To Faraway Times
June 1st, 1501 Y.E.
I awoke with a start, my head pounding furiously as if under assault by a stampede of buffalo. My skin tingled and burned where the bolt had treated me like a lightning rod. The scent of singed fur and flesh hung low in the air. I hacked and wheezed, trying to breathe in what little oxygen was left. The air had become far too thin, and whatever lighting enchantments cast upon the home had vanished, turning the room pitch black. "Hello?" I choked out, my voice quivering. "Anypony? Spike?"
No answer. I ignited my horn, casting a dull glow over the area, revealing dust everywhere and Spike, laying next to me, eyes closed, a few scales along his body scorched. "Spike? Spike, wake up!" He didn't move. Okay, don't panic! I told myself, desperate to fight off the fear already gripping me. He's probably just asleep! You know how he is!
I struggled to my hooves, my whole body shaking from the effort. "Oh jeez," I moaned, almost collapsing back onto my stomach. "...can't think!" My eyes squeezed shut. "Gotta...gotta remember that spell...how did it go?" My mind searched, scanning words and phrases and misplaced pieces of spells fading in and out, until finally I seized upon the crucial fragment. I stomped my hoof, scattering more dust. "Right. That's how!"
With a burst of magic from my horn and a little popping noise that had me giggling in my giddy state, a little sphere of barely visible blue light formed around my head. It coalesced into a bubble of sweet, delicious oxygen. I breathed in deeply. "Much better," I said, my voice tinny and echoing. My head still ached terribly, and those burns itched and stung, but at least I could breathe!
I cast the spell for Spike's benefit as well, hoping the extra oxygen would awaken him. "Spike?" I said, prodding him gently in the back with my hoof. "Spike, please wake up."
He groaned softly, stirring, sending a pulse of happiness through me. "What happened?" he mumbled, holding a paw to his head.
I couldn't help myself: I wrapped him up and held him close in a firm hug. "Oh thank goodness!"
He squinted up at me and winced. "Mind turning it down a notch?" he pleaded.
I laughed, mostly in relief. "Sorry."
"So what happened anyway?" Spike reiterated, scratching his ruffle of spines.
My face fell, happiness replaced by sorrow. "I don't know, Spike. Everypony's just...gone! Oooh!" I stamped my hoof on the ground hard, almost chipping it. "It doesn't make any sense! What was that thing? Where did they go?" I hissed, more from the increase in head pain my yelling caused me than anger.
"Twilight, please," Spike said with a grimace. "Calm it down, will ya?"
I mentally kicked myself. He's right, you know, nattered my conscience. Cool it. "Sorry," i reiterated, my face glum. "I'm just so confused. And my head hurts." I rubbed my temple softly in the hopes it would help ease the pain. It didn't.
"You're not the only one whose head hurts," my dragon friend grumbled. He shook his head in a fast, almost painful to watch motion. "And what's with the air bubble anyway? Feels like that trip to the lake all over again."
I felt nauseated as the memories of that failed experiment flooded my mind. Banishing the unwanted images, I answered, "The air was too thin. I had to do something to keep us breathing." Actually, now that I think about it, it's a wonder I ever woke up! I shivered, though not from cold.
He rolled his eyes. "Great, as if we didn't have enough problems." Looking about the room, he blew out a massive, exasperated sigh. "Gosh this place is a mess."
I cast about the room, taking a deep long look at everything. On the floor, the Dreamstone Rod laid flat amongst a pile of dust, the gem twinkling in my horn-light. The obsidian pedestal stood dark, all light faded. Nearby, tables and shelves were scattered everywhere, knocked on their sides and upside down and every other which way, mostly barren of contents. The few books I saw had covers so tattered and worn I feared they would collapse into dust if I so much as sneezed on them. The weirdest thing, however, was the floor and walls. Around us, in a circle approximately five or so feet in diameter, the floor remained polished, high quality marble. Outside the circle, though, the floor and walls were cracked, broken, worn down by time, just as I would have expected from the buried home when we first came in. What the heck? I thought, feeling rather baffled. "Spike, did the room look like this earlier?"
Spike stared at the piles of dust near the shelves. "No. There were lots of books, and scrolls, and other stuff all over the place!" He scratched his ruffles. "I mean, a bunch of it was knocked around when that big swirly thing got turned on, but that wouldn't make everything look so...old!"
I heard a little voice in the back of my mind cry out, begging to let me panic. I shoved the voice back down where it belonged. No. No panic. "Okay, let's think this through," I said, more for my own benefit than Spike's. "We need to figure out what that portal thingie was, why it was here, and where it took our friends."
Spike gulped. "Are you sure it took them anywhere? What if they're-"
"No!" I glowered at him with all the intensity of a blazing bonfire. "They were taken somewhere. I don't know where, or how, or why, but they're somewhere. They have to be!" I didn't even want to think about the...other possibility.
"All right, all right!" said Spike, shame plastered all over his face. "Then where did they go?"
I bit off the nasty retort that came to mind, instead answering, "That's what we're going to find out."
I approached the obsidian pedestal and examined it closely. As I had observed before, it contained within its structure a number of Dreamstone gems, similar to the one on the rod. They were scattered in seemingly random places, with no real indicator for why they had been placed where they were. Apart from a single raised hexagon carved onto a button, there was no writing of any sort. "Darn it, Starswirl," I whispered, "why couldn't you have made this easy?"
Spike said, "What was that?"
I waved a hoof dismissively. "Nothing. Spike, was this the button Apple Bloom pushed?"
The dragon waddled up to the pedestal and stared at the button. "Yeah, I think so. I didn't really get a good look at before." He gaped at me. "Wait, Twilight, you're not going to push it, are you?"
I hunched down, bracing myself. "I don't see any other options. Better hold onto me, Spike." I waited for Spike to clamber on my back and grip onto my mane, then, my foreleg shaking a bit from nervousness, I pushed the button.
Nothing happened. I pressed the button again, and again. Nothing. Whatever magic the pedestal had within was gone. A light once-over with a Sensing Spell confirmed it. "Well that was a bust," I grumbled.
Spike hopped down and glared up at me, arms folded over his chest. "Now what?"
"Good question," I mumbled, too busy thinking to form a more eloquent response. Wait, what about the rod? I thought.
The rod still lay on the floor. Picking it up with my magic, I peered closely at its gem. The stone sparkled a little in my horn-light, and deep within I thought I could see the faintest hint of something within, spinning. "Spike," I said, hovering the rod closer to the baby dragon, "does the gem on this rod look like it's glowing to you?"
Spike peered at the gem, his eyes twinkling with desire. Saliva leaked from his mouth as he answered, "It looks delicious is what it looks like!"
"Spike!" I admonished, seizing the rod away before he could snatch it. "I'm serious!"
He snorted. "What? I'm hungry! We haven't eaten since breakfast."
I smacked a hoof to my face and groaned. "We can eat later, Spike! Right now we need to focus."
Throwing his arms up in disgust, he said, "All right, fine. Jeez. And yeah, the gem was glowing."
"Thought so." I examined the rod more closely with a Sensing Spell. With the aid of the spell, I could see clearly a swirling pattern of energy, a mixture of every color of the rainbow surrounding a central vortex, just like the portal from before. But what does this mean? I asked myself, even more confused now. Did the Elements of Harmony enchant the rod? To do what?
Not sure of what else to do, I decided to further probe the rod, to see if I could get it to activate its new enchantment. I spent maybe ten minutes peppering it with various spells, ignoring Spike's protests and questions. Nothing I cast accomplished anything. The rod sat there in the air, refusing to open its secrets to me.
"Gah!" I finally shouted, shoving the rod in my saddlebags where I didn't have to see it. "This isn't helping anything!"
"I coulda told you that," Spike muttered. "Where'd you get that thing from anyway?"
With a hiss of frustration, I replied, "Applejack said she and Rarity found it in a lab of some kind." I stamped my hoof in realization, peering down right into Spike's eyes. "Wait, Spike, did Rarity ever come into this room?"
Spike shook his head. "Nope. I didn't see her until after that weirdo device was switched on."
I smiled in satisfaction. "Then that lab must be somewhere else. I'll bet you we'll find some answers there. Come on!" I turned and faced the wall where we had come in, preparing to move, but stopped when I saw no exit. "Uh, where'd the door go?"
"Over here, Twilight," Spike called from across the room, at an opposing wall. He tapped one claw into the stone, triggering a mechanism. The secret door groaned and squealed with effort, making me cringe, pain swelling in my head to new heights. Note to self: read through that book on healing magic for some kind of pain relief spell later.
Finally the door ceased its awful noises. "Sorry about that!" Spike said as we walked into the passageway. "It didn't do that last time."
"Never woulda guessed," I said dryly.
We emerged from the passageway into the corridor near the library, the one I had assumed was empty. Like the portal room, every surface was cracked, lined with wear and tear of age, debris scattered everywhere, completely unlike what it had been before. It filled me with a sense of dread, and made that little voice in my head cry out again for panic.
"Spike," I said, holding up my foreleg in his way, "hold on a minute. I want to check the library."
Spike followed me down the corridor. "There's a library?"
My mouth creased into a worried frown. "Yes. A big one. I hope it's still intact."
We came to the door, a decrepit broken down piece of wood. It refused to budge, requiring an application of magic to force it from its hinges. After resting the remnants of the door against a nearby wall, I stepped slowly through the doorway, expecting to find a disaster. I was right.
Instead of the neatly lined shelves I had seen before, we found piles of dust amongst broken and scattered remains of shelves. What few intact tomes I spotted amongst the debris looked too delicate for me to touch. A few tears came unbidden to my eyes, glistening and falling to the floor, little droplets of sorrow in a home that had become a silent tomb. "Come on, Spike," I said, my voice shaking. "Let's just get out of here."
"But what about the lab?" Spike asked as we made our way towards the foyer.
"Forget the lab!" I growled. "We'd probably just do more harm than good. We need a real forensics team, not the two of us breaking everything."I bit down the urge to add my suspicions that there wasn't anything to find.
Spike rested a paw on my side. "Are you okay, Twi?"
"No! No, I am not okay!" I glowered at him. "I'm injured, you're injured, we both nearly got ourselves killed, our friends are who knows where, the Elements of Harmony are lost, and we somehow turned the biggest archeological find in the last century into a complete mess!" I took a moment to catch my breath. "Princess Celestia will probably lock me in a dungeon for life after this..."
My dragon friend attempted a smile. "Ah come on, Twilight, it's not going to be that bad. I'm sure the Princess'll understand!"
"Will she, Spike? Will she?" I shook my head sorrowfully. "I don't think so. Not this time. Not with the Elements of Harmony gone."
My mind filled with images of me, locked within the coldest, darkest dungeon in all of Equestria. A stone prison, with just the barest hint of light from little torches mounted in sconces. I'd probably have to subsist on meek little slices of barely baked bread and cups of tepid water. No books. No friends. Nothing but the cell, locked away in isolation for all eternity...
Spike snapped his claws in my face. "Twilight! Stop daydreaming!"
I blinked and shook my head to compose myself. "Right, right, sorry."
We stepped into the foyer. Unlike the rest of the home, one of its aspects, the inscribed pentacle, was intact and functioning. I couldn't quite be sure what its purpose was, since it obviously wasn't to preserve the place, but it was still there, still warm with magic. It made me smile a little, seeing it. That's a good sign, I thought.
Like the library door, I needed to force the entryway door off its hinges in order for us to pass. "There," I said, setting the door aside.
"Uh, Twilight, I think we have a bit of a problem."
I groaned. "What is it now?" Spike pointed beyond the doorway.
The stairwell we had traversed was now blocked by collapsed stone and earth, far too much for us to move. My heart sank. I slunk over to a nearby wall and rested my head on it, enjoying the cool sensation of the stone rubbing against my snout. "Wonderful," I muttered, in lieu of the massive string of profanity running through my head, not to mention the voice with its question of Is it panic time yet?
Spike patted me on the shoulder and said, "Can't you just teleport us out?"
"Through a couple hundred feet of solid rock?" I scoffed. "I don't think so."
"Okay, then there has to be some other way out of here, right?"
I jerked away from the wall, knocking over Spike in the process. "That pentacle!" I shouted.
"What about it?" Spike asked, following me as I trotted back into the foyer.
"Starswirl the Bearded was an old stallion, Spike," I answered. "He wouldn't have wanted to walk those stairs every time he wanted to visit the surface. So if I'm right..." I prodded the pentacle with my trusty Sensing Spell. It glowed cherry red, exactly as I hoped it would. "Ah-hah!"
"Climb on, Spike," I ordered, stepping onto the center of the pentacle. "We've got our ticket out of here."
Spike hopped up onto my back and gripped my mane. "Is this going to work?"
If it doesn't, we're out of options. "Hold on tight. This might be bumpy." With a burst of magic, I willed the pentacle to activate.
A pillar of crimson light engulfed us, and we were outside, standing atop the pedestal that had once born the Elements. I levitated us down to the floor of the castle. "See?" I said happily. "No problem!"
"Yeah, sure..." Spike answered weakly. He toppled off my back into a heap on the stone floor, his face greener than usual.
I rested a hoof onto him. "You okay?"
"Just gimme a sec..."
With a laugh, I settled down onto my rump and banished the air bubbles, now that we could breathe normal air. The forest air tasted warm and moist, much warmer than it had been earlier, even though it was nearing three o'clock in the afternoon. Like everything else I'd noticed since we awoke, it made little sense, but I wasn't in much of a mood to question it.
Spike sauntered over and poked at my saddlebags. "Think we can eat now, Twi? I'm starving!"
That was fast. My stomach chose that moment to rumble. "Sure, why not?" I said. "I can use the time to write my letter to the Princess anyway."
Whooping joyfully, Spike dug his way through and picked out a few choice vegetables and fruits. He picked a spot nearby and started chowing down. I chose a simple apple and chewed at it absent-mindedly as I jotted down a letter. I explained in detail everything that had occurred, with apologies aplenty for my thoughtlessness in losing the Elements.
After I finished the letter, I set it aside and pulled out "The Art of Healing." Skimming its contents, I quickly located a number of useful, basic healing spells. To my dismay, none of the pain relieving spells came without side effects such as dulling my mind. I didn't want to lose my ability to focus, not now, so I settled for a spell that would heal the burns.
I cast it, moaning softly as it worked its magic, providing soothing relief. It would take several days for my coat to grow back, but at least my skin was healed. And the food had helped my headache a little, shrinking it down to a dull ache.
With that finished, I called Spike over. "Here," I said, placing the letter in his paw. "Go ahead and send it. We need to get moving." I stood, stuffing the book back in my bag.
"Sure thing, Twi," said Spike. I watched him hold the letter up to his mouth and unleash a gout of flame, waiting for the smoke to take flight and soar away. The flames licked the letter, consuming it into ash...which fell to the floor, cinders scattered everywhere.
My mouth fell open, incoherent squeaks pouring out. "Spike!" I exclaimed when I found my voice. "Please tell me you just burned the letter instead of sending it. Please."
My dragon friend waved his paws at me frantically. "No, no! I sent it! I'm sure I did!"
The headache came roaring back, flooding waves of pain. I rested a hoof on my temple. "Then why didn't it go anywhere?"
Spike shrugged. "Don't look at me."
Okay, okay, settle down, I told myself. This has to make sense somehow, right? Maybe it's just the Everfree's magic messing with Spike's ability! Or maybe some kind of after effect from that portal thingie! My mane frizzled, a hair or two popping out of place. Or maybe something really terrible has happened and the Princess is...no! I shoved that last morbid thought out, upset with myself for even daring to think it!
A paw waved in front of my eyes. "Twilight?"
I gritted my teeth, took in a breath, then forced a smile. "Right, everything's fine, Spike! Nothing to worry about."
Spike stared. "Are you sure?"
I slapped him on the back. "Positive! We'll just send another letter when we get home. No biggie!"
My dragon friend muttered something under his breath I couldn't catch. "What was that?" I asked.
"Nothing! Can we go home now?"
Several hours passed as we travelled the forest, noting more changes. The bridge at the gorge? Gone. We levitated over the gorge instead. The cool waters of the calm river? Replaced by a thunderous cascade of white water far too violent to cross, requiring us to go around, adding an hour to our trip. Still, at least the sun shone bright and happy, easing my worry. It's not as if the sun could move on it's own, right?
We breached the outer edges of the forest around seven o'clock, the low hanging sun dipping near the edges of the mountains on the horizon, casting long, low shadows everywhere. But my attention wasn't on the sun, oh no. My attention locked firmly onto what Spike and I saw before us, an impossibility, something that just couldn't have been there, but was! "Twilight," Spike stammered, gripping at my coat, "since when does Ponyville have a wall?"
Wall was an understatement. In front of us, maybe two hundred feet away, we beheld a massive fortification encircling the town, at least twenty feet high, constructed from solid stone, smooth as a baby's bottom. Atop the wall, spaced every hundred feet or so lay towers, staffed by soldiers dressed in barding stuffed to the brim with elaborate colors and patterns. Their weapons—weapons! In Ponyville!—were metal tubes with wooden stocks, bearing some faint similarity to the ancient hoof cannons I'd studied in the history books, Some of the soldiers controlled terrifying looking artillery pieces, long and glistening pieces of shaped steel set atop two massive wheels for easy aiming and movement. Though the towers were roofed, I could see mechanisms that would allow the roof to move away so the soldiers could fire up into the sky. Floating far above I spotted a number of balloons hovering in mid air, tethered to the ground with dangling ropes thick as tree trunks. While I couldn't be sure, I thought I saw little glimmers of light bouncing off of binoculars set into the side of the baskets. Further ahead, just barely visible above the center of the town, a massive airship cast its shadow, the hull lined with dozens of cannon ports. But most bizarre? Everypony I spotted, either on the wall itself, in one of the towers, or in the balloons, was an Earth Pony. Not a single Pegasus or Unicorn to be found.
The tendrils of panic slipped into my mind once again, grasping me like icy claws raking my body. "What in Celestia's name?" I said in a near shout, not really cognizant of the words spilling out of my muzzle. "No, no, no, this doesn't make sense, there's no way what we did in the forest could have affected Ponyville! Unless..." A single possibility swam into my mind, one straight out of a cheesy pulp science fiction magazine, the kind that littered the Shelf of Shame in the library, right next to the bit a dozen romance novels.
Spike's grip on my fur tightened painfully. "What? What is it?"
No! I furiously shook my head and forcibly shoved the notion into as deep a pit in my mind as I could picture. "Forget I said anything, Spike. It's impossible."
"Hey!" came a loud yell from the wall, though the distance made it barely audible. A patrolling soldier look in our direction through the glint of a pair of binoculars. "Is somepony out there?"
I gasped in fright. Seizing Spike by his tail and ignoring his yelp of protest, I fled back into the cover of the forest. "Twilight, what the heck?" Spike inquired once we were safely behind some trees.
"Did you see what those ponies were carrying?" I spat back in a quiet but intense whisper. "I'm not getting near them!"
Spike peered back at the wall surrounding Ponyville. "I don't think we have much of a choice. Look!"
I poked my head between the trees and whimpered, "Oh darn it!" Several armed soldiers cantered our way, pointing their weapons in all directions, searching. I withdrew before they could spot me.
"What're we going to do?" said Spike, scratching his claws together in an odd little nervous dance.
"Hide!" I snatched Spike's tail again and dove into some nearby bushes, cradling Spike as close to me as I could manage. "Don't make a sound," I ordered, stuffing a hoof into his mouth to make sure he obeyed. He nodded silently.
I lay still and quiet, listening, the leaves over my face too thick for me to see anything through. The thunderous clop of many hooves echoed, then died down. Seconds ticked away like years, every little sound of rustling leaves or branches snapping filling me with new shivers of terror. More than once I heard what sounded like a knife slicing through the nearby bushes. Just go away, I pleaded in my mind. Please, just go away...
"Sergeant," I heard a husky sounding mare's voice speak, the sudden noise almost making me cry out. "You sure you saw somepony?"
"Sure I'm sure, Lieutenant," answered a deeper voice, the voice of a stallion. "One of those horned freaks, with a little lizard."
I heard a loud thud and a cry of pain. "Damn it, Sergeant!" cursed the Lieutenant. "Why didn't you say that before? If I'd known we had a Unicorn out here..."
"L.T.!" shouted a third voice, the cracking, squeaky voice of a colt barely turned stallion. "I gots me a Magic Detector right here, if ya need it!"
"Thank you, Private. At least one of you has their head on straight." After a moment I heard the click of a knob turning and the lowest of hums vibrating in the air. My horn vibrated right along with the sound, dull and throbbing. Oh no oh no oh no...
The hum grew louder as I heard the Lieutenant step closer to the bush I hid within. My horn shook, the vibrations building up till I felt like it would explode!
And then it died away, the humming ceasing, the acrid scent of burning silicon filling the air. "Little piece of crap," the Lieutenant muttered. I heard another thud and then a smashing noise.
"Aww, L.T., didja have ta step on it?"
"Stuff it, Private. Maybe if you maintained your equipment better, it wouldn't have broke on me."
I heard a hoarse laugh come from the Sergeant, then another smack. "Shut up!" More sounds of rustling, then, "That Unicorn's prolly long gone by now. Move your flanks back to base!" Hooves clopped as the three soldiers galloped away, fading into the distance.
I let go of the breath I'd been holding in for far too long. "Are they gone?" Spike whispered.
Tentatively, I poked my head up out of the bush and peered around. "Yeah," I answered. "They're gone."
Spike spilled out of the bush and hopped to his feet, brushing off leaves. "Thank goodness!" he said. "What the hay was that all about?"
What was that all about? I asked myself. Racist ponies? What's next? Is the Moon going to explode?
The little voice in my head shrieked, Panic time! Panic time!
I had to admit, it was tempting. Just give in to the panic, to the fear, scream my head off, run around in circles, maybe dive into a pond or something, anything to try and get away from just how insane this day had been. But I couldn't. I shouldn't. I wouldn't. Spike depended upon me. So did my friends and those three little fillies, wherever they'd ended up. I had to keep a cool head and figure this whole mess out, one way or another.
And you already know what the answer is, prodded my mind. The possibility I'd dismissed drifted back in, waving, beckoning. "I think I might know, Spike," I said.
Spike smiled up at me. "Great! Tell me."
I swallowed and pawed at the ground a bit, gathering my thoughts. "Does the phrase time travel mean anything to you?"
For a moment, Spike stared up at me, his face scrunching in confusion, and then he burst out laughing. I glared as he rolled around on the ground, shaking with mirth. Finally he stopped and wiped a tear away from his eye. "That's a good one, Twilight! Pfft. Time travel..."
I groaned. "Spike, I'm serious!"
"Oh come on, Twilight!" Spike said, gesturing with his paws. "That's ridiculous. Time travel isn't possible. You've said it yourself plenty of times! Remember when Pinkie Pie was telling that story about how she went to the future, and you said she was on—"
"Darn it, Spike," I interrupted, "I know what I said, but I can't think of anything else to explain what's been going on!" I pointed in the direction of the town. "Look at Ponyville, Spike. The walls, those ponies, what they said. The river, the gorge, the ruins of Starswirl's home, none of it makes any sense unless you and I travelled through time!"
Spike said, "But how? That...err...that whatever that thing was?"
I nodded. "Yes, the portal, Spike."
"But we didn't go through it! The others did."
I started to reply, then stopped. Spike had a point. We didn't go through the portal. "No, " I answered, "but it did zap us with some kinda energy. Maybe that was enough?"
"Or maybe you're cracking, Twilight!"
I sputtered, "Excuse me?"
Spike pointed a claw at my face. "You heard me. You've been acting out of it since we woke up! I know you, Twilight. You've been crazy like this before. I'm not gonna let you go nuts again with your weird theories and wild explanations that make no sense!"
I hissed, a vein just under my horn throbbing. "Spike," I said with a tone of warning, "that's a bit uncalled for, don't you think?"
He winced at my tone. "I'm just watching out for you, okay? This's been a rough day. For both of us."
"Tell me about it," I murmured, heaving a sigh. "Okay, so maybe I'm reaching a little. But like I said, Spike, I can't think of any other explanation. At least not without some more information! We need to go into town."
"Woah, wait a minute!" Spike shook his head furiously. "That's not a good idea. You heard what they said. They called you a...a..." he stammered. "Anyway, they'll probably lock us up! Or worse!
"I know that!" I scolded. "Believe me, I'm not in any hurry to end up in a dungeon. But it's almost dark." I gestured at the fading sun. "Unless you want to camp out in the Everfree..."
"No way!" Spike stepped forward, peering at the fortified wall through the trees. "But how're we gonna get in? We can't just walk up to the gate."
"Sure we can!" I said with a smile. "At least, if we're disguised."
Spike snorted. "How? Magic? Uh, Twilight, in case you weren't paying attention, they got some kinda magic detecting thing."
Was kinda hard not to notice that, Spike. "We're not going to use illusions. It's me, Spike, remember? I can transmogrify us. I can turn myself into an Earth Pony for a few hours, and you...err...maybe a dog?"
The dragon almost vomited. "What? No!"
I rolled my eyes. "All right, fine, how about a colt, then?"
"You can do that?" he stammered, eyes wide as saucers.
"If I can turn mice into horses, Spike," I answered with a smile, "I think I can turn you into an Earth Pony. You'll have to act the part, though."
He preened and flashed me a smirk. "Oh sure, no sweat Twi."
I waved for him to follow me. "This way, then. We don't want to be seen."
I trotted deeper into the forest till we couldn't see the town, then a little more just to be safe. "Okay, stand still, Spike," I ordered. "This is going to be tricky."
The dragon stood as still as a mountain, not budging a muscle. Good. My eyes closed as I concentrated deeply to recall how to cast the spell, then unleashed a torrent of magical energy from my horn, swallowing up Spike in a bath of lavender light. I cringed from the loud popping noises and Spike's own whines as his bones and muscles rearranged themselves in way no body parts should ever move. A chiming filled the air as the magic worked until finally the light faded, and I relaxed, feeling more than a little drained.
Spike stood before me, staring down at his forehooves. Amusingly, his coat and mane remained the same colors as his scales and ruffle, a rich purple and an almost florescent green respectively. No Cutie Mark, but given his small size that was easily explained away. "You could've warned me it'd hurt so much," Spike murmured.
I winced. "Sorry, Spike. I didn't know."
"S'okay." Spike continued to stare at his hooves. "These are weird! How can you hold anything without claws?"
Giggling, I said, "Carefully. Make sure you stay on all fours, Spike. You're not going to be able to walk around on your hind legs."
A blush flooded his cheeks as he fell onto his forehooves, standing properly like a pony should. "That better?"
I floated my saddlebags onto the ground, not wanting them to get in the way of my spell. "Once I cast this," I said, "it'll last a few hours. I'll have no access to magic either."
Spike raised a hoof to his muzzle. "Then how do we switch back?"
I smiled wanly. "Suddenly. With no warning. We'll have to get back out before then, unless you want to try running for it."
"Not really. What's the plan once we get to the gate?"
I frowned, thinking. "I'll think up a story. Just play along and if they ask you any questions, back up what I say, okay?" He nodded. "Once we're inside, we'll try to find the library, if it's still around. If not, a newspaper stand, or a magazine stand or something like that." Or a bar, I added mentally, though I really didn't want to have to stoop so low if I didn't have to.
"Sounds good to me," Spike said, clapping a hoof to my shoulder.
"Right then. Stand back."
For the second time I summoned up my magic, this time to surround me. The light burst around me like a blazing fire, crackling and popping in my ears. It burned like fire too, soaking in beneath my skin, shifting and twisting, whisking away my horn and the blood vessels in my forehead, replaced with smooth skin. My skeleton shifted as well, reshaping, strengthening as extra muscle and sinew grew to reinforce and change. Fortunately, the transformation was over before I had the chance to scream.
I collapsed into a heap. "Oh jeez..."
Spike was at my side in an instant, nuzzling against me. "Need some help up?"
I shook my head. My smooth, blank head devoid of a horn. I felt...smaller, diminished somehow, without access to its magic. "I'm fine," I answered, climbing shakily up to my hooves, bracing against my dragon-turned-colt friend. Shuddering from the lingering tingle of the magic, I stepped over to my saddlebags and lifted them onto my back with my mouth. It felt strange, bizarre to be lifting anything without levitating it.
After several moments of struggle, my bags were set. "This way, Spike," I said. "We'd better hurry. We're on the clock."
We made our way west, sticking to the edges of the forest till we came to the road out of town, thankfully still right where I remembered it. Guided by the starlight, we followed road lstraight up to a massive gate, formed out of stone and barred by a wooden portcullis. Oil lanterns hung on hooks to either side of the gate, casting soft light. Several guards stood watch in front of the gate, eyes fixed on us, weapons raised as we sauntered up. Stay cool, natural, I told myself. We're all Earth Ponies here.
Now that I could see the soldiers clearly, I took a moment to observe them closely. The barding shone a dazzling combination of royal blue and steel gray, with a criss-crossing X over their chests. Each wore rank insignia on their collars, little bronze symbols whose meanings I did not know. Two of the soldiers carried the long metal tubes I had observed before, balanced in a harness on their backs, tongues wrapped around little curved pieces of steel hanging down along one side of the tubes, triggers perhaps. Another wielded in her mouth a much smaller, more stubby affair, with a long barrel affixed to a boxy little wooden stock, in the middle of which was a hexagonal cylinder. These must be firearms, I mused. But why carry them? What happened to Ponyville?
The fourth soldier, an officer judging by his golden eagle rank insignia, stepped up to us and gazed with cold, emotionless eyes. "Evenin'," he greeted in a low baritone. "Bit late ta drop in on the town, isn't it?"
I put on what I hoped was a disarming smile. "Yes, well, my little brother and I," I dipped a hoof at Spike as I spoke, "have been travelling all day."
Eagle wearer's brow creased. "Is that so? Where from? We saw ya come out of the Everfree."
Sweat beaded on my face. "We were exploring a ruin. It's deep in the forest, I don't know if you've heard of it."
"I have, actually," he said, "though I can't rightly figure out why you'd want to go lookin' at the place."
"Well, we're historians, from Hoofington. Twilight Sparkle, by the way," I said, offering out a hoof politely to shake, which the officer just stared at. "This is Dusk."
"Hiya!" said Spike a bit too loudly, making me wince.
Eagle wearer harrumphed. "Charmed. Listen, Miss Sparkle, we've had some scouts report possible sightings of a Unicorn in the Everfree, so we're going to have to search you, make sure you're not one of those horny curse casters tryin' ta get past us." His eyes narrowed. "I trust that won't be a problem?" His tone bespoke of terrible things that might befall us if we refused.
My grin became strained. "Oh, of course, I understand! Go right ahead."
"Lieutenant!" the officer barked, causing the mare to drop her weapon where it hung around her neck on a chain. "Get to it."
"Yessir, Cap'n!" The Lieutenant trotted over and ripped my saddlebags away without so much as a warning, spilling the contents everywhere. Books and papers, quills, pencils...and the Dreamstone Rod clattered to the ground. The gem twinkled in the lantern light.
Leaning over to snatch it up in his mouth, the Captain spat the Rod onto his hoof and held it up to me. "Well now," he snarled, "just what is this?"
Blanching, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "It's a family heirloom! Very special to us. Gem's colored glass."
"Please don't break it!" Spike added.
The Captain peered down at the offending object. "Really. Then you won't mind us poking at it with our detector. Lieutenant!"
The mare looked up from her emptying of my bags and frowned. "Sorry, sir, but mine broke last week, and Private Petal's broke less than an hour ago."
Snorting, the Captain dropped the Rod. "I thought, Lieutenant, that I'd ordered you to get that thing replaced!"
"I've put in the requisition, but sir, it takes forever to get more of those churned out from Manehatten."
Spike and I exchanged a relieved look. "I'm sorry if I caused a problem," I said. "I'll keep it in my bag at all times when I'm in town, I promise."
"Well, I've half a mind to confiscate it," the Captain replied, "but knowing the incompetence of this bunch of idiots, it'd probably just get lost. Lieutenant, is there any contraband in that junk?"
"No sir, just a buncha books I can't read."
The Captain harrumphed again. "Then put all that stuff back into Miss Sparkle's bags. Neatly this time. And as for you," he added, turning to me, "I've got one last check to make. If you'll submit your foreheads..."
I blinked. "Excuse me? I'm not sure I understand."
"Your foreheads. Now."
Shrugging, I knelt forward a little, as did Spike. With an almost apologetic look, the Captain ran a hoof through my forelock, feeling around it. I felt a tinge of revulsion. Oh...he's looking for a hidden horn, I thought, shrugging off a sudden instinct to kick the officer right in the muzzle.
The Captain spent another moment searching Spike's head, then said, "All right, you're clean. Sorry about that, Miss Sparkle, but ya can't be too careful. Even if I don't think a Unicorn would be so dumb as ta walk right up to the town gates after almost bein' caught."
I stifled the nervous laugh that almost spilled out of my mouth. "I understand. Gotta be safe."
"Here's your bags," the Lieutenant said, placing the bags rather roughly onto my back. I poked my head in them real quick to make sure nothing was left out.
"Keep that heirloom of yours stuffed in your bag, like ya promised," the Captain ordered. "I don't want ta hear about anypony freakin' out over it." He turned to the gate behind him. "Hey! Open up!"
With a loud clank and the whirring of gears, the portcullis withdrew into the inside of the gate's structure.
"There ya go," the Captain said. "Curfew's at midnight, so make sure your flank is in an inn by then, or else we might have ta haul you in for the night and you don't want that. Any questions?"
"One, actually." I flashed the Captain a hopeful grin. "Is there a library in town?"
"Yep. I think it's open till ten, so if ya hurry ya might get ta it before closin'. It's near the center of town, built into some big fancy tree." He made a disgusted face. "Personally I think we shoulda burnt that piece of Unicorn trash when we took the town back in '86, but nopony ever listens ta me."
"Well thank you, Captain..."
"Fields, Miss Sparkle. Captain Spring Fields."
I nodded graciously, though inside I felt rather sick. "Thank you, Captain Fields. You've been very helpful." In more ways than one.
He nodded, showing respect towards me for the first time. "Of course. You two be safe now. Stay outta any dark allies." He waved us on in.
As Spike and I trotted into town, I watched for any differences. I spotted plenty, thanks to the gas lamps along the streets. Aside from the general rearrangement of buildings, houses in different places, some businesses missing, others completely different altogether, I noticed a distinct tension in the air. The fact that the few ponies I spotted moving around at this time of the night other than Spike and myself were soldiers probably contributed to that atmosphere.
"Dusk?" Spike inquired once we were out of earshot of any nearby soldiers.
I shrugged. "Sounds more like a pony name than Spike, right?"
"If you say so."
I blinked down at him as we passed by where the Carousel Boutique should have been. In its place stood a featureless stone building. "Spike, you heard everything the Captain said, right?"
Spike nodded, though he wasn't really paying attention. "Yeah, what about it?"
I elbowed him. "Listen, Spike. Fields said they 'took the town.' That implies a war, or at least some kind of battle." I still couldn't believe what I was saying. Ponies fighting wars? They did that in history books, not nowadays! At least not in the nowadays I'm used to, I thought glumly.
The colt's eye's popped and he focused on me. "Why the heck would they do that?"
"I don't know. But that's not all he said Spike. He said the Library's tree was made by Unicorn magic."
We passed a humble bakery, far tamer than Sugarcube Corner. "But isn't that how the tree was made anyway?"
"Spike, that's not the point. The point is that Unicorns had a hoof in making it. Which means at some point Unicorns lived here. Which means they took the town from Unicorns!"
Spike halted. Gesturing with a hoof, he said, "I don't understand. What are you trying to say?"
"I heard the year Fields mentioned too. '86. I'm not sure, but he might've meant 1486. And if he did, Spike, that means we didn't time travel after all."
The colt snorted. "That's what I told you."
I groaned in frustration. "No, Spike, you're not getting it. If we didn't time travel, then why is everything different?"
Spike scoffed. "You mean the others did, and they changed history or something?"
The library was just up ahead, looking painfully identical to the one we'd left this morning, right up to the telescope on the upper balcony. "Yes, that's exactly what I mean. And I'll bet you anything we'll find proof in there."
I trotted up to the door and knocked twice, politely. The upper half of the door swung open, and out popped the head of a strangely familiar looking mare, with a light azure coat, and a mane of grey mixed with a stripe of light cyan, mostly hidden beneath the brown leather cloak and hood she wore about herself. "Yes?" she asked. "Can I help you?"
"Um, hi. Is the library still open?" I smiled. "We kinda wanted to look at some history books, if that's okay."
She pursed her muzzle. "Hmm...I usually don't get visitors this late, but...oh why not. Come on in." The rest of the door opened invitingly.
Stepping in, I took in the atmosphere of the library that was not my library. My heart ached as I breathed in the musty smell of the books, so like and yet not like my home. The decorations were different, for one, with little paintings and framed portraits of various ponies hanging everywhere, off shelves, off the walls, even on the door itself.
Behind me I heard Spike sneeze, along with a little meow.
"Oh, don't mind Shiner," the library mare said. "He's a bit too playful sometimes." The cat in question bounced away from Spike and darted behind a shelf.
"So what sort of history were you wanting to look into?" asked the library mare, removing her hood.
I stuttered a bit, too shocked to answer. Spike spoke up for me. "You're a Unicorn!"
The mare's friendly expression instantly flashed into a sneer. "Yes, and what about it? I have papers! I've been living here in Uni—excuse me, Ponyville, all my life."
I shoved Spike. "Excuse my rude little brother," I said. "We were just surprised. We're not from around here and we didn't think any Unicorns lived in town."
The sneer vanished from her face. "Of course...I don't blame you. There aren't that many. We've been driven out by you Earth Ponies. No offense."
"None taken," I said dryly. I held out a hoof in a friendly manner. "I'm Twilight. What's your name?"
She hesitated, and then reluctantly took my hoof and shook it. "Trixie."
Spike gasped, but before he could say anything I shoved my right rear hoof into his mouth. "N-nice to meet you, Trixie." No wonder you look so familiar. Please don't start boasting about your magic...
Trixie inclined an eyebrow. "Likewise. And you, little colt?"
I removed my hoof from Spike's mouth so he could answer. "I'm Sp—err, Dusk," he grumbled sullenly as he trotted over to a nearby bookshelf and plopped down, facing away from us both.
A ghost of a smile appeared on her lips. "Pleased to meet you," she said. She turned back to me. "Now, as I was saying...the history you want to look into?"
I thought for a moment. "How about the general history of Equestria?"
The ghost materialized into a full smile. "Oh, looking back that far, are we?" She moved off to fetch a book.
I blinked. "Far?"
"Well, yes, I mean, Equestria did collapse over a millennia ago, after all."
It took every last bit of effort I had not to shout WHAT? I settled for a few light gasps. "That's right," I managed to choke out after a few uncomfortable moments. "I've just been, err...reading up on history before Equestria so much lately."
Trixie's smile warmed. "I can understand that. It's so fun to bury yourself into tales about Destriacus and old Canterlot, all before...well, never mind." She floated a book over to a nearby table and gestured for me to join her.
I peered down at the thick tome. "The Rise and Fall of Equestria," I read. Shivers ran down my spine. "From 100 B.E. to 475 Y.E..."
"That's the old calendar, you understand," Trixie said. "Funny how we still use the numbers today, even if we don't call it Year of Equestria."
I glanced about at nearby walls, looking for a calendar. There, hanging next to a nearby bookshelf, I read the date: June 1st, 1501. "Yeah, funny," I murmured.
"Would you care for some tea?" asked the library mare all of a sudden.
"Um, sure please, thanks." Trixie nodded and waltzed off to the kitchen, humming a little tune.
Flipping open the cover of the book with my hoof, I began to scour its contents. "Spike!" I whispered. "Get over here."
Spike let out a mighty yawn and plodded over. "I'm here, I'm here. What?"
"Look at this." I pointed at the page. Together, we read a brief chapter summary from the end of the book:
Though the nation of Equestria had suffered many trials and hardships in its history, none were so bad as the war with the mighty Discord. Whence he came from, nopony alive knows, though much speculation abounds. What is known is that he split the forces of Equestria in twain, seizing the crown of Emperor from the late King Umber of Hoofington. Equestria dissolved into a civil war, half led by Discord, the other half led by unknown individuals, though some accord the mythical Alicorn Sisters the role, a position thoroughly rejected by most academics as patently ridiculous. The war raged for many years, from approximately 467 Y.E. til 475 Y.E., at which point in the summer of that year, one final battle saw Discord himself slain by powerful sorcery. Despite his death, the chaos wrought had done its damage, and without anypony strong enough as a leader to step up to the role of Emperor, the fragile union collapsed. Equestria had lasted for almost five hundred years, but never again would the pony nation-states ever unite as they had under the Equestrian banner.
My eyes misted and then welled up. I let the tears flow, sobbing quietly. Spike stood silent beside me. "Y-you s-see?" I said through my sorrow after a few moments. "History c-changed."
Spike trembled. "I'm sorry I doubted you, Twilight."
I slammed the book shut. "We have to fix this!" I declared. "I'm not sure how, but we have to!"
"But, Twilight, the portal maker thingie back at the castle, it's—"
"It's broken, I know!" I huffed a sigh. "We still have the Rod. It's connected to all this, somehow. Maybe we can use it." Even though I tried doing dozens of things to it earlier to no avail, I won't give up!
"Is something wrong?" asked the library mare, whisking her way back into the main room of the library, three steaming cups of tea floating near her head.
I resisted the urge to lay into her. "I'm sorry to be rude," I said, "but S—Dusk and I really need to go. It's late and there's something we have to do."
Trixie pouted. "Oh, that's...that's too bad. It's been ages since I've had real company."
Though I felt a tinge of regret, I pressed on. "I really am sorry." I clopped my hooves together. "Actually, do you mind if we borrow this book? We'll return it in the morning."
She nodded gracefully. "Go right ahead."
I smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Trixie." Snatching up the book, I stuffed it into my saddlebags.
Spike and I trotted over to the door. "You two be careful now," Trixie said, waving goodbye.
"We will. Thanks again!"
"Now what?" Spike asked once we were outside.
An evening breeze drifted by, making me shiver from the cold. "To the park," I ordered, marching off across the street.
"Why the park?"
I grimaced. "Because it's quiet there and I can think."
We entered the park and paused at its center, where I flopped down beneath a nearby tree, enjoying the cool scratchiness of the grass on my skin. The moon cast an eerie glow, giving us just enough light to see by. It hit me, right then, just how tired I was, not to mention starving. I had been running on adrenalin, the small breakfast and smaller lunch I'd had, and everything I'd gone through caught up with me in one swift moment. I almost fell asleep.
Almost, that is, were it not for the sudden surge of pain and light from within and around me. Oh no! I thought. This is too soon! I should've had another couple of hours!
Maybe I would have, had it not been for what I'd already gone through that day. But it was too late. In a flash, Spike and I returned to our normal selves.
Spike hopped up and down, grabbing a hold of my fur. "What do we do now?" he whispered.
My eyes darted around, searching for somepony, anypony nearby. I spotted a lone guard, but he wasn't looking our way. For now. "Stay quiet," I ordered. "I'll think of something."
I pondered ideas of how we might escape. I could teleport us, of course, but I couldn't get us far enough, not from the park, especially not with how exhausted I was. With our luck we'd end up right in the middle of the soldier's barracks.
"Twilight!" Spike interrupted, tugging at my foreleg.
I hissed. "What?"
"Look." He reached into my bag and withdrew the Dreamstone Rod.
The gem glowed from deep within, its rainbow shine flashing brightly. "What in the heck?" I muttered. "Why's it doing that now?"
I took a hold of the Rod with my magic and probed it gently with a Sensing Spell. A loud, familiar hum filled the air as a vortex manifested. I braced myself, but it wasn't necessary. Unlike the previous portal, this one didn't try to suck us in. It just hovered in place, its gaping maw beckoning. What...was this here? This whole time? But...
"Woah," Spike said, gaping at the portal's swirling colors. "Twilight, why—"
"HEY!" A shout emerged from far away, over in the street. I whirled and saw several soldiers aiming their weapons at us. "Stop what you're doing! Now!"
I cursed. "Spike, this way! Let's go!" I said, gesturing at the portal.
"What? But we don't know where it goes!"
I heard more than felt something whiz through the air, impacting the tree with a pock, just as a loud crack echoed from near the soldiers. "We don't have a choice! Run!" I snatched Spike up by his ruffle of spines and leapt into the portal. It filled my whole being with its presence, swallowing us up. I could only hope that when it spat us out, we would be somewhere safe.
Author's Note: As before, I would like to thank Cascade Failure and Rainbow Sparkle both for pre-reading. Without their help these chapters would be of lesser quality.