Twilight Sparkle looked up from her reading with confusion and then went to answer the familiar but unexpected call at her door. "Derpy?" she asked as she opened the door, "Are you ok? You look exhausted."
"Heavier than it looks," the blond delivery-mare said, indicating the box sitting next to her. It was made of wood and marked with words like "dangerous contents" and "handle with care." In a corner of one side, Twilight found a label informing her that the box had originated from Appleoosa.
"Oh, I think I know what this could be," Twilight said, levitating the box up and finding that it was a good deal heavier than its small size would suggest, "Uh, maybe. Can I get you a drink or something Derpy?"
"That sounds nice," Derpy said dreamily, following Twilight inside.
"Spike!" Twilight called, "fetch our guest a cup of water please." As Spike called back his acknowledgment from the back room, Twilight set the box on the central table and pulled off the lid. Inside were several layers of various packing materials surrounding a thick blanket of woven buffalo hair which was wrapped around a heavy metal box held closed with a magical seal. Twilight extracted the metal box and set it on the table with an impressive thud.
"What's that?" Spike commented as he jogged across the room to give Derpy her drink.
"We'll see in a moment," Twilight said in eager anticipation as she applied the counter-spell to the locking seal. The box popped open and Twilight let out a small giggle of amusement at the contents. Derpy and Spike both came over to look and saw a normal-looking book with a sturdy brown cover with single word, Aitran, written on it. Spike raised an eye-ridge while Derpy just looked confused.
"It's a book," the wall-eyed mare said, "I don't get it."
"It's a… rather special book," Twilight said, levitating the tome out of the box and sending it and some of the packing material aside, "don't worry about it."
"Ok Twilight," Derpy said brightly, "Thanks for the water." She turned to go, but before she reached the door she stopped and gave herself a rap on the head. "Almost forgot, I got another package for you." She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a thick rectangular item wrapped in brown paper. "I have no idea where it came from," she announced after Twilight took it, "but the postage was paid and it has your name and address on it. See ya." She smiled and flew out of the library, almost hitting her head on the doorframe as she exited.
"Why are you getting Aitran books in the mail?" Spike asked, going over and opening the linking book to confirm it was genuine, "Does that Star Swirl expect something from you again?"
"No Spike," Twilight said, yanking the book out of the dragon's hands and setting it down, "That's the book Applejack's cousin Braeburn found out in the San Palomino Desert last month and wound up sending himself and two buffalo into. I'm going to send it to Princess Celestia to lock up in the Archives so we don't have a repeat of that particular incident."
"Another repeat you mean," Spike muttered. Twilight ignored him and unwrapped her second package, which turned out to be a small book gilded with the title Materan and an accompanying letter, written in a practiced, meticulous script that Twilight recognized instantly
'Twilight, my dear friend,' it read,
'I thought I should tell you about recent events in my family's life. We have decided to abandon the world of Aitran and live elsewhere: Equestria. To be more precise, we have built ourselves a home just outside the land of Equestria itself, and we have named the property Materan in honor of one of the leaders of the Moiety. (They are doing quite well for themselves in Tay, although they were looking to expand outside their original settlement the last I heard.)
Don't worry yourself over the ramifications of me leaving the virtually timeless Aitran to return to a world where I should have died nearly a thousand years ago, as it seems Time is content to let me live on like any normal pony.
I've sent you something Clover has recently discovered in her own experiments: a Linking Book that can transport you to a certain location even when you are in the same world. Specifically, this one will be able to bring you to Materan, and we have one here that links to a park in Canterlot. Consider the gift an open invitation to you and your friends to visit us whenever you want.
"Oh my," Twilight said, opening the book and turning the pages in quick but careful manner. Each page was covered, with nearly no margins, in an Old Equestrian script that was nearly geometrical and a single half-page sketch near the middle, both indicative features of the strange magical books that could transport a pony to new and strange worlds entirely separate from Equestria. The very idea that such a thing was even possible had been hidden for nearly a millennium until Twilight had come upon one such book - linking to the world Star Swirl had taken himself and his discoveries to - tucked away in the Royal Archives for extremely rare and valuable books. On the final page, Twilight found the last and most important clue to the book's purpose: a rectangular panel enchanted to provide a true-to-life, moving aerial image of the destination, which seemed to be a network of round, roofed pavilions built into the end of a short canyon over a strong-looking river.
Spike picked up the letter from Star Swirl and read it for himself. "Heh, I knew it," he said with a teasing smirk, "He does want something from you. I was just focused on the wrong package."
"Oh Spike, it's just an invitation," Twilight chided good-naturedly.
"Are you going to take him up on it?" the dragon asked, "I don't think we have anything pressing on the schedule today."
"Hm," Twilight said, thinking, "Well, it would probably be polite to drop in real quick just to let them know we got the book."
"Ok then, I'm coming with you," Spike said with determination.
"Spike," Twilight said, surprised.
"No, don't try to talk me out of it Twilight," the baby dragon said, "I've had to sit back and worry about you winking around through books like this twice already, so I think it's high time I got to go with you. And I kinda want to meet Star Swirl and see if he's really all that," he added with some meekness.
"All right," Twilight relented with a chuckle, "This should just be a quick trip, but let's lock up and leave a note in case somepony comes by while we're gone."
In short order, Twilight had written out a short letter which she hoped would clue her friends in to her location without revealing too much to anypony not in the know. Outside of the six bearers of the Elements of Harmony, the Princesses, and a segment of the Royal Guard, no one in Equestria knew that the ancient unicorn scholar Star Swirl the Bearded was still alive, thanks to his manipulation of the flow of time inside his book worlds, let alone that Linking Books and alternate realities existed. The letter was pinned to the front door, which had been locked along with all but one window (in case a certain cyan pegasus absolutely had to get in), and the sign declaring the library's availability to the public had been taken down. After receiving a brief spark of inspiration, Twilight had put on her saddlebags and placed the Aitran book from Appleoosa into them, realizing it would probably be even more secure with Star Swirl than in the Royal Archives. That ancient vault was vast, and she'd only found the copy of Aitran it contained by lucky chance, but adding a second copy would increase the odds of some other seeker of lost knowledge would stumble upon and use the link.
"Are we ready yet?" Spike asked, bouncing slightly with anticipation.
"I think so," Twilight said, taking one last look around, "You want to go first?"
Spike hesitated, looking at the linking panel of the book on the table before him. "Um…" he said.
"Let's go together," Twilight said, levitating him onto her back, "This'll be a good experiment anyway. I've never tried linking with somepony touching me." Before Spike could fully voice his shocked objection to the idea, Twilight raised a hoof and touched it to the moving panel. A faint buzzing hum filled the air as the world faded away around her into a brief black void.
When reality reasserted itself around Twilight, she was presented with a view she hadn't been expecting. She was standing on the edge of a roofed patio gazing out over a desert plain with wind-sworn stone hills in the near distance creating a breathtaking vista. The floor under her hooves was tiled in a simple but artistic pattern and the roof seemed to be a mosaic of colored glass. Tall, leafy green houseplants stood on either side of her, providing a contrast to the view outside. After taking in her first impression of the area, Twilight realized she didn't feel Spike's weight on her back. Ok, so you can't piggyback on somepony else's Linking, she thought, I hope he didn't get hurt when I vanished from underneath him. She heard the sound of a door opening behind her and started to turn around. As she did so, Spike materialized and landed in an awkward side-saddle position on her back, startling them both as well as the pony who had emerged onto the patio from behind one of the houseplants.
The newcomer was a unicorn mare with a light mahogany coat and a blue-black mane held back in a long braid, and she was wearing a simple red dress that reached nearly to the floor in the back. "Oh," she said, recovering from her surprise and smiling warmly, "Welcome. Did you enjoy the view? I told Star Swirl to make the linking books point visitors toward those hills when they arrive. They're beautiful in the sunlight."
"It is rather nice," Twilight said, letting Spike slide off her back before stepping closer to the mare, "It's good to see you again Clover." She gestured to the small purple dragon at her side and said, "This is Spike, my number one assistant. Spike, meet Clover. She's Star Swirl's wife."
"It's an honor to meet you Lady Clover," Spike said, bowing regally.
Clover giggled at the display. "Likewise Spike; I'm pleased you welcome you to my home, but please, just Clover will do." To Twilight, she whispered conspiratorially, "Is he always so polite?"
"Only when he's trying to impress somepony," Twilight muttered back with a wry smirk.
"I see," Clover said, "We were about to have lunch. You should join us."
"Oh, thanks but no thanks," Twilight said, "We don't want to impose. We just came to let you know we got the book."
"It's no problem," Clover said, "Besides, you'll have to go through Star Swirl to get to the book back to Canterlot, and I know he and Nyx won't let you go without a conversation at the least."
Twilight sighed, but with a small smile on her face. "All right, lead the way."
The Materan estate was composed of two groups of round metal huts built onto opposite sides of the river canyon and connected by a single, central bridge. The patio Twilight and Spike had appeared on was on the side devoted to work and studies, while the living areas were on the other side. There were two doors leading off the patio, and the one Clover led them through opened into a greenhouse filled with strange plants that Clover said she'd brought in from Tay as an experiment. Past that was another greenhouse containing a more familiar array of food plants – carrots, celery, tomatoes, hay, and so forth – with several of the glass panes in the walls and roof designed to open to allow a comfortable breeze to blow through. In the center, on a patch of lawn obviously made for the purpose, a picnic blanket had been spread out and occupied by a grey unicorn stallion and a dark purple unicorn filly as well as a selection of food. Twilight instantly recognized the filly as Nyx from her cutie mark of an open book surrounded by swirling stars, light blue vest, and intense teal eyes that brightened slightly with recognition as she saw Twilight enter.
As for the stallion, Twilight had to do a double-take before she recognized him as Star Swirl the Bearded. His long tell-tale beard had been nearly cut away leaving only a small brush on his chin, and he had apparently taken to wearing a pair of half-moon spectacles. His wide-brimmed wizard's hat was missing, and the robe he wore lacked the bells along the hem. He seemed oblivious to Twilight's shock as he got up and came over to give clover a peck on the cheek and then grab Twilight in a hug that surprised her even further. "Ah Twilight, what a pleasant surprise. You got my package I see."
"Star Swirl," Twilight managed to squeak out, breaking through her shock enough to speak, "You've… changed."
"That I have my friend," Star Swirl said with a laugh, "I wasn't too keen on the idea at first, but Clover and Princess Celestia managed to convince me it was best I adopt a different style so that I won't be so easily recognized by other ponies. I would rather not have to explain why I'm doing something other than being dead. And you," he added, looking at Spike, "you would be Spike I presume?"
"Uh yeah," the baby dragon said, "How did you know?"
"The Princesses mentioned you once or twice," Star Swirl answered, "Now come, sit down and eat with us."
Not feeling up to arguing about it twice, Twilight nodded and followed Star Swirl to the picnic blanket.
Nyx's eyes grew wider as she saw Spike approach, and she bounded forward with a squeal to land right in front of him. "Oh my gosh, you're a dragon, aren't you?" she exclaimed, and then remembered herself long enough to add a quick, "Hello Twilight," as an aside before going back to excitedly studying Spike. "I've heard about dragons, but I've never seen one before. Aren't you supposed to be bigger? Are you just a baby dragon? What's your… waaaait a minute." She turned and gave Star Swirl a suspicious look. "Father," she said, "you planned this didn't you? Well, I refuse to be distracted." She turned around smartly and walked back to the picnic blanket with her nose in the air.
"What," Spike said in flat bewilderment.
"Nyx, what has gotten into you?" Clover asked.
"It seems our little filly has become quite skilled at sneaking into place she shouldn't," Star Swirl said, trying to sound disapproving despite the slight smile on his face, "She got into my study and discovered where I hid I'strukun."
"It was right out in the open," Nyx said, "on the shelf between Rime and Baseli. That's not hidden."
"I'strukun? Rime?" Twilight asked with interest, "Have you Written some new worlds Star Swirl?"
"No," the old scholar said, "I haven't found the will to attempt that again. They are two other Linking Books that survived the disaster on Aitran. I was on Rime when my apprentices began their destructive behavior, and they left it alone because of that."
"Both books were among those Cirrus and Archeon were forbidden to use without permission even after Father gave them full access to the others," Nyx added, "Or at least, I figured they were because they were kept with books like Sohndar in Father's private cavern."
"So, what's the big deal with I'strukun?" Spike asked, "is it dangerous?"
"No," the filly said, rolling her eyes, "It's the first step for learning how to Write new worlds. And I think I'm ready to take those lessons!"
"That's for your father to decide Nyx," Clover scolded, and then looked at her husband and said, "She's still too young."
"Moooom," Nyx whined.
"Nyx, my little star," Star Swirl said gently, "Even if you were ready, I don't know if the Lesson Worlds are."
Nyx stared at her father in dumb shock. "If I were ready?" she said, "Father, when you sent them through the Lesson Worlds, you told me I'd be ready when I had my cutie mark! Well, I've got it now, and I survived in Sohndar as well! How can I not be ready now?"
"Nyx," Star Swirl said, trying to placate her.
The little filly wasn't having any of it though. "Don't!" she shouted, "I get it! You don't want me Writing books! Never mind that's what my cutie mark means!" She bolted out of the greenhouse, crying loud, frustrated tears as she vanished across the bridge into the dormitory area.
"Oh dear," Clover said, "I'll go talk to her."
"Let her be for a moment love," Star Swirl said, putting a hoof on Clover's shoulder, "Twilight, Spike, I'm sorry you had to see that."
Twilight dragged a hoof through the grass, feeling awkward. "Maybe we should just go," she said at last, "Come back when things have cooled down?"
"Of course," Star Swirl said, "You're always welcome here. Come with me; I'll take you to the link back to Canterlot." He led Twilight and Spike back to the patio, and from there he went through the second door into a study. A couple of tapestries depicting important events in Star Swirl's life hung on the back wall, and all of the furniture had been set up on the end closest to the door, leaving a large empty space to the left. The desk held some framed charcoal portraits of Clover, Nyx, and Cirrus and Archeon, much to Twilight's surprise, as well as a few sheets of paper and an ink well. On the wall were shelves holding a number of books, only a couple of which Twilight recognized.
Seeing the books reminded Twilight of the one in her bag, and she got it out and held it out to Star Swirl. "Here's the Aitran book that fell into the desert a while back," she said, "It came to me in the mail the same time I got your package."
"Ah, thank you," the old stallion said taking the book, "it will be good to know Aitran Island won't be getting anymore unexpected guests. Especially ones as big as that buffalo, Thunderhooves. I still count myself lucky no others like him showed up, or the library would have likely burst apart." Twilight giggled at the mental image.
"It certainly caused a lot of chaos when he, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart vanished, only to turn up in the middle of Princess Celestia's throne room a few hours later," Spike said, "When they sent the book to us it was packaged up like some kind of toxic material."
Star Swirl chuckled a bit, but then grew somber as he put the book on a shelf. "A lot of pain and trouble can be caused by these linking books," he said, "especially when I see the damage Cirrus and Archeon caused to mine. The Forestsea is starting to recover, but Baseli and the Fortress are beyond my ability to help. I haven't been able to find the nerve to go into I'strukun and the worlds beyond it, out of fear that I may find much worse than an empty fortress or desolate, sinking rocks."
"Is that why you don't want to let Nyx go there?" Twilight asked.
"Until I can be sure the worlds are still safe to travel to and the puzzles still operational, no," Star Swirl said, "but, if I were to confirm my fears… I'm not sure spirit could take it. They are among my finest work."
"Sounds like you need to send somepony else," Spike said, "Somepony smart and brave enough to work her way through anything your crazy book-worlds can throw at her."
Twilight quirked an eyebrow and looked down at Spike. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Just making a suggestion," Spike said, feigning innocence.
"I must admit," Star Swirl mused to himself, "The thought of asking for help had crossed my mind, but I shouldn't lay that one you. You've done enough favors for me as it is Twilight." He levitated a book with a white cover and golden filigree on the spine from the shelf and set it on the desk, open to a linking panel showing a park in Canterlot. "There is your way home my friends," he said, "Until next time."
Twilight nodded and started to reach out to the book, but before her hoof touched the panel she paused. "I'm always willing to help a friend Star Swirl," she said, "So, maybe, if it's ok with you, I'd like to go to I'strukun." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a smirk of triumph on the corners of Spike's mouth.
"I… I'd appreciate that Twilight," Star Swirl said, "Come back tomorrow; there are some things I need to find so that you won't be going in blind."
Twilight nodded and then looked down at Spike. "See you tomorrow then," she said, "Let's go Spike."