Every pony in Equestria knew that the Everfree Forest could be a dangerous place. Animals of all kinds, some not even known to the ponies, lurked within the trees, and on particularly dark and unpleasant nights the plants themselves seemed to move with evil intent.
Certainly, as Twilight Sparkle plunged headlong through the dark forest, the trees reached out for her, their dry branches blocking her path no matter which way she turned. The sharp ends whipped against her sides and face, a couple striking hard enough to draw lines of blood. Even when they didn't, they scored her purple hide sharply enough to promise welts tomorrow.
Except for a few gasped cries at particularly savage slashes, Twilight Sparkle ignored them entirely. She had to keep moving. If she didn't, she wouldn't have to worry about what happened tomorrow. She dove through the grasping branches with reckless abandon, spurred by the sounds she could still hear far behind her.
Though she was far from a woodspony, she had been in the Everfree Forest a few times and was able to keep the sounds she made to a minimum despite the desperate pace. Hooves landed on soft grass where possible rather than dry twigs. Her small frame let her push through the branches that clawed at her without breaking them, and brush offered paths that she could slip through with only the bare whisper of leaves.
The creatures that pursued her did not bother with such subtlety. The racket they made was monstrous, their enormous forms breaking through the branches that reached ineffectually for them. The forest was filled with the crackling reports of shattered wood and hiss of trampled leaves, punctuated occasionally by the roar of her pursuers' fury as they unleashed it in her direction or at innocent creatures startled out of their homes. Their location was obvious to every creature in the forest, and it was just as obvious that they did not care. Twilight ran.
A large tree root loomed up ahead, the thick wood nearly as tall as Twilight herself. She timed her steps, gathered her legs underneath, and leaped clear over the root, her outstretched hooves just barely clearing it.
As she landed, Twilight broke through the dense foliage and found herself barrelling toward the river that cut the forest in half. She yelped in surprise, hooves skittering along the dirt of the riverbank as she fought to come to a halt. She came within a foot of stumbling straight into the water before she regained control, leaving shallow trenches of dug earth in her wake.
Twilight's chest heaved with exertion as she stared helplessly around in the hope an idea might be waiting there for her. Absolutely nothing sprang to attention; she would just have to brave the current and hope that she had enough lead on her pursuers to make it across.
She would be an awfully easy target if they found her in the middle of the river.
Twilight paced to the edge of the river, swallowing nervously as she eyed the dark waters. There was simply no more time to be indecisive. Nothing for it, then. She trotted back several paces to get a good running start and took a deep, steadying breath.
Digging her hooves into the soft dirt, she propelled herself forward, galloping to the very edge of the river. She tensed, ready to leap...and a deep shadow raced up to the surface of the water, breaking it and sending a wave of water in all directions.
The surprise caught Twilight flat-footed and she stumbled with a cry, planting her face in the ground. She shook her head hard to clear it and regained her feet as swiftly as she could, eyes darting up to see what had blocked her way...and her gaze kept going up, forcing her to crane her neck and dance back several steps to get a proper look.
An enormous serpent stood there in the river, his slender body rising high into the air. Purple scales glowed with a gentle iridescence in the moonlight, water sleeting off them effortlessly. A mane of fiery orange hair topped his head in sharp contrast to his scales, and despite the water it looked sleek and voluminous, clearly lovingly cared for. A curious moustache capped the end of his long, square jaws; though one side was the same color as his hair, the other was a curling deep purple.
In other, less dire circumstances, Twilight might have agreed with her friend Rarity that the serpent looked simply fabulous. After all, Rarity had donated her lovely tail to fix that moustache not so long ago.
As it was, Twilight just let out a breathless laugh of relief. "Steven!"
The serpent broke out into a wide smile, craning his neck down to get a better look at the dwarfed pony. "Well if it isn't little Twilight Sparkle!" Despite the serpent's size and potential intimidation factor – which, admittedly, was somewhat hampered by the expertly styled hair – his voice was smooth and gentlemanly. He dipped into a sweeping, courtly bow. "It's been quite a while since you and your friends came to visit me! How is that wonderful pony Rarity doing?"
The relief in Twilight's expression faded as Steven chattered on. "Steven..."
"You know, I still haven't had a chance to thank her for the fabulous scarf she gave me for the holidays!" Steven ran a hand down his chest to demonstrate, though the complete lack of a chill in the air meant he was going without.
"It was so thoughtful of her! You know, the waters really do get so cold in the winter time..."
"And the design is simply to die for!"
"STEVEN!" Twilight couldn't keep the frustration from her voice, surprising herself with the volume. She darted a nervous glance over her shoulder, eyes flicking back and forth into the forest behind her.
Luckily, it managed to startle Steven as well, and he blinked down at her, a hand to his chest. "Dear me. No need to shout."
Twilight winced and turned her attention back to him, looking briefly ashamed. She hated to be rude to such a friendly creature, but right now... "Steven, I'd really love to stay and chat with you, but there's no time! I'm being chased, and I need your help!"
Steven Magnet reared back in surprise, his eyes wide. "Chased? By whom, dear girl?" Even as he spoke, he cocked his head, apparently only now hearing the sounds of pursuit in the near distance.
Twilight shook her head, expression strained. "No time," she repeated. "It's bad. Please!"
Steven glanced over her head toward the source of the noise. His expression firmed as he appeared to come to a decision, and nodded sharply. "Naturally, my dear! Anything for a lady!" With that, his tail rose out of the water and rested on the bank beside the pony.
Twilight leaped up, but had to crouch low to keep her balance as he lifted her into the air. As he swung her out over the water to the far bank, he continued, "I shall face these ruffians and drive them back! It is the least I can do as a gentleserpent and friend!"
Twilight shot him a grateful smile as she bounded down onto the safety of the far bank, but worry quickly replaced it as a roar erupted from the forest very near the river. "Please be careful!" she called up to him. "They're very dangerous!"
Steven waved a dismissive hand. "Don't you worry about me, dear Twilight! Now go! They shall not pass!"
The pony bit her lip, but there was little she could do. She had to regain her lead as quickly as she could. With a last worried look up at the serpent, she turned from the river and bolted into the thick brush of the forest once more.
A bare minute later, as Twilight wound her way through the ever-thickening trees, the entire forest shook with a vast, leonine roar of challenge. The pony squeaked in surprise and nearly planted her face in the ground again as she tripped over a tree root.
She pulled herself back up, stumbling as swiftly as she could back into her frantic pace, but threw a wide-eyed look over her shoulder. Was that Steven? It sounded nothing like him, but it had to be. Hope surged in her breast; perhaps the dandy serpent really could drive her pursuers away.
Twilight barely had time to vault a fallen tree before that hope splintered. Several roars, which had sounded loud before but were now high-pitched and short in comparison to Steven, rang out in rapid succession. There was another earth-shuddering bellow from Steven, but at this distance she couldn't tell if it was a battle cry or a sound of pain.
Silence fell. For several tense minutes, the only sounds she could hear were those of her own passage as well as her thudding heartbeat. She galloped along, ears straining and flicking to try to hear something, anything. When they finally caught the all-too-familiar sounds of her pursuers, she let out an involuntary cry, heart sinking to the pit of her stomach. She squeezed her eyes shut for a minute to push away the tears.
Her sense of friendship told her to turn around to help Steven. Forget the consequences. She nearly did, her steps becoming uncertain as she thought about it. But...as much as she wished she could help him, this run through the forest was bigger than either of them. If she stopped now, so many more would get hurt. The only way to put things right was ahead, not behind.
The forest stretched out endlessly in front of her, brush and trees giving way to trees and brush. Twilight's chest began to burn with the effort, her breath coming in ragged, gulping gasps. She knew the tricks to doing well in a race, but that was only friendly competition. Pacing oneself just wasn't an option here, and though the young bookworm had been more active in the past year than ever before, she was no athlete. The stitch in her side hurt with a steadily building fury, and she wanted nothing more than to find a cool spot to curl up in and sleep for the next two days. She huffed out a determined snort, pushing those thoughts away, and pressed on.
An eternity of pain and fear later, Twilight's hooves thudded along open ground as the dense growth of the forest parted without warning. Ahead she saw her goal, at long last: the ruined castle of the sister princesses. It lay on the other side of a deep chasm, but a sturdy rope bridge lay just ahead of her. Twilight gasped out another desperate laugh of relief and found a small bit of extra speed, her tired hooves carrying her over the bridge and to the other side.
As she reached the other side, she slowed, looking back over her shoulder at the bridge and the stone blocks to which it was tied. Maybe she could untie it. That would certainly slow them down. But the bridge had seen plenty of use since she had first come to Ponyville, and the rope was strong and secure. She couldn't cut it with hoof or horn, and untying it would take too much time and effort. She was already so weary from her run through the forest, and she would need every last drop of strength in the castle. She let out a hiss of frustration and turned to trot into the ruins. The time Steven bought her would have to be enough.
It didn't take long to find the doorway she sought. A tower on the edge of the castle remained standing, though time had caused the roof and patches of the walls to crumble away, leaving gaping holes through which moonlight ran. She stepped through one of those now, the tower entrance blocked by a pile of rubble, and trotted to the deep shadows at the far edge of the barren room. Had she not already been here once before, she wouldn't have found it at all. Perhaps that would delay the pursuers even more. A pony could hope.
Twilight found the open doorway within the shadows, itself a gaping hole leading into complete blackness. She paused, staring into that darkness, then took a deep breath and concentrated on her horn. It lit up swiftly, a gentle glow emanating from the tip and pushing the shadows away. It revealed a stairway leading down into the gloom. Needing to see those steps was the reason she had called light, and certainly not because that blackness looked creepy and foreboding. Not at all. She swallowed once, then steeled herself and trod down the stairs as swiftly as she dared.
The flight wasn't long, and she quickly found herself in a wide room, her soft unicorn's light spreading out in a circular pool around her. It illuminated the lichen-covered stone beneath her hooves, worn smooth over the ages and covered with a fine layer of dust. Ahead of her, a small pedestal rose from the stone floor, squat and circular. Beyond that, the pool of light faded, but there was just enough to make out the presence of another shape at the far end of the room. Twilight stepped forward cautiously, and the light fell across the object in the dark. It was a giant ring of dark stone.
The ring stood on end, its circular curves stretching high overhead. Six or seven sufficiently acrobatic ponies could stand on each others' backs and walk through the ring without trouble. Seven markers lined the ring, each sculpted into the shape of a chevron in hard angles. Between the markers, simple carvings decorated the ring: while the outer ring bore normal decorative lines, the inner ring was marked with a series of pictographs, each one looking very much like a pony's cutie mark.
At a glance, Twilight could make out a lightning bolt, a bushel of apples, and a cluster of stars very much like the ones that graced her own flank. The entire ring sat nestled within a dais, a series of shallow steps leading up, inviting her to walk through. The entire construct was just a worked piece of stone, she knew, but it still gave off an aura of infinite serenity and patience. It had stood here for countless millennia, and would stand for countless more.
Twilight glanced at the pedestal that stood very close to her now. She could see the same cutie mark symbols arrayed in rings around it as well. They looked natural to her, but this was not an unfamiliar device. Other symbols, alien ones, should be there. And she had only seen the spell that would retrieve them performed once before. She huffed out a breath, squaring her shoulders. "All right," she said to herself, putting more confidence behind the words than she really felt. "Let's do this."
She planted her feet firmly on the stone and lowered her head, pointing her horn toward the ring. Her simple light faded, stranding the room in total blackness, but only for a brief second. As soon as it vanished, it reappeared, far stronger than the gentle light before. Infused within that bright glow was more powerful magic, and she sent it questing out to touch the ring. She felt...nothing. It stood there, implacable and unyielding as a rock.
Gritting her teeth and trying to ignore the weariness in her limbs and the pain of her self-inflicted wounds, Twilight poured more will into her magic. The glow about her horn intensified, and the walls and ceiling of the room lit up as brightly as the stone floor, each as bare and timeworn as the next. Still she could not feel the energy she knew must be within the ring.
Twilight took a deep breath and thrust her horn forward. She wasn't sure how much magic the spell needed, but it had strained even Princess Celestia's abilities when Twilight saw her perform it. Twilight would never dare to compare her own talents to her mentor's, but the princess wasn't here now - the stray thought nearly made Twilight's will buckle, but she kept herself steady - while Twilight was. She would have to be enough.
The surge of determination coursed through the young pony's body, flowing up into her horn with a fierce intensity. The light around the horn burst into overglow, the room suddenly as bright as daytime. Twilight's eyes were squeezed hard in furious concentration, every inch of her being directed through her horn toward the ancient stone ring.
And suddenly, she felt it. A tiny trace of power flowed out from the pedestal in front of her toward the ring, only barely detectable even with the flood of magic Twilight needed to even see it. The ring soaked up that power steadily, running it in an endless loop. Twilight could feel where a connection to something beyond the ring should exist, but there was none. The ring was an island, disconnected from the network it should reside on. Celestia had said it was 'out of phase', like the switch on a train track...
There! The network did lay beyond the ring, but barely noticeable. It was as if Twilight could only see it by looking out of the corner of her mind's eye. Tricky, but she understood now what she had to do. Her horn glowed ever more intensely, painfully bright even through her tightly-closed eyelids. She shaped her magic appropriately. It was oddly simple, really, requiring more brute force than finesse, but dear Celestia did it need a whole lot of force! Sweat dripped down her forehead, rolling down to her chin in rivulets, but she paid it barely any mind. She finally settled her magic against the lines of energy snaking through the ring and, for lack of a better word, shoved.
Nothing in the physical world moved, but she could feel the energy somehow shift, twisting and redirecting itself in ways that made her head spin if she tried to follow it. She tenaciously kept up the pressure with the force of her magic, and she felt the energies begin to ponderously align with those beyond the ring.
Between one second and the next, the slow, heavy weight of the energy sped up. With a sudden jolt, the two ends of the link snapped together, sending out a thunderous resonance that did not touch the room but instead ran straight down her horn and through her tired body. She let out a cry and collapsed to the ground, legs splayed awkwardly about her. The light of her horn vanished abruptly, taking the magic with it. The room fell into blackness once more.
Twilight groaned, shifting listlessly on the ground. Forget sleeping for the next two days; she was ready to sleep for a month. The ringing in her body slowly eased, and with its departure her awareness of her surroundings returned. She tried to ignore it, wanting instead to just lay there and rest. Just for fifteen minutes or so. But a sound from outside caught her attention, and her blood ran cold as she recognized shouting. They were in the ruins!
Panic lent her strength, and she wobbled back onto her hooves. It took more effort this time, but she called forth her unicorn's light once more. It was the soft glow it had been before, but she winced at the light and squinted through it to the pedestal. There were no more rainbows, no more cupcakes. Instead, a completely alien script covered its keys, harsh and angular designs that only vaguely appeared to be pictures. Her eyes darted over the myriad pictographs frantically, searching for familiar ones. She had studied the symbols given to her constantly, burning them into her memory for just such a night as this one. In her fear and weariness, she almost couldn't remember what she was looking for.
She lifted her hooves onto the pedestal and took a slow, steady breath. Trying to move quickly wouldn't help if it got her nowhere. Focusing inward, she sorted through her memory until seven particular symbols stood out in her mind. Holding the images there, she scanned the pedestal methodically, firmly ignoring the sound of movement outside getting nearer. The symbols finally began to make sense to her, and in short order she found the ones she needed. She jabbed at them with her hoof, and one by one, the keys she pressed as well as the chevrons on the great ring lit up with a dull but steady light.
As she entered the last symbol in the sequence, the sounds of footsteps approached. They were on the stairs. Twilight struck the dome in the middle of the pedestal to activate it, and the Stargate awoke.
Brilliant blue-white light surged from the inside of the stone ring, rushing to fill the void within the circle. As the light met itself, it expanded, pouring out into the room in a powerful vortex that looked nothing so much like a sideways spout of water. Twilight flinched away, shielding her eyes from the intensity of the light. But as quickly as it flooded the room, the light stabilized, pulling back into a flat surface. The roar that had accompanied the surge of energy died away, and all that was left appeared to be a placid pool of water, the surface rippling gently in some unknown wind.
The stillness that followed the activation of the gate was short-lived. A deep voice roared from behind her, shouting out words in a guttural language Twilight did not understood, but the tone of the command was clear enough: Halt! Twilight whirled around, eyes wide, as three humans made their way down the steps and into the gate room.
At least, two of them looked human. The two figures on the sides wore black and grey armor, flexible material covering where the metal plates did not to allow for ease of movement while maintaining protection. Supple, decorative leather covered the armor on their upper chests and shoulders, giving them an imposing ceremonial look. Their heads were the only visible parts of their body, the hair shaved down to stubble and black makeup ringing their eyes. On their foreheads, the shape of a horse's head in profile stood out visibly.
The creature in the center looked very much like the others. Two legs, two arms, same armor. But rather than a human's head, the armor seamlessly rose up into a sleek black neck, the metal segmented like an insect's carapace. Atop the neck was the head of not a pony, but a full-sized horse, and an evil one at that. Eyes glowed a fiery red, sharply contrasting against the black metal, and the horse's lips were pulled back in a fixed contemptuous sneer.
There was one more similarity. All three carried battle staves. As they entered the room, they leveled said staves at Twilight. The bulbous end on the center figure's staff split and pulled back, revealing a blaster muzzle. He shouted something again, his voice deep and amplified, made all the more menacing by the echo within the chamber.
The pony didn't wait around to see what would happen. She knew all too well. She drew back and spun on her rear hooves, launching herself toward the Stargate. The figure loosed a blast of energy which flew through the air, but Twilight was just quick enough and it splashed harmlessly into the stone at her feet. The horse cursed and shouted, and all three opened fire.
If Twilight had been any less tired, she would have tried to dodge. As it was, she just tried to outrun the blasts. It shouldn't have worked, but the sort-of humans didn't lead their shots well, and she was a small, dim target. The blasts exploded behind and around her, but none struck home.
As she ran for the gate, she clenched her jaw and poured her remaining strength into one last spell. Once more, her horn shone brightly, and as she raced up the steps toward the coruscating blue light, the spell coalesced in her mind. She threw herself at the Stargate, but just before her outstretched horn touched the light, she released the spell, vanishing with a burst and sparkle of light. Everything went black.
When Twilight came back to herself, she was in midair and falling forward. She tumbled into the ground, but it wasn't stone any longer. Metal clanged noisily as her hooves slammed onto it and she staggered forward, just barely keeping her balance. Light seared into her eyes, the lit room blinding after the relative dark. Alarms were wailing all around, red lights flashing in time to the ear-splitting cacophony.
A series of metallic clacks in front of her cut through the noise, and her attention was drawn to several humans ringed around the base of the ramp she stood on. Nearly all of them had guns pointed at her, and by their posture and expressions were about a second away from opening fire. She tried to stay as still as she possibly could. Behind her, she heard two loud thumps, but didn't dare turn to see what made them.
"Hold your fire!"
The voice cracked through the air as one of the humans raised his hand as a signal to the others. Those with guns didn't lower them, but did relax enough that Twilight could too. She turned her attention to the one who'd spoken, who was standing with three others at the base of the ramp.
He was a reasonably tall man - though all humans were tall to her - with stark, weatherworn features, and though she had been too distracted by the noise and light and rather lethal weaponry pointed at her to notice faces among all the green uniforms, she recognized him now. She also recognized the shorter woman standing beside him, as well as the tall dark-skinned man on his other side who was settling his own battle staff back to rest on the ground. She knew them, and relief flooded her at the sight of them, but she was already looking to the fourth person in the group.
The man, younger than the others but looking no less confident in his camo and tactical gear, stepped forward from where he stood by his tall friend, peering through his glasses at her. "Twilight?"
The pony's face split into a wide but weary smile. "Daniel!" She tried to take a step toward him, but her legs had evidently decided to stop working without her permission. She fell forward, the slope of the ramp carrying her into a tumble.
She might have continued that undignified and fairly painful slide to the bottom, but Daniel Jackson reached her in two quick strides, kneeling to catch her in his arms. "Easy there, Twilight. I've got you."
Twilight smiled dizzily up at him. "Okie dokie lokie." With that, she relaxed for the first time all night, slumping against him into unconsciousness. The world went blissfully black and quiet.