Every stretch she covered was new. The land stretched interminably on, flooded with vivid green grass like an ocean without water. Bright flowers dotted everything, not quite wilting from the heat, and every here and there a tree broke the flat surface with great leafy boughs that reached toward the sun. Nothing stirred but the breath of the wind.
It was at the edge of this meadow that Twilight Sparkle paused. She stood there, allowing the weight of her saddlebags to settle and press down on her back. Her wings shuffled, giving a tentative flap as if preparing to take off, but after a moment they folded again in reluctance. Biting her lip, she turned around and faced south, looking back at familiar territory for the last time.
Canterlot Mountain was only a pitiful pebble at this distance. She could see the glint of the palace as its spires of glass and marble reflected bright afternoon sunlight, glimmering like a star even in the daytime. Thin wisps of cloud stretched above the grand city, taunting its unseen residents with the remote possibility of rain. Closer lay a landscape of rolling hills, and a sparse scattering of deciduous trees was closer still.
From one of these trees a small winged shape flitted, darting up into the air as it headed in the direction of a rippling stream. The bird dipped and dived, vanishing into the water with only a brief disturbance of the surface.
Twilight held her breath.
There was a great splash and a smattering of wings, and then the bird lifted itself from the shallows, dripping as hard as rain. Clamped in its claws was a struggling figure, a fish. Its tail flopped violently to and fro, but the bird's beak sliced down with a sudden peck, and the prey went still.
The bird soared back to its nest, flapping its wings awkwardly in its best efforts to stay balanced in the air with its fresh new meal. When it arrived, it shook itself heartily and scattered water droplets from its feathers like a cloud of glistening mist. Then it ate, though the details were obscured by distance.
Twilight blinked. Her mouth opened slightly, but only a grunt escaped her lips. A hoof scuffed against the grass, and her body trembled in an effort to be still. Lavender limbs tensed, but she did not bolt in the direction from which she had come. A passing rabbit paused to stare at her indecision, then continued quickly on its way as instinct trumped curiosity.
She stood that way for several seconds; then, sighing deeply, she turned sharply around again. With her back now to Canterlot Mountain, she stared ahead at the place where earth met sky, judging the distance. Her eyes watered, but she squeezed them shut and dismissed the tears. Her mane slapped against her neck as she shook her head sharply, as if dislodging her thoughts.
When her eyes opened again, they were still fixed on the horizon, but this time they were narrowed. Her jaw clenched in determination. Her hoof scuffed the grass again, but now it was an aggressive gesture, daring the world to do its worst.
She leapt into the wind, and this time she didn't fight her wings as they snapped open to embrace the sky. Strong feathers caught the updraft, and she flapped her way to a reasonable height. Forehooves parted the air in front of her, lessening the resistance. Gradually she leveled out, and her flight path faltered briefly under her new feathered limbs, but she steadied herself with an extra flutter.
With ears pinned back, she left Equestria behind for good and soared into the endless blue.
The sun was leaning sharply towards her left when she angled towards the ground. Broad swaths of crimson and gold painted the sky, and her eyes were gradually adjusting to accommodate the change. She glanced down as she descended, noting that even at this height she could see the jagged eastward shadow of an alicorn growing slowly below.
Shaking herself from the distraction, she focused on her landing as she dipped and flared her wings. Pulling up slightly at the last minute, she stumbled a little when her hooves impacted against the grassy terrain. Automatically she glanced about with a sheepish look, before her ears drooped upon remembering that she was, in fact, alone.
With her throat clenched she surveyed her surroundings. She was standing not far from the edge of a vast forest, which stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see. The land sank into a shallow valley at the east, and the trees followed suit, creating the illusion of a rippling hollow within the forest. Bats fluttered in a loose flock from west to north — blue bats whose translucent wing membranes caught the light of the approaching sunset. She watched them go, and an aura of magic fiddled with the starburst-shaped clasp of a saddlebag, but she stopped herself before she could retrieve anything. This was not the time.
She took another glimpse over her shoulder before she could stop herself. The mountain was nowhere in sight, of course. Only fields and meadows met her gaze, seeming to multiply the distance separating her from her home with every passing second. Biting her lip, she returned her attention to the forest, tapping her chin in thought.
One of the trees, a towering oak, seemed to beckon to her with its gnarled branches. She considered this for a moment, then walked in that direction, occasionally using her aching wings to steady herself. Her eyelids drooped, but she forced herself to keep awake. The time for sleep would come soon enough.
As she approached she fluttered lightly into the air, settling upon a sturdy bough just high enough to avoid the reach of the beasts of these woods. The flaps of her saddlebags glowed gently and opened, allowing a tight bedroll to float from within. Dusting off her new sleeping spot, she unrolled the fabric so that it lay halfway propped up against the thick trunk of the tree. A lengthy rope came next, wrapping loosely around the bedroll in a lengthy spiral from end to end. She tied the rope to the foot of the bedroll, then stepped back slightly and scrutinized her work before nodding in satisfaction. This was not yet secure, but that could easily be fixed.
The saddlebags opened again, now yielding a rather flattened daisy sandwich. Twilight took an eager bite, and was instantly rewarded with a rush of gentle flavor. Her cheeks bulged, but she bit into her food again, and then again, until all of it had been crammed into her mouth. A low moan escaped her as she welcomed the nutrients her body craved, though her cheeks flushed at the thought of the sight she must be making.
While she chewed, she fished around in her bags a third time, producing a waterskin and a small mechanical contraption. The latter of these she examined critically, as if for the first time. It was a rectangular lavender machine, half of which was covered by a darkened screen. The other half was emblazoned with a peculiar symbol: a circle within a much larger circle, which was divided in half with a thick black line.
She swallowed hard and sipped at her water as she slid the machine open, revealing a larger screen that lit up at the motion. Now words met her inquisitive gaze, hinting at vast stores of information that had yet to be plumbed. A bar across the top bore her name, but otherwise the electronic encyclopedia was far from customized, displaying its contents in an orderly but unengaging fashion.
Twilight nodded and slid it shut again, returning it to the safety of her saddlebags; these she clutched with her magic as she crept into her bedroll and under the rope. A violet glow tightened the latter, and soon she was nestled snugly in a woolen embrace. She lay there on her back with wings half stretched, staring up through the leafy canopy of the old oak and into the darkening sky. To the east the moon peeked over the horizon, and here and there a star winked into view.
She sighed and closed her eyes, listening to the songs of the crickets as she drifted into a realm of slumber. Soon the regular rhythm of breathing joined the chorus of the night, and the moon traced its way through the sky overhead like an unseeing eye.
Morning dawned, and Twilight felt it. As soon as rays of golden sunlight stroked her cheek, her eyes slid open and took in the sight of the land around her. Not much had changed; a quick look at the ground confirmed that no carnivorous monsters had left their tracks the previous night. Around her, broad green leaves fluttered in the breeze. All was quiet.
Yawning, she loosened the rope and wriggled her way out of the bedroll. She stretched like a cat, spreading her wings as wide as they could go. One of her hooves nearly slipped off of the branch, but she caught herself before she could fall. Straightening herself, she fished another sandwich from her saddlebags. Her eyes wandered across the scenery while she ate.
Under the pale sky lay line upon line of trees. A light fog hung over the fields, creeping into the forest like an ill omen. In the distance, a dark shape stepped into view, paused, then slipped back into obscurity. Bird calls echoed, sending a shiver up the young alicorn's spine. Quietly she repacked her bedroll, celebrating its return to her saddlebags with a swig of water.
The nocturnal wildlife were still settling for their rest. Here and there a squirrel scurried from branch to branch. Some of these were mundane, brown furred and beady eyed. Their tufted ears flicked at every sound. Others were larger mammals, coated in black and white and yellow; folds of furry skin connected hands and feet, allowing them to occasionally leap into the air and glide a fair distance. One of them glanced her way, and she caught an unusual glimmer of intelligence in its eyes before it ducked into a hollow in the side of a tree.
Then a giant leaf smacked her in the face.
Sputtering, she jerked to the side and wielded her half-eaten sandwich like a weapon, trying to keep her sights set on the offending greenery. Nevertheless it whipped out of sight, leaving her glancing about in bemusement. Only more leaves met her wandering eyes, which further raised her concern. Reaching out with her magic, she rustled through each bunch of leaves, ready to grab the offender if it dared reveal itself.
Fwap! Her concentration was nearly broken when something flat and green impacted with her horn. Growling, she turned her focus upward … and received a jab to the eye for her trouble. Her hooves scraped against the branch as she reeled back, hissing a curse. Whatever it was, it hadn't actually injured her; the attack was more of a surprise than anything. Naturally, that was not about to prevent her from dealing out righteous vengeance.
Her horn lit up, but then she paused, frowning. The outline of a force field, which shimmered faintly in the morning air, dissipated back into nothingness. Instead she settled for sighing theatrically and directing a very pointed gaze into the distance, all while keeping her ears pricked.
The light whoosh of movement gave her half a second's warning. But it was enough. A field of magic snapped around the attacker, preventing it from colliding with the back of her head. A grin spread across her face as she brought the mysterious creature around to get a good look at it for once.
The creature in question was reptilian, that much was certain. It vaguely resembled a fat snake, if that snake happened to have four stubby limbs and a pointed snout. A familiar three-pointed leaf, as large as the rest of its body, swished irritably at the end of its tail. Twilight found her faith in color association tested as she met its chilly red gaze; they stood out starkly against an otherwise mild palette of green, yellow, and white.
The plant snake didn't struggle, but she wasn't sure she liked the look in its eyes. She kept her own eyes fixed on the little monster while she fished around in her saddlebags, soon retrieving her little machine and pointing it in the creature's direction. After a few seconds, the snake's image appeared on the screen, alongside a similar image of another snake staring haughtily outward.
Snivy, read the first words underneath those pictures. The Grass Snake Pokemon. This specimen is male, and it possesses the ability Overgrow. Noted for their tendency to travel in broods, Snivy are cold-blooded reptilian Pokemon who mainly obtain their energy from photosynthesis. While they have a reputation as a haughty species, those who earn their trust can surely find themselves in a beneficial relationship, provided that …
As she read, Twilight couldn't help but smile. She sat down to more intently scroll through the information, absorbing it greedily. When she reached the end of the entry, her eyes softened, and she returned her attention to the Pokémon with newfound interest.
The snake — the Snivy — had folded its arms and was now staring into space crossly. Upon noticing that Twilight had taken on a new expression of curiosity, it — he — rolled his eyes and scowled. When she produced something new from her saddlebags, however, his eyes widened.
It was a tiny sphere, half red and half white. On its front it bore a button, which, when pressed, caused it to expand by a considerable amount. Looking pleased at this, Twilight lifted the Poké Ball and presented it to the Snivy; he violently attempted to remove himself from her magic as the device got closer.
"You don't have to be afraid," she assured him.
He appeared unconvinced. She lowered him carefully, making sure not to make any sudden movements, and set him down upon the branch. Once freed, he immediately bolted up the trunk and out of sight, not giving her a second glance.
Twilight blinked. She stared after him for a moment, then looked at the Poké Ball and sighed. Turning it over several times in her magic, she examined it from every angle, as if searching its polished surface for an answer to an unspoken question. When no such answer was forthcoming, she shrunk it and returned it to her saddlebags, then finished off her sandwich, carefully rolled her bedroll into a tight bundle, and packed it and the rope away. This process was unusually slow, but despite her waiting, the Snivy did not reappear.
As she slung her saddlebags across her back, she cast another look up into the shadows where Snivy had vanished. No glint of red eyes could be seen within. Still she waited, and the sun began to creep up in the east, flooding the sky with color. Time passed, and nothing stepped forth. She shook her head, turned away reluctantly, and took off into the waiting air, leaving the towering oak behind as she sailed off into the north.
The meadows to the south soon fell out of sight as Twilight soared over the forest. Trees stretched in every direction as far as she could see, which was starting to become a considerable distance; sunlight was burning away the fog in earnest now that noon was approaching. From above, needles and leaves merged together in a vast panorama of jade-colored plant life, rolling beneath her as hills appeared, approached, and slipped quietly into the south.
The sun was almost directly overhead when she suddenly caught a glimpse of something sparkling in the distance. Squinting at the sudden glare, she averted her eyes to avoid blinding herself, though she was forced to blink rapidly in an effort to erase the afterimages that were seared into her vision. This would not do.
Her horn lit almost automatically, and she began to weave a spell that set her eyes glowing. Seconds into the endeavor, she halted, both in her spellwork and her flight, kept aloft only by a constant flutter of her wings. Eyes wide, she quickly undid the work her magic had just accomplished, leaving her eyes vulnerable to the flare of light once more. Instead she consulted her trusted saddlebags and, after some rummaging, retrieved a blocky pair of glasses. These she slid onto her face, where they were held firmly in place by tight earpieces. In the intensity of the light, she could see a faint suggestion of the enchantment already woven into the lenses, but their effect was more quickly noticeable by the way it shielded her vision.
Satisfied, she slipped its case back into her belongings and resumed her flight forward. Again the forest rolled by, rising and falling gently as if the land itself were stirring from its endless slumber.
What had blinded her before turned out to be a stream, which trickled merrily past between sunny banks as it twisted and turned and vanished into the horizon. Adjusting her flight slightly to descend a few feet, Twilight noted that it was flowing south before making a sweeping curve to the west. Following it with her gaze, she noted something sparkling in the far, far distance, presumably a more sedate body of water. The corner of her mouth tugged upwards as she focused instead on the moving water, angling her wings slightly so that she was soon flying towards the unknown source of its rapids.
The rush of the stream under her hooves, together with the rush of wind in her ears, was the only sound she could hear. Everything was perfectly still. Occasionally a bird made itself heard, but this was the only indicator that Twilight wasn't the only creature alive for miles.
Soon the trees began to thin, and Twilight thought she could catch a glimpse every now and then of some sneaking shape below, but the afternoon shadows were too deep to tell from the air. Far to the northwest a mountain peaked into view, then another beyond that.
Twilight sniffed. Only now that it was falling behind did she realize that the scent of pine had been so strong in this area, leaving the smell of fresh water to dominate in its stead. Suddenly mischievous, she angled herself sharply downward and the wind shrieked for several seconds as she plummeted. The water rushed up to meet her, and it was only by tilting her wings at the last second that she was able to pull out of her dive. Her hooves slapped against the surface, splattering her in a sudden chill, and she giggled at the sudden wakefulness that accompanied her slight shower.
She flew like this for a while, looking down into the shallows to watch the occasional fish swim by. When she at last ascended again, the air pressed against her soaked coat in an almost arctic chill. Shivering but smiling, she continued to follow the path of the stream as its weaving body led her further north, further into the unknown.
The sun was beginning to set when Twilight landed at last, in a not entirely graceful manner. Huffing at almost tripping over her own hooves, she shook herself back to some degree of dignity and peered about in an effort to take in her surroundings. Now that she had been swallowed up by the forest, a feeling of not-entirely-unpleasant claustrophobia began to steep into her mind. She removed her glasses and was about to make camp where she stood, when something black and pointy caught her eye, pulling her attention away from the rest that her wings were crying out for.
Frowning slightly, she made her way past trees and bushes as she headed northwest to investigate. The stream met her gaze whenever she looked back, assuring her that it wasn't about to get up and walk away. Her neurotic habit was quickly cured when her lack of focus caused her to trip again, sending her sprawling in the dirt like a downed eagle. She lay there for a moment, clearly unamused, before pointedly picking herself up and continuing on her way as if nothing had happened.
Upon drawing near the object of her interest, her gait slowed down to a series of uncertain steps. The black object had resolved itself into a crumbling pile of iron and wood, but it still took her a while to realize that this was what remained of an old train station. A look at the track leading away to the south confirmed the identity of the ruin. The rails were scattered here and there, certainly, but the ties set deep into the foundation of the track were unmistakable.
Her ears perked, but then drooped. Uncertain how to react, she compromised by walking over to the haphazard structure, though she made certain not to get too close. Even now, flakes of rust were falling gently from lampposts, settling in discolored piles on a platform that reeked of mildew. Still, life bloomed in the form of crawling vines, which had seemingly taken hold of this place for years at least.
The track leading north from the station abruptly halted just yards away, crumpled into a twisted mess that ended abruptly, as if the wood and metal had been simply torn away. It stood grim and menacing, like a wall of gnarled brambles. She stared off after the path that the track was supposed to take, and pressed her lips together grimly.
A tarnished sign stood close to the tangle of wood and metal, displaying words whose cheeriness was rather diminished by layers of grime. Weigh Station! it read. Next Stop: the Crystal Empire, 25 Miles!
Twilight burst out laughing.
She collapsed onto the ground, striking the grass with a hoof as she hooted with amusement. It wasn't for very long; the guffaws died down into giggles soon enough. But it occurred nevertheless. Wiping a tear from her eye, she snorted and stared at the sign for a while with a look of mild disdain. The sign failed to change in any way, so she shrugged and settled down where she lay, not bothering to find a more comfortable area.
When the saddlebags came off, only the physical weight was taken off of her shoulders. She sighed, and the grin slid off her face, only to be replaced with a look of concern. Without looking she retrieved the bedroll and laid it out, forgoing the rope this time; after she had left the forest behind, she hadn't seen a single animal, Pokémon or otherwise, of any more concern than a few twittering birds. No need to hide in a tree tonight.
The sour stench of the decaying platform nearly killed her appetite. Nearly. She had to pinch her nose while eating her sandwich, but that was a small price to pay. If it deterred predators, she was perfectly fine with its minor setbacks.
Stars were emerging in the dimming sky when she crawled into her waiting bedroll, curling up so that her hooves were tucked snugly against her chest. She stared off into space, pondering on the reach of distance, while above the lonely moon slid westward.
Eventually she drifted off, lulled by the music of chittering bats, and stillness crept across the terrain like an icy fog.
An unstoppable torrent of magic —
Twilight bolted upright, gasping. Her heart hammered painfully in her chest as she panted, staring into the dim dawn without seeing. Gradually her eyes focused and she relaxed, though she shivered; sweat beaded her coat, and her exposed wings caught the light breeze, quickly turning unpleasantly cold.
She took in her surroundings. The moonlit sky was just light enough to see the surrounding silhouettes of trees. Overhead, stars twinkled through the outstretched branches, little more than cold pinpricks of light flickering in the darkness above. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance, then trailed off into silence.
Silence. She listened harder, pricking her ears. Normally the lull of insects' song wasn't so noticeable, but in its absence she felt a hole in the world, threatening to swallow everything simply by its lack of existence. As if to compensate, the stench of the decaying platform was worse than ever, threatening to bring tears to her eyes.
A tingling feeling alerted her to the hairs standing up on her neck. Without a word, she slipped out of her bedroll, gathered her things, and loaded up her saddlebags as quietly as possible. A swish accompanied every movement as her hooves brushed against the grass. It only took a minute, but every second she felt as if the trees were closing in on her, their comforting proximity turning into strangulation.
Her eyelids were heavy, but her tired body was no obstacle for an alicorn's magic. When she was finally ready, she stood in place for a minute, letting herself take in the forest from within for the last time. It was a strange place, but for all that, it was still closer to Equestria than anything she would face later.
Her throat clenched. The swishing noise hadn't stopped.
Violet eyes flitted toward the platform. Only angular blackness looked back. They stared at each other, as if daring the other to make a move, but the stillness continued. Yet the swishing continued.
Twilight shook herself. Her wings flared, her muscles tensed, and with a powerful flap she took off into the night sky.
The thinning forest looked very different in the darkness. Without the sun to light the treetops, the shadowy trees seemed like gnarled hands bursting from the earth, frozen in time by a fickle force. River water glinted to the northeast, so she flew toward that reflective landmark, trying to ignore the sharpness of the mountains in the northwest.
Not until she had put a good amount of distance behind her did she look back. Beyond her tail, the trees covered the landscape as far as she could see. No bats fluttered into the open air from below, Pokémon or otherwise. Only a light breeze blew.
She exhaled sharply through her nose, but despite her annoyance she remained steady in the air. In the far, far distance, the large body of water beckoned enticingly, a perfect picture of silvery stillness. There seemed to be nothing to do but answer that siren call, so she turned toward it once she had reached the river and continued on.
It was going to be a long night. Suppressing a grumble, she rummaged through her saddlebags for her waterskin, but she froze as her magic brushed over something unfamiliar. It was only when gravity began to take hold that she reasserted her position in the air, now reminded that her wings were not to be ignored in times like these.
Once she was certain she was not about to fall, she pulled the mysterious thing from her bags. A green ball emerged into the moonlight, tinted faintly silver there. She turned it over a few times, puzzling over how this could have ended up in her possession. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she mulled over the past few days, but nothing she'd seen in that time resembled this irregular sphere. Nothing except —
Two eyes slitted open, glaring crimson from their upside-down vantage point.
Twilight stared. The Snivy stared back. Only wingbeats prevented an uncomfortable silence from settling.
"... Sorry," Twilight managed to say. The flap of her bags opened, and she slipped the reptile into their confines again. There was probably a better response she could have come up with, but it was too late — or too early — to do so.
She would think about these implications when the sun came up. For now, there was little to do but fly … but even as she left the trees behind, a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.