Back in Equestria…
The cucumbers lay forgotten on the floor as Spike grasped the book in his shaking claws. He watched in dumbfounded silence as Twilight and Rainbow picked themselves up off the ground, filling the rectangular picture on the page. "Ow," Twilight said as Dash whapped her upside the head, "what was that for?"
"You came in after me!" the pegasus exclaimed.
"Well I couldn't just leave you in… well, here, alone" Twilight said as she looked around.
"Twilight," Spike said weakly, finally find his voice, "Rainbow. Can you hear me?" The two ponies carried on their conversation, unaware of the purple baby dragon looking at them through a book. Spike's mind was on the verge of collapse as he gripped the book tighter, willing the ponies in the picture to see and speak to him. He'd seen and even taken part in some strange things since moving to Ponyville with Twilight, but this was beyond even his admittedly wild imagination. Who would've thought there was a book out there you could literally lose yourself in?
"I'll go take a look around," Rainbow was saying when Spike's attention went back to the book. She flew out of the frame and Twilight began trotting away down the dock.
"Don't go," Spike begged as Twilight climbed the steps in the distance and soon disappeared from sight. He gave the book a vigorous shake, demanding, "Change the picture! Follow Twilight! C'moooon…" The book paid no heed to his begging, the picture remaining resolutely immobile. Spike sat down and let the book slide out of his hands and onto the floor. He remained in that dejected position for a moment, and then gave the book a hard glare. He started to reach a hand to it, intending to follow Twilight, but then stopped as her last instructions to him came to mind. Wait an hour and then go give the book to Princess Celestia. No dragonfire.
"All right Twilight," he said, closing the book and picking it up as he got back on his feet, "I'll get this to the Princess, but I'm not waiting." He started to turn around when a string of knocks sounded at the door. "Uh, come in," he said. The door opened quickly but in a controlled manner under the influence of unicorn magic and Spike's jaw dropped as he saw Rarity step into the library, her gait firm and determined, her eyes hard as flint, and her normally pristine white coat now a solid grape-purple color. Spike didn't know whether to laugh or take pity on her.
"Hello Spike," Rarity said with forced calm, "You haven't seen Rainbow Dash lately, have you?"
"Uh," the dragon said, his eyes tracking down to the book in his hands.
It was a good day for holding court in Princess Celestia's opinion. The usual wave of sycophantic upper-class unicorns was at a low point thanks to Fancy Pants and Blueblood's excellent show of repartee at the latest big social event, freeing up the open-court schedule for more "common" petitioners. There was always more variety in the requests and reports from outside of Canterlot, and for an immortal alicorn variety truly was the spice of life. She had just finished mediating a compromise between a pair of merchants from Hoofington regarding the definition of the word "sandwich" when one merchant had laid claim to exclusive sandwich-selling rights in the town. The other was offering a line of wraps and had maintained that they were different enough to get around the exclusivity rule. After hearing both sides, Celestia had suggested the pair form a partnership and benefit from one another's skills. She made a mental note to find an excuse to sneak down to Hoofington and try the wraps someday.
She was about to call for the next supplicant when a sparkling wisp of smoke flew in through a nearby window and gathered in front of her before transforming into a scroll tied with a red ribbon. My, this is quite early for a friendship report, she thought as she grabbed and opened the scroll in her magic, Twilight must have quite the… morning. She blinked and re-read the letter twice to make sure she hadn't misunderstood anything. She stood up from the throne, glanced out the window to the sun, and the bit her lip and slowly sat back down. "Only one more for today," she said to her seneschal, "An urgent matter has just come up that I must attend to when the next train from Ponyville arrives." She pointed at one of the guards standing by the doors and said, "Awaken my sister and tell her to meet me in the foyer in half an hour."
"Yes your highness," the pegasus said, snapping a salute with a wing before heading out of the room.
Celestia took a deep breath and flexed her wings in an attempt to calm her nerves. "Send in the next supplicant," she announced, "and warn them not to mince words." So many have traveled a long distance to speak with me, she rationalized to herself, I should strive to inconvenience as few of them as possible.
Precisely half an hour later, Princess Luna walked down the stairs onto the main landing of the grand staircase in the castle foyer. Her eyes were half-closed, her silver shoes were missing, and she was wearing a periwinkle night cap with little moons on it instead of her crown in defiance of being called from her bed. Her sister, standing tall, proud, and as bright and alert as the celestial object she governed, cast a sideways glance at her as she came to a stop a few feet away. "For what purpose have you interrupted my sleep dearest sister," Luna said flatly, not even making it a question.
"You remember Star Swirl the Bearded, correct?" Celestia asked.
"Yes," Luna said, raising her head slightly, "why?"
"Something of his has… emerged," Celestia said, "It is something from after the Nightmare took you, but I thought you would be interested in it. Twilight Sparkle has become caught up in it, as has Rainbow Dash."
"Caught up how?" Luna asked, quirking an eyebrow. The sound of hooves approaching from outside drew both princess's attention.
"You're about to find out," Celestia said simply as the doors opened and four ponies galloped in: an orange earth pony wearing a stetson hat, a pink earth pony who was looking less bouncy than usual, a yellow pegasus with long pink mane, and unicorn whose white coat showed the faintest hints of purple. A purple and green baby dragon rode on Applejack's back, an old book clutched protectively against his chest. "Rise," Celestia said as the group came to a stop and started to bow, and then fixed her gaze on Spike. "Is that the book?" she asked.
"Y-yeah," Spike said.
"Good," Celestia said with a curt nod, "come with me, all of you."
"I do not understand Celestia," Luna said as she fell in behind the elder alicorn, "Thou said Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash were involved in this. I see here every one of the Elements of Harmony except those two. Where are Twilight and Rainbow Dash?"
"They're in the book," Celestia said, "We need to get them out. First, however, we need to figure out how." The ponies following her started to ask questions, but when she refused to respond they quickly fell silent, exchanging nervous glances. Celestia led them into the throne room, which had been cleared of all but a pair of guards by the door. She came to a stop at the foot of the dais, turned around, and took the book from Spike. "How many of you know anything about an ancient pony named Star Swirl the Bearded?" she asked. Spike and Luna raised a hand and hoof, respectively, as the four little ponies exchanged a look.
"Ain't he mentioned in the Hearth's Warmin' Pageant?" Applejack asked, "Told Clover the Clever 'bout the Windigos?"
"Twilight's Nightmare Night costume was Star Swirl," Rarity said, "I remember all those bells on the hem…"
"He was a very influential scholar and mage during the tumultuous days surrounding Equestria's founding," Luna said, "his work laid the foundations for many schools of magic, and was… prominent up to when I became overwhelmed with jealousy."
"Thank you Luna," Celestia said, "that is a very good summation. He didn't cease to be important after your banishment of course; in fact, he continued to explore and experiment with magic. Eventually he stumbled upon something beyond even the wildest of imaginations: the ability to travel to other places, entirely different realities, by writing about them in specially designed books. Had he been any other pony alive at that time, I would have forbidden him from pursuing that power, for there seemed to be almost no limits to what these other worlds could contain."
"Oh my," Fluttershy said, "that sounds dangerous."
"Sounds like fun to me," Pinkie Pie declared, "Imagine, a world with giant cupcakes and chocolate rain! That would be the greatest place ever!" Celestia watched with bemusement until Applejack gave her fellow earth pony a firm poke in the side a disapproving look.
"Star Swirl was quite responsible with his explorations," the Princess continued, "but early on he encountered another being who had also discovered the secret of traveling between realities, one who was far less considerate of others and extremely proud in his ability. For the sake of Equestria, and for the many other worlds he had discovered, Star Swirl decided to leave our world and cut all his ties to it. All who knew about his travels were sworn to secrecy or left with him, and he took all of his teleporting books and the notes regarding them with him. All that was left was the book he used to take his final leave, which I personally sealed inside the memorial erected to him. But it would seem that seal has been circumvented, for Twilight and Rainbow have been taken into the world Star Swirl chose as his sanctuary."
"Uh, that maaay not be the same book you locked up Princess," Pinkie said, holding up a hoof for attention.
"What do you mean Pinkie Pie?" Princess Luna asked, giving her a curious glance.
"Well," Pinkie explained, "On the train ride here I talked Spike into letting me look at the book…"
"You kept talking until I gave in," the dragon muttered darkly.
"And I noticed a little note inside the cover," the energetic pony continued without missing a beat, "saying that that book is a copy of the original."
Celestia opened the book and found the note. She read it and then peered at Pinkie over the top of the tome. "This is written in an archaic form of Equestrian," she said, "I didn't know you were a student of old languages."
"Oh, I'm not," Pinkie said, smiling. Everypony stared at her, dumbstruck for a moment.
"Ah," AJ said at last with a nervous laugh, "That's Pinkie Pie fer ya. Always full of surprises."
"Indeed," Celestia said slowly, closing the book while keeping her eyes on the seemingly oblivious Pinkie Pie.
"Pardon me sister," Luna said, "but what, precisely, dost thou intend to do about this? And must I truly be here?"
"We," Celestia said, fixing her dark-toned sister with a determined stare, "are going to go through this book letter by letter while I search my memory for any clues to a method of contacting or retrieving our two lost ponies. You," he gaze shifted to the four mares and Spike, her eyes softening with compassion, "will do your best not to worry. Try to find something in the city to distract your minds from this. I will send word when Luna and I have finished, by sunset at the latest. Go on," she added when the group shuffled their feet and exchanged unsure looks.
"Yes," Rarity said at last, turning away, "Come on girls, Spike, let's get out of the Princess's manes. Maybe… if we're lucky we can find Fancy Pants hosting… something…"
"We could go to the donut shop," Spike suggested.
"Oh, I like that idea," Pinkie said, barely able to put some enthusiasm into her voice. Applejack and Fluttershy nodded in silent agreement of nothing particular and the five made their way out of the throne room. Celestia and Luna watched them in silence until the doors closed, and then Celestia allowed the weight of the situation show, lowering her head and letting some slouch into her posture.
"Come along Luna," she said, "We may as well go somewhere more comfortable to do this."
"You do not hold much hope for our success," her sister said as she fell into step alongside the elder alicorn. She leaned against Celestia's side and spread a wing over her back.
"I fear it will take a miracle to get them back," Celestia admitted sadly as the sisters exited the throne room. The impassive door guards, utterly forgotten in their perfectly professional poise and silence, shared a concerned look as soon as the doors closed.
"I'm back," Twilight called as she trotted into the library. She looked around the octagonal room and then addressed the sole other occupant, "Where's Star Swirl?"
"I dunno," Rainbow said with a shrug, "He stepped out just after you did and told me to wait right here until he got back." She was currently sitting in the exact center of the library, where an octagon broke up the normally straight-running boards of the flooring.
"I wonder what he's up to?" Twilight wondered.
"So long as it gets us back to Equestria," the cyan pegasus said, "I don't- whoa!" She gave a start as a muffled horn sound came from below her hooves and the octagon started to rise from the floor. Rainbow rocked from side to side for a second before hopping off what was being revealed as an octagonal pillar of wood with a shelf carved into the side facing the library exit. A thick, dusty tome sat in in the shelf, its pearly-white cover reinforced by bronze on the corners and spine. "He did that on purpose," Rainbow said grumpily, giving the short pillar a flat look, "That was… actually a pretty good prank for an old guy."
"Confuse old age and grey hairs for addled wits at your peril, young pegasus," Star Swirl said from behind the pair. They glanced back and moved aside as he approached the pillar and blew the dust off the book before reverently opening it. "I never told anypony about this particular book, not even Clover," he said, "Even with our great foe trapped on another world, she would have thought the risk too great, especially considering where it will deposit you. Here is your way home my new friends, and thank you…" He trailed off and leaned an ear closer to the book, eyes narrowing as he listened to something. "Oh," he said, turning his full gaze upon the linking panel, "That won't do. Come on you two; we need to make a dramatic entrance."
Princess Celestia was coaxing the sun below the horizon when the quintet from Ponyville returned to the throne room. Their hope-filled eyes going first to the solar princess and then to Princess Luna, who was sitting on the throne in her full regalia with her eyes closed. Celestia's horn dimmed as the sun's light faded from the sky and Luna's brightened as the moon rose quickly into its place and the stars twinkled into view. With the ceremony completed, Celestia turned her head and walked toward the group, her downcast expression telling them everything without her having to say a word.
"Say it ain't what I think it is Princess," Applejack pleaded, speaking for the entire circle of friends.
"We have had no luck," Celestia said glumly, "But. We musn't lose hope yet. If this book," she pulled Aitran out from beneath her wing, "is not the original, perhaps the original version will contain some hidden message or clue that was not transmitted to this one."
"Celestia," Luna said, shocked, "You gave thy solemn oath that that book would remain undisturbed in Star Swirl's false tomb. Would you truly violate that oath for the sake of such a…" she searched for a good phrase, settling on, "long shot?"
"For the sake of my beloved and most faithful student and her friend, yes," Celestia said with an unwavering determination in her eyes, "For keeping the Elements of Harmony united, and for the sake of Equestria!" She took one resolute step toward the doors, her wings flaring upward, and then froze as a low buzzing sound filled the air and a grey unicorn with a long beard and bell-hemmed blue robes and an equally bell-studded wizard hat materialized in the middle of the throne room. He was quickly joined by a lavender unicorn mare and a rainbow-maned cyan pegasus.
"That," Star Swirl the Bearded said with a curt snap of his head to look up into Celestia's wide, unbelieving eyes, "will not be necessary Your Highness." He glanced behind himself briefly and nodded when he saw Twilight and Rainbow before returning his gaze to the Princess. "Your students are quite capable of taking care of themselves," he finished with a knowing smile. The silence that followed was absolute; even Pinkie Pie's knack for reacting quickly to surprises was dulled by the quiet but undoubtedly dramatic entrance of the two lost ponies and their companion.
"My eyes," Luna said at last, "they must be playing tricks on me. Methinks I see…"
"Dear Princess Luna," Star Swirl said, beaming at the Moon Princess, "I can't tell you how much good it does me to see you again, hale, hearty, and of sound mind once more."
"Hey girls," Twilight said, smiling broadly as she waved to her stunned friends, "how are you doing?" That broke the spell, and the two returned adventurers quickly found themselves in the center of a group hug and being peppered with questions from every angle.
"Ok, ok," Rainbow said, laughing as she tried to simultaneously hug everypony and push them back for some breathing room, "We're awesome, I know, but you'll have to back off if you want to know just how awesome."
"Star Swirl the Bearded," Celestia said, touching the grey unicorn on the shoulder as if seeing if he was really there, "You look like you've barely aged a month, if that. How is this possible?"
"The short answer is that I cheated," Star Swirl said mischievously. He took the Princess's hoof with his own and bowed over it. "The more detailed answer is that my ability to dictate the characteristics of the realties I've sought to connect to is truly beyond anything I have ever seen. Aitran Island, and many other worlds to varying degrees, is a place where time all but stands still for a pony. Growth and aging happen so slowly there compared to here that it was not until Twilight Sparkle came upon me that I realized that by all rights I should have been in a real tomb ages ago."
"Oh dear," Twilight said, catching his last statement as the group-hug broke up, "You're not going to…"
"I highly doubt it," Star Swirl said with a reassuring wave of his hoof, "I'd have keeled over by now if that were the case. My body might still be working on Aitran time right now. If so, it would take some time for, well, time to catch up with me." Twilight sighed in relief as Star Swirl gave her a grin. The grin faded quickly as he looked back at Celestia and Luna, who had come over to join her sister. "As pleased as I am to have seen you both, your majesties," he said, "I must take my leave and return to Aitran posthaste. Two… very important ponies to me are in great danger and I must see to their rescue." Celestia nodded her understanding and floated the Aitran book over to him. The book opened to the final page and Star Swirl started to reach a hoof toward the linking panel. At the last second he stopped and looked over to Twilight and Rainbow. "Farewell my friends," he said, "I'll keep the Equestria book unlocked should you ever desire to visit Aitran. I doubt I'll have time to spend with you for quite a while though. And… I might have need of your assistance at some point. Again, farewell."
"Farewell Star Swirl," Twilight called out as the bearded unicorn touched the panel and faded from sight.
"Bye," Rainbow said quietly, a second too late. She perked right back up and looked around at her friends with her usual smug smile. "So," she said, "who wants to hear about me and Twilight's crazy world-hopping adventure?"
"Me! Me!" Pinkie exclaimed, hopping up and down eagerly.
"I would as well," Rarity said, drawing up uncomfortably close to the pegasus's side with a charming shimmer in her eyes. A trace of ice entered those eyes and her voice as she leaned more heavily against Rainbow and added, "How about you tell it over a full, special spa treatment? I've got the perfect bath additives in mind for you."
Dear Princess Celestia,
I know you are still waiting for the full report of my and Rainbow Dash's adventure on Aitran. I might need to send it to you in parts, because we're only about a third of the way through and Spike claw is getting cramped from writing all of it. While he's resting, I've decided to report on what I've learned about friendship.
Isolation can cause serious harm to a pony's mind, and even being left alone for a short time in an unfamiliar place can lead to despair. There was a point early in our adventure when an equipment malfunction prevented me from joining Rainbow Dash in exploring one of the other realities linked to Aitran and until she returned, I~~-~
Rainbow Dash here. Yeah, Twilight was happy to see me when I escaped that place, but that's nothing compared to what I felt! I not only had to contend with a thick fog that wouldn't go away on the surface, I had to go deep underground, alone, and try to figure out how to drive a cramped, clunky machine through a dark mine using random sounds for direction.
The point is, it felt like it took FOREVER to figure out what I was supposed to do and I was always on the edge of breaking down and giving up. Only the thought of getting back to Twilight, and from there to getting home, gave me the resolve to go the distance. Even when they're not right there with us, friends can be a great source of strength.
I don't think I could say it better than that, so I'll just close.