Disclaimer: I do not own My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic.
Chapter 1: Magic Mirror
It felt good to be back home.
Twilight Sparkle still caught herself thinking that when she happened to visit Canterlot, to her honest dismay. She had a cozy house in the nicest town in the nation, as perfect a home as a home could be, but it was hard to forget her roots. Whenever she returned to the city of her birth to visit her parents or the Princess or on some random business or another, she was hit with an overwhelming sense of longing. The smell of familiar magic in the air was too much for her. Magic was Twilight's talent, her passion, her life, and Canterlot was the capital of magic; it was as if they were created for each other. The notion always made her feel a little guilty, like she didn't appreciate what she had as much as she should have.
Twilight was in an open-air pavilion on top of one of Canterlot's taller towers. The Tower of the Horizon (as it was called) hung over the outer edge of the city, facing away from the mountain that it was built on, and offered a gorgeous view of the countryside. Equestria stretched forth before her, all the way to the horizon – woodlands and grasslands, lakes and rivers, hills and swamps, towns and hamlets, a thousand farms and fields and orchards for carrots and wheat and apples and everything else. Ponyville was there as well, or at least the silhouettes of its roofs were, there between the Lonely Mountain and the Everfree Forest. The land was covered in spring greens. It looked beautiful. Twilight had never paid much attention to the scenery while she'd still lived in the city, but now she was glad to soak in the sights.
The sky was blue and clear. Canterlot had always favored an open view of the heavens, conceding clouds for rain and snow only when they were truly necessary to maintain natural equilibrium. This was especially true on days of import like today. There would not be a single speck of white or gray in the sky, on the honor of the weather patrol.
It was quiet this far up. The hustle and bustle of the streets and the rush of the city's waterfalls were distant and muted. Twilight appreciated the calm. She closed her eyes and took a moment to enjoy the feeling of the afternoon sun on her coat. It was perfect to bask in. Canterlot was far above sea level; it was, in fact, the highest altitude non-pegasus settlement in Equestria. The sun was closer here, its presence more powerful, its rays almost tangible. It was warm, but not hot. Local climate spells kept the air in circulation, so there was always a pleasant breeze to be had.
Twilight felt someone step up next to her. She didn't even need to look to know it was Spike.
"Do you want some ice cream?" the dragon asked, "It was melting, so I had to take a few licks, but it's still good."
Twilight glanced down at him, and levitated the ice cream cone from his hand. It was chocolate, with peanut shavings. She happily took a lick.
"Thank you, Spike."
The taste was familiar to her. If she knew Spike – and she did – then he'd probably walked all the way to the Royal Palace to buy the ice cream from the same vendor that he'd frequented when they still lived in Canterlot. He was far from a picky eater, but most definitely a loyal customer. He enjoyed his homecoming as well, no doubt.
"So which do you like more," he asked, "Ponyville or Canterlot?"
"Oh, Spike," said Twilight, "You know there's no way I can answer that."
"So you don't want to move back here? At all? Not one tiny bit?"
"I didn't say that – of course I do. It would be great to be back. I could visit a different library every day and see the Princess whenever I wanted, and I wouldn't have to talk to mom and dad by letter. But I'd miss my friends." She instinctively glanced over her shoulder to check around for them. "It's been an hour since we split, and I miss them already."
There were a lot of other ponies in the pavilion now, peering off the edge of the tower, conversing with each other, killing time until the show. The Tower of the Horizon was wide enough for hundreds of spectators. An elaborate stage had been set up in the middle of the floor, on which a large rectangular stack covered with black velvet cloth featured prominently. Right next to it, there was a small platform with mats for the guests of honor to lie on.
Twilight had to finish off her ice cream in a hurry so she could greet the ponies she was familiar with – mostly teachers and librarians she happened to know, or else acquaintances of her parents. Quite a few of her fellow students at Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Youngsters were there for the exhibition as well, and she made sure to be extra friendly to them, to make up for her past irreverence. Most everyone there were academics. Spike climbed on her back and spoke his courtesies as well. One of the other gifted youngsters had a dragon companion of his own, standing beside him on all fours. The other dragon was of the winged kind, sharp and lean and the color of bronze. He was a few years older than Spike, at a guess, but they quickly got to talking. Twilight had to break it off when she saw her friends come up the stairs. They were all there: Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. She quickly made her excuses and galloped over to them.
"So, have you enjoyed your time at the Symposium so far, girls?"
"Oh, it's been a terrific experience!" burst out Rarity, "I truly thought I knew everything I needed to know about unicorn magic, but I found this wizard of a pony running a telekinesis workshop on Amalthea Avenue that gave me some inspiring tips for fine handling – at no charge! And I'll have you know, Rainbow Dash, that this gentlepony thought my perfume was lovely, not anything like a 'flowery industrial accident', so there!"
"It's been pretty interesting," admitted Applejack, "The demonstration for that quick-grow enchantment for plants they were advertising was mighty impressive, to take one example, though that sure was a lot of effort and preparation for one spell! The poor pony doing the casting nearly threw her hooves up once the deed was done. I don't think something like that could ever be economically feasible, thank grace. Besides, I'm not sure who'd want an eggplant thirty hooves high."
"Oh, ahem, I've had a wonderful time as well," said Fluttershy, "There's an entire square set aside for the study of foreign magic, did you know? Oh, sorry, of course you do. There were these nice scholars who talked about dragonflame and fairy-glamors and it was all very pleasant and peaceful. They even brought in this old griffon lady to demonstrate her powers. I think they called her one of the last remaining aeromancers..."
She'd barely finished when words positively exploded out of Pinkie Pie:
"Oh, it's been tons and tons and tons of fun, even the bits that weren't fun! All these stuffy, serious unicorns are so much fun once you loosen them up with a party, and it gets people a lot more involved with their work too! I especially liked that show where one unicorn created a magical double of himself – but I only liked it ironically, you know? I mean, why would you need a spell for that? But what I especially liked was those giant, pony-shaped mechanical contraptions they animated with the power of love! It's just too bad one of them went berserk and tried to destroy the city. Hmm, I'll have to remember that stomach growl, eye twitch, droopy ears, eye twitch means incoming rampage by giant thing. Don't worry though, the city wasn't destroyed! Me and Trixie – she's here too, I hope you know that! – went and borrowed the other robots and fought off the bad one, so everything turned out all right!"
Nopony quite knew what to say to that. While Twilight exchanged questioning looks with the others, Spike hastily leafed through his event guide.
"I don't think there's anything like giant robots in the program, Pinkie Pie," he said.
"Really? Well, maybe it was just all in my head then. That happens sometimes!"
Suppressing a chuckle, Twilight turned to the last member of their group.
"What about you, Rainbow Dash?" she asked.
"Meh," said Dash with a shrug, "Hate to say I told you so, but it's just been a bunch of boring talky stuff, just like I expected."
"Oh?" wondered Fluttershy, "But I thought you said you really liked that spell they invented to make walls and ceilings look like the sky outside? I hope I didn't misunderstand you."
"Well, yeah, there was that..."
"And that gravity-affecting device they came up with to help pegasus flight training?" asked Applejack, "Shoot, I thought for sure you'd love it."
"And I saw you giddy as a little filly watching that magically recorded puppet show," said Rarity.
"Okay, okay, okay!" exclaimed Dash, now flushed, "So the event's had its moments and I'm glad you took us along, Twilight."
"Hear, hear!" echoed the others, and Twilight had to smile.
In truth, Canterlot's Symposium of the Magical Arts was bittersweet for Twilight Sparkle this year. She had hoped to see a presentation of her own featured there, but things hadn't quite worked out. Her research exploring the effects of emotional states on teleportation spells had been very promising, but she'd been plagued by one interruption after another until she'd hopelessly lost her way with her work. By the time she had everything in order, it was already too late – which was rather embarrassing for someone who prided herself on being a good planner. Of course, nopony could blame her for the schedule slip after that bizarre body swap incident and the great Ponyville library heist...
Despite everything though, there was so much interesting magic at the Symposium that she couldn't help but have a good time. All the cutting edge magical research in Equestria was represented: there were shows and seminars and and readings and everything else. Some unicorns demonstrated newly invented spells, quite a few of which were still unpredictable and unworkable, while others presented forgotten magics they'd uncovered from forgotten literature. Hanging out with her friends in an intellectually stimulating environment was a perfect malady for disappointment.
"I'm glad you've had a good time," said Twilight, "but you've seen nothing yet. Princess Celestia tells me the final presentation is going to top everything else so far. They always save the most impressive experiments and most significant discoveries for the end. This one is directed by Brainy Bright, one of Equestria's leading magical theorists!"
For some reason, nobody looked quite as excited about hearing one of Equestria's leading magical theorists as she had expected.
Not long after that, the sound of trumpets blaring the first notes of the Equestrian anthem heralded the arrival of Princess Celestia and her entourage. They swooped into the pavilion from the air, some of them on their own wings and others in pegasus-drawn carriages. The group included a number of courtiers and government officials, and puzzlingly, they were flanked by an entire squad of royal guards. It was unheard of for the Princess to move with an escort even half that size. But that was no matter. Celestia herself was at the center, looking beautiful, dignified and – above all – constant. She never looked any different. Even though her shimmering mane waved as if it was caught in the wind, as soon as she put her hooves down, she became as firm and unyielding as a rock. She gazed around with half-lidded eyes and her usual mild smile, and to Twilight's great delight, she steered directly towards her.
Twilight would have liked nothing more than to trot right up to her and nuzzle her, but they were in public and certain procedures of formality had to be followed. She bowed like everyone else. Celestia received her as she would have received anyone else as well, but when she spoke, there was an extra dose of warmth in her voice that she reserved only for a select few.
"Twilight Sparkle! You've grown since the last time I saw you, my little pony. I hope you've found the Symposium a rewarding experience." She passed her gaze over Twilight's friends. "I'm glad you decided to join us, girls. There is more to Canterlot than the, ahem, enchanting nightlife." Finally, she bent down her neck down to Spike and grinned. "And hello to you too, Spike. If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion, perhaps you shouldn't volunteer to help Fluttershy with her chickens when you have a cold, hmm?"
Spike grinned sheepishly and blushed. Only when Celestia stood up straight again did Twilight notice that Princess Luna was present at well, stooped down and pressed close to her sister's side. For Luna, unlike for Celestia, getting lost in a crowd was easy.
"Princess Luna," said Twilight with a deep bow, "It's a pleasure to see you again! I had not thought to find you in attendance."
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world, Twilight Sparkle," replied Luna with a stiff nod.
She looked tired and disheveled. There were dark circles under her eyes and her mane and tail were matted with inexpertly applied mane gel. Her crown was slightly askew. She'd either had not enough sleep, or too much of it. Twilight sensed a strange, pungently flowery smell about her and tried not to make a face. She heard Rainbow Dash muttering something behind her:
"Ugh, I take back what I said about your perfume, Rarity!"
Luna fixed a glare on Dash as only a goddess could. Twilight chuckled nervously and tried to think of something to say, but Pinkie Pie was already rushing to the rescue. She pushed right past old Lady Blueblood and Paper Cut, the director of Canterlot's Institute for Magical Research (who just happened to be the organizer of the whole Symposium), to shake Luna's hoof.
"Oh, I was so worried you'd spend the whole day cooped up in your room, I don't know, sleeping or something!" she said, beaming, "Boy am I glad you proved me wrong!"
Indelicate as that was, it seemed to brighten Luna a bit. She still didn't smile though.
"As I said, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I am a student of magic myself, after all, and this is the event of the year when it comes to magic and learning both. Even if it a little too... busy."
Fluttershy quivered slightly. "Mmmm, I'm not good with crowds either," she said as if she was talking to no one in particular.
"A student in a figurative sense, at least," said Celestia, "Your knowledge of the field overshadows that of mortal ponies. I would be surprised if there was much you learned today."
"One never stops learning," replied Luna without looking up at her, "And magic has developed a lot over the last millennium. You still know much more than I do..."
Celestia's entourage was starting to realize that she hadn't paid them any attention in a while now, and slowly dispersed to mingle with the rest of the crowd. Half the guards stayed close by the Princesses, while the others spread out in the pavilion.
"Uh, that's a lot of guardponies, Your Highness," observed Spike, "You wouldn't mind if I asked if anything was wrong, would you?"
Celestia seemed hesitant to answer. "My captain of guard strongly urged me to bolster by bodyguards. There is a matter that concerns him – a death threat found in my quarters."
There was a moment of shocked silence.
"That's outrageous!" rasped Rarity.
"Oh my," said Fluttershy.
"No. Way!" exclaimed Rainbow Dash.
Applejack cursed quite strongly. "Er, pardon the language, Princess. A death threat?"
"Pull the other one!" said Pinkie Pie, her eyes as wide as saucers.
"But why would anypony want to harm you?" asked Spike.
"It might have been addressed to me," said Luna quietly.
"It was delivered to me," said Celestia, "And anyway, this is not the first such message I've received in my life. Few such threats ever materialize, and I am hardly easy to kill. Nopony has ever successfully assassinated me, you know, and the last time anypony attempted it was over a hundred years ago. It's my captain's job to be paranoid, but this is not something for you to be concerned about, children."
Her tone was light, but Twilight couldn't help but worry whether the threat was affecting her after all. She wasn't for one moment afraid for the Princess's physical safety, but for all her power, she was still pony, and had feelings to be hurt.
Princess Celestia was loved by most, but not by all. There were always at least a handful of political extremists and self-professed freethinkers that opposed her rule, and the return of Princess Luna and the validation of the legend of the Mare in the Moon only added fuel to conspiracy theories that she was an unlawful despot. They rarely did more than spread leaflets and rant on street corners. There were few things that angered Twilight as much as such unfounded and malicious attacks against her person. Celestia went out of her way to get to know her people whenever possible, and yet there were still ignoramuses who didn't know anything about her.
But this letter was delivered directly to her quarters, meaning a member of the palace staff was most likely responsible. How could that be? They should have known first-hoof how gracious and good she was; they should have known better than to do something like this, whoever it had been.
Twilight and her friends were Celestia's personal guests, so they got the best seats in the house, on the dais right in front of the stage. Twilight uncomfortably realized that the place of highest honor seated three, with Celestia on the center mat between Luna and her. That did not seem right. Luna looked impassive, but she must have been aware of it herself. Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie took their places on one side of them and Spike, Rarity and Applejack on the other.
No sooner had they all laid down than Paper Cut headed their way, pushing a stone-faced earth pony with a grain-gold coat and a close-cropped white mane in front of him. He was relatively young. Twilight peeked a look at his cutie mark and recognized it for an Old Equestrian rune. She was uncertain about its meaning.
"Come on now, it's only polite to say a few words to your sponsor," Paper Cut was saying.
"But the preparations..." muttered the earth pony, just before being thrust in front of the dais.
For a moment, it looked like he was struck deaf by Celestia's majesty. It must have been his first time seeing her up close, and that was a natural enough reaction. Eventually, he found his voice and wits and bowed.
"It's an honor to make the acquaintance, Princess."
"The honor is mine," said Celestia, "Your name has been ringing out in Canterlot a lot in recent years, always alongside favorable references to your character and work. Please, allow me to introduce my sister, Princess Luna."
She held out a hoof towards Luna, and wiggled an eyebrow to boot. It took the earth pony a moment to catch on that he was supposed to bow to her too. Luna ignored his bow and courtesy.
"And this is my star pupil, Twilight Sparkle, along with her dragon companion and her friends, the wielders of the Elements of Harmony. Girls – and Spike – this is Brainy Bright, who will head up the forthcoming demonstration."
Twilight gasped. "You're Brainy Bright? But – you're an earth pony!"
"What of it?" asked Bright defensively, "Unicorns aren't the only ones interested in the field. I am a theoretical magicianist – I research and document, and in some cases, invent. I don't see that it matters whether I can do magic or not."
He was completely right, of course. Twilight blushed over her outburst. She had never met an earth pony with magical expertise before, but the fact that he had reached his current eminence without actually being able to cast spells himself only spoke higher of his brilliance.
"I'm sorry, Mister Bright. I really look forward to your demonstration."
"As do I," said Celestia, "I know we're in for something special today."
"You most certainly are, Your Highness!" boasted Paper Cut, "When I signed off on this, I knew I was making history. This is something without precedent! Why-"
Bright interrupted him with a cough. He shuffled awkwardly on his hooves, peering at the guardponies around them.
"I'd rather not give anything away, Princess. It's only a few minutes until we begin anyway."
"Of course," said Celestia graciously, "Don't let me keep you."
With one last glance at Princess Celestia, Brainy Bright turned around and headed for the stage. The rest of his team, a group of four unicorns, was there waiting for him. Paper Cut left them to their own devices as well. As soon as they were out of earshot, Celestia turned towards Luna.
"He's a handsome one, isn't he? And he is rather clever as well."
"I don't know what you're implying, sister."
The expression on Celestia's face bizarrely reminded Twilight of Rarity's cat Opalescence during her smugger moments.
Rarity launched into a lengthy critique of the decorations in the pavilion, which she held to be too ostentatious for an event as informal as a magical exhibition. Spike was completely enraptured with her and merrily nodded along without hearing a thing she said, while Applejack kept sighing in exasperated boredom. On the other side, Rainbow Dash was flustering Fluttershy with some sort of bawdy tale and Pinkie questioning (or possibly interrogating) Luna about the quality of baked goods in the Royal Palace. When Pinkie paused to take a breath, Celestia leaned over to her sister and whispered something in her ear, causing her to snort and giggle.
Twilight, meanwhile, was watching the preparations on the stage. Bright's staff had thrown aside the black cloth and revealed a stack of thin plates about the size of a doorway. They looked to be made of a substance similar to glass, but were somehow both far more transparent and far more reflective, giving them a hazy, fractured appearance. The plates were levitated up in the air and folded into each other; somehow, they melded together as if they had no substance or mass. At length, the unicorns visibly started to strain holding the construct up. After a brief argument with Bright, they gently floated it down on the stage in a standing position – it really did look like a doorway, though bigger now.
The pavilion was near to full by this point, but the crowd was quiet. Some final conversations were dying down, muffled under the weight of expectation. Everypony could sense that something was happening. When Brainy Bright stepped to the front of the stage and cleared his throat, the hush was absolute.
"Some of you may have read the dissertation I wrote for my entry into Canterlot's Institute for Magical Research six years ago. It's not a well-known piece, but nothing else in my career has polarized the magical community quite as much. It's been praised and denounced in equal measure – the ideas I proposed in it have been held up as the Holy Grail of space relativity magic by some and decried as a sensationalist fantasy by others. The subject matter has always fascinated me, and remained a passion even as I moved on to other projects. The title of my dissertation was 'The Many-Worlds Hypothesis.'"
A wave of murmurs passed through the crowd. Most of the gathered ponies were lost and confused, but the rest were suddenly very excited. Twilight was furious at herself for never having read the work in question and being in the dark about it now. She was familiar with most of Bright's research, but not that. Why not? There was just so much to read, and she didn't have as much time as she used to...
"Twilight," whispered Spike beside her, "Hey, Twilight!"
"What is it, Spike?" she quietly asked.
"I can't see anything from here. Can I climb on your back?"
That's right, Spike was little... Twilight nodded without taking her eyes off the stage. Spike crawled on top of her for a better view.
"There are worlds beyond ours," continued Bright, "There are alternatives to our pasts, presents and futures. Every choice we make or don't make creates an alternative universe, a different branch of reality. This is what I posited in my hypothesis. To put it bluntly, I was right. And I can prove it. My associates Golden Perfect, Glimmerbum, Enigma, Life Saver and I have conceived and created a method for accessing such alternate universes – a window, if you will. Today, we will be looking at a few worlds we've already cataloged."
Bright fell silent, and the silence drew on. He seemed to be lost in reverie, his face scrunched up, and ponies were starting to get awkward and restless.
"I am not a braggart, but... I truly believe that this is a very significant discovery. It's a new and potentially dangerous territory, but one with uncountable promises and possibilities for learning. This is science, this is magic. I hope..." His voice faltered; he started anew. "I hope this is what I will be remembered for."
That sounded reasonable enough, but his expression was so pained that Twilight was genuinely confused as to what he meant. But Bright shook his head and smiled, and everything seemed to be all right.
"We haven't come up with a name for it yet, but it's my pleasure to present it to you all the same."
The four unicorns took this as their cue to lift the 'window' back up and to start feeding magic into it. All of them held their eyes shut, their horns lit up with a colorless glow. The portal flashed and bubbled with light like waves in the sea. Twilight couldn't take her eyes from the spectacle. Eventually, the window settled into a square of perfect blue, indistinguishable from the sky around the tower. Bright muttered some instructions to one of his associates, and the picture shifted to show the countryside. Everything looked normal enough, and Twilight couldn't have sworn it wasn't just a vision of Equestria or one of the other nations they shared their planet with. At length though, she started to notice little oddities in the plant-life. She was no expert on flora, but even the unfamiliar vegetation looked queer to her eyes. When they got their first view of a settlement, many in the crowd gasped.
This strange new world wasn't inhabited by ponies, but bears, colorful bears that walked on their hindquarters. As stunned as she was by what she saw, Twilight tried to be analytical. Their town looked much like Equestrian towns in architecture. The tools they used were similar to their own. They seemed to talk and live as ponies did. They even had their own version of cutie marks – large symbols on their chests. She spotted a maple leaf, a bow and arrow, stars and a heart. Truly, the bears were just like them.
The portal reset. The sky they saw now was the color of ash. Thick clouds blanketed everything. When the view slid downwards, it was hard to make out anything concrete through the smoke. The earth was an ugly patchwork of black fields, jutting crags and rivers of fire. The ceaseless flow of lava was threatening to engulf the entire planet. There had never been any life there.
"Our world as it might have been, save for the grace of the goddesses," announced Bright, his voice curiously dull.
He gave more directions to the unicorns, and after a pause, they obliged. The view changed again, but while most everyone was intently watching another blue sky in the portal, movement in the corner of her eye caught Twilight's attention. Bright was slinking away to the other side of the stage. Just when she started to wonder what he was doing, he sped up and bumped roughly into one of his colleagues.
"Look out!" shouted Twilight, but it was already far too late.
Bright had pushed the unicorn right off the stage, and the weight of the portal was too much for the other three. It was tilting dangerously, and it was tilting directly towards them on the dais.
Suddenly there was sound all around, a hundred questions asked and a hundred panicked shouts. The guardponies were pressing closer to the stage. Everything was happening so fast.
Princess Celestia was up on her hooves in an instant and tried to catch the portal with her magic, but her horn seemed to have no effect on it.
Spike's tiny claws were in Twilight's mane and tugging sharply.
"We need to move!" he was saying, but she barely heard him.
Just when it seemed like the three unicorns were starting to stabilize the sinking portal, Bright leapt and crashed into it from above. The telekinetic field gave out under his extra weight.
"Princess!" shrieked Twilight.
"No!" gasped Luna.
"Stay back!" said Celestia.
She had spread her wings, but the sky was already falling. The portal had shattered into shards of indistinct blue, and Brainy Bright was gone.
Twilight instinctively threw herself towards the Princess, vaguely aware of the black glow of Luna's horn, and the next thing she knew, the world unfolded itself around her.
When Brainy Bright woke up, the first thought on his mind was fear of failure.
After sorting through his jumbled memories, and trying to make a judgment based on the element of surprise and the angle of his descent, he concluded that there was no way to know for sure whether he had really gotten the Princess. The idea that it may have all been for nothing and that he might never know what really happened made him want to retch. He had to hope that he'd succeeded, that he'd managed to exile Celestia from Equestria forever.
Bright was slowly becoming aware of the fact that it was very, very hot. He was outside, he could smell it, so that must have been sunlight that was aggressively seeping in between his eyelids. Laboriously, he opened his eyes and – to his surprise – found himself standing up, leaning heavily against a wall. His head was spinning, and he felt as weak as a newborn foal. There was no way to tell how long he'd been unconscious.
He whinnied and took a few experimental steps. It seemed to be that he was in a city. An alleyway stretched forward in front of him, and there were rows of tall, white buildings on either side of it. Who lived in the city, he could not say, since he couldn't see anyone. The sun hung low in a cloudless sky, but it was as light as if it was midday.
He didn't really know where he was. How could he tell? It didn't really matter anyway. He'd been prepared for the possibility of getting lost in an alternate universe himself all along. The only things he'd had to look forward to back home were imprisonment and dishonor, both well deserved.
Bright had never hated himself as much as he did at that moment. Misusing his greatest creation for an act of terrorism at the day of its own unveiling betrayed every scientific ideal he'd ever held, but there had been no other option. An opportunity like that may never have come again. Celestia was just too powerful to take on by conventional means. At least this way, nopony had gotten killed.
He wondered whether the portal had swallowed Celestia alone, if it had swallowed her at all. Her sister may have been caught as well, but perhaps that wouldn't have been so bad. There was no point in exchanging one absolute monarch for another; it was best to have no deities at all. But Bright sincerely hoped that Celestia's young student hadn't shared her fate.
Without the Princesses, ponies were finally truly free. They no longer had an immortal and unknowable jailor deciding their destinies for them. The invisible eye was gone. The three pony races would get an even footing in society. Nature would longer be beholden to any one individual's whims, and surely even the other species would be glad for that. Perhaps the democratic faction would start to gain support in Equestria at last...
Bright did have one regret about being lost, and that was that he didn't know what would happen next. He hoped it would be enlightenment and equality, not violence and uncertainty.
Someone was calling. Bright turned and saw two figures approaching, but the sun blinded him and he couldn't make them out clearly.
As they got closer, Bright recognized them as pegasi. They were asking him who he was. It was a small burden off his back that he'd at least ended up on a world with a pony civilization. As he was trying to figure out what to say, one of the pegasi swooped forward and smashed a hoof into his face. Bright was flung to the ground, a streak of blood running from his nose.
"It's a lousy earth pony," growled the pegasus mare who'd kicked him.
"Stupid animal," said the other one, a stallion, "Doesn't he know you're not supposed to go out during a curfew?"
They were both wearing golden armor, emblazoned with a pair of wings and a jagged white sunburst. Bright noticed that just before they kicked him again.
"What is this?" he groaned.
"What are you doing out here at this time, huh, earth pony?" asked the stallion.
"Dirt-eater!" hissed the mare, "Giftless!"
Bright cringed before them. "Wait! Wait! I'm not from here! This isn't my world..."
The mare pushed him down on his back and stood on his chest. Her ironed hooves dug painfully into his torso.
"You broke the Queen's law," said the stallion.
"And we just don't like your face!"
"So you're going away forever."
Seeing them bent over him and staring him in the face with mocking grins and rabid eyes, Bright couldn't think of anything to say.
"This isn't right," he tried to explain, "This world is wrong."
He would have called it a nightmare, what was happening to him, but the day was clear and bright.
Nothing. No reply.
"Is anypony there?"
Nopony was there. Not a single living thing.
Celestia was gone.
Or else Luna herself was gone, she wasn't sure. They hadn't just fallen through a crack in the fiber of the universe, they'd been blasted through. The magic of the broken portal had been wild, and Luna worried that the telekinetic push she'd unleashed at the last second had contributed to the force with which they had been thrown apart. Luna had flashed through the sky like a meteorite. She may have traveled for hundreds of miles before finally crashing, as far as she knew. Celestia might have been anywhere or nowhere.
Luna had found herself in an abandoned town. Most of it was broken-down houses of mismatched stone, but there were older, wooden buildings there as well, almost rotted away to nothingness. The ruins were empty but for occasional broken pottery and books that had fallen to dust. The town was surrounded by the desert, and the sands were reclaiming the land. It was a desolate place. There were no plants, no animals, and certainly no ponies. Luna did not explore too much for fear of finding the bones of whoever had lived there before, but standing on the edge of town and staring at the empty wastes all around was just as disheartening.
The sense of disquiet in Luna was growing. She stomped her hooves and screamed for her sister and destroyed some of the ruins around her, but felt no better for it. She was certain she was going to break down in despair, possibly sooner rather than later. She was weak and alone in a horrible, alien place. There was no hope, no hope at all.
Luna whirled around, certain that something was behind her, watching her, but found nothing and no one. The quiet of the desert was getting very loud. Something was terribly wrong, but she didn't know what. She could feel it in her bones and her horn. There was a strangeness throbbing in her mind like a second headache.
Eventually, she realized what it was that she was sensing – or wasn't sensing. She was used to feeling the drift of the sun and the moon; the steps they took over the firmament were like her own heartbeats. Now that feeling was gone. Perhaps things worked differently in this world, perhaps her cosmic awareness simply didn't reach here and perhaps is was completely normal that the sun was hanging dead in the sky – but she didn't think so. She was in a world much like her own, and yet not. Everything was familiar enough that she could tell that it was unnatural for the sun to be so close to the earth, and for the light to shine so evenly. The sun was broken. And that wasn't everything, oh no...
Luna sunk to her knees. The weight of the realization made her ill. The despair she'd been expecting came.
The sky looked beautiful from above.
The thin blue sheen of the atmosphere was the only thing Celestia could take any heart in as she looked down at the travesty she'd been thrust into. She recognized much of what she saw. This world was a mirror of her own – she could tell that as much from the indefinable magic certainty in her stomach as from the familiar configuration of the continents and the oceans. The land was faded and burnt though, and there was somewhat less of the seas. The caps of snow and ice at the poles and in the mountains were gone, and proper cloud cover only sporadic between large swathes of clear sky. Parts of the world were still green and verdant, but most of it was covered in sickening yellows. Deserts spotted the surface, the greatest of which lied directly at the heart of her precious Equestria.
It was her world, but something had ruined it.
Celestia could see it all clearly from space. She'd been flung far coming out of the portal, and had let the momentum carry her forth so she could look over her domain. The silent emptiness around her was jarringly peaceful. Celestia nursed her wrath for later. She had plenty of it to go around. For now, she soared, examined and considered.
Stars were catching in her mane as she glided through the void, little glassy orbs that should have twinkled merrily in formation instead of floating about in disarray like trash. The constellations were gone, broken up, and the lights had gone out of the stars. It had been a long time since they'd shined down on the land.
It pained Celestia to even look at her sun. It was bloated and monstrous and hung in the sky at least half as low as she had ever dared to let it go at home. It was situated some ways off from the desert-lands in Equestria, but its light did not go to waste. The sunshine curved around the hemispheres, casting a warm golden glow about everything below. It was day on both sides of the planet, Celestia knew.
All day meant no night. The light had extinguished the dark. The sun dominated the sky, and the moon... the moon was gone.
Equestria had been so beautiful, a small voice at the back of Twilight Sparkle's mind reminded her. Now it wasn't.
She'd been admiring its beauty just a short while ago. She'd gazed at the lakes and rivers, the forests and fields. Now the lakes and rivers had dried up, and the forests had withered and died. All the green was gone, and the empty reaches of desert sprawled as far as the eye could see. The land was dead.
All this, she somehow noticed on her descent. As disoriented and panicked as she was, Twilight tried to be analytical.
She'd been thrown into another world, she remembered that. The world had twisted and spun, and the uncountable streaming colors had grasped her brain and squeezed it, and now she was falling.
She was falling and falling and falling. She was falling because the Tower of the Horizon had disappeared. Canterlot itself was gone. Little Ponyville was gone too, and a great white city stood in its place.
It was hard to breathe with air flowing past her so fast. Spike's screams mixed together with her own, but she couldn't see him – didn't know where he was – and was all the more afraid for it. She'd never been so afraid in her life.
Death was rushing towards her at the base of the mountain.
Next chapter: Lay of the Land.