[Please read the Author's Notes in the description before reading!]
Everything was wrong. Her world was upside-down, backwards and inside out all at once. There was a feeling of emptiness in the pit of her stomach, as if a part of her had been stolen. She was on the verge of tears, yet they would not come. What had left her in such a sorry state? Was it her curiosity? Was this blackness her penance for meddling in the workings of the universe?
Alas, Twilight could not piece anything together. She was cold: so desperately cold, as if her bones had turned to stone and her blood into ice. Yet, she could not shiver, for the oppressing blackness squeezed her from all sides: both inside and out. She tried to scream, to call for aid: nothing happened. Was this how Luna felt on the moon? Did she feel this hopeless, alone and scared?
She floated in the void for an eternity, unable to move, speak, or breathe. All she could do was exist in the hellish dimension. A million questions flitted through her unconscious mind. Was she dead and sent to the Hells for her sins, or was she sealed in some sort of dimension by Luna for poking her nose in where it did not belong? The lavender mare tried to sob silently, reminded of the few torturous hours she spent petrified by the cockatrice. It only felt a little better then what she endured at the present.
However, in an instant, the crushing blackness was gone. Tears flowed freely from her eyes as audible sobs rocked her body. The cataract of emotions overcame the mare as she stood on wobbly hooves, her vision blurry. The beat of her heart and the ache of her lungs told her that she was not dead. Blinking, her vision returned, finding herself in the shallow basin the Pool of Midnight resided in.
Yet, it was empty. Pulling herself out of the depression in the floor, the lavender mare saw sunlight stream through the cracks in the ceiling. "Princess?" she called with a croak, for the alicorn was nowhere in sight. "Luna? W-where are you?" Twilight stumbled forwards, as if her hooves had not moved in a long time. She groaned as she picked herself up again, barely able to stand.
With all the willpower she possessed, the unicorn pushed herself up the stairs of the room, finding a little more strength with every step, but it was still slow going. Reaching the top of the stairs, the lavender mare did a double take. The large Runite doors guarding the pool were gone, as if they had completely vanished from existence. Did Princess Luna do the job and take the doors back to Canterlot too?
But that question presented an unsettling notion. If Luna moved the pool on her own, or with Celestia's help, why did they abandon her like that? Did they think she had died and were too callous to move her body? A million more questions buzzed in her skull, each more disturbing then the last as she trudged up the stairs, trying to remember her way out of the ruins.
Progress was slow for the librarian as she walked down the ancient halls. Only then, moving at a snail's pace, did she notice just how long each segment was. Her body screamed at her from all angles: some parts in pain, others too tired to carry on, and others still screeching a need to eat and drink. Twilight licked her lips at the very thought of a bowl of cool, refreshing water, but it would have to wait until she got back to town.
At the rate she was going, she would be lucky if she did not drop dead in the middle of the forest before reaching home. Her survivalist skills were, frankly, non-existent and she did not see any body of water along the path they had taken to reach the castle. However, all thoughts of her present situation were drowned out by the most curious sound ever: laughter. It was not evil, or menacing but... mirthful and happy. The closer she got to the surface, the louder the noises became.
Granted, she needed to diverge from her memorized path, going left down a hall where she remembered going straight. However, her natural curiosity kicked into overdrive as she climbed one last flight of stairs. She could tell the laughter was coming from the other side of the door. Timidly, she wondered if being nosy was such a good idea, considering what happened the last time.
With the soft glow of her horn, the ancient door creaked open, the sight beyond causing her to gasp in shock. Beyond was the room she knew as the former resting place of the Elements of Harmony: however, there was something different. Dozens of tents sat in the middle of the floor, camp fires all around as ponies of all types and colours wandered.
If Twilight did not know any better, she would have sworn she was sucked back in time... but it simply could not be, since the castle was still in ruins and the elements were no longer on the spindly pedestal. No pony seemed to pay her any mind as she wandered through the crowd, picking up accents from Manehatten, Trottington, Fillydelphia and other Equestrian dialects.
Little fillies and colts played among the felled columns, buff stallions lining the walls looking out: obviously on guard for the monsters that roamed the woods. But why were they all here? How had they found this place, never mind set up some mass camping trip? The camp had the same feel as a small town, as if the ponies there had been around for a while. What was going on?
Some ponies stood in a line behind some box crates, calling out to others to peddle their wares. Some sold food stuffs like cupcakes and cookies while others offered textiles and blankets. There were even those who sold weapons like swords, flails and a strange stick with metal bits at the end. Twilight's head swam as she trotted down the worn down stones, several of the gathered ponies vaguely familiar while most others were complete strangers.
"Doughnuts! Get your tasty doughnuts here!" cried a voice she recognized over the din. What could he possibly be doing here in such a place? Twilight nearly galloped through the crowd, trying her best to not draw attention to herself, just in case she was mistaken. However, as she rounded a bend in the makeshift lane of stores, she could not deny the voice she heard.
It was Pony Joe, the owner of the best doughnut shop in Canterlot! Sure, he had a few wrinkles under his eyes and a couple of gray streaks in his mane, but there could be no denying the yellow pony. She approached cautiously, not letting excitement and curiosity get the best of her again. Another pony stopped by his box and dropped off a couple of bits for a dozen plain doughnuts, thanking him before trotting off.
"Pony Joe?" she meekly inquired as she made herself visible to him.
"Yes? What can I do for you my fine fil-" he started before stopping dead. His eyes widened and mouth dropped as he beheld the pony in front of him. "T-Twilight Sp-Sparkle?" he asked, almost begging a reply. Not knowing what else to do, she nodded her head, worried that perhaps talking to him was not the best idea. "D-do a spell. J-just one so I know for sure. Too many other unicorns have tried to coax me into giving them free doughnuts before."
"Um... okay?" she asked, backing away a little nervously. "H-how about that spell you taught me while I was in school?" Her horn glowed with a soft lavender aura as a doughnut emerged from a pack, some sugar from another cart nearby joining it. The sugar shimmered and glowed, turning a vivid pink with swirls of purple before coating itself on the pastry.
Pony Joe's eyes were as wide as saucers as he felt the magic the mare produced. Using that particular spell helped, but the feel of a unicorn's magic was unique to every pony, like their hoofprint, to put it in a perspective that an earth or Pegasus pony could understand. He had no doubts who the unicorn before him was."Twilight Sparkle! It really IS you! Oh, Holy Celestia, be praised!"
The lavender mare yelped in surprise as the yellow unicorn lunged forward and gave her a strong, breath-stealing hug. Ponies all around them began to look and mutter between themselves. Yep, this definitely was a mistake, she thought as she struggled to get free of his deathly grip, making choking noises to try and accentuate her point. Thankfully, the others took notice and hurriedly pried her from his grip.
"So... what is this place, Joe?" the curious unicorn asked. Ever since the little scene at his box, Twilight found that every pony looked upon her with a measure of awe and surprise, almost as if she was expected, yet not expected at the same time. In fact, there were even whispers that followed her as she walked with the proprietor of her favourite shop. "It looks like you're all on some sort of strange camping trip."
"Actually," he replied. "You're not far off the mark with that description, Twilight. You see, this is a refugee camp. Any pony who has decided to flee Equestria stops by here before they continue their journeys through the forest. The army would be MAD to send ponies in here just to chase us."
"What!?" she gasped in surprise, startling a couple of other ponies. "Army? Refugee camp!? What the hay is all of this!?"
Pony Joe sighed, leading the lavender mare onward. "I can guess that you're heading back to Ponyville, right? You'll find out when you get there. I can't really say much, since I've been here since the camp opened." Twilight held a hoof to her head and moaned in pain. Now she was REALLY regretting opening that door, or touching that stupid pool in the first place.
"No! If you can, then tell me what's going on here! You owe me that much, Joe," she pleaded.
The yellow stallion bit his lower lip, not sure if telling her was the best option... until he saw the overpowering confusion in her eyes. "Well, you see, the nation is at war right now. Some ponies would rather not fight, so to avoid the penalties, they flee the country and stop here before moving on."
Hundreds of new questions flooded into her waking mind, causing the unicorn to groan as a small migraine began to overtake her. It felt as if her brain would pop if any more questions came to mind, so she restrained herself from asking how Princess Celestia and Luna could let a war happen. She dreaded hearing the answer anyway.
Thankfully, the stallion could see she was having a rough time digesting the information, so he kept every pony back as they made their way to a crude serving line that dished out wheat, hay, water, sandwiches and other food and drinks. The lavender pony's stomach purred in delight as she consumed the meal like she had not eaten a proper one in years. Looking around, however, she could tell that she was the centre of attention.
"Why is everypony staring at me?" she asked with a mild tone of annoyance. Several of them in earshot shivered visibly and others looked away quickly. In their eyes, she could see mixtures of anxiety, elation and even outright fear. Twilight put her front hooves to her head and shook it to relieve some of the pain she felt from the migraine. "I'm really confused right now and this place isn't exactly helping. In fact, I think it's making things even worse."
"Then I suppose you should move on to Ponyville. Once you've had your fill, we'll go get an escort for you and they'll take you to town," Joe answered.
"I'd like that a lot, thank you, but..." she trailed. "I feel worn-out. Can I trouble somepony for a place to rest? I don't mind where. I just need to lie down for a while." The earlier fright from the pool was still paramount in her mind, even after all that was going on. She felt like she had died for a few minutes back there and was still spooked. The mounting confusion surrounding the existence of a refugee camp, a war and the fact that some ponies seemed to be scared, yet others happy to see her: that did not help matters.
"Sure, wait right there," Pony Joe replied, disappearing into the crowd. Twilight was exasperated and about ready to drop right then and there. Having ponies gawk at her did little to ease the foul mood she found herself in. Yet, she had the nagging suspicion that if she raised her voice, she would cause a panic. The tension around her was as thick as Applejack's patented Apple Molasses.
"Hey there!" chirped the voice of a mare. "Old Joey tells me you need a place to crash." Twilight looked up from her plate to see the pony talking to her. She was a yellow Pegasus with a mane of red and yellow flames, her eyes deep amber to compliment her coat. She looked vaguely familiar to the purple unicorn, but she just could not quite place her hoof on where.
"Yeah, but only if I'm not going to be a bother to you," she smiled at her. Looking into her eyes, the lavender mare could not shake the overpowering feeling that they had met before. Possibly a long time ago, since she met a lot of ponies with clout, but was too engrossed with her books to care most of the time. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, she decided to voice her concerns, the curiosity insatiable. "You know, you look familiar... have we met before?"
The flaming filly chuckled at the lavender mare. "It was a quite while ago, but yeah, although we were never introduced. It also doesn't hurt that I'm a Wonderbolt. Well... used to be one, anyway. My name's Spitfire. It's nice to finally meet you, Twilight. Pony Joe told me who you were."
"Oh yeah!" Twilight realized before chuckling a little herself as she shook her hoof. "Sorry I didn't recognize you. I'm not a Pegasus and I don't really get out much, but I should have realized from the way Rainbow Dash kept raving about you. You're her idol, you know? ...wait, you mean you're not a Wonderbolt anymore? Poor Rainbow, she'll be crushed when she finds out."
The smile on the orange Pegasus vanished at the very mention of the sky-blue friend's name, only to turn into a frown the second time. "Y-yeah... I... wouldn't worry much about that. If you want, I can also escort you to town when you're rested." Twilight tilted her head at the sudden drop in her chipper mood, but she was too overwhelmed and feeling too much like pony plop to investigate further.
"If it's not too much trouble," the librarian started, pushing her finished plate away, "The last few hours have been a bit hectic for me, and I'd like nothing more than to sleep for a while. No offence, but everything I've been hearing and seeing so far is a bit... overpowering and I... just need time to set myself right."
"Well, come on then," Spitfire added in a monotone, gesturing for her to follow. Twilight frowned a little at her sudden lackluster attitude. Had she said something wrong? However, her fatigue quickly caught up with her, the siren's call of a soft, warm bed leading her on to follow in the acrobatic Pegasus' steps. Eventually, she was lead to a small, green tent near the pedestal where the elements once rested.
Ducking her head inside, she found accommodations fairly Spartan. Although, considering what she had heard (and she still thought it might have been an error on her part) than that would explain why such a famous Pegasus carried so little with her. Still, the tent had a sleeping bag (embezzled with the Wonderbolts emblem on it, no less) and any port would do in a storm. Using her magic, she unzipped the zipper and lay down inside, only managing to zip it back up before she passed out.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" spoke a voice, a young colt, from the midst of the darkness. "I mean, if we piss her off... well... you know what happened to Ponyville."
"Oh please," spoke a filly. "Just because she freaks out one time doesn't mean she's a ticking time bomb set to destroy everything around her... I hope."
"Ah-ha!" the colt whispered in triumph. "So you ARE scared. I, however, am not. I mean, if even HALF the rumours about her are true, it's not like she could get away, right?"
"Then why are you shaking?" Twilight had to suppress the urge to groan and roll over away from the noises the two intruders made. Obviously, privacy was too much to ask for in this tent, but she could not deny that she felt rested and relaxed, even if she did not have any dreams. Yet, she kept her ears peeled on the two young ponies in her tent.
They had mentioned rumours and the incident in Ponyville. What sort of rumours were flying around about her? She never really left the town after she came back from Canterlot almost a year ago and her only real contact with the outside world was Trixie. Could ponies of other towns be calling her a demon? How did they even know her part in the Ponyille Fire anyway? Did somepony talk about it while visiting abroad?
The unicorn opened her eyes and stretched in the sleeping bag, the din caused by the two ponies suddenly silenced. With her magic, she unzipped the sleeping back and rolled off of her side before standing on shaky legs. Her eyes beheld the two ponies standing beside her. They were little foals, not even of the age to have their marks yet. The earth pony colt had a dirty brown coat, hay-coloured hair and soft jade eyes. Meanwhile, his friend was a blue unicorn filly with a bubblegum pink mane and hazel eyes.
Both looked upon her with greater fear then she ever thought possible. Her initial annoyance was submerged beneath a wave of concern. If the grown ponies were scared, then of course their foals would be downright terrified of her. "Are you two okay?" she asked softly. "I don't bite. I'm not mad that you snuck into the tent. Please, if there is anything wrong, tell me. I want to help."
Yet, they still stared, mouths agape as the occasional shiver of fear passed over them. They stood frozen in place, as if petrified by a cockatrice, or as if they came face-to-face with an Ursa Major. "Um..." she trailed, trying to start anew. "Can you tell me your names? I'd like to be able to address you by name." Twilight let off a frustrated sigh as they continued to stay frozen in front of her gaze. So, she did the logical thing and turned her head away.
"How about now?" she asked the opposite wall of the tent. "Can you talk to me and imagine I'm somepony else?"
"I had a feeling you two would be here. You're parents have been worried sick about you," Spitfire chuckled as she leaned her head into the tent. "Glad to see you're up, Twilight. We'll head out after breakfast, if you want."
"Sure, that sounds like a plan to me," the librarian smiled before looking at the two stunned foals. "Are they okay? They look like they've seen a ghost or something." Spitfire seemed to frown at the remark, as if trying to choose her next words very carefully. Everypony seemed to be trotting lightly around her, almost like she was infected with a disease they all knew about, but refused to tell her. To that end, the unicorn cast a quick glance at a mirror on the small dresser and surveyed herself, pondering if she touched any Poison Joke.
Aside from the usual bed mane, there was nothing unusual. She shook her head: all this worrying was doing nothing to help. "They're fine," the stunt flier finally replied. "Just a little nosey is all. Come on: let's go get something to eat."
Twilight followed her out of the tent, the two foals galloping away together to find their parents. The makeshift streets were not more than two or three pony lengths across and left little room to navigate around the tents, big cracks in the floor, and other ponies. There had to be at least a quarter of the population of Ponyville jammed into the former foyer, all there for reasons that still eluded the purple mare.
What really confused and aggravated the librarian, however, was the wake of fear that followed her around. She had her suspicions, but the chatting little ponies in her tent earlier confirmed it: they were afraid of her because of what she had done in her hometown almost a year previous. She let out a sad sigh as she entered the line for breakfast, taking only some cereal before she and Spitfire seated themselves at a box for two.
Yet, having ponies afraid of her was the least important thing on her mind. She unconsciously played with her food, spinning it in a circle, the white milk reminding her of The Pool of Midnight. What exactly happened to her? Did she really die? Was this some sort of personal hell for the sins she committed: for her curiosity and nearly murdering two goddesses? Occasionally, she lifted her spoon with her magic and partook of the breakfast with some unease. If she was dead, then how come she needed to eat and sleep?
Spitfire found Twilight's troubled expression comforting: she would hold off on conversation until she had a chance to eat. Sparkle was either a terrific actor, or she honestly had no clue what the Sorrel Hells was going on around her. In a way, it eased her concerns about the purple pony, yet piled on more to the pile. If THAT rumour proved to be untrue... then what was really going on?
Eventually, the Pegasus grew bored with the silence and decided to reach out to her: give her the benefit of a doubt. "I can understand why you might be confused, Twilight," she spoke softly. "Everypony here is just as confused as you are, but they are also scared and easy to panic. Just try not to think about it. Not until you get the answers you need."
"Hmm?" Twilight looked up from her cereal, confused for a moment before she registered what was said. "Oh. Well, I suppose you're right, Spitfire. No good has ever come of me getting worked up over something small. That's... well, it helped lead up to the fire in Ponyville. I read something, got distressed over it and went crazy for a little while. I see and hear things when I get too stressed out, you see."
"But, um..." the lavender mare trailed. "Can I ask... why aren't you a Wonderbolt anymore?"
The Pegasus did not answer, choosing to finish her breakfast instead. In a way, it was good to see her so open to talking about what happened on that day. It dispelled some of the worries the Pegasus had, but not quite all of them. There was a good reason that the ponies of the camp feared her, but hopefully her presence would dispel them once and for all.
"I'd... rather not talk about it, Twilight," she answered. "It's... a rather painful memory for me. I hope you understand."
After a few minutes of silence, the two mares picked up their empty bowls and returned them before heading to the doors of the ruins. Spitfire nodded to the two burly Pegasus guards before they let her and the purple unicorn pass with a flick of their wings. Twilight could not shake the feeling that the guards were watching her intensely until the two mares vanished into the thicket of the woods.
Thankfully, the walk back to Ponyville was uneventful for the two mares as they traversed the dangerous woods. During the walk (or slow flight for the Pegasus) Spitfire told the lavender pony about how they had a whole system of safe passages throughout the forest. Well, as safe as they could get, considering the various threats that the trees held secret.
Twilight let out an audible sigh of relief the minute she stepped out of the thicket and onto the groomed grass of the park. It felt so nice to have something soft underhoof once more, causing her to trot forward to enjoy the sensation. However, looking back, she saw the Pegasus give her a nod and a smile before retreating into the forest once more. The unicorn could not deny her disappointment, since she was just about to invite her for tea at the library.
Although she wanted to turn back to extend the invitation, she thought better of it. Judging from the pain when she first woke up, she had been gone from town for days, maybe even on the order of a week. Therefore, informing her faithful assistant and all of her friends that she was safe and sound was top priority. Besides, she knew where she could find her, and had a general idea about how to get back.
A smile crept upon her face as she walked into town, ignoring the overcast sky. Gloomy days always made her more thankful when the Pegasus ponies would schedule clear skies and pleasant weather later on. However, the closer she got to the town, the more a nagging worry in the back of her mind told her that something was not right: almost as if the town was missing something... important.
Still, she could tell who that nagging voice was and quickly suppressed it. She would not be made a foal of just because she listened to THAT voice and got paranoid around everypony. Approaching her library, however, a frown spread across her muzzle as she found the place dark. Spike obviously decided to take her absence as an excuse to close it down for the day. She would have strong words for him when she found the mischievous baby dragon.
With a flick of her magic, the door refused to budge, locked up tight in a bid to keep ponies out. Twilight groaned with frustration: she was really going to let Spike have it when she got inside. Concentrating hard, the mare turned the bolt, latch and key mechanism on the door, allowing it to open with a gentle, but strange creak. He didn't even oil the door? she thought as she stepped into the blackness. Now he's in BIG trouble.
"Spike!?" she called out into the darkness, to no reply. "SPIKE! I'm really disappointed in you, mister. Just because I was gone for a little longer than I expected gives you no right to lock up. This is a LIBRARY, meaning that other ponies are entitled to come here an-" Igniting the lantern, shock waves ran through her body, causing her jaw to drop and her blood to run cold.
Books lay everywhere: scattered as if Rainbow had made a tornado in the library. What disturbed her most, however, was the thick and oppressive layer of dust on most of them, and all the spider webs that went between the stacks. It was as if nopony had touched the place in YEARS. "Spike?" she called out in quiet desperation. The confusion she felt with the campers in the ancient castle had suddenly been bested by the state of her library.
Walking forward, she found a small circle free of books in the middle of the library surrounding an open one propped up using a stack of books behind it: the way she usually did when she was studying. The pages were caked with dust, but, with a gentle wipe of her hoof, the words became clear.
The Golem is, by far, the most complicated artificially created creature in all history. It can come in any shape, size, or appearance and is nigh indestructible with careful construction. At the same time, they can perfectly mimic equine emotions, language and expressions simply by exposure to them. If it weren't for their distinct appearance, a pony could easily mistake a Golem for a living, perfectly natural creature.
Twilight snapped the book shut: her eyes wild and mind awash in confusion. What was her copy of Magical Automatons doing out here like that? Why was it open to that page in particular and more importantly, why was everything caked in dust? She let out a cry of anguish, her magic sparking to life as the windows opened and a gust of wind picked up, flushing all the dust out of the air as books whizzed past, putting themselves in proper order on the shelves.
Panting, the unicorn ran into the kitchen to find all the cupboards and the icebox bare. Groaning, she ran up the stairs to find her bed unkempt and the box under it missing her Element of Magic tiara. Flashing her horn again, the books on the second floor flew off the shelves, the unicorn desperate for answers. "WHAT THE SORREL HELLS IS GOING ON AROUND HERE!" she screamed after an hour of frantic searching for a clue.
Taking several deep breaths, the unicorn calmly replaced the books on the shelves and walked downstairs to the now immaculate library. A couple of ponies poked their heads inside, curious about what all the commotion was about. Twilight smiled at them as best she could, for despite being confused and irritated she had a job to do. "Welcome to the Books and Branches Library. How can I help you today?" she greeted.
Both ponies looked to her and the cleared library before screaming and madly galloping away. The lavender mare could not help but groan and affix a hoof to her face in frustration. What the hay was everypony's problem!? After turning out the lights and shutting the door, the librarian left her home and decided that it would be most expedient to hunt down Spike. He probably stayed with Rarity or Applejack when Luna came back without her. Worst case scenario: she took him back to Canterlot.
Yet something troubled her in the back of her mind: something that told her that she had seen that particular mess in the library before, but not as dusty. Setting course for Sweet Apple Acres, she decided to push the thought out of her mind: Applejack would be sure to tell her just how long she had been gone and what exactly was happening all around her. She just had to!
Leaving the city limits, Twilight beheld a sight that made her groan in frustration. Her hooves clicked upon the surface of a cobblestone road, but the road to Sweet Apple Acres had always been unpaved. Since when did the city or the Apple family purchase a new road to link the farm with the community? If the sight at the library told her anything, it was that whatever happened with the Pool of Midnight made her lose more time than just a few hours or days.
In fact, as she walked the city streets just a few minutes ago, ponies she knew as fillies and colts looked almost completely grown! Of course, the townsponies of Ponyville tended to resemble one another, so she prayed she was mistaken. Perhaps, just perhaps it was all some sort of illusion brought about by unconscious stress?
Sadly, the very notion that she could be unconsciously stressed threw her for a loop. If she could experience such a thing, who was to say she did not hallucinate all the time and not even know it? Could everything around her just be the result of another attempt by her golem nature to make her out as a monster? Or was there something much more sinister lurking in the depths? She had no idea if SHE could be responsible, but the unicorn would not put it past her to try something like that for the attention.
"Okay, I'm on to you," she thought aloud as she walked down the wooded path. "Obviously you're messing around with me. Well, I'm not going to let you do it this time. I now know that I can't trust any of my senses, so your little game is at an end." However, most distressing of all, there came no reply from the little voice in the back of her head. In fact, she had not heard a peep out of her after she woke up in the basin of the pool.
"Fine, be that way," she finished, the gates to Sweet Apple Acres in sight. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, she might find a clue to where the baby dragon was. However, as she drew closer to the hanging sign over the arch, she saw a newer, whiter sign hanging under it, reading, 'Authorized Ponies Only!' Obviously, Applejack got tired of strangers wandering onto her farm, so she added a little written warning.
Since she was a good friend of the workhorse, she promptly ignored the sign. The cobbles turned back into soft dirt, which soothed the librarian's nerves just a little bit. It looked like that voice finally got the message and stayed in the darker recesses of her brain where it rightfully belonged. Twilight inhaled the enticing scent of fresh apples hanging on the trees. If she did not know that Applejack had a sore spot for ponies helping themselves, she would have done so.
Resisting temptation, the mare happily trotted up the winding road to the Apple family homestead, looking around occasionally to see if she could catch AJ in the middle of bucking a tree. It annoyed her sometimes, but she was always ready to do her best to aid a friend. If any pony needed help right in that instant, it would be Twilight. However, she did not expect the sight that awaited her around the next bend.
Ponies were hard at work bucking the apple trees and tending to other plants the farm grew, if only to not be so specialized if the bottom ever fell out of apples. Not a single member of the Apple family was out in the fields: not even little Applebloom or Granny Smith. Thankfully, the lavender mare recognized many of the present workers as citizens of Ponyville. Obviously, they finally decided to get some help around the farm.
One of the mares working had a yellow coat and orange mane with the mark of a carrot on her flank. This surprised Twilight a little bit, since she thought she made a living off of selling her home-grown carrots in the market. The scholar quietly approached the pony, who was rigging herself up to a big plough, before greeting her. "Hi, Carrot Top," she smiled. "What are you doing here? I thought you grew your own crops?"
To say the yellow mare jumped, once she saw who spoke to her, would be about as big an understatement as saying Nightmare Moon was not nice. A look of sheer terror raced across her features, causing her to babble incoherently. "Um..." Twilight trailed, "Are you okay? I mean, do you need a glass of water, or a break or something?"
"No!" she cried suddenly, tears welling up in her eyes. "I'll do it! I'll do it! Just please, don't! PLEASE! I... I can do the work, just like I said!" The lavender mare felt her mouth open in surprise, having no clue in the slightest what the skittish mare was talking about. However, before she could close her mouth, the orange mare raced down the field with the plough in tow. Twilight did not know for sure, but she could have sworn she beat the all-time record for ploughing a field.
With that... interesting meeting out of the way, she continued on to the farmhouse on the top of the nearby hill. Strangely absent was the wafting smell of baked apple pies cooling on the window sill. Then again, it might prove a distraction for the workers, so she paid it no real attention. Also absent, she noted, was Granny Smith's rocking chair from the porch. She did a double take to make sure she was seeing things right before she opened the door with her magic.
Inside, several colts and stallions sat behind desks, writing out reports and giving orders to workers on the field through some magical horn on the wall. It took them many moments for the staff (no pony she recognized among them) to acknowledge her existence. When they did, everything ground to a halt: all eyes upon her, widened in that usual look of terror she found herself disturbingly becoming accustomed to.
"What the hay is going on down there!?" called the gruff voice of a stallion from upstairs. He was an older colt with a slate grey coat and a greying black mane. Twilight gasped the instant she recognized him as Brittle Lullaby: the former director of the Foal Protection Services. "You! What are you doing here, Missy? Are you a new hired hoof?" The mare shook her head 'no,' more surprised that he did not recognize her on the spot.
"I'm looking for Applejack. Have you seen her around?" she managed to voice.
"Applejack!? Do I look like I associate with wanted felons, Missy?" he answered impatiently. "You're on government property! If you have no business here, then kindly get the buck out before I have you arrested for trespassing!"
"W-wanted felon!? G-government property!?" she needed answers right then and there. However, before she could demand them, two burly earth pony stallions flanked her and shoved her out the door. Her mind reeled as they roughly escorted her off the farm, too wrapped up in thought to be able to form a coherent sentence. The stallions shoved her beyond the arch, forcing her to the ground before shutting the gate.
"Sorry about the roughhousing, ma'am," one of them apologized. "We're just acting under orders. Please, don't come back, or else you'll get the boss really upset." With that, they turned away, leaving the mare to pick herself up and dust off the dirt on the cobblestone street. All concepts of the situation being an illusion vanished from her mind in that instance. If SHE really wanted to upset Twilight, she would have done something less subtle to Applejack than make her a wanted criminal!
Her mind groaned desperately as she tried to figure out what the hay was going on around her. She ruled out being dead, and she ruled out a psychotic episode brought about by stress (either conscious or subconscious). So, what exactly did that leave? Eliminate all the possibilities and whatever remained, however unlikely, must be the truth! Or so Shetland Stables, her favourite fictional detective, would reason.
Ah well, it was unlikely she was going to find Spike at Sweet Apple Acres anyway. Although this new information disturbed her, she needed to find her draconic assistant so she could write to Princess Celestia and ask what was going on. If anypony had answers, it would be her, and she would be happy to oblige her star student, the pony she created with her own hooves and magic.
Down the path to town, she decided to take a detour through the meadow Fluttershy lived in before heading to Carousel Boutique. She could have used some of the gentle Pegasus' homemade lemon tea at that moment, since it always managed to calm her nerves down, even during the height of her last episode. However, the closer she got to the burrow of a home, the sooner she realized it too lay abandoned, just like her library.
Through the glass she could see traces of vines and dirt on the floor, tracked in from wild animals as they scampered about. Everything was dark and dusty where wood had not began to rot, holes in the ceiling exposing the interior to the elements. Even the bird houses and little docks looked dilapidated. Worst of all, Angel was nowhere to be seen either, which served as the crippling blow to all hopes Twilight had that she still was in the area.
Sighing, the lavender mare started back on course to her new destination. Rarity would surely never abandon her boutique, nor would she do something to be labelled as a criminal... except for that time she assaulted Prince Blueblood, but that was an isolated incident. Although the princess wrote that she personally stopped him from pressing charges, now that she thought about it.
Twilight shook her head again, causing stars to dance across her vision as she did it with a little more vigour than she intended. Pausing for a break, she noticed the spire of the boutique peak over the trees and other buildings that lined the edge of the town. She quickened her pace to a light canter in order to see Rarity all the faster. However, she stopped dead as soon as the door became visible.
The lights inside were dark and some of the windows boarded up, other smashed in. Yet, the thing that really upset Twilight the most was the blatant graffiti upon the wall of the once pristine building. All sorts of colours and violent symbols covered the alabaster walls, painting it a sickening slurry of colours that would make even the athletic Pegasus sick.
As well, slogans adorned the graffiti, phrases like 'Buck the Queen!' and 'The Crusaders 4ever!' blanketed over most of the filth that was the lower floor. The unicorn found she could not move or think. Three of her friends were nowhere to be seen, leaving no trace or clue of where they could have gone behind. It was almost as if these buildings were a metaphor for how she felt in that instant: abandoned and dilapidated.
"Twilight!" came an excited scream and a blur of greyish-purple. The unicorn was blindsided by an invisible force, upon the grass before she even knew it. A crushing force rested on her ribcage, restricting her breathing to an uncomfortable degree. She tried to call out in aid, yet she could not speak, for the air had been stolen from her lungs.
"Get off of her, or you'll kill her, you dodo!" spoke a second voice, chastising the blur. The first voice giggled sheepishly and apologized, getting off of the lavender mare as swiftly as she descended upon her. Twilight picked herself off the ground and groaned in pain, shaking her head as a vision of four mares appeared before her.
One was an orange Pegasus with a mane a little deeper in colour than the librarian's coat. In front of her stood a purplish-grey unicorn with a blond mane, flanked by two others. On her right was a second unicorn, this time with an alabaster coat and a two-tone mane of light purple and pink. On her left, there sat a grinning yellow earth pony with a rosy mane and a tattered (and slightly burned) Stetson on her head.
"G-girls!?" Twilight gasped at the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Each one stood equal to her in height, no longer little fillies, but fully-grown (if still young) mares! Tears began to well up in her eyes as she realized just how long she must have been gone for. "Oh, Sweet Celestia," she breathed as realization hit, causing her to fall to her haunches. She ran a hoof up to her head, mind swimming at all the implications this had.
"Ah told ya she'd take it a mite hard," Applebloom sighed. "Remember ah said she'd be like this when she came home?"
"... When who'd be like what?" Sweetie Belle asked. The rest of the mares groaned and applied hooves to their faces.
"Don't worry about it, Sweetie," Dinky Hooves sighed. "She said it when we first created the Crusaders, so it's not that bad if you forgot about it."
"Still, I'm not surprised. You'd forget your horn if it weren't glued to your head!" Scootaloo remarked. "Now, that only leaves YOU, Twilight Sparkle! What the Sorrel Hells gives you the right to run off like you did!? WHY DID YOU ABANDON US FOR ALL THIS TIME!?"
"Girls!" Twilight cried out, snapping herself out of the dizzy spell. "What happened here? You're the only ponies who recognize me, but don't run off screaming! I have no clue where most of my friends are, and I'm confused as all hells as to what is going on! Don't you DARE yell at me like this is all my fault!"
The mares looked between each other apprehensively, not quite expecting that reaction from their first confrontation. They communicated in silence, speaking only with their eyes before turning to the lavender pony, sympathy etched on their features. They all nodded in agreement, before Sweetie Belle spoke, "You'd better come with us, Twilight."
Surrounded by the four mares, Twilight found herself being led through the streets of Ponyville, able to quickly discern their destination as Sugarcube Corner. As they walked, however, the librarian found herself curious and looked at their flanks. Surely, if this was all a bad dream, or hallucination, they would not have their marks yet.
However, upon inspection, she found that they did indeed earn them. Sweetie Belles' had always been the most obvious talent of the group and her flank reflected it with a large blue songbird with a musical note in front of its beak. Scootaloo, however, had a flaming scooter on hers that matched hers to a tee, although it was quite the sight to see the Pegasus flying... and so comfortable around her. Applebloom's mark, meanwhile, was that of a hammer covered by an apple blossom, almost obscuring the hammer itself from sight. Finally, and most enigmatic of all was Dinky's mark. It looked like a spider web connected with bubbles, but absent a spider.
As much as she gave attention to their marks, they gave equal scrutiny to hers, even going as far as to touch and rub her flank. "Girls, what are you doing!?" she blushed when they started on her. "That's not a very appropriate place to touch, especially in public!"
"Sorry, Twi," Applebloom apologized, pulling her hoof away. "We just had ta make sure it wasn't a sticker or something. Sure, we know magic can't change or make a Cutie Mark appear, but that don't stop ponies from tryin' to alter them with other means!"
"It's a security thing, Twilight," Dinky explained. "Your mark is similar to another pony's is all. You'll... find out sooner or later that there are, well, rumours about you."
"I know there are. I overhead some ponies talking while at that camp in the Everfree Forest," Twilight explained. "I just don't know WHAT they are."
"It won't take long for you to hear them. Just trust us, and we'll tell you... after we explain some things. For now, just keep quiet," Sweetie Belle spoke as they walked up the steps into the bakery.
Sugarcube Corner was just how the librarian left it, although maybe not quite as lively and mirthful as it once was. Twilight felt compelled to ask, even if she had a suspicion what the answer might be. "Is Pinkie still..." They all shook their heads 'no.' "Well, do you know whe--" Again, they shook their heads. Twilight bit her lip as Mr and Mrs Cake came into sight, ignoring the five mares quite blatantly.
Sweetie Belle stepped forward to a specific place on the floor, tapping her hooves on the ground in a rhythm the librarian was unfamiliar with. At first, she had no idea why she would do such a thing, until the floor in front of her sparkled and glowed, the floorboards vanished as a stone staircase appeared in front of them. They had to nudge her forward at first, but Twilight swiftly followed the white unicorn down the proverbial rabbit hole.
The corridor was narrow and dark, winding down in a spiral deep into the bowls of the earth. Applebloom quickly took the lead and deactivated traps she had constructed along the way. Their hoofsteps echoed off of the walls as they made their way down the sloping passage. Upon reaching the bottom, the passage widened greatly, branching off down other halls, each lined with dozens of doors.
Twisting and turning down several passages, the five mares found themselves before a set of wooden double doors. No latch or knob was visible, and she could see hints of Mythril on the surface of the door, meaning magic would not open it. Where Runite would hurt a pony that used magic near it, Mythril would absorb and dispel it in a purple glow. She looked to each of the other ponies, none of them making a move. "So... now what?" Twilight asked.
"Oh, right!" Scootaloo spoke. "Dinky and Sweetie enchanted the door so that it will only open for eleven ponies. You're one of them. All you have to do is walk up to it, and place your hoof on the door for it to open!"
"Oh...kay," she trailed. Twilight approached the door with some apprehension, placing her hoof on a strange symbol: a rearing earth pony filly on an elegant background. As soon as she placed it, a buzz rang through the stone hall, a click allowing the door to move under the pressure she exerted. The lavender mare gasped as the doors opened, a single large torch illuminating the room.
A large circular table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by eleven chairs, each piece of furniture made of highly polished black wood. On the opposite wall, there hung a map of Equestria, dotted with drawings of various colours, arrows, and symbols to represent things that eluded her. However, upon the chairs, she could not help but notice that each was topped by a symbol.
Three diamonds, three apples, three butterflies, a cloud with a bolt of lightning, three balloons, a six-point star surrounded by five smaller ones, a star-tipped wand against a crescent moon, a flaming scooter, an apple blossom in front of a hammer and a songbird with a note near its beak. However, the final chair had a two-fold symbol: a string of seven bubbles with a web of several connected bubbles underneath. Each chair represented a Cutie Mark of one of her friends, one of the Crusaders, or her sister.
In front of each spot sat a small raised semi circle, with a larger one in the middle of the table. The other mares took their seats in their respective chars, Twilight sitting at hers after brushing the dust off with her tail. "Let's start at the beginning," Dinky broke the silence. "When you left Ponyville, after you discovered that you are a golem, Equestria fell on some rather hard times. You see, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna disappeared and in their place, a new Alicorn ascended to the throne."
"And... nopony has seen me since?" Twilight asked: her eyes wide in horror. How did they even know she was a golem? Only her six closest friends ever knew about it! "Wait... how do you know I'm a..."
"Our sisters and their friends told us," Applebloom chimed in.
"Exactly, nopony has seen you since the fire," continued Sweetie Belle. "We do not speak her name for all the terrible acts she has committed against our nation. This alicorn has killed so many of our friends, hundreds of animals and other ponies.... and the princesses themselves! She controls both sun and moon and has driven our nation into the ground! It doesn't help that she angered both the dragons and the griffons either! We are the ponies who seek to destroy her evil and remove the temptation to control the heavenly bodies."
"H-how long?" the librarian breathed. "How long has it been since that day?"
"Ten years," the orange Pegasus replied. "In ten years, she has killed them all and plunged our country into WAR!" The table shook from the strike of the hoof upon it. Silence filled the room for a couple of moments before she spoke once more. "The Queen has to be stopped and you, Twilight, are the key."
"She means," Applebloom said, "That yer the only pony with enough magical power ta even pose a threat to 'er. Ah mean you did study under Princess Celestia as her prized student. She must 'ave taught ya a few tricks!"
All their words washed over her. Ten years... ten years since the Ponyville fire... but no pony had seen her again since then? The good news was that she had not pissed off Princess Luna with her curiosity... but as much as that soothed her nerves, it only stood to pose more questions than what they answered. Only then did another question come before her mind, something she needed answered before she could be at peace.
"What happened to my friends?"
The four mares looked to each other once more before casting their glances back to their long-awaited friend. "We had a... falling out," replied Dinky. "Rarity and Rainbow Dash were... taken from us and after that we just sort of fell apart. The Crusaders used to be a unified front, but now we are divided. Applejack and her big brother rallied together the Apple Clan, Fluttershy and Zecora founded the Everfree Movement, and Pinkie created... the Party Poppers."
A visible shudder filtered through the four crusaders at the very mention of the last one. "What do you mean by Rarity and Rainbow being... taken from you?" Twilight asked. She immediately dreaded the answer as soon as a look of sadness swept across their faces. All eyes faced Sweetie Belle as she ignited her horn, and chanted the somber tale for all present to hear.