “You see, we use…” He paused when O’Neill grabbed his shoulder. “Oh, am I not allowed to tell them?”

O’Neill let a smirk crawl up his face. “Oh, they’ve got the same clearance as any other alien visitor. I just want to see the look on their faces when they see it.”

“See what?” Starlight asked.

~~~

“…Celestia…” Twilight said, jaw hanging loose.

It wasn’t a spaceship.

It was a giant ring with alien symbols all the way around it. The metal was a dark dull gray, giving it a somehow ancient feel. Seven orange triangular shapes were spread along the edge of the ring, glowing softly, each one pointing at a singular symbol on the inner part of the ring. The inside of the ring was currently blocked by an iris hatch, clearly designed to open and close the ring quickly.

O’Neill nodded slowly. “Behold! The hunk of metal that’s more trouble than it’s worth!”

Daniel sighed. “It’s the stargate.”

“I like mine better.”

Twilight turned to Daniel. “How’s it work?”

“Well, I’m not really a scientist… But I know it operates by forming a wormhole connection with a gate at the other end, creating a near-instant passage from gate to gate. Just enter the coordinates and wait for it to connect, basically.”

“Sunset would love this…” Twilight said. “She’s been looking for a non-magical solution for months now, and if this thing can make wormholes…”

“…Did you just say ‘magic’ there?” O’Neill asked.

“Uh… Yes?” Twilight said, smiling nervously. “We’re very magical creatures from a world where the arcane arts are used in day to day life. I take it that’s not the case here?”

“No,” O’Neill deadpanned.

“Well, uh, I can demonstrate if you want…”

“Please do,” Daniel said, adjusting his glasses.

Twilight gulped. “Now, don’t be scared or anything…” She lit her horn, taking a pen out of her saddlebags with her telekinesis. She grinned stupidly.

“…I was expecting something more, I don’t know, impressive,” O’Neill said.

Starlight lit up. “Do you want impressive!?”

“Starlight no,” Twilight said.

“Starlight yes,” O’Neill said, nodding in confirmation at Starlight.

Starlight lifted herself into the air and created a crystal from the aether. Then she teleported to the other side of the room, frowning. “That took a bit more effort than usual…”

Daniel’s glasses slid down his nose. “…Do all of your kind have these abilities?”

“Only those who bother to study,” Rarity said. “For instance, you won’t see me teleporting around randomly.”

“And only unicorns,” Pinkie said, appearing behind Daniel.

Daniel jumped back from Pinkie. “And what about you?”

“I’m just Pinkie Pie!”

“I know that, I mean you aren’t a unicorn, but you just appeared behind me!”

“Already answered the question!”

O’Neill nodded in approval at the pink pony’s response. Suddenly, an alarm went off – not a particularly jarring one, but one designed to get everyone’s attention without causing a panic. The stargate made a large clunk sound and its inner ring started turning, and one of the orange triangles shifted overtop of a symbol, presumably entering it into the system as the first digit of the address.

“Ah. SG-14 must be coming back,” Daniel said. “Looks like you get to see it work.”

The ponies fell silent, staring right at the gate as its inner ring cycled around slowly, coming to a stop only after several seconds of turning for one of the triangles to lock in a symbol. The grinding sound the gate made was somehow comforting, though Twilight wondered how it didn’t wear out from the constant rotating. Every time one of the symbols was locked, the strange noise sent shivers of anticipation down Twilight’s spine.

She was overcome with a feeling of it taking way too long. Four symbols. Five. Six. Seven.

With the seventh lock, a noise vaguely reminiscent of an engine revving and failing to startup filled the room, and then a noise that could only be described as a ‘kawoosh’ greeted their ears. There was a blue glow coming from behind the gate, though its source was blocked by the iris.

O’Neill looked behind him, up at the bulletproof glass separating the gateroom from the control room. “It them?”

A balding man nodded from behind the glass. He pressed a button and the iris slid open with the noise of a dozen knives scraping against each other. Behind the metal was a rippling puddle of blue and white energy, kept in place by the stargate itself, its glow filling the entire room with watery light.

A soldier stepped through, followed by three other men. They saluted to O’Neill and walked down the ramp to him. “Alien visitors today, sir?”

O’Neill nodded. “It always happens when I’m here, doesn’t it? I should just stop agreeing to help Landry with his vacations.”

The soldier looked at the ponies. “So, these guys again?”

Twilight blinked. “Wait… Again? You’ve met others like us before?”

Daniel’s eyes widened. “Oh, right. Forgot about that. We did have a unicorn in here for a short while several months ago. She was chasing a being made of blue crystal.”

“No way…” Twilight said.

“You know them?”

“Sort of. Their chase ended in our world. When they vanished the crystal man left his dimensional device. It’s why we’re able to explore the multiverse at all. That’s all we know of them. But… You aren’t the first people besides us who saw them, strangely…”

The solder who’d just come through the gate raised an eyebrow. “Multiverse? One of those days, eh General?”

“Yes it is,” O’Neill said.

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “…Do you guys travel the multiverse as well, or am I reading this wrong?”

Daniel put a hand to his forehead. “The stargate is, under special circumstances, able to link to other universes. Such events are rare, poorly understood, and, as Jack would say, more trouble than they’re worth.”

“You girls come across evil versions of yourselves yet?” O’Neill asked.

Twilight pondered this. “From time to time, yeah.”

“That’s why. It also gets really confusing differentiating one person from another.”

“Did you ever consider nicknames?” Starlight asked. “I mean, Twilight here goes by Twinkie sometimes.”

O’Neill tried to suppress a laugh and ended up snorting instead.

“…No, we didn’t consider that…” Daniel said, a little embarrassed. “Still, it’s not something we really looked into that often. We could count the number of times other universes were encountered on one hand.”

“So you must be really good at space travel then, huh?” Starlight asked.

“Yep, even got ourselves a few ships,” O’Neill said.

Twilight’s eyes sparkled. She looked right into O’Neill’s eyes with the cutest expression she could muster.

“That’s cheating,” he said.

Pinkie giggled. “No it isn’t! If Fluttershy was doing it it’d be cheating, but she’s not.”

“…The Apollo is in orbit,” Daniel said. “They’re not doing anything at the moment.”

O’Neill relented. “Fine. Let’s go on a space cruise. Show off our ship.” He turned back to the control room. “Walter! Tell the Apollo to pick us up and prepare for a little demonstration.”

The bald man – Walter – nodded and got on the phone.

“You have a ship…” Twilight said. “…How fast does it go?”

O’Neill blinked. “Uh…”

“Thirty thousand light years per hour, give or take,” Daniel Jackson said.

“I can’t even comprehend that speed,” Starlight said. “Twilight, what’s a light year?”

“The distance it takes light to travel in a year…” Twilight murmured, processing exactly how fast that was in her mind.

“…I take it that’s a really long distance?”

“The nearest star to Equis is about five light years away. It would take you thousands upon thousands of years to fly there if you could survive.”

Starlight blinked. “So, am I the only one not able to comprehend this sense of scale? Anyone else?”

O’Neill pointed at Starlight. “This unicorn gets it.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “That she-“

Suddenly, there was a flash of blue-white light, and they were somewhere else.

“-does,” Daniel finished.

O’Neill tensed up and sighed. “I thought we’d stopped the ‘teleporting without warning’ thing.”

Twilight blinked. “Technological teleportation!? How’s it work?”

Daniel raised his hands. “I can’t answer that one. I’m an archeologist by trade, not a theoretical physicist.”

“It also doesn’t matter,” O’Neill deadpanned. “Something about atoms and stuff.”

“But that is matter!” Pinkie said.

“Matter doesn’t matter.”

“So matter’s an oxymoron?”

O’Neill paused for a moment. “…Maybe.”

Twilight took the moment to examine her new surroundings. Instead of bland concrete, now there was cold metal all around, arranged in a practical manner. The novelty of the metal made it less boring than the concrete hallway they had just been in, but no doubt the grey color would seem monotonous to those stationed on here. A few people in uniforms walked around, glancing curiously at the ponies but not paying them too much attention. Screens lined the walls, displaying schematics of what Twilight assumed were the ship itself – a large rectangular center with two rectangles on either side and one large neck. She hadn’t the foggiest idea what any of the parts of the Apollo actually were, just that it certainly looked spaceworthy - though she couldn’t really be considered a worthy judge of such a thing.

“This way,” O’Neill said, marching through a doorway. “You want to see space, well the best way to see space is from the bridge.”

“Ohmygosh yes,” Twilight said, giggling to herself. She was trying very hard to keep herself under control, but even she could only take so much. They walked up to the bridge of the ship. O’Neill exchanged pleasantries with the captain, but Twilight definitely wasn’t looking at that. She passed the command consoles and other controls, walking right up to the front window. She pressed a hoof to the glass, delicately. Her pupils shrunk to pinpricks and her mouth went slack. She could see stars – and a large blue marble. A planet.

“It’s really somethin’, isn’t it?” O’Neill said.

“Yeah… I… I can’t believe I never asked the Binaries to take me up…”

“Captain, engage hyperdrive. Take us to Chulak.”

“Huh, wha-“ Twilight began, only to be stunned into silence as the starry field was replaced with a blue-purple vortex of energy surrounding the ship on all sides, passing all around them. She reeled back, a little nauseous at the patterns she saw. “…What is this?”

“Hyperspace,” O’Neill said. “Can’t tell you much else about it.”

“…It’s beautiful…” Rarity said, placing her hoof on the window as well. “I could get used to this…”

The moment she said that, it the blue shimmer of hyperspace vanished, replaced by a different planet, and a different star. Twilight grinned. “How far did we go?”

“Only a few dozen light years,” Daniel said.

Only a few dozen,” Twilight emphasized. “Why, with this it would be easy to find the stars in our world… Just jump around until you get one you can connect with…”

O’Neill raised his eyebrows. “Since when did we give you permission to use our ship for your scientific curiosity?”

Twilight laughed nervously. “Yeeeah… You didn’t.”

Pinkie shrugged. “Twilight’s just getting ahead of herself, don’t hold it against her.”

Daniel smiled. “It’s fine. We’re used to people being overwhelmed.”

Twilight cleared her throat. “I believe our next course of action should be to form official relations and discuss diplomacy, yes? Unless your human culture is very different than the others we’ve encountered.”

Daniel blinked. “I… Have no idea if we’re the same or not, but that would be the next step.”

“Politics…” O’Neill muttered under his breath, making a ‘great’ gesture with his hands.

“Oh no… Politics…” Pinkie muttered. “Twilight, do we have to?”

“You girls can head home, assuming our friends here can take us back to where we came from. I’ll do all the talking.”

Rarity raised a hoof. “I’ll stay.”

Twilight smiled. “Thanks. I could stand some backup. Funny, this is actually the first time we’ve gone right to diplomacy. Usually there’s some crazy adventure first or-“

“DON’T JINX IT!” Pinkie shouted, covering Twilight’s mouth.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Anyway, can you take us back?”

O’Neill gave the order.

~~~

Discord sat in Starlight’s secret room, playing some random game where he was a human killing blobs with a knife. He had no idea about the story of the game (if there was one), all he knew was that killing amorphous blobs was fun. Really, really fun. Also a little hard, but that was part of the fun.

Starlight teleported into the secret room. “Discord! We are going on a trip!

Discord blinked. “Where to?”

“We’ve found a new world – one with science-fiction technology. Spaceships. C’mon, we’re going to steal their secrets.”

Discord dropped the controller. “Yes! So, what are we going for?”

“I don’t know. Ideally, we get spaceship blueprints, but only if we can grab it without them noticing. If they notice, they’ll probably blame Twilight. So not only do we need to be invisible, but intangible. Got it?”

Discord snapped his fingers. “Got it. We are now invisible and intangible. To the Mirror Portal?”

“To the Mirror Portal.”

With a snap of his fingers, Discord and Starlight appeared in front of the Mirror Portal. Bon Bon looked up from her paperwork as if she sensed something, but shrugged and went back to work.

“Can we be heard?” Starlight wondered aloud, quietly.

“Nope!” Discord giggled. “HEY BON BON!”

Bon Bon didn’t so much as flinch at the scream.

“Good,” Starlight said. “Can’t take any chances. That place is probably crawling with cameras, sensors, the like. But they don’t have magic. So that’s our way in.”

Discord pressed his fingers together evilly. “Perrrrfect…”

Starlight stepped through the Mirror Portal, appearing back in the hallway. There was a human guard there, completely unaware of them. Starlight passed her hoof through his body. “We’re like ghosts.”

“Who knows? Maybe ghosts are just ponies who learned this spell and didn’t know how to undo it.”

“What a comforting thought…” Starlight muttered. “How in Tartarus are my hooves touching the ground?”

“Magic. Duh.”

“I do not believe for a second you had the foresight to make me not pass through the floor.”

“You wound me so. Maybe you just want your hooves to be solid. Ever think of that?”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “Riiight. Anyway, let’s check this place out. To the gate first. It’s down a few levels. …Maybe I can just…” She jumped into the air, and landed face first on the ground – passing through to the level below. “Sweet.”

“We could just teleport,” Discord noted. “You obviously know where it is.”

“Right,” Starlight lit her horn and then they were in the gateroom. At the moment nobody was there. Starlight glanced towards the back – through the glass she could see the control room, and she also noticed a higher ‘window’ overlooking the stargate where Twilight and Rarity were talking with a bunch of humans.

“Okay, so… the meeting probably isn’t important, but I bet that control room is.”

They walked through the walls, climbing up the stairs to the stargate control room. There were dozens of tall computer boxes with hundreds of blinking lights distributed among them. Wires snaked across the walls and floors, and screens of all kinds were littered around in a fashion that looked disorganized but was actually optimized for space.

Starlight furrowed her brow. “And now, to figure out if anything here is particularly useful…”

Discord reached a finger out to poke a scientist’s hat, presumably for a prank.

Discord! Stealth!”

“Fine then.” He folded his arms. “What should I do if I can’t have fun?”

“Look at the screens, see if they can tell us where the interesting stuff is!”

Discord pointed at one of the bigger screens. “This one shows a hangar right above the stargate. Status, closed. Calls it the Jumper Bay.”

Starlight shoved her head closer to the screen Discord was pointing at. “Wow. That was fast. Good work.”

“It’s on multiple screens and seems like it’s an important thing. I’m surprised you didn’t notice it.”

“I was… Interested in numbers. Yeah.” A soldier walked right through her. She shivered. “That just doesn’t feel right at all.”

Discord waved his hand through her face. She glared at him. “The epitome of comedy, everypony.”

“I’m here all week!”

“Let’s try not to be here all week.” She levitated herself up, floating back into the gate room and through the ceiling. They arrived at a large room with a handful of cylindrical shaped objects with windows in the front. Little ships. Probably little spaceships. Little spaceships that looked designed to fit through the stargate.

“…These are probably the Jumpers,” Starlight said.

Discord rubbed his hands together. “Let’s take one.”

“Are you crazy!? There’s no way in Tartarus that we’ll be able to get one of these out without them noticing!”

“Starlight, I can turn an entire city into utter chaos in a manner of minutes. I can make everyone think there’s still a ship here. Just have to mess with their heads.”

“…Discord! We do not want to be caught! What if they have some kind of alarms!?”

Discord smirked. “Then I just have to be precise with my chaos, don’t I?”

“Discord this is a bad idea and I’m telling you-“

“Done.”

Starlight blinked. All the Jumpers were still there. “…What do you mean?”

“I mean I stole the Jumper. I currently have it in my hand.” He unfolded his claw, revealing a small metallic cylinder.

“But… But none of them are missing!”

“That’s what everyone thinks. But that one right there isn’t real.”

“…While I admit that’s impressive and makes me wonder why you don’t do these things more often, they’ll still notice when they try to fly it!

“Oh, but that’s the beauty of it!” Discord grinned. “We can take this home, have some fun with it, figure out how it flies, and then return it! They’ll never know.”

“I’m not sure a copying spell will work on this.”

“Well at the very least you can download the computer or whatever.”

“…Fine. But we need to work fast, okay? Who knows, maybe there’s a Jumper cleaning day today!”

Discord snapped his fingers, taking them back to the hallway where the Mirror Portal was. “After you.”

Starlight rolled her eyes, stepping back into Equestria. Once again, Bon Bon looked up. This time she furrowed her brow, like her sixth sense was acting up, but since she didn’t see anything she went back to her papers.

One more teleport took them to the secret room. “Why do you even have a door?” Discord wondered aloud. “Seal it up with bricks, make it more secure.”

“Never know what’ll happen. I might lose my horn or magic or something and need to get in here.”

“…How would you open the magic lock then?”

Starlight blinked. “…Good point. Time to invest in a different lock. Anyway…” She facehooved. “Discord we can’t look at it in here, not enough space. We need to be outside.”

“I could just shrink us-“

“Discord, I think if there was ever a time to adhere to the laws of physics, it’d be now.”

Discord rolled his eyes. “Fiiiiiine. Everfree Forest?”

“Everfree Forest.”

With a quick teleport, they stood in one of the many clearing in the magical Everfree Forest. The mixture of purple and green trees was usually uninviting and mysterious, but today the sun shone bright and the air felt friendly. Discord dropped the stealth spells and grew the Jumper back to its normal size.

They stood there for several seconds.

“Now what?” Discord said.

“…There should be a way to open it…” She walked around to the back, prodding the hatch with her magic. “Locked.”

“Then use an unlock spell!”

“I don’t know how it’d rea-“

Discord snapped his fingers. The back of the Jumper slid open, creating a ramp into the surprisingly roomy interior.

Starlight twitched. “You know, if we break it…”

“They’ll blame it on their technicians.”

“…Mmmf. Whatever.” She walked in. “…Looks like there’s supplies here.” She levitated a bag off one of the side shelves and opened it. Inside was a first aid kit, food rations, a few devices she couldn’t identify, and a couple guns. One of the guns looked different from all the others.

She took out the small, vaguely snakelike pistol. “Huh. Looks alien.”

Discord snapped his fingers and created a dummy outside. “Fire away.”

Starlight clicked the button on the side with her magic. With a startling noise the pistol readied itself, but didn’t fire. “Geez, all these noises are going to give me a heart atta-“

She accidentally fired it, hitting the dummy head on with a coursing bolt of power that vaguely resembled electricity. The dummy shook, singed.

Starlight’s mane was now standing on end. “…Welp, that’s probably an effective weapon,” Starlight said, shoving it back into the bag. “Let’s never shoot it again.”

“I say we do more experiments to determine if it’s shocking in the electrical or emotional sense.”

“Nooooot right now!” She rummaged around through the extra boxes for a while longer, finding a box with dozens of crystalline chips inside of it. “…I bet these interface with the system computer.”

“Is there an instruction manual?”

“…Sorta?” Starlight pulled a small booklet out of the case. “More like scientific gibberish for people who already know what they’re doing.”

“Well copy some of the stuff and let’s move on already. Come on, I want it to fly.”

Starlight frowned. “Why don’t you duplicate some things?”

With those words, Discord decided to make another one of the snake-pistols.

“AUGH!” Starlight blurted. “Not those!”

Discord pointed it at the dummy and fired, successfully knocking it to the ground. “Looks like I still have it.”

“Could you just duplicate the entire ship then!?”

Discord frowned. “…I could try… HUZZAH!”

Another Jumper appeared.

“WE DIDN’T HAVE TO STEAL IT AT ALL DISCORD, FOR THE LOVE OF F-“

Discord burst into laughter. The duplicate Jumper fell over, revealing it to be a cardboard cutout. The gun in Discord’s hand disintegrated into sound. “I can’t replicate things this complicated, why do you think I’ve been helping you steal things?”

Starlight twitched. “…Fine. We can take that entire bag out, they won’t miss it.” She threw the bag with the gun, rations, and other supplies out of the Jumper. “But now I want to see how this thing flies…” She and Discord walked to the front of it and sat in the two chairs. Starlight pressed one of the buttons with her hoof.

Nothing happened. Not even a consolatory beep.

Starlight furrowed her brow. “Great.”

“Maybe we need a key…”

Starlight tried a simple ‘unlock’ spell. Nothing happened. “Nope, not a key. Not in a literal sense at least.”

“I’m sure you’ve got spells that break into just about everything, including the minds of ponies.”

“Leeeeeet’s not talk about that!” Starlight laughed. “I’ll just try my ‘skeleton key’ spell. It should allow access to anything that isn’t magically guarded in some way. And I’m not detecting any magic on this thing, so…”

She cast the spell, and the console lit up.

“Cool. It’s on.” Discord snapped his fingers, turning his head into a car. “How make go?”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe you just ask it to go up.”

The Jumper opened up its sides, revealing two engines. It activated them and floated a meter up into the air.

Starlight blinked. “Okay. It’s interfaced with my mind. Not creepy at all. Nope.”

“Starlight.” Discord grabbed her face and touched her muzzle with his nose. “Take us. To. The. Moon.”

Starlight thought about this for a moment – then decided it was time to throw caution to the wind. “You got it!” She thought about closing the Jumper’s back hatch, and it complied. She thought about flying into the sky, and it compiled. The Jumper rocketed through the atmosphere, passing all the clouds in a matter of seconds. Starlight briefly wondered why she wasn’t feeling any acceleration – but then she decided she didn’t care. She pushed the thing as fast as it would go, leaving Equis behind rapidly. The blue orb shrank behind them to a tiny pinprick as they sailed towards the sun.

“Moon, Starlight. Moon. Not the fiery thing.”

“Right, right…” Starlight turned the Jumper around, looking back at Equis. The day side was nice, brilliant, and inviting. Not to mention absolutely amazing to look at. She wasn’t even sure she knew all the landmasses she saw. She ordered the Jumper around to the other side, the side in shadow. She could see small pinpricks of magical light wafting from parts of the globe, but there weren’t that many.

But the moon was certainly easy to see. She sailed right for the mysterious silvery orb, thinking that they’d arrive at any moment, certainly.

The moon was a lot further away than it looked. It took a few minutes to actually arrive, and Starlight didn’t even land. She just skated over the surface.

“Wow. Bigger than I thought it was,” Starlight noted.

Discord shrugged. “Eh, it’s not that interestingl.”

Starlight blinked. “…You could have just teleported us here.”

“Yeah, but at least we know the Jumper works!”

Starlight twitched. “Discord, those last two minutes were of no help determining if the Jumper worked or not…”

“But they were fun!”

“Discord…”

“And who cares about two minutes anyway?”

“We need to get this computer system downloaded so we can return this thing!” Reacting off her anger, the Jumper decided it was a good time to fire a weapon. A yellow drone shot from one of the Jumper’s sides, impacting the surface of the moon. The weapon hit, bounced off the surface after making a crater, and decided to hit again in the same spot.

Starlight blinked. “…That’s too small to see from Equis, right?”

“I’m sure nopony noticed,” Discord said, the uncertainty in his voice clear.

“Take us back.”

“Good idea.”

Discord teleported the Jumper back into Equis orbit, and Starlight took it down to the Everfree Forest, landing back in the clearing. She let out a breath.

“…I’m going to try to get the computer’s information out, somehow. Something tells me we won’t have enough storage. Then we can return and-“

There was a knock at the back of the Jumper. Starlight and Discord tensed. They turned behind them, looking at the closed hatch.

There was another knock.

Starlight told the Jumper to open the hatch. She put on the most innocent grin she could manage, and Discord followed her example.

On the other side of the hatch was a very ticked off Princess Luna.

“Why Luna! Fancy running into you here!” Discord announced. “Why, Starlight and I were just-“

“You two are going to explain to me exactly what’s going on here,” Luna interrupted. “There will be no lies, no deceptions, and no half-truths. Understand?”

Starlight gulped. “Y-yes, Princess.”

Luna sneered. “Now, how about we start with what hit my Moon?”

~~~

Rarity laid the dimensional device on the table. “And here it is. The portable device. It can’t store anywhere near enough power to get from here to Equestria, but it can go most other distances. We are most willing to share it and our knowledge of dimensional travel with you, in exchange for some of your own devices. Namely the hyperdrive you use to travel the stars at ‘impossible’ speeds.”

Daniel glanced at O’Neill and the other politicians and soldiers in the room. “Well?”

O’Neill nodded. “I approve. Now all we have to do is wait several weeks while the senators sort out the paperwork.”

“It really takes weeks to do that?” Twilight asked.

“Anything that isn’t urgent will be deliberated until it can’t be deliberated anymore,” Daniel admitted. “If there was a crisis on hand, O’Neill could authorize it. But it’s not like you need it to survive.”

“Yeah… Mostly just curiosity. I guess I can wait a little longer.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Should there be any formal signatures of any kind? Humans generally like that sort of thing. No offense, mind you.”

Daniel chuckled. “Signatures won’t come until your lawyers and our lawyers actually draw up a treaty of some kind.”

Rarity took in a breath and let it out. “I was mildly afraid of that. Our society isn’t big on… Lawyers and legalese, usually.”

“You two seem fine at it.”

“By necessity only. Run into enough different cultures you realize that lots of them like paperwork.”

O’Neill smirked. “So the opposite problem we have.”

“I suppose so.”

Twilight used her horn to create a scroll. She shook her head. “Wow… This universe must have extremely low levels of magic. It’s difficult to perform spells. Glad there’s at least enough to maintain the translation, but ponyfeathers…” She levitated a pen out of her saddlebags and started scribbling out some lines.

Daniel adjusted his glasses. “That makes sense, seeing as magic doesn’t exist here, far as we know. The only things that come close to having it are Ascended beings.”

“Come again?” Twilight said, looking up from her scroll.

“There’s… some kind of spirit-force in our world that you can advance through a number of… bizarre and seemingly inexplicable methods. Eventually you can turn your mind and ‘soul’ into a physical entity with immense power.”

“It’s like ‘enlightenment’, but in space!” O’Neill remarked.

“Curious…” Twilight said. “That doesn’t quite sound like magic… More like the powers the Elemental Nations have. Powers that come from within. Hrm… I may wish to meet one of these Ascended to learn more. I’ve been trying to formulate a theory of esoteric powers, and it’s been proving rather difficult.”

Daniel shrugged. “You’re looking at one. Or, well, a man who used to be one.”

“Really? Why aren’t you one anymore?”

“Lots of reasons. Mainly because the Ascended enforce a pretty strict non-interference policy. I had the inability to just sit by and let things explode.”

“Ah. Don’t suppose they’d be willing to talk to me then.”

“Probably not,” Daniel agreed.

“Well…” She turned back to her scroll, scribbling a few more things down. She handed it to Rarity, who crossed out a few items on it and scribbled a few ideas of her own. She then slid it to Daniel.

“This is a… ‘draft’ of sorts.”

Daniel read it over. “Very basic, but we can work with this.”

“Then let’s hope all goes well with your political processe-“

There was a knock at the door. O’Neill sighed. “Timing… Yes, what is it?”

Walter stuck his head in the room from the doorway. “There’s a ‘Princess Luna’ here about... Something.”

Twilight blinked. “Luna? Here? …Why?”

“You know her?” Daniel asked.

“Yes, she’s one of the rulers of Equestria, alongside me. But she never leaves Equestria… I wonder what she’s got to say. …Maybe she wants to look over what we’re doing? It should be fine to bring her in.”

O’Neill nodded to Walter. He left the doorway to let Luna in.

Everyone got the impression something was about to go wrong when Starlight was tossed into the room, faceplanting on the ground. She covered her face with her hooves and couldn’t make eye contact.

Twilight paled when Discord was tossed in next, landing face-first next to Starlight. Luna strode in afterward, scowling. “I take it you are General Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson?”

“…Yes? What is this about?” Daniel said, frowning. He set the scroll down on the table and folded his hands together.

“These two have committed a crime against you. They stole one of your devices for their own needs.”

“We were going to give it back!” Discord spat back, standing fully upright. A few of the soldiers drew guns on him. He snapped his fingers, turning the guns into silly putty.

“Discord… Just stop…” Starlight moaned, refusing to look up.

O’Neill stared right at Starlight with a stare that anyone could feel boring into the back of their head. “What did you take?”

“…One of your Jumper ships,” Starlight muttered.

“There’s no way, we would have noticed.”

Luna slammed the Jumper – currently miniaturized – on the table. “The one in your hangar is currently a fake, crafted by Discord and Starlight here. They were planning on stealing all the technology and secrets they could, and would have had I not stopped and found them. I turn them over to you for prosecution.”

“Luna!” Twilight blurted. “You can’t do tha-“

“They’ve been doing this for months, Twilight. Starlight has a secret room filled with stolen objects from other universes. They need to see that there are consequences for their actions.” She turned back to O’Neill, refusing to respond to Twilight’s aghast expression. “How does your kind go about this?”

O’Neill took a deep breath, picking up the tiny ship in his fingers, studying it. “…Well from what I understand, there’s a trial, and for something like this we lock them up in jail for a while. Though… This will be an odd case…”

“Nope,” Discord said, “not dealing with that.” He snapped his fingers, vanishing in a puff of white light.

Starlight stared at where he’d just been, tears in her eyes. “…Discord…”

Daniel turned to Luna. “Can you…”

Luna shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. Discord’s power is far beyond that of any others. I was lucky to get him this far.”

“He’s basically an Ascended...” Daniel commented under his breath.

O’Neill turned to Starlight. “…You really handing her over to us?”

“Yes. Considering her position in our society, I believe Twilight would just pardon her with a stern talking to.”

Twilight shot Luna a look. A look that was both accusing and hurt. Luna remained impassive.

Daniel let out a long, deep sigh. He slid the scroll back to Rarity. “I’m afraid this is no longer on the table. I don’t think we could convince our people to work with those associated closely with thieves. I’m afraid discussions have to be suspended.”

“It was going so well…” O’Neill sighed. “Take her away, men. And… hold on, what about her magic?”

“I’ve sealed it,” Luna said. “She won’t be able to use it unless I release her.”

O’Neill nodded to his men. Then grabbed her and dragged her away – she didn’t fight. “By the way,” he said. “It’s a Puddlejumper. Not a Jumper.” He left without another word. Everyone began to file wordlessly out of the room after him, including Luna.

Twilight turned to Rarity. “Rarity, what am I going to do.”

Rarity furrowed her brow. “We’re going to talk to Luna, that’s what.” She trotted out of the room, face determined. They met up with the lunar princess in the hallway. “Princess Luna!”

Luna was clearly not used to one of her subjects addressing her with that tone. She turned around and loomed over Rarity. “What? Choose your words carefully.”

Rarity didn’t flinch. “That was a political mess Luna! A mess! We were working towards a better tomorrow and a great friendship, and because you did that you ruined it!”

“Would you rather I let them do what they wanted?”

“Maybe!” Rarity spat, standing as tall as she could muster. “Or just make them return it with no one the wiser!”

“That’s dishonest, Rarity.”

“If you’re honest all the time the world will grind you into powder. This was one of those times.”

Luna glared. “Starlight was acting far out of line, and she’s ruined Stars know how much with her constant thefts. She needed something like this.”

“Then you could have punished her!” Twilight blurted.

“You and I both know you would have found a way to pardon her. Turn Cadence and Celestia to your side.”

Twilight fumed. “Did you ever think that, maybe, if you thought the rest of us would disagree with your choice that maybe it was wrong?”

“How many times has Starlight overstepped a major boundary, Twilight?” Luna said. “She learns, yes, but she learns slowly because you keep pardoning her. Brainwashing, mind control, magic abuse, theft - you just talk to her and tell her to learn. I see her dreams. She never does those particular things again, but her nature is still disposed for going against the rules, against harmony. She needs more of a kick than you’re willing to give.”

“She’s my student, Luna, not yours!”

“Didn’t you let her ‘graduate’, Twilight?”

Twilight took a few steps back, tears in her eyes. “W-why didn’t you just tell me about this earlier? Talked it out?”

Luna sighed. “Twilight… I – I probably should have. But I needed to act now in this particular instance. I cannot say I handled the situation perfectly, but I stand by it.”

Rarity shook her head. “Luna, there’s more to this than what Starlight and Twilight need. Your actions have changed things forever between these people and Equestria. They may never trust us again.”

“Should they?” Luna asked.

“…We’d want them to.”

“Isn’t that manipulative?”

Rarity narrowed her eyes. “Please, princess, you live in Canterlot. You know how things are. You can’t be as high as you are without pulling a few calculated strings.”

Luna’s expression lost its certainty. “…Maybe. Regardless, what’s done is done. Now we all have to deal with it.” She walked away, trying to keep a regal figure – but her stature was damaged.

Rarity let out a panicked breath the moment Luna turned the corner. “Oh. My. Stars. I just shouted at the princess. Twilight I just shouted at the princess. TWILIGHT I JUST SHOUTED AT THE PRINCESS! I’m dead!”

“No… No you’re not dead,” Twilight said, wiping her eyes. “She… I think she needed to hear that. I’ll have to go talk to her later. But… But right now, I’ve got something else to do. We need to stay here to deal with what Starlight’s done.”

“I still can’t believe she did that…” Rarity said.

“…I can,” Twilight said. “She tried to tell me as much last night. There were signs… And Luna’s right, it is in her nature to just do things against Harmony.” She shook her head. “What a mess…”

Rarity hugged her close.

~~~

Starlight sat in a cell. The door was locked, she had no magic, and she was crying.

What in Equestria was I thinking? I should have known, I should have known, I should have known, I… No, I made this choice! I knew exactly what I was doing and did it for the future of Equestria! Equestria just didn’t want me! So why did I bother? Was there even a point…? Discord betrayed me. He just left me here to dry. He… AAAAAAAAAAA

“AAAAAAAA!” She screamed, ramming her head into a nearby wall. Since she already had a splitting headache, the pain didn’t even register. She just couldn’t deal with this right now. Her mind was a swirling mess of contradicting thoughts and emotions, urges to beat herself up and to inflate her own ego coming at her from all sides.

She couldn’t think. What did this even mean? Was she wrong? Was everybody crazy? Was it somehow both? Was she crazy? What did Twilight think?

Oh no. Twilight. She probably hates me. They were doing something important and I… I…

There was a knock at the door. Starlight looked up to it, unable or unwilling to say anything. Even she wasn’t sure.

It slid open. A guard let Twilight in. He shut the door behind them.

Starlight froze. Tears dripped down her face but her expression was blank, her pupils tiny.

Twilight sighed. “…Why?”

“…I, I wanted to help Equestria. Y-you wouldn’t do it, so I had to. I… that drone that saved your life? It wouldn’t exist without what I d-did.”

Twilight bit her lip. “I was afraid of that. Starlight, bad things can result in some good, and good things can result in bad. If you’d never brainwashed that town, we’d never have met. But I still think it would have been better for you never to do that.”

Starlight sagged. “…You’re right.”

Twilight frowned. “Am I really?”

“Of course you are! You’re always right!”

“No, I’m not, and you know this. Luna doesn’t think I’m right either. She thinks I’m way too soft with you. That you need to be punished like this.”

Starlight blinked. “You… don’t think so?”

“No. I think you need to be taken back to my castle so we can talk this out. There didn’t need to be public embarrassment or irreversible consequences. There didn’t need to be persecution. Or… I thought that.”

“…And now?”

“I’m not sure. Luna’s made me think about it…” she leaned against one of the cell walls and sighed. “I can probably strike a deal to get you out of here. All I’m wondering is if I should. What do you think?”

“I…” Starlight grabbed the side of her head. “I don’t know. I’m not in my right mind right now. There’s part of me that thinks I need to be locked up forever and there’s the other part that’s begging you to let me out. To forgive me.”

Twilight shook her head with a sad smile on her face. “I’ve already forgiven you. Just like all the other times.”

Starlight wiped her face. “You are way too forgiving, Twilight.”

“I know. I think that’s part of what Luna wants to teach me.

“Nopony ever stops learning, huh?”

“No.” Twilight hugged her. “It’s something we share.”

“You should probably let them have their way with me,” Starlight said suddenly. “It’s the politically correct thing to do at this point.”

Twilight shook her head. “I’m not thinking about that right now. I’m thinking about what’s best for you and me.”

“Well, I can’t tell you that.” Starlight removed herself from the hug. “You’ll need to make your own decision.”

“It seems like I’m making a lot of those lately…”

“Yeah…”

Twilight took in a breath. “I’m going to think this over. Whatever I decide, know you’re still my friend, Starlight. Okay?”

“I know.”

They hugged again, and Twilight left, leaving Starlight alone in the cell again.

It was so silent.

~~~

Discord analyzed the situation. He was not about to let Starlight succumb to this, oh no. He had the power in him to stop all of this. It’d take a little effort, but he could do it.

The plan was deviously simple. All he had to do was teleport Starlight back to Equestria, then use a complicated chaos matrix to alter everyone’s memories to have no idea she ever existed – on this side of the portal, anyway. It would be better if he could alter Luna’s mind, but she and her sister were very resistant to that. Twilight probably was as well, come to think of it. So manipulating ponies was out of the question.

He’d find some way to make Twilight believe that these humans had released Starlight because they felt like it was a good idea. Perhaps disguise himself as that Daniel fellow and do the speech himself.

Then he’d actually go to that Daniel guy and give him the scroll draft again. He’d find it and suddenly remember that it HAD to be written up exactly as the ponies wanted it. And everything would be better, Starlight would be off the hook, and Discord would feel great.

He’d also engage in a campaign against Luna to stop her from trying to assault him again. She’d learn her lesson.

He teleported into the meeting room – it was empty now. Nothing remained on the table except the drafted scroll that nobody had known what to do with. He grabbed it, read it over, and shrugged. “Guess this is it.” He then set to work on the cascade spell. There wasn’t much magic to work with here, but he was a master. He could alter the memories of an entire city in Equestria, altering just a few dozen individuals would be nothing to him.

He teleported to Starlight’s cell. “All right, I’m getting you out of here.”

Starlight sighed. “Discord, that’ll just make things worse-“

He held up the scroll. “They won’t remember anything, Starlight.”

“Discord, no. We can’t just undo this.”

Discord folded his arms. “…Well I’m doing it anyway. I’ll just-“

Before he could snap his fingers, he was enveloped in a flash of light.

He was suddenly standing in a well-lit and simple diner filled with old patrons. “…What in my name is this place?”

The patrons paid him absolutely no mind. One sipped his coffee in a way that annoyed Discord. He twitched, snapping his fingers, attempting to turn the coffee into a singing bean. Nothing happened.

He blinked. “…Okay, something’s up.”

“That it is,” a woman said, turning to him, turning her seat around. Her features were young, but her eyes extremely old.

“Who are you?”

“Sestar. I’m what you may or may not known as an Ascended Ancient.”

“A what now?”

“One of many beings in this universe with powers similar to your own.” She leaned in, contempt evident on her features. “You’ve broken our laws.”

“What did I do?”

“You were about to heavily interfere with the course of history. We allowed you to take the Puddlejumper, thinking you would leave and not interfere again. This has proven to not be the case. So we’re going to keep you here.”

“What.”

“You heard me.”

~~~

One thing Discord failed to realize was that there was supposed to be more than the scroll in the meeting room - the dimensional device. The humans hadn’t touched it before they left, and the ponies forgot completely about it in their emotional stupor. It would be a long time before anyone asked where it was.

And by then it would be far too late.

Somewhere far across the galaxy, there was a large pyramidal ship among a small fleet of similar, golden ships. They were drifting in the endless void between stars, trying their absolute best to remain hidden. After all, they were on the run from the forces of the Milky Way, labeled as the eternal ‘bad guys’ of the conflict.

They were the alien forces under the name of Ba’al.

Ba’al sat on his throne in the largest ship, plotting. He was a tall, middle-aged man with a short black beard and sly, cunning eyes. To his side was a man who looked exactly like him – another Ba’al. One of many, many Ba’al clones in the fleet.

They all knew they were running out of options. Their enemies – the humans, the Tau’ri – had gained powerful allies and risen as the dominant power in the galaxy, and Ba’al was the only one of their enemies still alive. Hundreds of thousands of clones had fallen to the Tau’ri, and as far as this Ba’al knew they were the last sect left. Drifting in the void, waiting for an opportunity.

The opportunity came in a way none of them expected. A man – one of Ba’al’s informants that had been planted amongst the Tau’ri – ran into their presence. He bowed to one knee and presented them with an unusual device.

“…What is this and why have you left your station to bring it to us?” the two Ba’al’s said at the same time.

“It is a device from a different universe, my Lord. A device with the power to travel between universes, near and far. It will lead us to new lands to conquer.”

Ba’al raised an eyebrow at his clone. The clone raised an eyebrow in return. “This galaxy is lost to us.”

The other nodded. “All we’d have to do is find a simple world to start the empire again. Build our forces without their knowledge.”

The first picked the device out of their servant’s hands. He twisted a few dials until he came to a name he liked – Ardent. “Hrm… Now how does it work?”

“There was no demonstration, but it needs power.”

Both the Ba’al’s stood up. “You do not have to return to the Tau’ri,” they said at the same time. “I doubt we will stay here for long.”

The servant bowed respectfully and scurried away.

“Let us hope this thing actually works…” One said.

“I have no doubt it works. It will likely need some altercations though…”

“With a few hundred of us working on it, it should take no time at all.” They grinned and let out slow, evil laughs.

 

Chapter Text

Call of the Stars, Part 2

Waiting is Tartarus.

No…

Waiting is hell.

Somehow, it felt more cathartic thinking of it that way. Starlight didn’t know why, but she felt a little better. Maybe she should just start screaming “ponyfeathers” or “peeve” or “heck” or the human “damn” at the walls now. Maybe it would help with the waiting.

The waiting…

How long had she been in here? Normally she’d just cast a simple timekeeping spell to get the time, but that clearly wasn’t an option right now. Her horn felt dead right now. She tried not to think hard about the horror stories of unicorn horns going permanently dead after being sealed, but since she was doing nothing but waiting… Well she could do nothing but remember.

The great unicorn Bursting Neon was a mage of unparalleled power – until one day he decided to seal his own magic away for a month to see if he could live without it. That month was the hardest of his life, but he got through it. Then the seal wore off and he found he couldn’t use magic anymore, but he didn’t mind, he had learned to live without it.

The moral was supposed to be ‘don’t put too much trust into your gifts’ or something. But Starlight could only think about that in passing. All that came to her mind was the horrific idea that she could never use magic again. Surely Twilight would be able to re-infuse magic, right? Or figure out how to grow a new horn? Or… something?

No, no she wasn’t able to do that for Tempest the unicorn. Horns were still broken. Magic finesse could be taken away.

Would she be able to live without magic? It was so much of what defined her. She had a handful of spells operating at any given time without even thinking about it: heightened senses, rain avoidance, arcane ping, vague… What did vague even do? Why did she have it on all the time? She knew there must be some reason. But she couldn’t remember it at the moment. She was stuck in her own mind.

Had it been a day? It felt like it’d been three days, so it’d probably been only a day. She hadn’t heard the guard switch shifts yet, but frankly she could have missed that in one of her crying fits.

Why was she crying? She was doing what was best – no! No that was wrong. She was wrong. How could she have ever thought that stealing random things was a good idea? Well nobody noticed most of the things that went missing, and most of them weren’t actually that important… But there were the runes… The large computers… The monolith chunk…

She still had nightmares about those eyes.

Had she slept at all? She could swear she remembered seeing the eye in this room. …Was she just going crazy?

Wait, they hadn’t fed her! So it must be less than a day! Unless they were cruel. But these humans didn’t strike her as cruel, just stuck in their laws. …How long was a sentence for stealing valuable government property? A year? Ten? How long even was a year on this planet?

How could she minimize the sentence? Probably… Plead guilty, put on the waterworks and puppy eyes, and beg. Unless that offended them. So… Plead guilty, put on the puppy eyes, and stay quiet? Puppy eyes always worked – even more so on humans. But these humans were very distant from the rest of them… More serious. Much more serious.

More real, in a way.

What in Equestria was she even thinking now? What did ‘more real’ even mean?

She had no idea where that thought had even come from. That scared her. Lots of her thoughts scared her right now. She had thought stealing was a good idea and that maybe the others could be brought around to see it – just like when she’d been in charge of that cult! It was happening all over again! She got an idea in her head, decided it was true, and thought it’d be best to get other ponies on board!

Thank Celestia she was stopped before she recruited someone other than Discord.

…Great, Discord. She was worried about him. He had been about to do something to ‘help’ her when something grabbed him. She knew he could take care of himself, but whatever it was had kept him from doing something crazy. She just couldn’t have accepted what he was trying to do… Something about memories, right? Crazy. Just like her. They’d set up a feedback loop with each other.

She wondered what the humans here thought of Discord. They didn’t seem that scared of him when he was there, merely surprised and cautious. Though if she knew their kind, they’d probably be paranoid about his mere existence later. It was just the way things were, sadly…

Waiting.

She was going mad by waiting.

Time to start thinking about shouting swears at this wall again…

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

Starlight leaped into the air, bumping into a nearby wall. She let out a sharp yell of surprise from the pain.

Daniel poked his head in through the doorway. “…Starlight?”

“Uh… H-hi.”

“I’m here to bring you to our little makeshift court.”

“Oh. Okay.” At least it’ll be over quick.

“But first... I want to talk to you, if you don’t mind.”

Starlight laughed nervously. “I am at your mercy!”

“The judges are going to be hypocrites.”

“…What do you mean?”

Daniel sighed. “Almost everything we have in this base was not technology given to us. It was stolen, in one way or another.”

Starlight blinked. “…What?”

“The stargate? Used to belong to Egypt, but one of our intrepid explorers dug it up and shipped it here. Our weapons? Many of them were stolen from our old enemies, the Goa’uld. Our early ships were based on technology we recovered from other worlds, not through our own intelligence. Eventually we proved our worth and things like the transporters were given to us, but we started our journey grabbing everything we could. That was just a little over ten years ago.”

Starlight nodded slowly. “I… So we are like you in a way then?”

“Judging from how Twilight responded, I don’t think so. You and that… Discord fellow were the only ones stealing, weren’t you?”

“Yeah. But we’re different in another way. We stole from friends in addition to enemies.”

Daniel smiled awkwardly. “We… Tried to do that as well, a few times. It wasn’t just spoils of war.”

“I take it you were probably the one who objected?”

“Yeah. It still doesn’t change what we did.”

Starlight nodded slowly. “Okay, so now I don’t feel like I was completely out dancing in left field, but the fact remains that I’m a bit of a psycho. Plus, you said the judges are going to be hypocrites, meaning they won’t care about this.”

Daniel nodded. “I’ll do what I can. But we can be very, very harsh people.”

“Can you at least make sure my friends can visit me?”

Daniel smiled. “That I can do for sure. Might even be able to arrange for you to be held on this base, by reason of ‘useful knowledge’ or something.”

“Thank you. I really don’t deserve it, but thank you.”

“I think you do deserve it, actually. You ponies are much more trusting and cooperative than almost any other race we’ve encountered. I am more than a little disappointed that we couldn’t just get that accord signed quickly.”

“…Totally my fault.”

“More like your Princess’ fault. Tell me, does she even understand politics?”

“Yeah. I think she was just really upset we blew a crater in her precious moon.”

Daniel furrowed his brow. “Now that you mentioned it she did seem rather moon themed. Anyway… I am still here to take you to the little court we have. Jack decided to have it all arranged here quickly so he didn’t need to have much of a headache. Be thankful he has little patience for bureaucracy, you could have been here for days otherwise.”

“How long have I been in here?”

“Five hours?”

“…Yep. I have no sense of time without my magic.”

“…You’re going to hate legal proceedings. This is going to take all day. There’ll be many breaks and a lunch, but most of it will be legalese nobody understands.”

Starlight facehooved. “Can I just plead guilty and get it over with?”

“The judge will still want an exhaustive study of motivation and politics to make sure the sentence is correct, and because this is a case involving two worlds in a semi-first-contact scenario, we’ve got a lot of paperwork to sort through.”

“Greeeeat.”

~~~

Discord glanced at Sestar. “So what do you people actually do here?”

“We observe.” She dropped a newspaper in front of his face. Discord knew instantly that if he flipped the page he could know anything he wanted to know about anywhere, through a network of Ascended Power. The front page declared CONTACT WITH ANOTHER UNIVERSE! UNICORN ON TRIAL! WILL THIS END IN DISASTER OR GREATNESS?

“A bit dramatic on the titles, are you?”

“It’s an approximation of what’s really there, which is unique to our power. You aren’t the same as us so you can’t see the reality, even if your power is approximately equal.”

“That doesn’t explain why the headline is so over the top. I bet some days it probably reads A NEW RACE DISCOVERS HOW TO LIGHT FIRE, BEHOLD THE DAWN OF IMAGINATION or something equally stupid.”

There was no response from any of the other Ascended.

“Do any of you people actually listen to anything?”

“They think you are a child, not worth their time.” Sestar said. “I think you are a child, but realize that if I said nothing it would become… problematic.”

“A howling screaming draconequus too much for you?”

“Doubtful. But it would be annoying.”

“My specialty.” He took a drink from his mug. Determined to have some chaos even if his powers weren’t working, he drank from the far side of the glass, upside down, spilling some around the table. He burped.

“Why do you feel the need to cause disorder?”

“I am the literal incarnation of chaos and disharmony, what do you think?”

“Have you ever considered stopping?”

Discord laughed. “Why, yes actually! But, here’s the thing, I tried to be orderly to accommodate Fluttershy once – great pony, you jerks will never get to meet her if I have anything to say about it – and wouldn’t you know it, I started fading into nothing! It looks like if I’m not chaotic I cease to exist! Isn’t that fun?

“You are telling the truth,” she said with mild surprise in her voice. “Interesting. How did you obtain your power?”

“I was just born with it, Miss Pompous. One day, there was no Discord. Sensing a hole in the fun side of existence, I was born, and completed the balance. Tah-dah, best day ever!”

“And how do you use your power on your world?”

“Can’t you, like, look into the minds of people and ponies to find out?”

Sestar was silent.

“…You can’t can you? Oh this is rich! Powerful deity level beings who can’t read minds!”

“Can you?”

“Er… Not exactly. It’s never reliable. Just changing memories is much easier. There’s a spell system for that.”

“Do you change memories often?”

“Why would I want to? Every time they see this face is a blessing!”

“Are you sure that’s not just your ego talking?”

“It is just my ego talking. What do you take me for, a self-absorbed idiot? No, just self-absorbed here, and proud of it.”

“Why do you take pride in that?”

“Look, lady, if you have to ask that question you clearly need to grow an ego.”

Sestar sat back and pursed her lips.

Discord grinned. “I’m wiiiiiinning.”

“Do you regularly try to alter the course of history on your world?”

Discord laughed. “In my day I tried to control the entire world! But, you know, there were magical artifacts, and friends; I mellowed out a bit. I’m a retired supervillain!” He snapped his fingers, trying to create a superhero suit out of habit. As usual, nothing happened. “Man, you have a joke and then the buzzkill just suffocates you…” he muttered.

“You imply that you don’t alter the course of history anymore?”

“Not true! I’m on the good side now! I helped take out an entire hive of changelings that were being all evil and such, I help my ‘friends’ see the best way to do things, I go on adventures, and, oh yeah, I help Starlight steal stuff. Which, by the way, I have to bust her out. So how do I get out of here?”

“You agree to abide by our laws of non-interference with a binding contract, punishable by imprisonment here.”

Discord laughed. “I’m not going to do that! That’d be so plain boring. Think about it, starry, think about it. Do you think a being of chaos and disharmony can survive without causing those things?”

“It is wrong for any beings of our power to interfere with the affairs of lower races.”

“Oh, so I should have been a lonely hermit in my universe then?”

“I doubt you were the only one of your power.”

“What if I was?”

“Then an eternity of solitude was your duty.”

Discord laughed. “Wow, you’re dogmatic. I’m just waiting for you to get up and start barking. Would have done it myself just now but, you see, magical chains.

“You will stay here until you agree to follow our ways. We cannot let a being like you roam free.”

Discord folded his hands. “I’ll find a way out.”

“No you won’t. We have numbers.”

“But, you see, I’m clever.

“And we’re dogmatic.

Discord blinked. “Did you just try to make a joke?”

“If that’s what you want to believe.”

Discord sat back. “Well… In that case. HEY! ALL YOU PATRONS OF ASCENDED IDIOT CITY! PAY ATTENTION TO ME!”

Only one of them with a bored expression glanced his direction. Discord leaped to him. “What do you think about all this? I swear this lady’s got bats in her brain and an airhorn for a mouth.”

The Ascended didn’t respond. He went back to looking at a newspaper.

Discord fumed. “What does it take to get people’s attention around here?”

“Galactic war,” Sestar said. “The last time we interfered directly was when another faction similar to us tried to conquer this galaxy. We only interfered when it was clear the inhabitants of this galaxy would not survive on their own.”

Discord blinked. “Are any of you actually happy with this life? Sitting around and doing nothing?”

“It is the way things are. Were they not this way, we would be just like our brethren. Feeding off the worship of our followers for power, for glory. We would fall to using them for our ends.”

“That sounds like a pessimistic view of the world. Why not just have some fun with them?”

“It is not our way. And we cannot let it be your way in good conscience, either.”

Discord fell back into his seat and fumed. To his annoyance he didn’t actually start steaming. He considered starting screaming, but that would just confirm their belief that he was childish. Well he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. This was war.

~~~

A dozen Ba’als stood in the bridge of the mothership. Just hours ago, they had witnessed an amazing test. With almost no work or reverse-engineering required, the dimensional device was able to open a portal large enough to fit a small ship through. The scouting ship had gone through and scouted out a singular, primitive planet brimming with unusual energies. It had seen a single, tiny spacefaring vessel around the world, but the vessel was easily destroyed with simple weapons. The planet was defenseless.

The dimensional device was now hooked up to the hyperdrive of the mothership, the largest ship in Ba’al’s little fleet. If their calculations were correct, and they probably were, simply pushing more power into it would create a larger opening. It had taken a lot of power to open a portal to the universe on the other side – more than the little device could store inside it – but that was no issue for a powerful man with access to an Zero-Point Module. Stolen, of course, and saved for a rainy day.

“Power the device,” several Ba’als said at once, essentially ordering other versions of themselves to press a button. The hyperdrive and power systems of the ship focused as much as they could to the dimensional device, more than overloading its storage capacity. But the ‘spell’ inside was more than able to accommodate the power. It surged with the energy needed to traverse galaxies, rippling through spacetime in front of the ship. A tear forced its way through the cosmos, widening slowly to the size required to fit the mothership. The Ba’als grinned evilly as the stars through the portal took shape, showing them constellations and arrangements they didn’t recognize. The planet wasn’t visible from here, since the portal opened up several stars away from it, but it would take but a minute to arrive.

The ships filed in, first the mothership, then its six similarly-pyramid-shaped Ha’tak vessels. Even a single one of these ships was generally considered powerful enough to subjugate a planet, but they were headed into uncharted territory. It never hurt to be cautious.

The portal closed behind them. One of the Ba’als checked a display. “Yeah, our Ancient power cell is burnt out. We won’t be making a return trip.”

“We won’t need to,” another said. “The device has numerous locations within it that can be accessed with much less power. All we need to do is find them. But first… Let’s pay Ardent a personal visit, shall we?”

~~~

Corona – or Sunset, if you were one of the people or ponies who knew her a few months ago – was on an interdimensional vacation. It may have just been a single day where she didn’t do anything for Storm or, Celestia forbid, Tempest, but she still considered it a vacation. Time to stretch her legs, relax, and enjoy the scenery.

She knew this world was Ardent. But she saw no reason to be scared of it, even after what she’d seen that one time. So long as creepy mask guy or that Link didn’t show up, she was fine. The Gorons were nice, the shopkeepers were welcoming, and everything was just quaint. It was a good world to spend an afternoon in.

She was currently visiting with one of the said shopkeepers, a potion seller. “I don’t know, you really think I could use a flaming potion? I’ve already got the fire ‘magics’, after all.”

The pink-haired white-skinned shopkeeper shrugged. “I think you’ll like it. Overkill for the sake of overkill. I think it’s useful from time to time. And something tells me you might want it soon.”

Corona shrugged, grabbing a few rupees from her pocket and slapping them on the table. “Well, there you go Seskii. I am now the proud owner of a flaming potion. Your sales pitch worked.”

Seskii clapped her hands together excitedly. “Yay! Here you go!” She handed Corona the orange potion. “Careful, really hot!”

“How are you holding it then?” Corona asked, delicately picking it up with her gloves.

Seskii tapped her hands. “Plastic, remember?”

“Right. Well, see you around. Thanks for the potion.”

“That I will. Come again soon!”

Corona placed the small potion in one of her pockets, walking away. As she walked down the street filled with happy people, she was overcome with an intense feeling that life was good.

“Hey, you’re Sunset, right?”

Corona smiled. “I actually go by Corona now, but-“ she froze when she saw who she was talking too. Link. She remembered his exchange with the Happy Mask Salesman, the creature in his shadow, and that Mask. She tried her best to smile confidently. “Ah! Link! What a… surprise!”

“Surprise? Why’s it a surprise?”

“Just wasn’t expecting you is all.”

Link shrugged. “Well, in the future, don’t be. I spend most of my days here. Even more so now that you people have started showing up more often.”

Sunset frowned. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

“Not at all, none of you have been bad yet. Though some have been better than others. Those hairy people were just jerks.”

“Oh, the Binaries? They are a bit stuck-up, aren’t they?”

“Definitely have a superiority complex. I’m not worried though. I think we scared them off.”

“How, exactly?”

Link smirked. “Growling.”

Sunset nodded slowly, like she understood everything. “I see.”

“Anyway, what brings you here to little out of the way Termina?”

“Vacation. For a day. I’m taking a break from all the secret agent and scientist business. It sometimes gets a little tiring.”

“I can imagine. I adventured a lot in my day. Did a lot of hard work. I’m basically on permanent vacation now.”

“Lucky.”

“Well if any great evil shows up again, I’m going to have to deal with it.”

Corona shrugged. “I wish you luck when that happens.”

“I said ‘if’.”

“I said ‘when’,” Corona emphasized.

Link just smiled at her. “Little pessimistic there, hrm?”

“If you want to think so. I’ve just learned from experience that there’s always more danger and evil out there. It never ends. We just have to keep fighting it.”

“You have the heart of a hero.”

Corona smirked. “I would try to deny that, but at this point that’s pretty pointless.” This guy wasn’t actually that bad. He probably had nothing to do with that mask and just wanted it kept safe. She didn’t know why she was so unnerved by him before…

There was a soft, mad laugh from right behind her. She whipped around, fists ready for a fight, coming face to face with the Happy Mask Salesman. She paled.

“Hello, Sunset…”

“C-Corona,” she managed to correct.

Sunset,” he emphasized. “A mare who knows things she shouldn’t…”

“…Mare?” Link asked.

Corona gulped. “Uh… Yeah, I’m a unicorn. Or was. Link who is this guy?

Link put his hands on his hips. “He’s an old… ‘friend’. A bit mysterious, creepy, and over the top, but ultimately a decent guy.”

The Happy Mask Salesman’s hands were pressed together. “Ah, Link, you inflate my ego.” His finger was pointing at Corona now. She hadn’t seen his arm even move. “But she needs a warning. Your dreams are haunted by what you know, but you must not ask. You have more important things to deal-“ Suddenly his face became livid. Sunset considered bolting, but soon realized he wasn’t angry at her. He was looking to the sky. “…We have visitors.”

Link readied his sword. “I take it they aren’t friendly this time?”

“No,” he said, standing up to his full height. “Not at all.” His hand was pointing into the sky. “There.”

Corona and Link saw a golden pyramid descending from the sky. It had a large gray extrusion coming out of its base from all sides, and spikes stretching out in all directions. It was metallic, shiny, and was a clear sign of highly advanced technology.

Corona blinked. “That doesn’t belong in this universe.”

“No, it does not…” the Happy Mask Salesman hissed. Then he was gone. No puff of smoke, no movement, he was just suddenly gone. Corona shook her head in bafflement.

Link drew his masterfully crafted and ornate bow. He loaded it with a silvery arrow glowing with the power of light itself. He aimed – and fired. The arrow seemed unaffected by gravity, flying straight and true right into the pyramid ship.

They didn’t even see it impact.

“That’s a big pyramid,” Link said.

“Maybe we can talk to them?”

“I doubt it. The Salesman wouldn’t have acted the way he did if he thought that were possible.”

Corona raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so he knows all about otherworldly threats then?”

“Yes.”

Corona shivered. “Well, maybe we can fight them directly. After all-“

A yellow bolt of energy shot from the pyramid ship’s bottom, impacting the Clock Tower. The entire building exploded, showering the town square in splinters. The large bell let out one huge ring one last time, crashing into the ground alongside dozens of large clockwork gears. The people of the town screamed in fear, running away from the smoldering ruins of their precious clock tower.

The pyramid didn’t fire another shot at the small town – instead it focused on shooting elsewhere. Presumably somewhere more populated…

“Hyrule…” Link said. He drew his sword and started running out of town.

“Link! Wait!” she yelled after him. “There’s no way you can-“

“I’m going to try!”

“We should try to get help first!” Corona yelled. “I’m sure Twilight would be willing! Or any of the others!”

Link turned and ran back to her. “What are we waiting for then? Open a portal!”

Corona pulled out the dimensional device – fully charged. It should have a couple jumps in it. She opened a portal directly to Equestria, stepping into the main hall of Twilight’s Castle, Link right behind her.

Bon Bon stared at them and listened to the panicked screaming from through the portal.

“Where is Twilight?” Corona asked.

“Offworld,” Bon Bon responded. “Busy dealing with a legal case against Starlight.”

“Darn it…” Sunset muttered. “That’d probably take too long…” She pulled out the dimensional device. “If you can, Bon Bon, tell her that Ardent is under attack by some pyramid spaceship and we need help. Okay?”

Bon Bon nodded. “Of course.”

She opened a portal again, this time stepping into her Earth. She pulled out her cell phone while Link looked around the street, somewhat confused by the area around him.

“Hello, Corona!” Director Storm’s voice came through her cell phone. “What can I do for you today?”

“There’s a world under attack from a spacefaring threat,” Corona explained. “We need to help them. I’m requesting some agents to go-“

“Let me stop you there. Sadly, this is not a military installation. I don’t have the resources nor the authority to help in a war. I’d suggest talking to your pony friends.”

“They’re busy with legalese!”

“There are other options. I am sorry.”

Corona hung up, quickly dialing another number. “Twilight? Get the girls, head to Ardent. We’re going to have to fight what are probably aliens. I’ll explain more when you get there.”

“Is that it?” Link asked.

“No, I have another option.” She dialed the device to the Elemental Nations and stepped through, arriving in Ba Sing Se. She ran to the palace, tripping over her own two feet occasionally. She and Link charged into the main hall, panting.

Aang and Iroh were currently there, discussing matters that were probably very important, but not as important as what Corona and Link needed. “Ardent is under attack!” Sunset yelled. “We need help!”

Iroh furrowed his brow. He nodded to one of the aids nearby. “Ready the army. What’s the attack?”

“Pyramid spaceship,” she said, panting. “I’ve managed to conscript the girls from Earth, but Princess Twilight’s not available at the moment and I don’t have time to go look for anyone else. We need help.”

Aang nodded, grabbing his staff. “I’ll be right there.”

Iroh held out a hand. “Aang, your duty is to this world. Let Toph and the others go.”

“…No. I feel like I need to go. Get the army ready, I’m heading over with them now.”

Iroh nodded slowly. “I suppose we do not have time to deliberate… Very well. I’ll send help as soon as I can. Go, you three, figure out what you can.”

Corona nodded. She lifted the dimensional device – it needed a little charge to make it back to Ardent, but that didn’t take long. She, Link, and Aang stepped out into Termina. The Clock Tower was still smouldering, and the pyramid ship was much larger, closer to the ground, though further to the east.

Twilight Sparkle the human stumbled out of an open portal with Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack. “This is everyone I could find!” She looked around the wreckage, pupils dilating. “…Oh my goodness…”

Corona nodded. “We’re getting more help from the Elemental Nations, but we don’t have time to dally around. Link, the ship is headed to Hyrule?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s where we’re going. Dash, Twilight, we’re going to need to get there fast. Think you can manage with your powers?”

Twilight looked at her necklace, unsure – but Dash grinned confidently. “You bet we can!”

Twilight gulped. “It’ll be complicated, a little crazy, and-“

“Just levitate everyone, make them lighter for me, and I’ll rush us all the way over there! Simple!”

“That’s hardly simple! I’m not that strong of a spellcaster!”

“Just do it!” Link ordered. “We can’t waste time!”

Aang pressed his hands together, entering the Avatar State. He lifted everyone up with his power over air itself, pressing them all into an uncomfortable ball. Just get us there!

Rainbow Dash gave him a thumbs up, grabbed Sunset by the ankle, and dragged them across the grassland at high speed like they were some kind of balloon. The speeds they moved at were jarring, but not unbearable. It was difficult to see what was happening, but Corona spied three different towns as they ran, all of which were smoking from at least one hit.

Whoever these attackers were, they were trying to drive fear into the people of Ardent. It was working.

Rainbow Dash slid to a stop suddenly, right at the edge of Hyrule City, the capital of the Kingdom of Hyrule. The city was large, expansive, and dominated by a single huge castle. It was also smoldering in several places, and the nearing pyramid ship only continued to berate it with golden bullets.

Whenever a bolt attempted to hit the castle itself, a blue diamond-shaped shield would appear, conjured out of some kind of magic.

Link leaped to the ground, out of Aang’s air. “Zelda’s defending. Good. We’ve still got a chance.”

Applejack shivered. “How exactly are we gonna fight this thing? It’s way up there and has a really big gun!”

Aang’s eyes flashed brighter for a second. It shouldn’t take too much effort…

“Wait,” Corona said. “It looks like it’s dropping smaller ships.”

Sure enough, smaller ships descended from the bottom of the pyramidal ship, landing in the field below. Hatches dropped open, revealing hundreds of beings that looked human, albeit dressed in archaic armor and wielding strange staves.

Corona’s group could see the armies of Hyrule charging from the Town to meet the opposing force. The otherworldly beings aimed their staves, firing energy bolts that burned right through the armor of the knights, often killing more than one with a single shot.

Corona grabbed put her hand to her mouth. Rainbow Dash, Twilight, and Applejack flinched backward, biting their lips.

People were dying.

This wasn’t like the shattering pawn game, these people were really getting holes burned through their chests by golden plasma. She… She wasn’t sure she could handle this. She started breathing faster and faster.

Link put his hand on her shoulder. “We must remain strong. Death is a horrid evil, but we cannot let it deter us from what we need to do.” He pointed his sword at the clashing armies. “See those blue and green lights? We have our own mages in the midst. They’re not outmatched. Our soldiers can win this fight.”

The pyramid ship shot a bolt of plasma at the Hylian army, decimating it.

“If we can take out that ship.”

Aang prepared to take everyone up there, but a yellow plasma bolt shot right at him. In the Avatar State, he had the reflexes required to bend the ‘fire’ away from him. He whirled around. Who!?”

It turned out that there was a small troop of a dozen or so men right next to them. Most were just like the soldiers on the battlefield, but one was a bearded man in a robe. He smirked, holding out a hand, around which was a strange metallic device that placed a red crystal on his palm. It glowed – and Aang lost all control of his muscles.

Twilight pointed her finger at him and shot a magic bolt, but a forcefield blocked it. He laughed, ordering his soldiers to fire. They aimed their staves. Rainbow Dash kicked one faster than humanly possible, knocking one of them over, while Corona attempted to engulf them in fire – but it wasn’t either of them who took the warriors out.

Link was suddenly just there, standing in front of the bearded man, the Master Sword right through his chest. All the other soldiers already had sword wounds from the sword in their chests, keeling over all at once. The bearded man looked at him in surprise and awe. “…Quite the trick you got there… Boy…”

Link kicked him down. “I’ve got a lot of tricks. All of them will be used against your assault.”

“Heh… Heh…” His head rolled to the side and his eyes lost focus.

“Okay,” Rainbow Dash said. “Blood. Yep. That’s blood. That’s a looooot of blood. And it’s on your sword. That’s fine. Everything’s fine.”

“It ain’t fine,” Applejack muttered. “But we don’t have a choice.”

Twilight just held Corona’s arm. Pinkie curiously leaned down and inspected the man’s corpse. She poked it.

“Pinkie!” Corona shouted, looking away from the strange motion the body’s head made. “Agh!”

“Sorry,” she said. Then she coughed, stood up, and shivered. “…We… Woah, we need to move.”

Aang shook his head, letting the Avatar State dissipate. “What… What happened?”

Pinkie pointed at the device on the man’s hand. “Ba’al here had you in the grasp of that hand device. You wouldn’t have been able to do anything had Link not saved you.”

“So… Ba’al, then…” Link said. “We won’t be seeing him again.”

Pinkie giggled nervously. “Uh… Right.”

“…There’s more than one, isn’t there?” Applejack asked.

“Yeeeah…”

Aang cracked his knuckles. “Then we need to go – now. The more time that pyramid is in the air, the more people die.”

He entered the Avatar State again, raising them all higher with the power of wind. They could soon see the entire battlefield beneath them. It was clear – the Hylians were losing, badly. They could not face the forces of Ba’al, it was simply too much to face an army and a ship they couldn’t reach. Even if they managed to defeat the ship, it might have been too late…

“Is that your help over there?” Twilight asked, pointing toward the horizon.

Corona squinted. “…Iroh’s forces shouldn’t be coming from there…”

Link frowned. “That’s the direction of the Gerudo Desert. And that does look an awful lot like an army…”

It was an army – a large army composed of hundreds of dark-skinned individuals. Most of them blurred together in Corona’s vision, but she could make out one individual at the front of the forces. Someone big, burly, and powerful. She could sense the power even from her considerable distance.

“Let’s hope Ganondorf’s in a helpful mood today…” Link muttered under his breath. Then he grabbed Aang’s arm. “Look out!”

Aang shifted the entire group upward, just barely fast enough to dodge plasma fire from a smaller, birdlike craft.

Link drew his bow and fired a bomb-arrow. It hit the craft, exploded, but did no damage. “I can’t deal with it from this range!”

“I got it,” Twilight said pointing a shaky finger at the craft as it tried to loop around back toward them. She shot three times before hitting, but the magical bolt hit true and the fighter exploded. She whooped.

Corona shook her head. “We can’t keep doing this, there are too many of these ships!”

Pinkie took a marshmallow out of her pocket and tossed it at a nearby ship, blowing it up. “Good point. We should probably go back down, too many defenses are locked on us!”

“No!” Aang said. We’re doing this!He rushed them toward the hull of the pyramid ship, flying past the various fighter ships. Several of them ended up on their tail, firing relentlessly. It was only Twilight’s magic shields that protected them.

“Guys, I’m not very good at this!” Twilight yelled.

Only a little longer...” A bolt got through Twilight’s defenses, glancing across Applejack’s leg. She screamed, throwing everyone’s focus off. A ship aimed, ready to take them out completely.

It exploded in a shower of darkness and magic. The shockwave from the explosion tossed the group the rest of the way to the ship, planting them uncomfortably into the golden hull.

“What was that!?” Rainbow Dash shouted.

Link stood tall, tossing a health potion to Applejack as he did so. “…Ganondorf.”

The man floating before them had dark green skin, short red hair, and ornate black armor flanked by a flowing red cape. “Link. I never thought this day would come.”

“Working together. What an interesting thought.”

“The enemy of my enemy.”

Applejack stood up, leg healed by the potion. “No offense, but we need to take this ship out now. Y’all can get back to chit-chat later.”

Ganondorf nodded in understanding. He pulled his fist back and punched the hull of the ship, denting it. He stared in disbelief. “That should have been more than enough to break through.”

“It’s a heavy alloy spaceship hull, several inches thick,” Pinkie said. “Course it’ll be a little more difficult than what you’re used to.”

Applejack cracked her knuckles. Her orange necklace started sparkling. She placed her hands on the edges of the hull and pushed with all her might. It buckled, bent, twisted, but eventually did break through. She peeled the two pieces of metal apart, revealing the three-inch thick plating she just broke. She took a breather. “That was… somethin’ else.”

Link and Aang charged in without another glance. Corona took the chance to look at the battle below them – Ganondorf’s army was helping the Hylians face off against Ba’al’s forces. A once hopeless battle had now returned to a real fight, a real contest.

They still needed to take this ship out.

She pushed the thoughts of how many people were dying down there out of her mind, running after her friends into the ship itself.

~~~

The mothership remained in orbit around Ardent, two of the smaller ships flanking it. Four of the Ha’taks were down on key places on the planet, causing chaos. Most were experiencing heavy resistance, but nothing too impressive. Ba’al had to admit he hadn’t been expecting two different nations to send armies to the same location, but they still couldn’t do anything to the Ha’taks. They were just too far above these primitive people, and he could always get more Jaffa and clones to replace the losses.

Actually, Jaffa might be at a premium now. Though he could get new soldiers easily from this world. Already, the idea of fish-people and rock-people servants tantalized him. Naturally stronger than Jaffa. With technology they’d be unstoppable.

“Hey, we’re detecting large amounts of dimensional activity near one of the smaller towns.”

Several Ba’als turned to look at the screen. They saw a satellite image of a small town with an army slowly appearing out of nowhere.

“Ah… Otherworldly allies. We should have foreseen as much…”

“Order one of the free Ha’taks to intercept. We don’t want to be surprised.”

One of the Ha’taks broke orbit, descending to the gathering army below. On this ship was one Ba’al in particular who found himself in the position of leading a troop of Jaffa in battle against the inhabitants of the town itself, instead of the gathering army. Such tactics usually put the enemy off their game. He and his dozen Jaffa took one of over a dozen smaller landing ships down to the surface while the Ha’tak began laying waste to the army from above.

Ba’al’s interest was piqued when he saw the armies shoot fire from their arms and launch into the air with pillars of earth. These people had control over fire and the very ground itself. More useful servants. They lacked technology, and even with their powers of earth they were having difficulty getting to the Ha’tak. Not that they could break in even if they got to it, it was far, far too durable.

Ba’al’s ship landed, and he led the Jaffa troop out into the streets. There were a few soldiers here that tried to shoot fire and earth at him, but the Jaffa’s staff weapons made quick work of them, and Ba’al’s personal shield deflected all the loose fire. The earth was more concerning – it might be moving slow enough that it could pass through the forcefield. He’d need to be careful.

But for now, it was time to terrorize the inhabitants. He kicked in a door, finding a woman holding both her son and a pile of colored gems tightly. He smirked. Ah, this would be fun. He raised his hand, forcing the energy in the crystal to attack the mother. Her expression went blank and she lost all feeling in her muscles. With a push of his mind, Ba’al killed her in an instant.

The son went in much the same way. Then he ordered the Jaffa to blow the walls out of the house. Things were going well. He went to house after house after house, tormenting the inhabitants and quickly killing the few soldiers that weren’t occupied with the other attacks. This was fun, easy, and great.

He kicked in a cellar door next, hand device at the ready. Inside was the most disturbing man he had ever seen, staring right at him.

The Happy Mask Salesman laughed and said something Ba’al couldn’t understand. Ba’al held out the hand device, shoving the man into the wall. He would have pushed further, killed the man right then and there, but something caught his eye.

Several masks had spilled out of the Salesman’s backpack. Almost all of them were boring and uninteresting, but there was one. One mask that called to him. It was a purple thing in the shape of a heart, spikes lining the edges. Two eyes stared at him through the wooden fixture.

He knew without being told this was an artifact of great power. He reached down and picked it up. The chilling energy ran through his limbs, driving a feeling of sick pleasure into his brain. He looked at the Happy Mask Salesman, who stared right back at him with a look of contempt.

“Don’t want me to have this do you?” Ba’al said, even though he knew the Happy Mask Salesman didn’t speak his language. It was just Ba’al taunting for the sake of taunting.

Suddenly the mask was in the Salesman’s hands again. Ba’al hadn’t even see the man reach out for it. It was as if the Salesman moved without taking all the steps between.

Ba’al glared at him. “Kill him.”

The jaffa fired their weapons, but the Salesman was suddenly on the other side of the room. Ba’al shot out his hand device, smacking the Salesman with a burst of telekinetic energy again. The Salesman vanished – but he lost his grip on the mask. Ba’al grabbed it again, holding it to his chest. “We need to return this to the fleet. Now.”

The Happy Mask Salesman appeared behind him, punching Ba’al in the back. He was more than ready for this – he shoved the hand device into the Salesman’s face, trying to blow his brains out. The Salesman screamed in pain but he didn’t die.

Ba’al pinned the Salesman to the ground, pushing more energy from the hand device into him. “What are you?”

The Salesman laughed – then said something presumably insulting. Ba’al was prepared to draw a dagger to stab the man to death, but he never got his chance. A Fuchsia bug with four arms dropped into the cellar from the ceiling, spinning two yo-yo’s with enough precision to behead four of Ba’al’s Jaffa.

“Retreat!” Ba’al yelled, ducking under a yo-yo attack. He clutched the mask to his chest, running towards his dropship. The mask filled him with determination. All the action around him fell silent as he ran, becoming non issues to him. He felt a yo-yo tear at his leg, enough that it should have made him fall. But something kept him running. He didn’t even feel the pain.

His Jaffa fell behind him, but he didn’t notice. A girl threw some rocks at him, but they mysteriously missed. Some shadowy vixen tried to punch him, but he ducked without even thinking. He ran into his drop ship, alone, and it took off into the sky.

He didn’t even notice that it had taken off without him giving any command. It wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. But he already didn’t care.

He looked at the mask. The beautiful, beautiful mask.

He knew what its name was.

Majora.

Beautiful.

~~~

“The bridge is this way! Come on!” Pinkie shouted, blowing through dozens of armored soldiers with her explosive confetti and giant squeaky hammer. Everyone followed her, not questioning where she was getting her information – after all, Pinkie was Pinkie, and if she was this serious she was probably right.

Corona unleashed a torrent of fire, horrendously burning a soldier trying to ambush them. The scent of the charred flesh filled her nostrils. This particular soldier wasn’t dead, but she’d probably consigned more than a few to their ends on the journey to this part of the ship. She tried not to think about it. She didn’t really have time to think about it even if she wanted to, really.

Ganondorf and Link were much more lethal than the rest of them though. Corona’s friends and Aang at least tried not to deliver killing blows. The two of them just blazed trails through whoever they could. Corona had seen heads explode. She was rather surprised she wasn’t freaking out like Rainbow Dash was.

Rainbow Dash zipped past them, kicking another body out of her sight. “Okay! Okaaaaay! Okay. Can we just get this over with already? We’ve been in here doing… things… for far too long!”

“This door here! Open sesame!” Pinkie said. Applejack nodded, punching through the sealed doorway, a structure much weaker than the outer hull. The room on the other side was filled with consoles, screens, and only a single instance of Ba’al. He held out his hand device, ready to waste them, but Link shot an arrow right through his skull. He keeled over and fell to the ground, blood pooling around him.

Rainbow Dash kicked the body out of the room, trying really hard to ignore the blood that was on her shoe now. And the blood that had been on her shoes and hands since she’d started removing the bodies as fast as possible. Because she had to. She started humming to herself.

Corona walked up to the controls, frowning. “Okay, so, how do we turn off the gun… Gun… Gun…” The entire thing was in an alien script Corona didn’t recognize, so that made understanding it difficult. There were a few diagrams, but they could mean anything.

Twilight pointed to a diagram. “That’s probably flight controls.”

“Just move it out of range…” Corona said, smirking. She pressed a few buttons. A diagram that showed the ship’s location relative to the planet told her the entire pyramid was rising. “There we go, I think we’ll be high enough shortly.”

Pinkie twirled a knife in her hand. “Ah, but we won’t be high enough for long.”

Corona turned to her, eyebrow raised. “…Why not? And what’s with the knife, Pinkie?”

Pinkie sneered, her eyes flashing an eerie, alien white for a second. “Pinkie’s not home,” she said in a deep, reverberating voice. “It’s Ba’al in here.”

Corona took a moment to register that she’d just been stabbed through the stomach with a comically large knife. Oh boy. I can’t feel any pain right now. That’s not good.

Her friends prepared to fight – but the doors to the control room opened, revealing dozens of Ba’al clones, each one holding a snake-like gun in their hands. “I wouldn’t try anything,” one of them said.

Corona gagged, looking at Pinkie-Ba’al. “H-how…?”

Pinkie grinned, removing the knife from Corona’s stomach with a sharp yank. “The Goa’uld, my race, are a race of parasites. When a host body dies, we transfer. She just got close enough for me to get in. And boy oh boy is this a great host! It made everything so easy!

Sunset slumped to the ground, vision blurring.

~~~

Rarity cleared her throat. “And as you can see, my client clearly feels remorse for what she’s done, and will be more than willing to do anything you ask of her. All I ask is that you be lenient, and consider the fact that Discord pushed her to his level of action.”

The prosecuting attorney – some fellow named Friedrich – stared Rarity down. “We cannot hold this Discord accountable for anything, due to his power. Therefore that argument is moot.”

Starlight glanced at Rarity, and she nodded. Starlight took in a deep breath. “I think Discord is being held accountable. He came to my cell and told me he was going to free me – but then something took him away.”

Rarity nodded. “I therefore believe that Discord is being held accountable by your Ascended, having apparently decided Discord was their responsibility.”

Friedrich frowned. “Where’s your evidence?”

“You have a security feed in Starlight’s cell, do you not? Just look at that.”

“This still does not change what she did.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “We already pleaded guilty. This piece of information simply pertains to the sentence. She does not need to be locked away for eternity.”

Friedrich leaned back, turning to the judge. “Your honor, if it pleases you, I have one last line of questions to ask.”

The judge – some guy Starlight didn’t even know the name of – nodded slowly. Friedrich continued. “You ponies, as a race, are familiar with the crystal man and the unicorn that came here previously?”

“Yes…?” Starlight said.

“What does this have to do with anything?” Rarity asked. “You already know that we know about them. They’re where we got our dimensional technology.”

“Are you also, by chance, aware of a being that could be described as a ‘red humanoid fairy with ram horns’?”

Rarity blinked. “…Yes, actually. There’s a legendary figure on our world known as the Handmaid who fits that description. Why do you ask?”

Friedrich ignored her question. “So you are aware of two interdimensional powers that have visited this very base, and yet claim this is the first time you’ve ever visited? Is it not more likely you’ve known of us for a while, and were instead trying to lull us into a false sense of security exactly so you could pull this stunt off?”

“…Are you accusing us of conspiracy?” Rarity said, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m merely saying that the situation should be looked into, and that this case cannot be truly decided until we know for certain exactly how many forces were at play here.”

O’Neill charged into the room and grabbed Friedrich by the ear. “Excuse me, your honor,” he said to the judge. He glared at Friedrich. The glare was all Friedrich needed to know.

“Ahem…” Friedrich said, adjusting his tie. “…That will be all I have to say on the case, your honor.”

The judge nodded. “The case has been reviewed. I judge Starlight Glimmer of Equestria as guilty of grand theft. However, due to the delicate nature of the situation, she will not be jailed. Since she is a representative of the Equestrian government, the payment of the fine falls to them. A hundred thousand dollars worth of materials or currency will suffice.” He sat back. “Court is dismissed.”

Starlight blinked, turning to Rarity as the people shuffled out of the room. “I thought you said to expect jail time?”

Rarity frowned, nodding. “You should have… I read over their laws. Grand theft usually involves a year for much smaller thefts. I was expecting many years, actually. Something must have happened. Maybe they didn’t want to ruin a political relationship?”

“It was me,” Twilight said, walking up to them. “I offered them a trade.”

Starlight cocked her head. “You… Did?”

“After Rarity told me what sentences were, I couldn’t just let it slide. I promised them a dimensional device and a Directory, as well as personally seeing to it that I equip their ships with dimensional capability. I… also gave them permission to request official Equestrian mages for magic testing.”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “And… You did that all just so I could go free? Twilight... I didn’t need that much…”

Rarity narrowed her eyes. “It’s also another political blunder. Now the number of things we have to offer them are more limited. They’re coming out on top in this interaction, and will easily be able to exploit us in the future.”

Twilight sighed. “Maybe so. I… I just couldn’t let it happen. I had the power to change it, so I did. There’s no way Starlight needs to spend a decade in prison to learn her lesson.”

Starlight looked at the ground. “…You sure?”

“Yes, Starlight, I’m sure. I’m very sure.” She pulled her into a hug. “Come here.”

Starlight let tears fall down her eyes. “Will… Will I ever get it? Do you think I can?”

“…I don’t think anypony ever truly gets it, Starlight. We all struggle, we all flail, we all fall. Over and over and over again, even at things we already thought we learned.”

“Life sure is funny.”

“Yeah, it is.” She shook her head, releasing Starlight from the embrace. “Anyway, we need to get back to Equestria and grab a dimensional device. I… misplaced the one we brought here.”

Starlight blinked. “…You ‘misplaced’ it?”

“Well I’m not accusing them of stealing it, that’d just be stupid at this point,” Twilight said. “I’m pretty sure Daniel wasn’t involved anyway. Speaking of…”

Daniel walked up to them. “Are you girls ready to head home?”

“Yeah,” Twilight said. “I still need to get things for your ship though.”

“I know. I’m planning on coming back with you, to learn more about your culture.”

Twilight smiled. “Good.” She lit her horn, expending some effort to teleport them back to the hallway. She let out a breath from the energy loss. “Ouch…”

“Maybe you shouldn’t rely on teleportation so much?”

“Probably not…” She shook her head, stepping through the shimmering wall into her castle, Daniel, Starlight, and Rarity behind her. “Bon Bon! We need to figure out how much a hundred thousand dollar fine is in pure gold, stat.”

“Of course, Princess. But first, Corona came by earlier with an urgent message.”

“What was it?”

“There’s a pyramid ship attacking Ardent right now, and they need your help.”

Daniel paled. “…Pyramid ship?”

Bon Bon narrowed her eyes. “Are you responsible?”

“No. But… But that’s the kind of ship our enemies use.”

Twilight blinked. “Well, at least I know you guys didn’t steal the device now.”

Daniel shook his head. “Does this ‘Ardent’ have any technology capable of repelling ships designed to conquer entire planets?”

“I doubt it very much,” Bon Bon said.

“Damn,” Daniel muttered under his breath. He turned to Twilight. “I hope you can work fast.”

Twilight gulped. “…I can try.”

~~~

The other Twilight, the human, couldn’t take her eyes off Sunset – Corona’s – limp form. She was alive, for now, but that wound was serious. They needed to heal her, and heal her fast. But they were currently being held at gunpoint.

“Shall we kill them?” one of the Ba’als asked.

“Nah,” Pinkie-Ba’al said in Pinkie’s regular voice. “They’re all useful. Dark guy is the king of the Gerudo, the green guy is the hero of Hyrule, the arrow kid is the patron hero of an entire other world, and the colorful girls are all very precious to important people and ponies.” She giggled. “And baconhair here is also important, but I felt like stabbing someone.”

“How do you know all these things?” another Ba’al asked.

Pinkie-Ba’al smiled. “This host is connected to something… beyond understanding. She has a natural way of seeing everything. Who everyone is. What they are for. How things are going to happen. It’s almost like a psychic, but not quite. I’m still figuring it out myself, but it allowed me to mimic her antics easily. She can also pull things out of nowhere, such as this knife.” She cackled. “Such a powerful body!”

“Do each of you control a human mind?” Link demanded.

“Yes, but this particular human mind is blank due to cloning,” another Ba’al said. “Though you’re probably still upset about it.”

An alarm went off. A Ba’al close to Twilight checked a screen. “That interdimensional army took out one of our Ha’tak’s.”

“How?” Another said.

“They were clever,” Pinkie-Ba’al said. “They had a shadowy being on their side that could pass through walls and an earthbender who could fold metal like paper. They found the engine room and things collapsed from there.”

“They’re coming here.”

Pinkie-Ba’al pointed at Aang. “Show them him tied up, and they’ll stop fighting. He’s their ‘Avatar’. Truly a stupid title, but it works.”

Link tried to inconspicuously trace an hourglass symbol with his sword near the ground, but Pinkie-Ba’al knew it was happening before he tried. Suddenly the Master Sword was in her hand. “No mysterious time-stop powers from you! We just can’t have that!”

Link bristled. “At least let me heal Corona. I have potions.”

Pinke-Ba’al shrugged. “Hey, guys, let’s take it to a vote! Let them heal her?”

All the Ba’als gave a thumbs down with bemused expressions on their faces. One sipped a martini. Pinkie-Ba’al snickered. “The mob has spoken.”

“If you are the mob it’s hardly fair,” Applejack said, placing herself in such a way that she protected Rainbow Dash, who was currently curled up in a ball on the ground, crying.

“Oh look, they’re trying to take defensive stances…” Pinkie-Ba’al said, shaking her head. “You’ve all lost! We’ve got weapons far beyond anything you’ve ever seen pointed at you, and…” She paled suddenly. “The Tau’ri are coming.”

“What?!” most of the Ba’als said.

“Forget about reactivating the weapon! Tell the mothership to get us out of here now! We need to leave this place before they show up! Dial some random universe!”

The Ba’als frantically scrambled around, working with the controls. The Ha’tak rose further away from Ardent, moving to meet the mothership and its single guardian Ha’tak. The mothership began to shift ominously, channeling energy into the dimensional device, preparing to escape into a nearby dimension.

A portal opened in the opposite direction, revealing the human ship Apollo. Twilight stared in awe at the contrast between the golden pyramid ships and the dulled, rectangular visage of the Apollo. It came out, guns blazing, firing standard turrets alongside long, thin blue energy beams. On the main screen, the mothership got hit, but its shields held. Its companion Ha’tak was not so lucky, with a few shots destroying it quickly.

The mothership opened a portal, accelerating into it to a place without stars at all. The ship Twilight and the others were on attempted to follow – but a laser grazed its side.

Consoles on the bridge exploded, screens went dead, and the room fell into darkness. Pinkie-Ba’al screamed. “NO NO NO!” The scream of someone who had felt like this was going to happen, but just ignored it. Twilight cowered – she heard guns go off, spells fly around her, and bones crunch. The ship shook again, taking another hit.

Was she going to die here, on an alien ship, with most of her friends? After witnessing all that death, that destruction, that-

She saw Aang enter the Avatar state, his eyes providing enough light to see by. She could see many Ba’als laying around them, dead. Not as many as there had been – presumably more than a few fled.

She screamed when she saw Corona standing – holding the Master Sword, having thrust it right through Pinkie-Ba’als chest.

Pinkie-Ba’al let out a sick laugh. “I guess… I guess this body can’t see everything then…”

Corona winced, falling to a knee, holding her chest – but keeping her other hand solidly on the sword. “Give… Us… Pinkie… Back…”

“Hahahah! She’ll be gone forever, you stabbed her Sunset! You’re to blame!”

Both Corona and Pinkie-Ba’al collapsed in that moment. Twilight swore she could still hear Pinkie-Ba’al’s laughter.

There was silence. Aang dropped out of the Avatar State. There was nothing else to see.

Twilight heard Link saunter over to Corona and Pinkie-Ba’al. He took a jar out of his satchel, one with a glowing white fairy inside it. He tied Pinkie-Ba’al’s hands behind her back and tied her legs together – then released the fairy. It swirled around the two of them, flooding them with white magic before vanishing.

Twilight heard Corona cough and Pinkie-Ba’al moan.

She let out a sigh of relief. They would be okay. And, for whatever reason, the ship had stopped shaking…

The last thing she remembered clearly for the next little while was the face of her alicorn counterpart lifting her up to see if she was okay.

~~~

Princess Zelda of Hyrule strode across the halls of the Tau’ri ship Apollo. She’d already had her meeting with O’Neill and the Captain – it was time to see those other people who’d saved their kingdom.

She walked into the sickbay, noticing a few familiar faces. Link, nursing numerous cases of internal bleeding. Ganondorf, suffering through a broken arm and leg. He shot her a look, but said nothing. As it should be. Most of the other faces were new to her though. An orange-skinned girl was talking to a blue-skinned girl who looked like she had seen the horrors of war for the first time, and probably had. A boy with an arrow on his head stood next to a purple girl, standing over the bedridden woman Zelda knew was Corona.

Zelda touched Corona’s arm, smiling. “I want to thank you.”

Corona groaned. “You’re welcome… Ugh…”

“The pain will pass. Focus on that.”

Corona managed a slight chuckle. “Probably a good idea… But I’m busy thinking about Pinkie…”

Zelda raised an eyebrow.

“…Some snake got into her head. They’re trying to remove it now.”

As if on cue, they heard some alien screaming. Coming from behind a curtain. A doctor came out from the curtain with a glass tube, inside of which was a large white fleshy snake. It had three sharp prongs for teeth and a few beady eyes – and it was livid.

Corona looked at it. “So, that’s Ba’al then?”

“Yep,” O’Neill said, walking into the room. “Pretty pathetic without bodies, huh?”

“Creepy,” Corona muttered. She managed to sit up, looking at the horrid snake a little closer. She winced, but glared. “Ba’al…”

The creature just hissed and complained with incomprehensible languages.

Corona swiped the jar, popped the top off, and burnt the Goa’uld inside to ashes before anyone could stop her. Then she handed the cremated remains back to the doctor. “How’s Pinkie doing?”

“She’s doing great!” Pinkie said, leaping out of the operating curtain. There was still blood on her shirt, and she really shouldn’t have even been able to walk, but there she was. “That was interesting!”

Corona grinned. “Pinkie, we almost died.”

“I said interesting, not fun. Though parts of it were fun. Most of it was terrifying though.” She paused, staring into nothing for a moment. “I knew everything Ba’al knew, but I also knew things he didn’t, and he knew things I didn’t, and… And I was watching everything happen like it was on TV.”

Rainbow Dash hugged her without any warning. “Don’t ever go do stuff like that again, okay Pinks?”

“Of course not!” She hugged Rainbow Dash back tightly. Far too tightly, but nobody cared at this point. The doctor just shrugged and went back to examining his various patients.

Zelda smiled. “It warms my heart to see you all here. I’m going to give you all the highest honor of valor in our kingdom, the Goddess’s Regalia. Yes, even you Ganondorf.”

“…Sweet,” Rainbow Dash said, devoid of her usual vigor. It was as if she wasn’t really into it.

“There’ll be a ceremony in a few days. I expect you all to be there.”

“Also, something else,” O’Neill said. “That Ha’tak you guys were on? It’s busted up, but still functional. Corona, we’ve decided to give it to you.”

Corona blinked. “Give it to Twilight.”

“…Huh?”

“The people I work for do not need access to a spaceship, okay?”

O’Neill shrugged. “Screwing over the man. I can respect that. Request granted.”

“Thank you.” She laid back down in the hospital bed. “Ugh… Can I get some sleep now?”

“You heard her! Everyone out!” O’Neill shouted, clapping his hands. “If you aren’t critically wounded or are a pink monstrosity that can’t feel pain, move!”

A flood of people began to move out of the hospital – while Princess Twilight tried to get in.

“Hey, I said everyone out!” O’Neill said.

“But… I need to see Coron-“

“I sai-“

Corona raised a hand. “It’s fine, O’Neill. She won’t stay long.”

O’Neill shrugged. “Fine, fine. Everyone else out.”

Soon, Twilight and Corona were more or less alone.

“How’d you get this ship over here?” Corona asked.

“Had to drain one of their ZPM power module things,” Twilight said. “But it wasn’t that hard. It was really as simple as slapping the dimensional device onto the hyperdrive and channeling power to it, which explains how Ba’al was able to get here so easily.”

“…Heh. Both a blessing and a curse, how easy those things are to use.”

“It appears that way.”

Corona blinked. “I got you a spaceship, by the way. The Ha’tak that’s intact is yours for the keeping.”

“…What, really?”

“Really.”

“Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!”

“Hey, you’ve still got to fix it. Don’t get too excited.”

Twilight rubbed her hooves together. “But I love fixing things!”

“Indeed you do.”

Twilight got a hold of herself. “Anyway… You okay?”

Corona sighed. “I think so. There was… a lot that happened today. A lot of death. A lot of blood. A lot of war. But… I believe I’ve come to terms with it. It’s affected me, but not as badly as I was thinking. Not as badly as Dash.”

“…How’s she doing?”

“Badly. She’s been rambling a lot. Laughing a lot sometimes, seeming strikingly apathetic at others. I think she needs therapy. Maybe Twi- Sparky as well.”

Twilight nodded. “I’ll be sure they get some. You just stay here and rest.”

“I will. Am I getting taken to their world?”

Twilight shook her head. “They’re not going back. They’re keeping the Apollo on this side of the multiverse. It’s over here, they might as well use it. Try to hunt down the Ba’als that escaped. They are, apparently, their responsibility.”

Corona frowned. “I wonder what the story behind it is…”

“Ba’al is apparently the last of the powerful System Lords, a race that had the entire galaxy in their universe subjugated until recently. He’s really, really crafty, and was willing to use cloning to get the upper hand.”

“We definitely haven’t seen the last of him.”

“That much is clear,” Twilight agreed. “But… We’ll all be ready for him.”

Corona nodded, mumbling something.

“…I think I’ll let you sleep now.”

Corona tried to mumble ‘thanks’, but she was already drifting off again.

~~~

Discord stared at Sestar. “So, in conclusion, by keeping me here you are interfering with the ‘lower races,’ because part of their culture and life depends on me. You’re breaking your own laws by dealing with me.”

“It is our duty to keep you from exploiting them.”

“For the love of chaos, you’re a broken record.” He sat back, grabbing another newspaper. “See? Look at this. THOUSANDS DIE DUE TO INTERDIMENSIONAL MISHAP. I bet you if I had gone through with my plan that wouldn’t have happened.”

“The consequences of upholding our laws are not our concern.”

“You. Are. Dense.” Discord sighed. “Okay, how about this. I agree never to come back here, ever, on punishment of ‘death’ or whatever, and I return to Equestria, and you never have to think of me again.”

“And you will then interfere with their lives, which is something we cannot allow.”

“What is that? A lie I hear?”

“How so?”

“You let your evil counterparts force their followers into worship. The…” He flipped through the newspaper. “Ah yes, the Ori, great Ascended beings who controlled an entire galaxy with religious domination. You just let them have their way.”

“The Ark of Truth was our creation and their demise.”

“You did that back before you Ascended. And it says here you didn’t even try to tell the Tau’ri about it! Wow! Talk about crazy luck! I’m surprised they managed it.” He cleared his throat. “The point is, star lady, that you need to send me back. You’re like a foreign nation. I’ll admit, you can tell me not to act here, but you have no right to tell me what to do in my homeland. For all you know the laws of the universe make my actions right there. So ha.”

Stestar stared at him with an intense glare. “You actually have good points.”

“Was there ever any doubt about that?”

“Yes. But you-“

For the first time, another Ascended interrupted. “Just let him go, Sestar. He’s offered a deal. Get him out of our hair.”

Sestar took in a deep breath and sighed. “Fine. Go home. Do your unsavory deeds.”

Discord grinned. “Thank you.” He snapped his fingers, finding that he could indeed summon a top hat and a zoot suit. “I’ll be off. I’m sure Fluttershy’s worried by now.” He walked out the front doors of the establishment.

Sestar shot a glare at the Ascended who had spoken up. “This will bite us later.”

“Either option would have bitten us. The important thing is that now he knows he’s not at the top, and will have to think more about what he does. A small improvement, but one nonetheless.”

“We’re promoting unacceptable use of power.”

“He doesn’t get power from worship. It may work out.”

Sestar fell silent, fuming.

~~~

After three more universe jumps, the Ba’al mothership stopped jumping. They figured they couldn’t be traced anymore, especially because they didn’t even really know where they were.

Plus, there was something new to discuss.

Several dozen Ba’als stood around a table, staring at a purple heart-shaped mask.

“This is a powerful object.”

“It saved my life.”

“It can be used to further our power…”

“It wants to help us.”

“It is Majora.”

“It’s obviously manipulating our minds.”

“Clearly. We must devise a way for it to remain distant.”

“You. You were the original holder. You will take several of us onto a smaller ship and keep it away from the rest of us. You will be the voice of Majora.”

“Delightful!”

“Concerning. It may cause madness. It may be causing madness in all of us.”

“Why aren’t we considering throwing it away?”

“Because that’d be crazy and foolish.”

“That sounds crazy and foolish.”

“Huh. So it does. Whatever, go with the plan. This mask will bring new opportunities to us. We just need to be clever.”

They all laughed again.

~~~

Twilight stood at the balcony of her castle, staring up at the stars – and Stars – again.

Starlight joined her. There was an awkward silence.

“Twilight, I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“But I never apologized. I never admitted I was wrong. I never admitted it to myself, not really. Still not sure if I have. I’m running around in my head ways I could have kept doing it. I’ve already come up with plans to steal more things. I’m not acting on them, but they’re still there. I’m a natural manipulator, Twilight. That can’t be good.”

“Everypony has a part of them that isn’t good. I’m often too fixated and detail oriented.”

“Hardly as bad as being naturally manipulative…”

“I think it balances out. We all have strengths, we all have weaknesses. We all have to do what we can with what we can.”

Starlight sagged. “Maybe…” She looked up at the stars. She summoned a spell, whispered something into it, and shot it up.

“…What was it this time?”

“I was just… Just hoping that the Stars would accept us, even with all the mistakes we’ve made.”

“We’ll find out eventually. The Ha’tak should be ready to fly soon.”

“…Did the ship do anything to lessen Luna’s anger at your ‘diplomacy’?”

“Not at all!” Twilight chuckled. “Celestia had to intervene. She essentially said we were both handling it like idiots.”

“I think this entire escapade can be described as ‘people acting like idiots’, don’t you?”

“That certainly seems like an apt description…” She frowned. “…We’re going to see death eventually, Starlight. And lots of it. It’s affected Corona and her friends. I’m not sure their Rainbow Dash is going to be okay. What’s going to happen to us when we get in that kind of fight? Fluttershy almost exploded during the pawn fiasco…”

“We’ll have to prepare ourselves for it. We’ll have to be strong. But not forget harmony… Like I do so often.”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah… I really don’t know what’s going to happen. Ardent isn’t going to be able to ignore the other universes anymore, the Tau’ri have a ship in this area of the multiverse now, we’ve got a ship, the Elemental Nations helped fight a short war…” She shook her head. “Things are changing, Starlight. It no longer seems quite so… happy as it once did.”

Starlight looked at the stars. “Maybe it was never happy. Maybe we were just deluding ourselves.”

“That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing what we’re doing, though,” Twilight asserted. “The Stars call, the many universes around us call, they scream to be explored and uncovered. We’re not going to run away with our tails between our legs because of a little hardship. There will be ugly things. And we will face them.”

Starlight smiled. “Yeah. Yeah we will. Together.”

“Always, together.”

~~~

[END OF ARC 1: BREATH]

An Interlude is available on the Fimficiton version with some notes, thoughts, links to sidestories, and hints for the future, but it's not important for the story.

Chapter Text

ARC 2: HEART

Magitech, Part 1

Rarely was the Mirror Portal surrounded by so many beings from so many different universes – ponies and humans mostly, though there were a smattering of gorons, demons, furry Binaries, and some of Ganondorf’s Gerudo. It was, needless to say, a special day, for it was time for the Mirror Portal to be moved once again.

One particular pony in the crowd was trying very hard to not be recognized. She wore a large black cloak that covered every part of her save her face, and that was covered by a simple round white mask. She was certainly setting people on edge with her presence, yes, but there was no chance any of them would recognize her, which was exactly what she wanted. She needed to get in and get out quickly, and she knew she could do it. Would do it. There were no chances, not this time.

She found herself mildly interested in the ‘ceremony’ that was taking place. All four Princesses had shown up, even the usually-distant Princess of Love, Mi Amore Cadenza. The secretive mare studied her, determining that she was rather basic. No power like Celestia, no mysterious wisdom like Luna, no excitable intelligence like Twilight, just… The cliché pretty pony princess. She didn’t have anything distinguishing about her from first glance.

Now, the mare knew Cadence was more than she appeared, but first impressions were everything in the games that were being played with entire universes. It was worth pitying her. Not too much though, should she ever end up on the opposing side…

The train of thought was interrupted when Celestia began talking, bringing the entire room to a hushed silence. “Today, my ponies, my people, my others, we finally put the Mirror Portal out of our hall and into the hands of all, to be used freely in communion. The Hub has been built in the demon’s jungle, and it awaits the Mirror Portal’s presence. We are gathered here today to move this powerful portal out of the monopoly of Equestria and to a place all can gather.”

There was a round of polite applause.

Celestia nodded, lighting her horn. The masked mare knew she was channeling cosmic power, more than enough to open a portal all on her own. A golden rimmed ring appeared in the air, leading to another world entirely, one with shiny gray floors and yet another crowd. Twilight stepped forward, removing the Mirror Portal itself from all the excess machinery, leaving only the green diamond itself in the frame. The connection faded away leaving a dull, plain mirror behind. Luna went next, lifting the Mirror away from Twilight with her magic and carrying it through Celestia’s opening. The three princesses followed the mirror, and Celestia’s portal closed behind them.

“And now we wait,” Cadence said, “it shouldn’t be long before they re-establish a connection, from what they told me.”

The entire hall was silent, the loudest noise being the gorons’ breathing. The masked mare counted down in her mind, tapping her hoof in the air slightly with each second that passed. Some of the Binaries started to look at each other nervously, like something was wrong. One of the Tau’ri coughed loudly. The masked mare simply kept counting.

She set her foot on the ground at the exact instant a shimmering mirrory surface appeared on a nearby wall. Twilight poked her head through. “Sorry for the wait, it’s working now. Come on through!”

Cadence nodded. “You heard her.” Slowly but surely, the entire crowd filed through the opening. The masked mare made sure to place herself in the middle of the group, so as to draw the least attention. Even the crowd around her didn’t pay her any mind – the atmosphere around them was simply too momentous to care for a slightly creepy mare. She moved unnoticed.

The other side of the Mirror Portal was the Mirror Portal. It was affixed to a single glass column filled with magical gasses instead of the rather messy conglomeration of random devices that had been attached to it previously. The appearance was much more orderly, intentional. One large screen hanging above the Mirror Portal showed the name of the current location dialed: “Equis Vitis,” with the coordinates displayed beneath. Two consoles stood to either side of the Mirror Portal, each scrolling with large quantities of information. A few meters in front of the Portal’s opening was Bon Bon’s desk, where a video camera stood and Bon Bon herself was furiously scribbling, trying to keep track of everything.

The masked mare didn’t care if Bon Bon saw her or not – the secret agent was not going to find her as interesting as, say, General Sunset over there. If the masked mare was noticed at all, it would be as a simple checkmark. The camera would hardly show anything damning either. After all, all she was doing was walking.

Welcome to the Hub!” Celestia shouted, using the Royal Canterlot Voice to make sure her voice was heard throughout the space. The main room they were in was large, circular, and lined with a few hundred people. “This building is owned by no one and yet everyone at the same time. We are currently in the very large central room, where we expect lots of interdimensional traffic to come and go. Through the doors there are hallways that lead to rooms that are mostly empty for now, but soon there should be shops, embassies, and other things. For now, feel free to wander around and mingle. Luna and myself should be available for the next few hours, as well as several other world leaders.” She smiled and let everyone get to whatever they wanted to do.

The masked mare found it interesting that the only media coverage was from Equestria – it was the only world with an active media that didn’t keep the existence of the multiverse from its population. She wondered how long that would last, even if it wasn’t really her business. She shrugged to herself and walked towards the edge of the central room, the large metal doors sliding open for her.

A dragon could fit through the gap, and the masked mare had no doubt that was how they were designed. The largest creature in here right now may have been Siron, but the architects here had planned for the future. They couldn’t see like she could, but educated guesses were worthwhile.

She walked through the door, finding that some people had already entered the outer rooms. The hallways were bare and dull for now, but would soon be filled with decorations from every sort of world. The hallways snaked around in a mixture of geometric patterns and artistic ones – though the mare stayed on the one that led directly to the edge of the hub itself.

She passed Iroh and Zuko looking at two separate, but adjoined, ‘rooms.’

Iroh scratched his chin. “…Embassy right here, and tea shop right there.”

“Uncle, you can’t run an Embassy and tea shop at the same time.”

“Watch me.”

The mare smiled under her mask. Zuko would indeed watch him. And be very very surprised at how effective the combo was. She liked the little ironies of life, sometimes. Especially when they helped her.

The mare walked right out the main doors, leaving the hub entirely. From outside it was easy to tell the structure was built with several conflicting ideals in mind. Overall, it was a perfect flat cylinder, a single silvery white color. Yet, while the doors were simple and effective, the outside wasn’t smooth, but instead was covered with many relief sculptures. They had been crafted by magic, largely carved by the ponies, but they made sure to include images of humans and the many other races as well, including some the mare had never actually seen. The theme was harmony, as always with Equestria. As always. They were a little crazy about that. Harmony wasn’t always a good thing, and the mare knew this all too well.

The jungle that surrounded the hub was decidedly less pretty. One day, it would grow back to its once lush state, but now it was dry, charred, and showed almost no signs of life. Siron had not been kidding about the oddly scheduled fires. Days after that meeting, the jungle had been swept by fire, killing everything that couldn’t run. The demons no longer lived here. Nothing lived here.

Except for the mare herself. She took in a deep breath, took a moment to think, and set out in the direction she deduced she needed to. She walked past dinosaur skeletons, shriveled flowers the size of towns, and charred spires of wood that scraped the sky. Through all this, she kept her cloak and mask on tight, even though she knew she didn’t need to. There was nobody watching her.

Well… Nobody that mattered anyway.

Yet.

She eventually arrived in what had once been a beautiful clearing filled with magic, but was now just a charred mess with a single point of interest. A brilliantly glowing altar, shining as a beacon of hope for the charred land around it. A few tufts of grass had sprouted up next to the holy altar of the Blue Moon Spirit, signifying that eventually the jungle would return. It flooded the mare with powerful, calming magics.

This was what she had come for. It was time.

The mare took off her mask and removed her hood, revealing herself to the few who were watching. She was an oculus with blue eyes, a version of Pinkie Pie from Lai – otherwise known as Sage Pinkie. She held the simple white mask in her hoof, approaching the altar.

The Blue Moon Spirit appeared on top of the altar, four arms pointing at the Sage with an accusatory finger each. The Sage did not do more than glance the Spirit’s way with her ever-shifting eyes. She saw right through the Spirit. The Spirit could not bring herself to harm the Sage. Any oculus would not have feared this being, for in the Spirit believed she was too ‘pure’ to bring harm.

The Sage found this disgusting. Nothing was that pure. Had she been an obviously evil pony, the Spirit would not hesitate. But no, the Spirit had to hold herself back. Not because of any morals, or altruism, but because of the way she perceived her own nature. That such actions were beneath her.

The Sage admitted to herself that, if the Spirit knew what was about to happen, she probably would retaliate with lethal force. As it was, this would be too easy.

The Spirit warned the Sage not to come any closer, but the Sage ignored it. Judging the Sage unworthy, the Spirit pushed her back with a gust of magic. The Sage simply walked forward again, mask outstretched. The Spirit pushed back once more, harder this time, and still the Sage came, mask outstretched.

The Spirit moved her hands to fashion a more complicated spell, and then the Sage jumped positions, appearing behind the altar in an instant. She laid the mask on top of the altar, beneath the Spirits’ dangling legs.

The Spirit could not speak, but if she could, she would have been screaming. The mask drained the power from the altar, and by consequence the Spirit herself. She clawed out with a dangerous attack for the first time, but the Sage was already behind a tree. The Blue Moon in the sky shook slightly, sending a beam of blue light that razed the ground where the Sage was.

She would have died, had she not already been on the other side of the clearing.

The Spirit lost her power and will to fight, falling to her knees on top of the mask, slowly being absorbed into it. The Blue Moon lost its lustre, dulling in the sky above. No one would notice the change until the Blue Moon rose at night, which would not be for several days. The Altar turned to plain stone, and the image of the Spirit vanished completely.

The Sage walked back to the altar and picked up the mask. It shone with a slight sheen now, but nothing too unusual. She placed it on her face and walked away.

~~~

Corona asked herself a very important question: had she touched Pinkie today? She didn’t remember it, but being this excited was rather unlike her. Sure, her dream for the last several months was finally being realized, but that was no reason to literally feel like running around the base dancing, right?

Because that was what she was doing. Dancing down through the AID base, grinning to herself and twirling around. She was making a fool of herself, yes, but given her current emotional state she couldn’t have cared less. She was taking her secret-agent sunglasses on and off over and over again in a horrible recreation of some musical she had seen recently.

Ike took out his phone and started filming. “Man, I wish I could post this to Youtube. This would get so many views.”

“I’m not even sure you’re allowed to have videos of this base on your phone,” Mike said.

“Ah, probably not. But Storm’s pretty understanding. He just gets the need to record amusing things.”

Mike was about to correct him, but then saw that one of the security cameras that was usually sweeping the room was instead following Corona closely. He shrugged.

Corona tapped the ‘down’ elevator button while humming to herself, prancing in the moment it arrived. The two agents in the elevator shifted to the sides of it to give her room to twirl. They got off before she did, since they didn’t need to go to the bottom of the base. They were happy about this, Corona was rather oblivious to their feelings. She waved goodbye to them, eagerly awaiting the time when the elevator would hit basement 13.

That time was not far off at all. When the elevator finally went ‘ding’ at the correct floor, she jumped out, lit her hands on fire, and grinned. “Carter! Is it ready?”

The blonde human woman from the Tau’ri looked up from a laptop she had in her hand, stopping whatever she was explaining to Tempest. “It would seem so. We’ve just got to perform some tune-ups on the interfaces, but we’ll be able to test within the hour.”

“Yes!” Corona said, turning to what had her so elated. The two spires she designed poked out of the ground, humming with electricity from a nearby power plant. In between them was a stargate, sitting on the ground with a thin, clear ramp leading up to it. The gate was of a different design than the one on Earth Tau’ri, as it was blue and filled with constellation-designs instead of symbols; not to mention that the inner ring didn’t turn, it only lit up. But that didn’t matter, not for what it was going to be used for anyway.

“Were you able to encode it to nine chevrons?” Corona asked.

“Easily, actually,” Carter said. “The Ninth Chevron really does appear to be a catch-all, allowing it to initiate any program we have set, even bizarre ones. Makes me think the Ancients designed their gates with it as a ‘catch all’. Seven for within the galaxy, eight for extragalactic, and nine for whatever unusual uses they would find in the future.”

“Wonder if they ever used it to travel realities…”

“You’d have to ask Daniel that one, and I doubt he’ll remember.” Carter typed a few more things on her laptop. “The hardest part wasn’t getting the Ninth Chevron program open, it was getting the gate to accept a possible connection without anything on the other end. It’s not designed to do that.”

Corona cracked her knuckles. “Well my arches are. Punch a hole into any universe. The gate is just here to get the gravity right. Wormholes.”

“I’m curious what the event horizon will look like,” Carter admitted. “Your portals can be seen through, but the Stargate is usually one-way only. We’re combining two things that operate on different principles.”

“And without magic!” Corona grinned. “No magic at all! Meaning this will work even in universes where magic is dead or completely gone.”

“Maybe there are universes that can’t be dialed with magical methods?”

“I don’t know! This is how we’re going to find out!” She poked her head over Carter’s shoulder. “How’s the interface going?”

“It’s ready. The gate isn’t complaining about the alien program anymore, and the arch-spikes are ready. …Do you have a better name for your things?”

“I was going to just call them the gateway,” Corona admitted. “I think that now, ‘arches’ works. Even though they’re not touching at the top. But pillars just sounds silly.”

“Fair enough. Power levels are optimal, gate is loaded with the program, arches pass all pre-test checks…” She closed her laptop. “People! We’re ready!”

Tempest stood up. “Finally. What are we waiting for then? Do it.”

Carter flipped open a box with a lever. She handed it to Corona. “This is mostly your invention. You do the honors.”

Corona took off her glove, feeling the lever with her hand. There was no emotion to feel coming from the lifeless piece of metal, but she couldn’t bring herself not to feel it with her own skin. She looked directly at the gate-arch combo and pulled the lever down.

The arches lit up first, crackling with electricity. The arcs of purple lightning were attracted to the gate. The gate remained unaffected by the arcs of electricity, dialing like it always would. The ring swirled with blue patterns, quickly lighting up seven symbols. Eight. Nine.

Kawoosh. The gate’s connection burst forward, a torrent of unstable energies tearing into the room, putting everyone on edge – but the disturbance of the kawoosh was reined in, until the gate held what appeared to be a rippling pool of water inside it. Not opaque blue-white energy, but something clear. The light was distorted by the ‘liquid’ nature of the event horizon, but Ardent could clearly be seen on the other side.

A small helicopter drone was sent in to test the waters. It hit the barrier between worlds, shook a bit, but righted itself on the other side easily. It flew around for a few seconds then came back through, landing in Carter’s hand.

Corona grinned. “Okay. It works. Are we safe?” She checked the pulses of electricity coming off the arches – they would be rather painful if they hit, seeing as she didn’t know how to redirect lightning.

“They’re all grounding at the gate,” Carter said. “It shouldn’t be a problem unless there’s a power surge. Most of the power’s being funneled into the gate anyway, so even then that’s remote. I would fix it as soon as possible, but it’s fine for initial prototyping.”

Corona had heard all she needed to hear. She slipped her glove back on and jumped through the stargate’s new connected portal. It didn’t feel like water, but it didn’t feel like air either. She felt like she had to pass through a membrane of semi-fluid rubber that was somehow infinitely thin. A minor impediment that she overcame quickly, but it was notably disorienting.

She fell a couple of feet to the ground. Right. The gate, being a raised circle, would create a portal a few feet above ground level. Something to remember in the future.

She stood up, dusted herself off, and laughed. She was standing on Ardent right now, in the great Hyrule Field. Behind her was a giant circular opening, brimming with white wispy energies around the edge. In front of her was a beautiful land of adventure and…

…Black scars from Ba’al’s attacks. Her mood darkened considerably as she looked upon Hyrule Town in the distance. Sections of the wall were completely decimated, the castle had lost one of its impressive towers, and she knew many districts didn’t even exist anymore. It was sobering.

Here she was, celebrating that one of her life dreams had been completed, when some people had just suffered a horrible travesty. It made her feel guilty, even though she knew this wasn’t her fault, and that she’d helped put an end to it.

She had flashes of the death… The blood… The master sword through Pinkie’s chest…

She shook her head, clearing it. She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath – she needed to be strong. Not everybody could be strong, but she could. Pinkie was fine, Ardent survived, and Ba’al was on the run. She should feel happy that things went as well as they did.

Carter and Tempest finally stepped through the portal behind her. Carter shivered slightly. “That certainly feels different to a normal gate transit.”

“It’ll work better once we figure out how to make our own stargates,” Corona noted. “Then we can just make it part of the arches.”

“Good luck. Not even we’ve figured out how to build them. Very advanced.”

“Challenge accepted.”

“Someone’s coming,” Tempest said, readying her weapon. Carter and Corona looked up to see a brilliant white horse riding up to them, alongside a significantly darker one. Both had familiar riders.

Corona raised her hand to Tempest’s gun. “It’s just Zelda and Ganondorf. They probably sensed us, or something.”

“That I did,” Zelda said, gracefully dismounting. “Seeing as you probably haven’t been here long, it was likely a premonition.”

“Must be nice, knowing what’s going to happen,” Corona said.

“Bit of a curse, really,” Zelda said, looking at her hand. “…It’s rather selective about what it shows me. Makes it untrustworthy.”

Carter blinked. “It?”

“The Triforce of Wisdom.” Zelda said, holding out her hand and revealing a triangular glow shining on it. “It shows me things and improves my judgment considerably.”

“…What exactly is it?” Carter asked.

“An ancient relic created by the goddesses,” Zelda said. “Legends state that when they created the world, they created the Triforce to keep it balanced. Three separate parts – Courage, Wisdom, and Power. The parts tend to seek out those who personify them most, though when brought together it can apparently grant a wish.”

Ganondorf held up his hand and smirked. “Power, here.”

“Link has the Triforce of Courage,” Zelda revealed.

“Does that mean you guys can make wishes?” Tempest asked.

“We could…” Zelda said. “But then the Triforce would split and be lost once again. For now, we just reap the benefits of each individual piece.” She frowned. “I would appreciate you not reveal this to my people. If they knew all three pieces of the Triforce were available, they would demand a wish.”

“Understandable,” Corona admitted.

“Also, try not to put your portals out in the open like this,” Zelda said. “People will start asking questions.”

Carter blinked. “…Why do you need to keep it secret from them? Ba’al already attacked, blowing the secret wide open.”

Ganondorf grunted. “Nobody officially knows where Ba’al came from. Most think he’s an alien, which he is, but know nothing of another universe. The town that did, Termina, was mostly destroyed. Those of us who did know agreed not to reveal it publicly because there would be an outcry and probably war.”

“War…?” Corona said.

Zelda nodded. “The nations of Ardent do not get along. We are not the Elemental Nations, nor are we Earth. Being transparent would be disastrous.”

Corona wasn’t sure about this. She fixed Zelda with an unsure glance. “What do you think’s going to happen when they find out you’ve been lying to them?”

“It will be revealed at such a time when retaliation would be minimal, if at all,” Zelda affirmed, turning to Tempest. “As I recall, your world has been hiding the existence of magic for millennia.”

Tempest nodded. “That’s right…”

“Why can we not do the same? Blame the attack on aliens and demons, and move on.”

Ganondorf chuckled. “The words of someone about to bite it.”

“If I am about to bite it, you are as well, for you are in on it,” she spat.

Ganondorf shrugged, saying nothing further.

Corona glanced at the portal behind her. “Well, I suppose you’re right. We probably should close it then and respect your wishes. See you around.”

“Likewise,” Zelda said, bowing slightly.

“By the way…” Corona said, looking back. “…do you know anything about a weird mask salesman who calls himself the Happy Mask Salesman?”

Zelda looked at her with a confused expression. “No… Should I?”

Corona shrugged. “I don’t know. He lives in your world, and he’s got something mysterious about him. Maybe you should ask Link.”

Ganondorf folded his arms. “Yeah. Ask Link. Like he’ll be easy to get ahold of.”

“…He’s not here?”

“No. For whatever goddess-forsaken reason, he’s gone and hitched a ride on the Apollo and has been there for the last few weeks as far as we know.”

“The Apollo’s not exactly hard to find,” Carter said.

Zelda nodded. “Admittedly not. That said, being in the right place at the right time is not worth it if we only need to ask him one thing. I’m just letting him do what he wants for now, he’ll come back eventually. It’s not like he’s really doing anything that important. He’ll return when the world needs him.”

~~~

“We are not any closer to finding Majora’s Mask.”

Link glanced at his shadow. “Midna, we know Ba’al has it.”

Midna popped out of his shadow, settling her impish self on his shoulder, twirling her glowing orange-red hair around like she was trying to make a point. “And that’s all we know! And how much closer are we to finding out where he has it hidden?”

“Not much,” Link admitted. “But these people are our only lead.”

Midna yawned. “Didn’t they admit to thinking Ba’al was defeated until he invaded Ardent?”

“Yes. But they still know more about him than we do. How he thinks. What he’s likely to do.”

“But, alas, we can’t exactly just ask where they think he’d hide something, can we? That’d be too obvious.”

“Knowledge of the mask is dangerous. You know that.”

Midna bit her lip. She did in fact know that. She knew of the mask, and she heard it calling to her in her sleep sometimes. Though lately it just laughed. “True. But you and I both know that this ship isn’t just hunting Ba’al, it’s doing other things. For instance, what have we been doing all day?”

“Diplomacy.”

“Right. Diplomacy. The most boring of all boring things where no bad-guy hunting takes place. Ever.”

Link shrugged. “It is necessary though. It is gracious enough that we are allowed to stay on this starship, and engage in the hunt when it does happen.”

“That’s another thing. We keep rooting out Ba’als, but they never tell us what we need to know. Where the mask is. Something tells me they don’t just keep it on their mobile mothership.”

“But they probably do move it around,” Link said. “Which does make it a big problem. Ba’al is clever, and after his first mistake of charging headfirst, he’s biding his time. He’s smart.”

“Eventually, however…”

Link grimaced. “I’d prefer that we find the mask before that happens. It makes him easier to find, but more dangerous.”

Midna nodded. “Yep. Mixed blessings all around. What I’m saying is that we need a new plan.”

Link raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“We’re out here in the multiverse, right? Surely there’s something here we can use to find it. Or even defeat Majora once and for all!”

Link shook his head. “Then we’d have to ask questions. And questions lead to questions in return.”

“Zelda could probably find it…”

“We are not giving her knowledge of it,” Link said, standing up suddenly.

“You know I could go ask her without your permission.”

“You won’t.”

Midna sighed. “Fine. Find some other prophet-type to find it.”

“Too dangerous.”

“Well if you aren’t willing to use anything, are we just going to let it all explode in a shower of deranged laughter and chaos?”

Link smirked. “No. We have time, for now.”

“Sure we do.”

“We’ll collect what we can from here,” Link said, leaving the room. “And we can use what we find. Just like old times.”

“Another grand adventure!” Midna cheered, a bit too intensely to be serious. She vanished back into his shadow as he left. “Just remember, we’re on a nonspecific timetable here. Could be next week he loses it, could be next year. Maybe even longer, if he’s smart enough. But he won’t last forever.”

Link nodded, walking down the halls of the Apollo to the bridge. His plans were to see how much longer it’d be before O’Neill was done with the diplomacy and could order the Apollo somewhere else.

It turned out that O’Neill was already done, since he was sitting in the captain’s chair with a slight smirk on his face. Someone Link didn’t recognize was next to him.

“Ah, Link! Just talking about you,” O’Neill said, waving him over. “This here is Director Storm, the only sane person on this round rock we’re orbiting.”

Link looked Director Storm up and down. He wasn’t sure what he thought of the tall man. “I’m Link, though I guess you already know that.”

Director Storm shook his hand, smirking. “Indeed I do! I hear you’re quite the classic adventuring hero, aren’t you? Saved your world from a great evil, saved it again from alien invasion, and now are seeking to save multiple universes from the same aliens! Truly, an epic man on an epic quest!”

Link felt like he was being buttered up. “Do you want something?”

“Me? No. Well, besides having you on my good side. I’m sure you can guess why.”

Link nodded. “Yeah. Of course, that makes me a tad suspicious.”

Storm threw his hands into the air. “Ah, what can I do? Alas, my advances are all seen as ploys. Perhaps I am but doomed to be seen as a conniving mastermind. Oh, woe…”

O’Neill pointed at the Director. “This guy…”

Link nodded slowly. “So, I take it things went badly down there?”

O’Neill reclined back in the seat and put his hands over his eyes. “Their President is an absolute moron.”

“I’m sure there were other leaders there.”

“None of them were the ones I already knew, yet they were oddly similar enough that I felt like I could say certain things and everything blew up. Alternate universes – who needs ‘em?”

“Need is such a strong word,” Director Storm said.

O’Neill gave Director Storm a look that was torn between amusement and annoyance. Director Storm just smirked.

Link turned back to O’Neill. “Are we ready to get back on our mission?”

Director Storm nodded, as if he were expecting this. “Always eager to get back to the mission, to return to what must be done.”

O’Neill put his chin in his hand. “Well, seeing as we accomplished nothing down there, I’m ready to be done with politics for a while. Storm, you’re going back down. Don’t die from political suffocation.”

“Likewise,” Storm said, smirking.

O’Neill pressed a button on the intercom. “Beam Storm back down. And this time don’t interfere with a weather satellite, I don’t want to sit through that soul-wrenching discussion again.”

Soon, Storm was gone, leaving just the regular bridge crew and Link.

“Any leads?” Link asked.

“We had to extract one from a senator within the last twenty-four hours.” O’Neill sat up straight, grimacing. “He’s trying to get a hold on everyone we’re connected to. He doesn’t seem to be able to infect ponies, though.”

“Gorons? Zora? Binaries?”

“No idea. We’ve found nothing but human cases. But he’s spreading. The Elemental Nations lack the infrastructure to root him out so he’s probably everywhere there. We only caught one with the Goa’uld sensors installed in the Hub. He’s moving around carefully. No more information about his mothership, and none of the clones can tell you where it is because it keeps moving.”

“They must have some way to contact it.”

“It seems like it contacts them somehow. But I don’t know for the life of me how he’s pulling that off. I like to think we’d have caught a message by now…”

Majora…? No, there’s no way he’s advanced that far along. There’d be signs. Link shook his head. “Do we have anything on him?”

“Besides evidence of him spreading? No. He’s just being too damn careful…” O’Neil clenched his fist. “I don’t like being outmaneuvered, Link. Yet he always seems to find a way to weasel out of final defeat… Always. He’s like a zombie plague.”

“…A what?”

“Nevermind,” O’Neill shook his head. “Let’s think about something less depressing. Like ponies. We’re going to the main pony world.”

Link raised an eyebrow. “Is Ba’al there?”

“No. Not as far as we know anyway. What is there is that Ha’tak that’s going to launch today. We’re going to be there in case it blows up so we can save every little pony on board. “

“…I see…”

O’Neill sighed. “Look, I know you want to go guns blazing and hunt Ba’al down, but it’s just not that simple. He’s hiding. We don’t know where he is. We don’t have any leads that will take us to the mothership. Unless you’ve got something that can just tell us where he is, then we’re stumped until he makes a mistake.”

“Triforce of Wisdom…” Midna whispered from Link’s shadow.

O’Neill blinked, looking around. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Link said, managing to hide his frustration at Midna.

“…I’m hallucinating noises in my old age…” O’Neill muttered. “Anyway, take us to… What are we calling it now? Equis Vitis? What does that even mean?”

“Equis Vine, I think. Sir,” one of the crew said.

“And what does Equis mean?”

“Something to do with horses.”

O’Neill shrugged. “Sometimes I marvel at how literal their names are. Anyway, take us there.”

The Apollo’s drive activated the dimensional device, cutting a circular hole through the fabric of space. The ship passed right through without incident, appearing in orbit around Equis, both the moon and miniature sun visible from the bridge.

“Love this place. The sun orbits the planet,” O’Neill rubbed his hands together. “Tell them we’re ready.”

The communications officer frowned. “They’re not. Apparently there’s some technical difficulties that arose. They’re suggesting we wait a few hours.”

Link abruptly left the room, heading back to his given quarters. He was going to try and take a nap. Operative word being try.

Midna chuckled. O’Neill grunted about hearing things again.

~~~

Luna and Celestia were walking down the halls of the Hub, surprised to see that already a few of the rooms had been occupied. They were even more surprised that some of them weren’t embassies.

“We’re creating a culture here faster than I was anticipating…” Celestia mused. “Apparently everyone had plans and was just waiting for it to become official.”

“And yet, still no signed accords,” Luna said. “The Binaries refuse to be reasonable and the ponies of Lai just don’t care. No offense to my counterpart intended, but she could stand to get her ponies more organized.”

Celestia smirked. “Luna, really, who cares about that now? So what if we’re not really in an official alliance. Friendship with paperwork always means less, know what I mean?”

“I do, sister, I do. But I also know that humans love loopholes and exploits. Not to mention Ba’al…”

“Ba’al is a force of darkness,” Celestia said. “He is our collective enemy. And, as of now, the only one. In many ways, having an opposing force brings ponies closer together.”

“Never let anypony hear you say that. Or anyone.”

Celestia smirked. “I know. Not all can see things from our perspective. In fact, few can. How many immortals have we found out there that aren’t just versions of us?”

“…A few. The Spectacularium. The Ascended.”

“The point is a human could easily count the number of them on their fingers.”

“Well the Ascended are a race…”

“Luna, you’re being nitpicky again.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Sometimes you need to examine all the details.”

“I do not think that is now. And – oh would you look at that. It’s Twilight.”

Luna raised her eyebrow. “Isn’t she with the ship?”

Sparky, Luna.” Celestia gestured at one of the rooms that had been clearly furnished into a shop called Earth Gizmos. Human Twilight was inside, sorting strange rectangular devices into and out of boxes. “Let’s pay her a visit, hrm?”

The two strode into the little shop, and nobody inside noticed them at first. Twilight was busy scrambling around, freaking out about how this totally wasn’t going to work, and everyone else was watching her. Celestia took a moment to recognize everyone, but eventually she worked it out. Micro Chips, Sandalwood, Lyra, and Principal Celestia.

“Hello,” Princess Celestia said, smirking.

“Ah!” the Principal said. “I was wondering when we’d get to meet!”

Twilight stopped in her tracks, turning her head around slowly until she faced Princess Celestia. “P-P-princess! What are- Why- Wha?”

Micro Chips hid behind Sandalwood while Lyra just started scribbling furiously in her notebook. Princess Celestia found the antics of the humans amusing. “I just saw you and decided to drop in. As a friend.”

“But we’re not ready yet!” Twilight blurted.

“Ready for what?”

Principal Celestia smirked. “This is the ‘group project’ of the dimensional explorer’s club. Every club in my school has to accomplish something beyond having fun by the end of the year, and that is quickly approaching, so they’re in a bit of a panic. They’re going to operate a shop in the Hub and sell… ‘Earth Gizmos’, and learn about economic processes while they do it. A wonderful learning opportunity!”

Princess Celestia nodded. “And what exactly are these Earth Gizmos?”

Everyone looked to Micro Chips. He cleared his throat. “Well, those of us on Earth h-happen to, uh, have a love of technology. We, er, well, figured since you don’t have it, we’d be able to do pretty well in selling it to you. Yeah. We’ve got TVs, computers, and other similar things. And we’ve also got a lot of entertainment – game consoles, movies, TV shows, and videos you can normally only see on the Internet. B-bringing a bit of our world to the others, if they want it.”

“I know of a few ponies who would love all these things,” Princess Celestia mused, taking a look around at the half-stocked shop. “How could you afford all this? My understanding is these devices aren’t exactly cheap.”

“Rarity’s family is stinking rich and Micro’s dad works at Best Buy,” Lyra offered. “We don’t have a lot of stuff, but what we do have will give us a start.”

“And how are you going to power it?” Luna asked, looking at all the places cables needed to be stuck in on a flatscreen TV. “Not everyone is the masterful unicorn Starlight is, able to convert magic directly into electricity. And those areas of our world that do have electricity won’t have the same outlets.”

“I’ve got outlet adaptors!” Twilight said, opening up a box filled with rectangles that would stick into a pony wall socket and turn it into an earth outlet. “Also, we’ve got a way to give you at least some electricity. See, in the back we’ve got…”

A light blue unicorn marched out of the back room and slammed a tray of softly-glowing cylinders on a counter. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has created another batch!”

Princess Celestia blinked. “…Trixie?”

Trixie looked up. “Yes, who wants to kno-“ her arrogant expression vanished. “PRINCESS CELESTIA!?”

Princess Celestia nodded. “Yes. What are you doing here?”

“Uh, well Trixie’s helping out some friends make magic batteries! Yep! Just like at the power plant!”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “You’ve worked at the power plant?”

“It was slightly better than the rock farm,” Trixie muttered, then shoved a hoof over her mouth. “I mean, not that rock farmers aren’t worthwhile, I’m sure they’re excellent ponies, it’s just that I found the power plant work more rewarding. Yes. Heheh.”

Luna snickered, turning away from Trixie and her power-enchanted cylinders, focusing instead on a shelf lined with many green rectangular cases. She took one off and popped it open, finding a disc inside. “…What is this?”

“Video game, for one of those consoles,” Micro said. “I think in that one you play a girl who wants to collect hats and hourglasses. Or something. I haven’t played it.”

“It looks adorable,” Luna said. “…I think I’ll take it. And whatever you need to play it. See if these ‘games’ are any better than our little arcades.”

“That’ll be a console, the game, and a screen,” Sandalwood said, grabbing what she needed right then and there. “That’ll be eight-hundred seventy-eight dollars. And in bits that’ll be-“

“We can’t charge the Princess!” Twilight shouted.

“Yes, you can,” Luna said, conjuring up a Royal Treasury Note. “How much in bits?”

“Seven-hundred and twenty-six,” Sandalwood said, taking the Note as soon as Luna wrote the value on it. “You are now the proud owner of a gaming system. It comes with a few games already installed on it, since it was used before. Hope you enjoy!”

Luna smirked. “We shall see. I doubt I’ll get that into it, though.”

Princess Celestia was mildly impressed that Sandalwood had worked out a conversion rate already. All they’d done previously was assume the value of the bit based on its construction from gold, nothing else. “I see you’ve all got this well under control. I’d expect a lot of traffic in this little shop of yours, assuming other people don’t have the same idea.”

Principal Celestia shrugged. “I think they’ll do fine.”

“Yeah! You’ve got Trixie helping you!” Trixie raised her hoof into the air.

“…Do you want to be paid now or something?” Twilight asked her.

“Uh… Yes please.”

Twilight took a box of peanut butter crackers out of a nearby box and handed them to Trixie. She grabbed them and grinned. “Trixie now has an entire box of the best snack in existence!”

Princess Celestia blinked. “…I suppose money isn’t everything.”

“Definitely not,” Twilight agreed. “Anything else we can do for you two?”

“Not now, no. We may be back though. So prepare yourselves.”

“We will!” Sandalwood said, giving them a thumbs up. The two princesses left the store with their items.

Celestia smirked. “I expect you’ll be up all night playing that thing.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Oh? Don’t remember losing sleep so many nights because you’d found a good book?”

Luna flushed. “I’m significantly older and wiser now, sister. Such things won’t affect me anymore.”

Celestia leaned closer to her sister and grinned.

“…Affect me as much.”

Celestia leaned even closer, raising her eyebrows.

“Are you just trying to make me uncomfortable.”

“If I am, is it working?”

Luna sighed. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but let’s talk about politics again.”

“You know we can’t drop this now.”

“...Celestiaaaaaaa…”

Celestia chuckled. It was always fun, messing around with her sister. It was their little ritual. Something they could no longer do with many other ponies due to their position. Just a sad fact of life.

~~~

Applejack held up a glass bottle of apple cider in her hoof. “Ready?”

“Ready!” Princess Twilight called over.

“Throw it already AJ!” Rainbow Dash begged.

Applejack hefted the bottle and threw it as hard as she could. It flew far into the air, spinning through it in a perfect arc. It smashed against something hard and metallic, spraying glass and cider everywhere.

I declare the Equestrian Starfinder spaceworthy!” Twilight shouted, for once using the Royal Canterlot Voice so everypony could hear. Applause – both with hands and hooves – filled the air around the Starfinder. What was once a brutalized and broken Ha’tak was now a shimmering pyramid of a largely white color, covered in pink and purple magical runes that glowed softly, giving the ship the illusion of life.

Pinkie Pie pressed a button and confetti exploded from all sides of the Starfinder, down its pearly sides and onto the ground in a colorful blanket. “WOOHOO!” She shouted.

Starlight smirked, ready to give the gathered crowd a show. She lit her horn, activating the pre-programmed test flight response. The Starfinder’s engines activated for the first time in months, encasing the bottom of the ship in a brilliant purple fire. It floated several stories into the air and then stopped, holding position far above the crowd. There were many ‘ooooh’s and ‘aaaaaah’s, mainly from the ponies who had come to see the show, rather than the humans who’d helped work on it.

“Ponies of Equestria! Our first starship is ready to explore the Stars! Wish us luck on our outing!” With a quick spell, Twilight teleported herself and her seven friends onto the bridge, which was still the same as the default Ha’tak bridge, golden and a bit excessive. They hadn’t had time to paint the interior. “Okay, now I can stop talking like that. Gak.” She rubbed her throat. “Never like it.”

“You sounded great,” Spike said, giving her a thumbs up.

“I agree. I think,” Fluttershy said, unaware that her ears were still folded back on her skull.

Twilight turned to Applejack and Rainbow Dash. “Glad you two could make it today. We’ve… We’ve missed you.”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world! I mean, come on, the first spaceship we get flying without Rainbow Dash? Tell me that doesn’t sound crazy!”

“It doesn’t sound crazy,” Starlight said, smirking.

“Ladies and gentleponies, introducing Sarcasm Glimmer,” Rainbow Dash muttered.

“I’d call that more deadpan.”

Applejack chuckled softly. “Glad to be here as well, Twi. Not as invested as Dash over there, but Ah figure it’s been long enough since Ah’ve joined ya. When was the last time?”

Fluttershy raised a hoof. “The Tree of Harmony asked us to calm down a dispute between the demons and the swamp tribe.”

“Ah. Right, that,” Applejack said. “Ah don’t remember that very well.”

“It wasn’t very memorable.”

Rainbow Dash grabbed her head. “Can we get moving already? We’ve got a spaceship to fly!”

Twilight laughed. “Sure, Rainbow Dash, sure.” She tapped one of the consoles in front of her with a hoof, telling the Starfinder to rise into orbit. Rainbow Dash’s grin only grew as she saw Equis get smaller and smaller on the screen in front of them. “Yessssssss!”

“Hey. Incoming message,” Spike said, pointing at a flashing green light.

Twilight smirked. “Accept the call, ensign Spike!”

“Oh, so we’re all part of a bridge crew now, is that it?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Just put it on screen.”

O’Neill’s face quickly lit up the board. “Well, you’re pretty lucky. It took us several years before we managed to get a full blown spaceship.”

“Well, you did build the Prometheus more or less from scratch, right?” Rarity said.

“Eh. More or less. Anyway, we have a teleport lock on all… sixty of you in that ship. If something goes wrong we’ll have you out. It might be a tight fit though.”

Twilight shrugged. “Hey, if the ship blows up, I’d much rather live in a tightly compressed transporter room than explode out here in space.”

“When you put it that way it doesn’t sound so bad.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “What part, the exploding, or the cramped space?”

“Does it matter?” Applejack asked.

Pinkie giggled. “Oxymoron.”

O’Neill facepalmed. “You’re still on about that?”

“I’m always on about everything.”

“…It’s hard to argue with that.”

Twilight chuckled. “Anyway, Starlight, set a course for Proximus. ETA… Four minutes.”

“Right awa-“

There was a flash of silvery light. Instead of Discord appearing, like half the ponies were expecting, it was an elderly gray unicorn with an impressive beard. His large, pointed hat jingled as he shook his head. “My Stars, that was a difficult teleport…”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. “S-Starswirl!? What are-“

“You’re going to visit a Star. I have a particular one in mind I want answers from. I would have appreciated being informed prior to launch.”

“Nopony knows where to find you half the time!”

Starswirl scratched his beard. “Fair enough. I won’t hold anything against you. But I have a long overdue conversation with Malat, and it looks like you have the ship to get me there. …If you don’t mind.”

Starlight groaned. “Fine. Malat. Ten minute travel time. Okay?”

“Yes, much faster than the hibernation I was expecting.”

O’Neill raised a hand. “Who’s the old guy?”

“Starswirl,” Twilight said. “The greatest mage in all of Equestria’s history. Also apparently has an overdue conversation with a particular Star. Trained Celestia and Luna. And… Well…”

“Needs to learn a thing or two about politeness,” Rarity muttered.

“That wasn’t very polite, Rarity,” Starswirl shot back.

“Touché.”

O’Neill shrugged. “Okay then, not going to ask any more. You ponies ready or not?”

“Actually, don’t we need to check the weapon?” Pinkie said. “We’ve never fired it.”

“Right,” Twilight said. “Spike, fire it into space.”

The main cannon of the Starfinder lit up, fusing the normal golden energy of the Ha’tak cannon with magics that made it significantly more potent. The purple energy bolt shot out of the Starfinder with perfect cohesion.

Then it hit the moon.

Twilight turned to Starlight, panicked. “Engage!”

Starlight facehoofed. “That sounds stupid, Twilight.”

“It sounds like Star Trek,” O’Neill added.

“Oh, so I need a different line then?” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Just activate the hyperdrive before Luna gets here!”

Starlight pressed a screen with her hoof and the Starfinder shot into hyperspace. They had expected the hyperspace effect to be different – the Apollo had already reported that the color pattern was different in every universe – but this was far from what they were expecting. It was rainbow, with a larger quantity of pink and purple than any other color. The colors were bright, but also calming. The vortex could hardly be called a vortex, for it wasn’t violent. It was just a hypnotic swirl of color.

Rainbow Dash grinned. “I am space.” Applejack facehooved.

Twilight turned to look at Starswirl, trying her best not to let her annoyance be obvious. “Okay, Starswirl, I know you’ve saved Equestria a lot and all, and I know we owe a lot to you, but I still want to know why we’re going to Malat.”

“She’s a Star I had a conversation with long ago,” Starswirl said. “What about? Many things, but of chief importance was the nature of the Harmony forces. The moment I asked about what I and the other pillars represented, she fell silent. She wasn’t the most helpful voice of the heavens to begin with, but that was unheard of.”

“Wait, how many Stars have you talked to?” Starlight wondered.

“Dozens. It is my special talent, after all.”

“Oh,” Twilight said. “…That makes sense, actually.”

“Why wouldn’t it? Did you think I was just good at crafting spells, or something?”

Starlight raised a hoof. “Does this mean I’m related to Stars in some way then?”

“Probably not.”

“Wow. Dreamcrusher, right there.”

Starswirl shrugged. “Sorry, just not likely. I’ve been contacting them with spells since I was a foal. Most won’t listen. Some listen often, but don’t respond. Others respond but just don’t care. Malat was somewhere in the middle. Thought herself high and mighty but wasn’t above ‘messing’ with ponies.”

Starlight turned to Twilight. “Why did we need to wait for a spaceship to get answers? We could have just talked to Starswirl.”

“Nopony ever knows where he is, Starlight, how would we have found him?”

Rarity raised an eyebrow at Twilight. “Just blow up something in the vicinity of the Tree of Harmony. It’ll work wonders.”

“Please refrain from doing that,” Starswirl said, looking straight ahead, into the vortex. “Most interesting… Perhaps I should read some books on the subject of this ‘hyperdrive’.”

Twilight smiled. “They are pretty interesting. It works by accessing a sub-framework in reality where laws of nature can be superseded, an odd concept that I wouldn’t have thought possible, but here it is.”

“Peculiar. How would such a sub-framework be accessed without prior knowledge of its existence?”

“I have no idea! Every hyperdrive seems to have been based off another one!”

“They’re eggheading. Oh no,” Rainbow Dash moaned.

“It’s what their kind do,” Starlight said. “They’re basically marvelling over the fact that hyperdrive should be impossible to invent.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Applejack said.

“Exactly what I told Twilight,” Spike said, “but did she listen?”

“Noooooo!” Starlight droned.

Twilight shot them all a look. “I’m trying to have an educated conversation here.”

“We’re going to be there in a couple minutes, Twi!” Pinkie said. “How are you going to have a big conversation in that much time?”

“I don’t know, actually.”

“I know some time distortion spells,” Starswirl offered.

“No.” Both Twilight and Starlight said.

“…I feel as if I’m missing some context here.”

“I used your time spells and almost destroyed everything,” Starlight said. “Remember?”

“No.”

Fluttershy held up a wing. “Er… Can we all play a little nicer now? It seems like all we’re doing right now is yelling back and forth, sometimes excited, sometimes angry…”

“We’re all on an emotional high!” Pinkie shouted. “Come on Fluttershy, we’re on a starship! How could you POSSIBLY stay CALM at a time like THIS!?”

“…Practice.”

Rarity shrugged. “Makes as much sense as anything else that’s been said in the last few minutes.”

“And how,” Spike muttered. “There’s just too many ponies here trying to get in on everything.”

Pinkie shrugged. “A nine-way conversation is a bit much. Even I have trouble keeping track of everypony!”

“And dragon,” Spike said.

“Yes, and dragon.”

Twilight shrugged. “Anyway, trying to reign this in… We’re going to Malat to learn more about the Stars. …Which apparently we could have asked Starswirl about, but we’re doing it anyway because we had the ship all ready to go. He has some questions to bring to Malat about previous conversations, and uh… I guess we head back after that with a successful mission. Or failure, if she doesn’t want to talk. …Wait, Stars have gender?”

“Their voices do, anyway. At least when I spoke with them,” Starswirl said.

“Are they biological beings in any way? Do they have a culture? Are-“

“I have no idea about any of the questions you are about to ask and Malat will not answer those questions. They prefer to be selectively secretive.”

“Ah have a question,” Applejack said. “How can they see us while we’re in Equestria if they’re so gosh darn far away?”

Starswirl blinked. “That remains a mystery to this day.”

“Something to figure out then!” Twilight clapped her hooves. “Oh I can’t wait!”

It turned out that she could wait a few more minutes. The Starfinder eventually dropped out of hyperspace next to the star Malat, a red dwarf star that was still hundreds of times larger than Equis itself, brimming with red power.

Twilight blinked. “Well, I was going to try a broadcast spell, but… Starswirl? How’d you do it?”

“Well I used rituals back on Equis. But there’s no need for that. HEY! MALAT! I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!”

The sudden shouting made Fluttershy cover her ears and wince.

There was no response from Malat.

“MALAAAAT!” Starswirl yelled. “We’re RIGHT on your DOORSTEP, I know you can’t ignore that!”

Silence.

“Oh, giving me the SILENT TREATMENT, huh? Is that your strategy now? Just refuse to talk like a spoiled brat.”

This evoked a response. The red sphere before them shook, flaring in brightness for a moment. “STARSWIRL, YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE COME HERE.

“Oh look, deflecting,” Starswirl muttered. “Malat, listen, we never finished our conversation-“

“IT IS NOT FOR YOU TO KNOW, STOP ASKING.”

“Where did the Harmony forces come from?”

“TWILIGHT SPARKLE, IT IS A PLEASURE.”

Are you just ignoring me?”

No response.

Twilight gulped and bowed. “Uh, it’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Malat.”

“WE’VE BEEN WATCHING YOU FOR A WHILE.”

“Really?” Twilight echoed. “Why?”

“Malat this is trying my patience!” Starswirl shouted.

“TWILIGHT, YOU ARE THE ELEMENT OF MAGIC, ONE OF THE MOST DESTINY-DRIVEN BEINGS ON YOUR ENTIRE PLANET. YOU ARE WATCHED CLOSELY SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU ARE CENTRAL. MANY HOPED YOU WOULD DISCOVER HOW TO CHANNEL OUR VOICES.”

“That’s… Great! What did you want to talk about?”

Starswirl grabbed his beard. “How does she do this? Why does she do this to me?”

Pinkie patted him on the back. “There there, it’ll all be fine Starswirl…”

“OH, YOU MISUNDERSTAND TWILIGHT. I WAS TALKING ABOUT US AS A WHOLE. THE GROUP OF STARS. I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU AT ALL. THEY’D JUST BE DISPLEASED IF I DIDN’T INFORM YOU.”

Twilight cocked her head. “Uh… Okay?”

Starswirl facehooved. “Oh great Harmony, here we go…”

“YOU ARE PATHETIC LITTLE FLESHBAGS. YOU ARE NOTHING TO US. YOUR ONLY PURPOSE IS TO DISTRACT US FROM MORE IMPORTANT THINGS.”

There it is!” Starswirl shouted. “Happy now Malat?”

“This entire exchange just makes me feel guilty for some reason,” Fluttershy commented.

Rarity rolled her eyes. “It just makes me feel disappointed that so many ponies worship these beings.”

Starlight took in a deep breath, and then breathed out. “Okay Starlight, just because this one’s a jerk doesn’t mean all of them are…”

“YES, GO TALK TO SIRIUS, I’M SURE HE’LL BE NICER. ALSO QUIETER. SEE, THE NICER ONES TALK LESS, BECAUSE APPARENTLY HEARING FROM US DRIVES YOU SLOWLY INSANE.”

Rainbow Dash looked at Starswirl. “Hrm… That would explain a lot…”

Starswirl shot her a look. She slapped her hooves over her mouth and blushed.

Twilight shook her head. “Is everything we do pointless to you?”

“YES. OR, WELL, IT USED TO BE. APPARENTLY YOU’VE GONE AND DONE SOMETHING THAT HAS EVEN THE ONES THAT DON’T CARE LOOKING AT YOU. DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL.”

“What? That’s what it took to grab your attention?” Starswirl shouted. As usual, Malat acted like Starswirl didn’t exist.

Rarity spoke up instead. “What does your kind think of it?”

“WE HIGHLY ADVISE YOU CEASE IMMEDIATELY. YOU SEE – WHY IS YOUR REACTOR CORE CHARGING UP?”

“…What?” Twilight said.

“YOUR ENERGY LEVELS ARE SPIKING DANGEROUSLY.”

It was at that moment the Starfinder’s alarms went off.

A second later a purple explosion shook the entire ship, blowing off a chunk of the bottom, shaking everything out of alignment. The Starfinder tumbled end over end through space, tumbling toward Malat at high speeds.

Malat would have blinked were she able to. “…THAT’S GOING TO INTERFERE WITH MY CORONA.”

~~~

Pinkie Pie the Sage approached the Hub again, mask on her face. Some of them may have sensed her coming, though they didn’t know what she was. Plus, the magic she had in her was a holy magic, nobody would think holy magic was dangerous. Not even those badly named ‘demons’ would come to that conclusion.

She knew this. For certain. Was it her oculus powers or something else? Did it really matter? She just knew.

She also knew that now was the perfect time to strike. The Hub wasn’t as crowded as it had been when the Portal opened. People were moving into the many divisions, and everything was falling into routine. A routine she was going to royally screw up.

She took a deep breath. “Okay…” Her knowledge of what was to come did not make her any less nervous about the events soon to take place. It would be intense, powerful, and very dangerous. Just because she knew didn’t mean she couldn’t change it by screwing up. And that was what she feared – a bad judgment call on her part.

As an oculus, the first thing you learned about your eyes is that, even though they show you what is to happen, or what is hidden, you also have to know that nothing is certain. By being able to see more of what is to come than any other pony, you are ironically cursed to live a life of less certainty in many areas.

The curse of the oculi.

She put a hoof on her mask and walked in.

She hoped they wouldn’t scream all that much.

Chapter Text

Magitech, Part 2

Twilight lifted her head as the lights flickered back on. “Wha… What happened?” She rubbed her head – she’d fallen over and hit it on a console. It was definitely going to leave a bruise.

“Uh…” Starlight sifted through images on the console, trying her best to actually understand what was on there. “…I think the hyperdrive blew up. Halfway. Or something.”

“Is everypony okay!?”

“Same amount of life signatures on board. Apparently everyone got out of the reactor room in time…”

“Did they at least try to fix it?” Applejack asked.

“How should I know? I wasn’t looking before the alarms started blaring!”

Twilight took a deep breath to calm herself. “Starlight, Applejack, Pinkie, Spike, with me. We’re going to check out the hyperdrive, see what the damage is. Rest of you… I guess stay with Malat.”

“I CAN TALK TO YOU ANYWHERE IN THE SHIP. I HAVE BEEN TALKING TO A CERTAIN GRIFFON WHO IS NOW HAVING AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS. VERY SATISFACTORY.”

Starlight winced. Twilight wanted to take a moment to talk to her, but there were more pressing matters to deal with. Namely the giant hole that had just been blown in the ship.

“NOT TO MENTION THAT YOU’RE FALLING TOWARDS ME. THAT’LL BE PRETTY CRISPY.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “Er… Are maneuvering thrusters still working?”

Spike looked at a console. “Yep.”

“Get us into a stable orbit.”

“Done.”

“All right then, that was easy.” She lit her horn and teleported five of them to the hallway outside engineering. A dozen humans and ponies were sitting on this side of the doorway, breathing heavily.

“Twilight!” One of the humans said – Janus, she recalled – “Thank God, I thought we were goners!”

“We would be goners if I hadn’t patched that hole,” a unicorn by the name of Craft Box said. “You have any idea how much energy’s stored in this thing?”

Janus nodded vigorously.

“What happened?” Twilight asked. “What made it explode?”

“Indeterminate,” Craft Box said. “The hole wasn’t the only problem, I can tell you that.”

“Sabotage!” Another human shouted, one by the name of Gilles. “There’s no way that thing just blew up without some external force!”

“Who’d do that?” Starlight asked.

Applejack fixed Starlight with a look. “Ah’m not that involved, and Ah can tell you the options. Ba’al, Ba’al, or Ba’al.”

Twilight sighed. “Right… I’m going to have to screen all of you. This could take some time and may feel a little weird.“ She lit her horn and focused a spell on Gilles, scanning the insides of his neck. It took a few seconds for her to get a clear picture of the spinal column, but she saw no Goa’uld snake on it. Then she moved to Jones.

Janus raised his hands into the air in surrender before she even started. “All right, fine, you got me.”

“Wait, what?” One of the Engineering ponies said, eyes widening. “You?

Janus just shrugged and smirked. “I play a pretty convincing panicky idiot, don’t I?”

Twilight scanned Janus anyway to make sure. Yep. There was a Ba’al symbiote in there, affixed to the brain stem. She facehooved. “How did we miss you? We scanned everyone who came through!”

Ba’al shrugged. “Isn’t that hard to infect someone who’s already passed inspection. Just portal in, portal out, done. By the way, pleasure to meet you face to face, I don’t think any Ba’al has had the honor quite yet.”

Pinkie frowned. “You’re too happy for having been found out.”

“Why wouldn’t I be? My goal was to disable your ship. Not only have I done that, but I also stranded you all out here in the middle of nowhere. Not as good as destroying the entire ship, but, you know.”

“…You were on a suicide mission?” Pinkie blurted. “That’s not like you!”

“How do you know what’s like me?” he said, leaning back and smirking.

Starlight turned to Twilight. “Can I just probe this guy’s mind? Please?”

Twilight frowned. “It’s not-“

“Twilight, he tried to kill us. It’s less than he deserves.”

“…All right.”

Starlight’s eyes went white as she connected her mind to Ba’al’s, forcing his eyes to go white as well. The connection lasted a few seconds before Starlight removed herself from it. “He has no idea where the Mothership is, there was an escape plan but he was unaware we changed destinations to Malat instead of Proximus, so they couldn’t portal him out. His escape team has assuredly abandoned him at this point and moved to another dimension. He is of little use and…” She frowned. “Well that’s odd. Apparently they have some kind of magical artifact with them.”

“Does that help us figure out where they are?” Twilight asked.

“Nope. Just some dark magic mask.”

Ba’al frowned. “You know, it isn’t fair if you can just read people’s minds.”

“It isn’t fair to bomb a planet that has only minimal means of defense. Plus, you can teach yourself to resist it.”

“Don’t tell him that!” Pinkie shouted.

“Oh. Right.”

“He’s not going to be able to tell any of his copies though,” Twilight noted. “He’s going to be extracted from Janus and squashed.” She shivered a little at the thought that this Ba’al would soon be dead. Even if he was an abject monster, he was still alive. But he had basically declared war on them all…

Ba’al smirked. “Tentative about turning me over to them, are you? You ponies are very soft, you know. Security almost doesn’t exist, everyone gets a second chance, and you sing and dance all the time! It’s a little amusing to watch!”

“Little. Ha.” Pinkie winked, somehow sarcastically. “I see what you did there.”

Ba’al shrugged. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’re all stuck out here and your ship is crippled. What now?”

“We wait for the Apollo to realize something’s up,” Twilight said. “They know where we are.”

Ba’al frowned. “You sure you have enough air for that? You’ll discover soon that your air recyclers have been corrupted and that you are leaking atmosphere.”

“I can literally create more air out of the aether,” Starlight muttered. “It actually seems easier here than on Equis.”

Ba’al clearly hadn’t thought of that. His confident smirk vanished, replaced with one of annoyance. “…Well then, congratulations, this entire outing has been nothing but an annoyance to everyone involved.”

“I AGREE WITH THE GOA’ULD ON THIS CHARGE.”

Ba’al blinked. “The voice of the Star, I presume?”

“Yep,” Applejack said. “And that’s all you need to know.”

“I didn’t even need to know that. Ever consider investing in a ‘keeping secrets’ course? I’m sure it’ll be worthwhile.”

Twilight teleported Ba’al into the brig. “There we are, done with that. So done with that.”

“He’s just as infuriatin’ as everyone said he’d be,” Applejack said.

“Definitely not what I was expecting…” Starlight commented. “Seems a lot less mad supervillain and more… Clever and mischievous.”

“Still really dangerous,” Pinkie reminded them. “We can’t let him smooth talk us!”

“Yeah,” Spike said. “Anyway, think we should actually look at the drive and see if we can fix it?”

“Right,” Twilight said. She cleared her throat. “Everypony out of this section! The atmosphere is about to be vented!”

All the engineers quickly scrambled out of the hallway, leaving just four ponies and a dragon. Twilight encased them in a magic bubble and sealed all the doors shut. Then she opened the one leading to the engine room. The atmosphere in their section of hallway rushed out into the vacuum, pushing the magic bubble out into the room. They floated aimlessly since the gravity generators weren’t working, likely because there was no floor to contain them. They looked down and saw nothing but white stars and the soft red glow of Malat.

“HEY.”

“Hey,” Twilight said, looking down at Malat – or, well, what she perceived as down.

“THIS IS WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT EARLIER. THIS IS ONE OF THE REASONS DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL IS INADVISABLE.”

“Oh, and how’s that?” Applejack said as Starlight pushed the sphere towards the sparking hyperdrive.

ENEMIES. ENEMIES AROUND EVERY CORNER. DESTRUCTION. ALL WHO FLY CLOSE TO THE TOP GET BURNED.”

Twilight examined the cables on the Hyperdrive. “Well, that certainly seems pessimistic,” Twilight said. “How would you know?”

“UGH. APPARENTLY I ACTUALLY GET TO TELL YOU SOMETHING. YAY. WE, THE STARS, USED TO BE A MULTIVERSAL RACE, ONE OF THE MORE POWERFUL ONES AT THAT. BUT THEN THERE WAS WAR, BROUGHT ON BY FORCES WE COULD NOT HAVE FORESEEN. AND YET, WE STILL BROUGHT IT ON OURSELVES. WHAT MY RACE WANTS TO TELL YOU IS TO STOP, TO GIVE YOU A WARNING.”

“Maybe we’ll be different!” Pinkie said. “We’re obviously quite a bit more friendly than you!”

“Plus, how could we stop now?” Twilight asked. “We’re in too deep.”

“YOU’RE NOT IN TOO DEEP YET. YOU CAN RETREAT, STOP EXPLORING, LEAVE THE DIMENSIONAL WORK TO OTHERS. DO WHAT MOST OTHER ALTERNATE EQUESTRIAS DO WHEN THEY ENCOUNTER YOU – TALK TO TRAVELERS THAT COME BUT FEEL NO NEED TO JOIN THEM ON THEIR QUEST. YOU’VE VISITED WELL OVER A HUNDRED WORLDS, AND WHAT, LESS THAN TEN ACTUALLY JOIN YOU ON YOUR LITTLE EXPLORATION? DOES IT OCCUR TO YOU THAT MAYBE THEY’RE JUST SMARTER?

Twilight shook her head. “I don’t think so. We’re called to do this. I’m sorry, but we’re just not going to drop it.”

“CALLED BY WHAT, EXACTLY? WE ARE THE FORCES OF DESTINY IN YOUR UNIVERSE. WE ARE THE STARS.”

“The Tree of Harmony, for one,” Starlight said.

There was no response. Twilight examined the entire dimensional component of the drive in the silence.

“…Why’s she silence?”

“She wouldn’t answer Starswirl’s questions about the Harmony Forces,” Twilight reminded her. “She won’t make any comment on the Tree. So I’m going to take it to be a valid reason to keep exploring.”

“Sounds good to me,” Spike said.

Starlight just frowned. “I don’t know… It’s not just Malat saying this, it’s the other Stars as well. Shouldn’t we at least consider listening to them?”

Applejack frowned. “Ah’d consider it, but Ah know y’all can’t just leave it be now. There are too many friends out there. Too many connections.”

“It’d be a betrayal in more ways than one,” Twilight admitted.

“Yeah!” Pinkie said, turning to look directly at Malat. “So guess what? We’ll take whatever horrors are coming our way! And we’ll face them together!

“I TOLD THEM YOU’D BE STUPID. I WAS RIGHT. THANK YOU.”

“Any hints on helping us survive?” Starlight asked. “Since, you know, the Stars care?”

“NOT FROM ME, I’M DONE. ALSO, SOMEONE STICK A SOCK IN STARSWIRL’S MUZZLE. HE’S GETTING REALLY ANNOYING.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Not doing that.”

“I COULD DESTROY YOUR SHIP WITH A THOUGHT.”

“You won’t,” Pinkie said.

There was no response. There was no exploding either.

Twilight finally let out a loud sigh. “Drive’s completely shot. We need new parts to repair it. So we’re stuck here until someone comes and gets us. Could be a few minutes, could be a few hours. We didn’t exactly set a timetable for them.” She teleported them back into a hallway with air and removed the bubble. “So… I guess we wait then.”

“Rainbow Dash is going to go crazy,” Applejack muttered.

“You’re implying she hasn’t already gone crazy,” Pinkie said.

“Back to the bridge then?” Spike asked.

“Back to the bridge,” Twilight confirmed, teleporting them all back.

Starswirl was still yelling, but his voice was very scratchy now. “Malat! Do… Do you hear me!? I’m… I’m not going to stop until I get answers! Malat!”

Rainbow Dash grabbed Twilight’s face. “Get me out of here, this guy’s loco.”

Twilight facehooved. It was going to be a long day.

~~~

General Sunset was trotting around the Hub, observing all the new things that were slowly forming. The embassies were truly established now, and more than a few shops had already opened their doors. She’d stopped by Earth Gizmos herself and purchased something called a ‘smartphone.’ It apparently would make calls on Earth, but for her it was only useful for taking pictures, videos, and other such things. Its ability to store data was more than enough for her to consider it worth the price, which was pretty exorbitant. She had it though, being a General had its perks.

She had found using magic to press the screen worked far better than carefully aligning a hoof or her tail. The hoof was far too wide and her tail didn’t listen half of the time, even when she fed it that hot dog. Meat products usually kept the tail satisfied, but for whatever reason today was not one of those days.

She snapped a few pictures with the smartphone of every shop she came across, and added some notes to it every time she did. She had no doubt the Queen would want to visit the best of these shops, and this was a much better way to categorize than scroll or memory.

If Sunset was right on the money, the Queen would probably like the ‘Trinq’ the best, a shop that already had small pieces of art and sculptures from several worlds. The Queen was always fascinated by the ‘beautiful’ and ‘interesting’, something Sunset rarely understood herself, but at this point had learned to tell the Queen about.

The next shop was Arcane Academics. Judging by the sign out front, it was run by a pair of unicorn brothers who GUARANTEED that anyone could learn magic there. Sunset raised an incredulous eyebrow absentmindedly. That shop would either make a killing or get kicked out of here faster than an Arcei out of town square. …Though she wasn’t sure that metaphor applied here. They’d probably accept Arcei here. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

Her thoughts were interrupted by an explosion of holy white power. A nearby Embassy – that of the Binaries – exploded in a flash of white. Sunset was fairly sure nobody was inside, but that didn’t matter because the holy power was spreading, tearing apart the walls and ceiling with increasing intensity.

Sunset lit her antlers, driving her hooves into the ground and summoning the power of the scenery around her. The metallic ground vibrated with her hooves, sending out a wave that forced everything within several meters to stop moving – except the holy energy, which just kept on destroying things.

Ponies and people screamed, running away from the burst of power. A few tried to stop it – a Hylian raised some magical staff that exploded before it could do anything, and one of the demons charged and was flung back like a silly ragdoll. Alarms blared as more and more people arrived and fled, only adding to the chaos.

Sunset noticed something odd. The magic wasn’t hurting anyone. It obviously could, but it wasn’t. It seemed far more concerned with causing meaningless destruction…

A distraction.

She knew one when she saw one. Her mind went into overdrive – what would be the purpose of a distraction? What could they possibly be after in this place?

The Mirror.

She bolted, trying to scream that it was a distraction to everyone around her, but nobody was in a mood to listen. She was on her own, running toward the center of the Hub. She rushed through the large doros to the main room, horn and antlers glowing, ready for anything.

There was a version of Pinkie Pie wearing a plain white mask leaping over everyone still in the main room, beelining for the Mirror Portal by bouncing over heads. Sunset was able to register that Toph’s team was providing the most resistance, with earth, yo-yos, and fire spells being tossed around, but the Pinkie dodged everything.

Sunset decided to put an end to that. Using her deer powers, she accessed the scenery again. This time, instead of making everything stop, she launched a perfectly rectangular slab of metal out from the ceiling into the Pinkie. The Pinkie grabbed it, twisted, and was suddenly on top of the falling slab. She used it as a springboard to approach the Mirror Portal, throwing a bean bag from nowhere into Sunset’s face at the same time.

Lieshy dove out of the sky, impacting the Pinkie from the side. Her mask slid off her face, revealing two alien blue eyes. An oculus. The Sage.

Sunset’s already high levels of anger went through the roof. She launched a bolt of blood-red flame at the Sage, but she used her mask to deflect it with some white holy shield. Vivian shot out of the ground and punched her with a flaming fist, but the fire was simply absorbed by the mask this time. Tendrils of white shot out of the Sage’s four hooves, pushing all opponents back.

“Get down here!” Toph yelled, forcing metal and earth to shoot out of the ground in the shape of a hand, grabbing the Sage by the tail. The Sage was suddenly on top of the hand. She grabbed Fef’s yo-yos before they could do anything and pulled, knocking both the demon and a few bystanders over. Lieshy swooped again only for the yo-yo to be tossed at her, tying her wings up and getting tangled in her mane.

Sunset teleported in front of the Sage, explosion spell ready, only to get a white tendril to the face. She flew right into the central column behind the Mirror Portal, the wind knocked out of her. The Sage dodged the last few rocks thrown by Toph, but was unable to dodge Bon Bon’s quick use of a grappling hook.

Sunset realized with mild horror that the Sage probably wanted to get grabbed by the grappling hook. She sailed toward Bon Bon and kicked her in the face. The mare reacted surprisingly quickly, grabbing the Sage’s midsection and piledriving her into the ground. However, being a version of Pinkie, the Sage simply didn’t care about this. She bounced right back up and blew Bon Bon into Vivian with a burst of holy energy. She tapped a button on the desk, setting the Mirror Portal to Lai.

Sunset cleared her head, trying one last time to stop the Sage from reaching the Mirror Portal. She lit her horn, creating a wall of reddish magic. The Sage did as expected – use her strange new holy mask powers to plow through the forcefield. Sunset readied the explosion spell as the Sage flew over her, ready to bring the Sage down – but a giant rock hit Sunset in the face.

“Great, I hit the wrong pony,” Toph muttered. She readied another rock, but it was too late.

The Sage leaped toward the Mirror Portal, a white tendril of energy snaking behind her. She bounced through, using the white tendril to grab a hold of the green diamond at the last possible moment and drag it through with her. The Mirror Portal lost power a second after the green diamond was removed, just enough for it to pass through the boundary between worlds as well.

Bon Bon blinked. “…She just took the diamond.”

Sunset took out her dimensional device, sneering. “She won’t have it for long – dammit!” She noticed her device was out of power. It’d take a few seconds to charge with her magic.

Toph, Vivian, Lieshy, and Fef all lined up behind her. Toph pointed at her. “We’re coming with you.”

“Not complaining,” Sunset said, finally opening the portal. The five of them leaped through.

Lieshy turned and looked through the portal at Bon Bon. “Tell anyone who asks that we’re on the case. We’ll get the diamond back for the key-link.”

Bon Bon barely had time to nod before the portal closed.

On the other side of the portal, Toph slammed her foot into the ground. “There’s no way she moved fast enough to get out of range… But I can’t feel her…”

“She’s a version of Pinkie,” Lieshy said. “Pinkies are knights – as in, knights in chess. They don’t operate like the rest of us.”

“That is not going to stop us from hunting her down,” Sunset asserted, using her horn and antlers to find whatever she could. “I can sense the trail of holy magic her mask left behind. South.”

Toph slammed her hands into the ground, creating a large slab of rock for them all to ride on. Then she rolled her arms around, pushing all of them forward on a wave of rock. It was almost like surfing.

Sunset shook her head. “I didn’t think earthbenders were this powerful…”

“I’m not most earthbenders!” Toph smirked. “I am the best in the world!”

“Debatable as cherry bombs,” Lieshy muttered under her breath.

“Come again?”

“I’m allowed to double talk my insults, thank you very much.”

Fef shrugged, trying to pull her yo-yo out of Lieshy’s hair with minimal success.

Vivian pointed. “What’s that?”

“Just a large pointed rock, nothing to worry about,” Toph said.

Sunset paled. “Stop the earth wave! That’s a Rune Obelisk! You need to-“

Toph barreled through the large orange Runes, knocking the structure to the side. Needless to say, this awoke the golem, and it was a very angry giant orange spider.

“RUN RUN RUN!” Sunset yelled, turning behind them to defend. She was able to combine the earth beneath her with fire to create a burst of lava, but as always Golems were annoyingly resistant to everything. Their only hope was to get out of its circle of influence, and given the size of it, that was probably a very large circle.

“Got anything else to try?” Lieshy said. “I ask because Toph’s busy making us run, and the rest of us would be useless against a giant light spider.”

“I am not useless!” Fef assured her, throwing a yo-yo at the spider. The string snapped instantly. “Okay, fine, maybe I’m not particularly useful in this instance.”

“It’s gaining!” Vivian yelled to Toph, launching a fire spell of her own at the spider, to no effect. “Great.”

“I can feel how close it is, morons!” she muttered. She upset the balance of the earth wave to grab a rock from nearby and fling it at the spider, slowing it down slightly. “How much further?”

“I have no idea! That was a large Rune! It could be a mile or more!” Sunset shouted, trying to melt the earth beneath the spider. It worked, but it just walked right through the hissing ground. Sunset hoped she didn’t just cause a forest fire with that move.

The spider lunged at them, ready to sink its teeth into Sunset – and then it shattered. They had reached the edge of its influence.

“That could not have been any closer…” Sunset muttered.

“Nothing’s so close that it can’t be closer,” Lieshy observed.

“Words of wisdom, yes. Necessary? No.” Sunset frowned, looking further south. “The holy energy is coming from that town. Can’t tell from where exactly though. We’ll have to ask around.”

It wasn’t until after they started getting the strange looks that Sunset considered that might have been a bad idea. She facehooved. “Riiiight… They’ve never seen a human, demon, or… whatever you are Vivian.”

Vivian shrugged. “Shadow siren.”

Sunset sighed, producing a general’s insignia. “I’m General Sunset Shimmer, they’re with me, you do not need to be afraid. We are here looking for a pink oculus who may or may not be wearing a smooth, white mask.”

The ponies of the town murmured amongst themselves, unsure of how to respond. It looked like one was about to say something, but then another gasped. “You!”

Lieshy blinked, trying to find out where the voice was coming from. “Me?”

A pegasus-seapony hybrid dropped from the sky and looked right into Lieshy’s eyes with identical eyes. “You look like me!”

“I’m Lieshy, you’re probably Fluttershy, and we don’t have time for this,” Lieshy muttered.

“DID YOU STEAL MY FACE!?” She roared.

Sunset turned to stare at her. “…What?”

“I’m asking a perfectly logical question. DID YOU STEAL MY FREAKING FACE?”

“No,” Lieshy said, monotone. “Can we please talk about this later?”

“THEN WHY DO YOU LOOK LIKE ME?”

Sunset made the pegasus-seapony fall asleep with a simple spell. “Okay, enough of that.”

“…Not the standard Fluttershy,” Fef said.

“Definitely not,” Toph agreed. Then she cleared her throat. “ALL RIGHT! PONIES! Stop gawking! We need to find this pony and fast! Who knows where she is?”

An elderly mawlie walked up to them, his tail purring like a cat. “I dunno where you’re goin’ with this. But we don’t just turn in ponies to random strangers.”

Sunset waved the insignia around. “Here on official business of the crown. She’s wanted.”

“Why?”

“She stole an artifact. Looks like a green diamond that isn’t completely solid. It’s a tremendous source of power and could be dangerous in the wrong hooves.”

Lieshy raised an eyebrow. “Why feed the details?”

“What?” The old mawlie said.

Sunset got Lieshy’s message – that had probably given too much information. “Just tell us where she is, okay? We’ll just take her in, that’s it. Nopony will be killing anyone.”

The old stallion scratched his beard. “Well, I dunno where she is. I did see someone similar rush down third street a few seconds ago. You’ll have to ask around there.”

“Where is third street?”

“There are only three streets in this town,” Toph said, tapping her foot on the ground. I’m going to bet the one furthest from the big building is third street.”

Sunset sighed. “Thank you for the help.” She followed Toph to third street and repeated the question.

A couple mares there glanced at each other. “I thought I heard you say you saw her.”

“Ah, but you said you saw her first and I think I was just going crazy!”

“No, no you really saw her. Left I think?”

“No, right.”

“No, left”

“ARGH!” Toph yelled. “These ponies are all morons!”

“No…” Lieshy said, walking up to one of them. “…Who paid you?”

“C-come again?”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. That was the response of a guilty pony.

Lieshy smirked. “Let me tell you what I think happened. She planned this out in advance and paid you all long ahead of time. She gave instructions for you to distract anyone who came looking for her, to keep them occupied long enough for her to make a getaway.”

“Er…”

“And your response – the slight facial twitch, the single step backwards – is all I need to confirm it. I think you can arrest them for collusion, General.”

Sunset nodded. “That I can. Or… I can save them a trip to the dungeon if they just tell us where she is now.”

They both pointed to a boring building on second street. “She stays in there.”

“Thank you,” Sunset said, walking over to that building. She melted a hole in the wall and strode in.

The interior was like an empty warehouse. There was evidence of big, heavy things having been moved very recently. Namely, lots of places where dust had been kicked up, lots of drag marks on the ground, and lots of hoofprints. There were a few loose screws, planks of wood, and chunks of black rock laying around – chunks of Runes.

The only major thing left in the room was a small box, on top of which sat the green diamond and a hoofwritten note.

Sunset walked over to it and read the note.

I won’t be needing this anymore. Thanks for letting me borrow it! –Pinkie the Sage.

Sunset crumpled the paper in her magic, lit it on fire, and smashed the ashes into a flat mess under her hoof. She grabbed the green diamond. “We’ll return this. We’ll deal with the fallout. Then I’m coming back here to track that irritating oculus down. She’s made a fool of me. I’m not going to let that stand.”

Toph put her fist in her hand. “I am feeling the need to throw a rock in masked pony’s face…”

Sunset nodded. “She knows not what she’s done…”

If Susnet was being honest with herself, she would probably have admitted that the Sage knew exactly what she was doing. She was clearly a practiced oculus, and they rarely did things without planning astronomically well. This was going to be a significant challenge.

~~~

Starlight stared at the main screen on the bridge, looking right at Malat. She knew the Star could see her staring, and probably even knew what she was thinking. But nobody on the ship had heard anything from Malat since the empty threat. The Star was apparently done talking to the mortals and was now… doing whatever it was Stars did when they weren’t messing with the affairs of lesser beings. Starlight had no idea what that was, if anything. Now that she was thinking about it she was having a hard time coming up with anything the Stars could do besides watch other things. Maybe they talked over long distances with their impressive magic? What did they even talk about?

How had they even had a multiversal society? They never seemed to move, never did anything besides occasionally speak and heat planets up... or if the legends were to be believed, changed and manipulated things in small, yet key ways.

But all of those were just legends- wait.

Starlight turned to her left. “Twilight, how exactly did the Stars aid in Nightmare Moon’s escape?”

Twilight furrowed her brow. “I’m not exactly sure. Four of the brightest Stars ended up in precise alignment with the moon, and she was released from her prison. Then we used the Elements of Harmony to banish the Nightmare Forces and return Luna to her right mind.”

“But why would the position of the stars matter in relation to the moon?”

“I have no idea. What are you getting at?”

“I don’t know, but I think I might be onto something… hey Starswirl!”

Starswirl looked up, grunting. His voice had given out well over an hour ago.

“Why would the positions of Stars cause a seal to be broken?”

He sighed, summoning a scroll with his magic. He drew a diagram of a single point at several points in time, moving from the top to the bottom. Then he arranged four stars, not in a square, but a spread out pattern. He drew lines connecting every pair of them, then circles connecting every set of three points possible. There turned out to be an X right on top of the point moving through space when he was done, where several circles and lines connected.

“…I think I know what he’s drawing. Magical fields,” Twilight said. “The places where these lines intersect are where the magical fields of different Stars intersect, giving them more intense power. Or providing more intense power. Or both.”

Starswirl gave a sideways nod, as if to say ‘close enough.’

“So, the Stars basically channel magic between each other through a complex maze of circles and lines?” Starlight asked.

Starswirl gave the same nod.

Starlight started grinning. “Twilight, remind me again why there’s no ‘faster than light’ spell.”

“Because the arrangement of arcane energies off of Equis is inconsistent. In deep space there’s simply not enough energy to supersede what the humans call ‘relativity’.” She rubbed her head, no doubt remembering the moments Sunset had tried to explain the extremely complicated topic.

“What if we ride these lines, though?” Starlight asked, pointing. “We could keep up an impressive speed so long as we found a powerful enough conduit.”

Twilight blinked. “Maybe… Find a path between t