"A Challenge from Beyond"
Somewhere in China
Within the encampment, all the soldiers were celebrating. Spontaneous bonfires had been set up everywhere, and all around men were drinking, gorging themselves and making merry.
Twilight Sparkle stood at the entrance to her tent and watched. The fires of victory sparked no joy in her heart; they merely reminded her of the devastation that had unfolded just a few hours before.
She turned her back on the spectacle and reentered her quarters. Spike was sitting on the ground drawing in the dirt with a stick.
"Spike, take a letter," Twilight suddenly declared, surprising even herself.
It had been a long time since Spike had heard her give that order, and he had to take a moment to remind himself of what to do. When it came to him, he quickly scraped together parchment and pen. When he was ready, Twilight began to speak:
Dear Princess Celestia,
I know I haven't written to you since I came to this new land. I didn't think you would receive my messages. To be honest, I still don't think this will reach you, but I have to write it anyways, for my own sake. You said that when the land was unified, we would all get to go home. I believed you, and I fought because I believed you. There are good things about this world. It is full of humans who are strong and wise and kind. Some of them have even become my friends. But sometimes it seems that they only know how to fight and how to hurt. I've seen so much suffering since I came here that I'm beginning to doubt this land will ever be united. Did you lie to me? Have all my struggles been for nothing? All I want is to see Equestria again, to be together with my friends again. I just want to go home.
The word "home" lingered in Twilight's throat just a little too long, and it was all she could do to choke back her tears. What was "home," anyway? Something long ago and far away…
Several years ago
"What'll I make? What'll I make?"
Twilight Sparkle was tearing through her bookshelves at a furious pace. No sooner would she bring a book up to her scrutiny then she would cast it away and gallop off to levitate down a new one in its place. The floor of her library betrayed the casualties of her struggle; dozens of cookbooks had been flung around, opened to recipes with names like "Pumpkin Custard" and "Tapioca Fruit Parfaits."
Because the weather ponies had decided to make tomorrow a beautiful, sunny day, Twilight and her five best friends had agreed to have a picnic, and that meant that Twilight had to find something that she could cook for them. But how was she supposed to come up with a dish as good as Applejack's apple pie or…well, anything that Pinkie Pie baked? Obviously, she would need the perfect recipe to do it, and it had to be somewhere in her books!
Spike, his eyes half-closed from fatigue, walked in on the scene of Twilight's bustle. "Hey, Twi?"
Twilight Sparkle screeched to a halt in front of him, breathing heavily. Her frazzled face was just inches from his own and he instinctively recoiled.
"What is it, Spike? I'm kind of busy here."
"It's just that, it's really late and you're making a lot of noise and, uh…dragons need their sleep too, you know."
Twilight's eyes grew downcast. "I'm sorry. I just can't seem to find the perfect recipe for the picnic."
Spike laughed. "Is that all? That's easy to fix! Wait right there and I'll help you."
And with that, he dashed out of the library. Twilight stepped forward and shouted after him: "You don't understand! When I said 'perfect,' I really meant it!"
It did not take long for Spike to return. He carried with him a thin strip of cloth. Before Twilight knew what was happening, he had jumped up and tied it around her eyes as a blindfold.
"What are you doing?" said Twilight, with no small amount of annoyance in her voice.
Spike, looking carefully over the scattered cookbooks, picked up the biggest one. Struggling under its weight for a moment, he balanced himself and moved in front of the blindfolded Twilight.
"I've got one of your recipe books in front of you. I'm gonna flip through the pages, and you're gonna point when you feel like the perfect recipe's in front of you.
Twilight frowned. "There's no way this will work."
"C'mon!" coaxed Spike. "Just give it a try!" And with that, he began riffling through the pages.
Twilight sighed and played along, sticking her hoof in the middle of the book. Standing up on her hind legs, she lifted the blindfold from her eyes and looked at the recipe that had come up.
"Chocolate cake? Just chocolate cake?"
"Great!" said Spike. "Everypony likes chocolate!"
"But it's so simple and boring!"
"C'mon, Twi. They're your friends. They'll love anything you make for them as long as you try your best."
Something in Spike's words struck home to Twilight Sparkle. Her protestations halted.
With an audible "oof," Spike dropped the tome at Twilight's feet. "Now I'm going to go and get some sleep. You should too, unless you want to go to that picnic with those ugly bags you get under your eyes."
Spike walked out, yawning, before Twilight could respond to his little dig at her. She stood for a moment in the middle of the mess of paper and binding her search had whipped up.
Chocolate cake, huh? She knew how to make that.
Twilight stood before a mirror. Her toothbrush, under the control of her telekinetic magic, moved up and down over her smile.
She had laid out everything she needed for the chocolate cake. She would bake it in the morning. She had enough time. Now, she had to focus on getting in a little shut-eye.
"You're right, Spike. Tomorrow's going to be a beautiful day."
At least, that was what she was trying to say. At that moment, her mouth was too full of toothpaste, so what actually came out was something more akin to "Yerrit sperk. Toomoo gernbera boofilldeh." It didn't matter much, though, as Spike had already drifted off to sleep. The thought was more for herself than for him.
Having finished washing up, Twilight trotted to her bed and slid underneath the covers. It wasn't long before a peaceful sleep had overtaken her, filled with dreams of the pleasures to come on the morrow.
Torn from her slumber by the sudden noise, Twilight slowly opened her eyes. At first those eyes glimmered with anticipation, but they soon narrowed into an expression of confusion as it dawned on their owner what the source of the sound had been; for it was unmistakable that the cannon-like blast that had awoken Twilight Sparkle was merely a bright shock of thunder standing out against the dull hammering of a heavy rain.
"Something isn't right," thought Twilight, sitting upright in her bed. "They said the weather…"
She did not give herself time to complete that thought, for she was already galloping down her stairs towards the door to her house, only pausing to check on Spike. As she suspected, the young dragon was still sound asleep, with nary a care strewn across his face. "No need to wake him," mused Twilight. "Thanks to this rain, he won't be missing much right now."
Twilight Sparkle stepped outside and a thrill of fear brought her rush to a halt. Certainly, to one who did not look closely, the world would have looked as it ordinarily did when it rained in Ponyville: the sky was grey, puddles were forming in the cracks on the street, where not another soul was around, and the light of the sun, obscured by the clouds, reached the earth only in a haze. Twilight, however, had a more discerning vision, and she could see that the gray color of the clouds did not end in the sky, but instead seeped almost imperceptibly into the tops of the buildings around her, and that the rain, when looked at intently, seemed less like water than a continuation of this gray, coming down in dreary blobs.
"This is no ordinary rain," Twilight thought to herself, but her pondering was almost immediately interrupted.
The new pony ran up to meet Twilight Sparkle.
"We thought we'd find you here. C'mon! The others are all waitin' in the center of town!"
Applejack made to bolt off, but Twilight stopped her.
"Applejack, what do you think's going on?"
"I ain't sure, but this rain is mighty strange. It's like…well, usually when it rains, I always feel like the apple trees are growin', you know? With this rain, I don't feel like anythin' is growin'. Just…dyin'.
Twilight Sparkle stared at her friend. "So one of the others feels it, too," she thought to herself.
"We'd better meet up with the others, Applejack."
And with Twilight in tow, Applejack took off.
The two soon reached their other friends, who were congregating underneath a rather large umbrella held up by Fluttershy.
Rarity looked up at Twilight with a scowl across her mouth. "Darling, the whole day is ruined! I can't even show you all the marvelous new dress I've been working on, at least not with this rain."
"Those lazy jerks on weather duty always mess things up," chimed in Rainbow Dash. "I bet they expect me to do everything around here, but this is too big of a job for one pony."
"What are we going to do?" wailed Fluttershy.
The six ponies sat in gloomy thought. Suddenly, Pinkie Pie's face lit up with inspiration.
"I've got it!" she exclaimed. "Just stand back and watch!"
And watch the others did, or at least as much as it was possible to watch; for Pinkie was moving at such speed and with such single-mindedness, grabbing materials and tossing them together in front of her companions, that she was nothing but a blur to their eyes. Impossibly, her furious workings even raised up a cloud of dust around the mysterious device she was making, a cloud that even the heavy rain couldn't beat down.
When the dust had settled, the other ponies saw Pinkie Pie standing proudly before a crude wooden megaphone about two stories tall, tilted to face the sky. Positioning herself at the mouthpiece and drawing in a gigantic breath, Pinkie Pie shouted with all her might "RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY! COME AGAIN SOME OTHER DAY!"
The other ponies looked incredulously at the smiling Pinkie.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning leapt from the sky and struck the megaphone, burning it to cinders in seconds as Pinkie Pie screamed and jumped out of the way.
Regaining her composure, Pinkie Pie returned under the umbrella. "Well, I gave it my best shot."
"Have you guys seen anypony else wandering around today?" Twilight suddenly interjected. It had just struck her that her five friends were the only ponies she had seen since she had stepped outside. The rain, the isolation...she could feel her heart sinking as she realized that these things could only mean that evil was afoot.
"Sorry, Twilight, but there ain't nopony else around that I know of," offered Applejack.
"Now that you mention it, it is rather curious," said Rarity. "Why isn't there anypony else out here?"
"Because I made this rain just for you," a familiar voice intoned from above and behind them.
Even before she turned around to see the raindrops changing their course before her eyes, filling the empty air as if it were a vessel and forming a giant sphere that floated above the ground, Twilight Sparkle knew who had spoken. Even before the miniature figure, with its body of mismatched parts from other creatures, dimly flickered to life in the center of the hovering water like their future in a crystal ball, she recognized the voice. Its silken tone rang with a hollowness that conjured every horror that chaos could bring. There could be no doubt about who it was.
"Discord!" Twilight Sparkle exclaimed.
"B-b-but we locked you away!" cowered Fluttershy with a mixture of awe and fear.
The miniature image of Discord smiled. "Oh, the hard part was figuring out how to escape the first time. Once you learn the trick, it's a snap!"
"Why are you showing your slimy face here again?" Rainbow Dash asked with a sneer. The six ponies had gathered around the sphere and Dash was hovering right next to it, looking as if she could not decide whether to take a swipe at the image of Discord within the water's depths or hold back and hear him out.
"Why else but to claim this land which is rightfully mine?" Discord returned. "Not forgetting, of course, to take sweet revenge against the six meddlers who caused me a…let's say 'temporary setback'...while I do it!"
"If it has taken me a little while to return," he continued, "it is only because I've been busy preparing a small surprise for you. I would be oh so grateful if you could pop into the new castle I've built for myself. It's just on the outskirts of your teensy little town. You can't miss it."
The ponies looked off in various directions, but no castle was to be seen.
"What castle?" spoke up Applejack dismissively. "I don't see no…"
She did not get to complete her thought, as the ground immediately began to shake violently. The sound of stone being hewn from stone and earth dropping away from earth filled the wet air as off in the distance a tower taller than any the six friends had seen before, even in Canterlot, seemed to grow out of the earth like a malevolent oak.
"Do you see it now?" the image of Discord chuckled. "Like I said, you can't miss it!"
"I don't like your games, Discord," Pinkie Pie shouted. "They're no fun!"
"Yeah!" Rainbow Dash agreed. "Why don't you come over here and put your money where your mouth is, you ugly dragon…goat…thing!"
Discord sighed. "Oh, I really can't be bothered. If you don't want to come visit me, that's no skin off my nose. You should just know that this lovely rain that you're all enjoying has a name: the Rain of Lost Hope. It shouldn't be long now until it sucks the very souls from everypony in Ponyville, not to mention Canterlot, Saddle Arabia…you do know it's raining everywhere, don't you? Of course, it shouldn't matter much to you. I grant that the magic of the Elements of Harmony is keeping you safe from my wonderful downpour. But won't it be so much fun when everypony you know is my thrall? Perhaps I'll turn them all into gnats. No, trout! No, trout-gnats!" Discord giggled with glee. "Well, it's your choice, girls. Come to my little party, or watch as this rain makes the flowers of chaos bloom!"
And with that, the miniature Discord vanished from the center of the sphere of water, which burst out in all directions, deluging the six ponies and sending them sprawling.
Rarity was the first pony to get up. "That insolent wretch!" she cried as she rubbed the water off of her face with her forelegs.
Rainbow Dash righted herself next. Her eyes were all afire. "So he summoned a rainstorm with his magic. Who cares? Let's go get him!"
"Rainbow Dash is right," said Pinkie Pie. "We've got the Elements of Harmony on our side. Let's show Discord what a real party is like!"
"I suppose we don't have much of a choice right now," sighed Rarity.
Even amidst the Rain of Lost Hope, hope sprang within the breasts of the six. Together, they all began to move towards the mysterious castle that had sprung from the ground…except for one of their number.
Twilight Sparkle noticed that Fluttershy was hesitating, and that her face seemed to be filled with apprehension.
"Come on, Fluttershy. We need you if we're going to beat Discord. You don't have to be afraid of him; we'll seal him away with our magic, just like last time, and before he can get out again, we'll get Princess Celestia to help us make sure he never comes back."
Fluttershy looked off into the distance.
"It's not Discord that scares me. It's his surprise."
Having fetched the Elements of Harmony, it did not take the ponies long to reach the massive door of Discord's castle.
Twilight Sparkle used her magic to open the door cautiously. Rainbow Dash, undaunted by the looming aspect of the tower, zipped inside, followed closely by the others.
They found themselves in a large, echo-filled room of stone, devoid of any furnishing. A staircase wound up to the ceiling on the wall opposite them. There were no windows; all the light in the room came from a number of torches hung high up in sconces.
When all six had wandered in, the door suddenly swung shut behind them and Discord's voice boomed through the hall.
"We came, Discord," Twilight said. "Now stop this rain!"
"Pretty please with sugar on top?" Discord said mockingly. "Why do you think that you can get what you want by just asking nicely? If you want this rain to end, then you'll have to make me end it."
"Then where are you?" demanded Applejack through clenched teeth.
"I'm just fashionably late to my own soiree. That doesn't mean you can't greet the other guest, however!"
A blinding light suddenly emanated from the center of the room. When the six friends regained their sight from the flash, they could see that a symbol which could have been writing save that none of the ponies could read it had been drawn in fire over a deep and unreal darkness which was materializing on the ground. The symbol hung like a pane of glass over what looked like a bottomless pit.
"During my time of interdimensional imprisonment," Discord lectured as an amorphous shape seemed to emerge from the sign on the floor, "I searched across the multiverse for some force, any force, that could put an end to you tedious puppets of order. It may have taken all of my power to bring him here, but I finally did it; I found the one pony who can defeat you all! He's stronger, he's faster, and he's greater than all six of you combined! I suppose you don't need me to tell you about that, though. You'll find out for yourselves soon enough!" His maniacal laughter echoed all around.
The strange glowing shape had fully arisen, and the symbol on the ground disappeared with its darkness. As it did so, the light seemed to coalesce into a definite shape. Standing before the six friends was a horse larger and more muscular than any they had ever seen. His mane and tail seemed to blaze with fire, while his red coat smoldered like embers. He was outfitted in fearsome black armor, and his eyes glared with cruel anticipation.
Both sides stood still for a moment.
"Who are you?" Twilight Sparkle finally ventured to ask.
"The name," the red pony answered back, "is Red Hare."
Another pause deadened the air.
"Why are you doing this to us?" Fluttershy finally burst out. "Why are you helping him hurt our friends?"
"I don't care about your little 'friends.' I was only told that you six were the strongest around. I thought that fighting you would be fun. I could use a little fun."
"Then there's no chance you'll stand down?" said Twilight.
"Not until I test how strong you truly are."
"Well then," said Twilight with grim determination, "let's get him, everypony!"
That was their cue. The other ponies fell in place and concentrated on the power of the Elements of Harmony within themselves. United in their friendship, a beam shot across the empty room at the solitary warrior pony.
The beam cut through empty air, and when Twilight looked around, she saw Red Hare standing where Fluttershy had once been. Fluttershy herself was crumpled against a wall, her eyes closed.
"An attack that slow could never hit the fastest pony alive," Red Hare stated calmly.
"Fastest pony alive, huh? We'll see about that!" Rainbow Dash shouted. She immediately took off, flying full tilt at Red Hare.
Up until the last moment it seemed that she would hit her mark, but in the split second before impact, Red Hare simply stepped aside, leaving Rainbow Dash careening uncontrollably towards the walls of the tower. She collided with a sickening thud, falling to the ground dazed but conscious.
Pinkie Pie and Applejack, meanwhile, had used the opening provided by Rainbow Dash to flank Red Hare. They both struck his sides with all their might, simultaneously. Though he grunted in pain, Red Hare did not budge. Rearing up on his hind legs, he brought his forelegs down with such force that Applejack and Pinkie were both knocked off balance by the quaking of the earth. It was a simple matter then for Red Hare to strike both of them away.
Twilight Sparkle had rushed to the side of Fluttershy and was tending to her injuries. She tensely watched as Red Hare did battle with her friends. She needed to get Fluttershy somewhere safe, and quick. "We need to get Fluttershy out of here, guys!" she shouted.
The shout drew Red Hare's attention. Twilight gulped and readied herself.
Suddenly, Red Hare was encased in a glowing, pale blue light. Rarity strained to maintain her telekinesis as she lifted him higher and higher. As soon as he was several feet above the ground, she began to toss him back and forth, smashing him viciously into the walls. The impact did not to faze Red Hare. A great yell came from his lips and a shockwave propelled him downwards out of the cloud of magic, straight towards Rarity.
Rarity braced for the full brunt of his blow, but the blow never came. Rainbow Dash, having recovered her senses, had swooped in and snatched Red Hare out of the air. Mounting back up, she threw him down to the earth, where the waiting loop of a lasso closed around his legs. Spinning him around as fast as she could, Applejack launched Red Hare in the direction of Pinkie Pie, who with one strong kick from her hind legs sent him careening into a wall.
"Everypony to the stairs!" cried Twilight Sparkle. Rainbow Dash picked up Fluttershy and the group ran off towards the tall, winding staircase. Red Hare stopped them short. It had taken him but an instant to get back to his feet and dash into a position to block their path, a fact which chilled Twilight. Hadn't they hurt him at all?
"Not too shabby. Certainly different from any other way of fighting I've encountered. I suppose you deserve to see one of my techniques for your effort."
Red Hare's mane and tail grew even brighter. Twilight had only just enough time to throw up a force field around herself and her friends before the entire room was engulfed in terrible fire. Even through the magical barrier, the heat was immense. Red Hare had disappeared within the roaring flames.
"Is Fluttershy okay?" Rainbow Dash offered solemnly.
"She wasn't hurt too badly. I know a spell that should heal her right up," responded Twilight Sparkle, speaking deliberately to maintain her concentration on the force field. "But I need quiet to cast it. Let's get up these stairs, now!"
Grouped together under the barrier, the ponies made their way up the treacherous steps as quickly as they could, still assaulted by the flames of Red Hare from below. Even when they reached the next floor of the tower they kept going, hoping to put enough distance into place to secure some time. Thus it was that they emerged onto an empty corridor, with doors leading every which way, having lost count of the number of levels they had placed between themselves and their foe.
Pinkie Pie grew excited. "Oooooh! Where does this door go? Where does THIS door go? Where does this door go?" she said, rushing back and forth between the different entrances.
"Just pick one we can hide in!" shouted an exasperated Twilight.
Pinkie Pie made her choice and the others hurried inside. They closed the door and turned around to take in their new surroundings.
The room they had chosen was not what they had expected. It was the most well-appointed toilette that the ponies had ever seen. Two dressers faced each other, their tops covered in more creams, colognes, and gels than any of them had ever encountered, even Rarity. A luxuriously large bathtub was situated in a deep recess on the wall across from the door. The most notable feature of the room, though, was Discord, who was sitting in the water-and-bubble-filled tub and had apparently just been holding up a hand mirror in which to admire his features, but was now staring in open-mouthed shock at the intruders.
"You weren't supposed to come into my private spa…um, I mean Chamber of Chaos!" he sputtered.
Applejack was just as gobsmacked. "Discord?"
Rarity was more composed. "You call this a spa? This is the tackiest design I've ever seen in my life! Those hideous dressers, that ridiculous bath…and let me see that mirror."
With her telekinesis, she lifted the mirror out of the still-shocked Discord's hands and drew it close to her face. As soon as her eyes focused on what was within it, though, she screamed and dropped it towards the ground.
It was all Discord could do to keep the mirror from hitting the hard floor. Screaming "No!" at the top of his lungs, his telekinetic powers saved it from shattering just in the nick of time. In his urgency, though, he had not summoned enough of his magical strength to stop Twilight's telekinesis from snatching it from out of his control.
Twilight, too, brought the mirror up to her gaze. Where normally she would have seen herself, in this mirror there was a different pony reflected: Red Hare.
A smile curled around Twilight's lips. "So this is how you brought him here."
The other ponies realized what had happened and crowded around Twilight defensively and triumphantly.
"Please, I beg of you, give me back that mirror. You don't understand what its purpose is." A plaintive tone had crept into Discord's voice, a tone Twilight had never heard before.
"Oh, I understand perfectly well, and if you don't get rid of your friend right now, we'll have to do it for you."
"It's not that simple…" Discord said uneasily.
"Well then, Applejack, would you do the honors?"
Twilight floated the mirror over to Applejack, who wound up to destroy the mirror. Before she could strike, though, her hand was stayed by a sudden outburst of pleading from Discord. "I will do anything you ask! Anything! Just don't destroy that mirror!"
Twilight brought the mirror back to herself. Was Discord telling the truth? Was there something more to this mirror than met the eye?
Suddenly, Twilight Sparkle heard a great cracking. The door behind her had splintered into a million pieces and Red Hare had burst into the room.
"Get the mirror! Get it!" screamed Discord.
She went on instinct. With all the might her telekinetic magic could muster, Twilight Sparkle hurled the mirror at the ground. A giant crack ran through the glass and, suddenly, everything stopped.
Twilight felt herself rooted to the spot. Everyone around her was frozen in their places, and even though his body did not move, she heard the voice of Discord all around her.
"You little fool! That was the Mirror of Infinite Worlds! It was just as fragile as the shells that separate one dimension from another, and now that it is broken, so are the shells of our two worlds. Not even a master of chaos could tell you what will happen now. You have doomed us all!"
The world around Twilight Sparkle was beginning to melt like a painting made of ice, revealing a canvas of deathly blackness beyond it. Everyone and everything fell away and Twilight felt as if she were falling faster and faster through the unending night of nothingness. Unexpectedly, a faint light began to shine and Twilight began to accelerate towards it, going at speeds that would have been impossible if she were anywhere but nowhere. She blacked out before she could discover where the light would lead her.