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Night Watcher The Ponderous had seldom been speechless. His wrinkled mouth hung open as he slowly turned his head from the right all the way to the left. "This cannot be the location. What maladroit balourdise have you wrought this time, Girandole?"
Girandole The Opacous, studied a small, spherical brasswork held in his ancient horn's glowing grasp. Tiny lenses of crystal swarmed on armatures around the clockwork before settling into an agreeable alignment. The device made a thin, musical chime. "Th-There can be n-no question, O' Scion of Th-Thaumaturgy; this is w-without argument th-th-the proper and t-true destination."
"Check that decrepit dunderpate's readings, Tagtail." Night Watcher took a tentative step forward in the corral; ahead in the moonlight was Ponyville, perhaps. It would be like that shaking, superannuated driveling to dump them all a colt's run from Canterlot. No, it couldn't be Ponyville, there were no mountains. The buildings were certainly right, but... wait, there was one mountain. Strange sort of mountain, hardly more than a hill with pretensions.
While Tagtail the Obsequious struggled with Girandole for control of the Globate Translociter, glowing field slapping glowing field like two children fighting over a toy, Night Watcher limped forward with confidence. This was clearly still the solidity of Fundamental Equestria. They were surely nowhere near the Exponential Lands. Night Watcher felt a distant echo of pity for the incompetent fool. Girandole's forced retirement was all but assured now. The marrowless wretch could no longer even perform a basic transport any more.
The cottage that Night Watcher passed was beautiful and looked recently constructed. It was as fine as any other he had seen in Equestria. The cobblestones of the path under his hooves were lovingly crafted... was this Clydesdale, perhaps? At the corner, Night Watcher noticed how dark the streets were. There was not a single lantern anywhere.
Now that was odd. Lightsprites were a basic element of civilized life; whatever village this was he would certainly register a complaint! Street lanterns were a basic necessity; a pony could stumble in the dark without proper lighting. The entire village was devoid of illumination. Outrageous! There would be fines, he would see to that!
A beautifully constructed well and bucket stood to his right now, solidly made, true Equestrian work. South Withers, perhaps? This could be Withers... no, it was too small for that. The Lesser Fetlock!? Of course! That was where Girandole had landed them! This had to be the rustic little village of Fetlock. It was obvious. Why just this other direction, down the...
The cobblestones and cottages ended, abruptly. Beyond the two hills, a lake shone in the moonlight, and beyond the lake stretched an aching void of grass that turned to an endless expanse of desert which ran to infinity itself. The desert was flat, save for short, rolling hills. Night Watcher instantly recognized the untended form of the newly created Exponential Lands. There was no mistaking it. For the first time in almost a century, Night Watcher The Ponderous was flabbergasted.
On his right, a perfect Equestrian village. Lovely cottages with thatched roofs, cobblestone roads, a beautiful little well. To his left an abrupt end, a lake, and a desert reaching to unimaginable distances. It was impossible. This could not be.
Night Watcher felt uneasy as he began to quietly limp down the cobblestones, turning his head from the dizzying emptiness of a dry desert infinity. Save for the lack of street lanterns, this could be any small village in proper Equestria. He stopped at a stone keep.
Summerland Village, County of Summerland, Equestria
Founded Year Three Post Arrival
To The Honor and Glory of Our Princesses
Night Watcher sat down on the cobblestones. His hip was bothering him again, but the real reason was that his legs had become weak. He normally only felt fear when dealing with that senescent virago Comet Tail. Oh, how he despised her, and oh, how he feared her iron grip upon the Corps. But this improbably perfect little newfoal village almost frightened him more. He read the inscription over the entrance to the keep again, the letters in perfect Equestrian, flawless.
This library was better than the one in South Withers. It was actually superior to several libraries he could think of, even the library in Clydesdale. He had no idea what books it might contain, but the building, in the shape of an ancient castle keep, was just exquisite.
Night Watcher creaked to his hooves. This... this... whatever was going on here, he wanted no part of. There was something very odd about this place, this Summerland. Summerland County, indeed. No, he would let Comet Tail deal with this herself. If there was a fall associated with whatever this aberration was, he, Night Watcher, would not be taking it.
There was no way that this... place... could exist. Mere newfoals from that vanished sphere of evil could never have done this. It made no sense, something else was going on. Night Watcher's thoughts turned to ancient rebellions against Celestia. Perhaps this was some settlement of traitors from long ago... no, that could not be. The Exponential Lands were new, and there would have been no place to hide and...
That is when Night Watcher's eyes happened to glance above. A wisp of cloud had caught his eye, shining from the rising moon.
Above him a vast pegasus city hung in the sky. It had a castle. No rainbow falls, but it had a castle made of cloud.
And a racetrack.
Yellow liquid spattered on the cobblestones between Night Watcher's rear hooves.
A limping attempt at a gallop brought Night Watcher The Ponderous back to the corral. Tagtail was still fighting with Girandole for the brass Globate Translociter; they had turned to pathetically, comically slapping each other with their hornfields. Somnolence The Intrepid somehow managed to doze while levitating the Loci Stone; sixteen hooves of arcane rock hovered beside the old stallion, a shining cylinder of engraved stone.
"Listen to me, you doddering simpletons!" Night Watcher controlled his panic and did his best to project a commanding presence. "There is something strange going on here. Somnolence?"
The fat old mage startled awake; the glowing grip of his incredibly powerful horn did not fade even the slightest as he woke, the massive column he carried remained unshakably still in the air.
"Somnolence! - place the Loci Stone immediately. As soon as this is done, we are returning to Canterlot. Comet Tail can deal with this... situation... herself. Get to it! Now!"
Somnolence The Intrepid reached out his mind and encompassed a mass of soil. A huge column of dirt floated out of the ground, covered in glowing light; with a flick of his ancient mind, Somnolence piled the dirt thirty hooves away. The massive Loci Stone hovered over the newly created shaft, then plunged into it, fitting with uncanny precision. Nopony could best Somnolence when it came to heavy levitation. Nopony other than the princesses, of course.
With the Loci Stone set, Night Watcher gave both Girandole and Tagtail a slap on the back of their crests with his hornfield, the two senile old fools had never once stopped fussing over the Translociter; Night Watcher simply wrenched it from their weak grasps. It didn't matter anymore; it was clear that they had successfully followed the strange, monthly burst that pulsed out from some impossible distance in the Exponential Lands.
"We're leaving, before any...pony in this... village... notices us. Prepare for translocation!" The four unicorn mages arranged themselves in transport parade; Night Watcher, as team leader, took point, Tagtail the medical mage to Night's right, the translocation mage Girandole began the spell of transport to Night's left, and pulling up the rear was Somnolence, their heavy levitations specialist. Together they really were a truly formidable team, even if the decades had piled resentments and churlishness upon them.
Streams of light sprang up from the ground beneath their hooves. Girandole focused intently as their forms began to waver in the growing column of sparkling light. The shaft illuminated the fairgrounds; the enchanted Loci Stone now embedded in the soil of the fairground hummed like a tuning fork in reaction to the arcane forces at play. The unicorn mages vanished into the Elsewhere as the shaft of light dwindled to a tiny line. Finally the dimming energies entirely vanished, and once again, all was shrouded in night.
Mayor Droplet, Renaissance and a few others had taken all of the foals, colts and fillies out to the south lake flowers for a sing-a-long. There was no point in bothering the youngsters with something that they could not, and really should not, understand.
Today had been declared 'Goodbye Earth Day'. One hundred and forty-three villagers gathered together in the fairgrounds. They sat, stood, or lay in a big circle all along the corral fence. Teaspoon and her staff passed out trays of little cakes and cookies; some had been decorated to look like the continents of old Earth. Cirrus and Boeing hosted the event, and a makeshift podium had been set up so that they could address the crowd, and so that anypony who wished to, could talk.
"<My good friends.>" Cirrus spoke in NorthAmerizone English; he was a little rusty at it. "<Today we come together to celebrate the passing of an old enemy: Earth.>"
This received scattered giggles from the villagers.
"<About a quarter of a million years ago, the first true Homo Sapiens began their reign of terror on the Earth; but let us not be overly cruel to them. The child is a product of the parent, and Mother Earth was, if anything, a vicious, brutish, stingy bitch!>" Cirrus laughed with the crowd "She really was, wasn't she?" Then continued in the alien-sounding terrestrial language "<If human beings were cruel, aggressive, selfish and greedy, it was only because they had evolved to be so, shaped by a planet of scarcity, constant danger, disease, and suffering. It was necessary, in such a harsh world, for the human species to do whatever it needed, merely to survive. Earth was a world sharp of tooth and red of claw.>"
The ponies looked at each other, remembering. They remembered the favela, the world-slum, the corporate overlords that lived like gods while the majority suffered in poverty and squalor. They remembered the horrible diseases, the terrible injuries, the defects of birth, the constant struggle for wealth, the unending battle just to survive. They remembered themselves, before, and the things they had done -the things they felt they had to do- just to have a slightly better life. Some began to cry at these memories.
"<When Man became a technocratic species, the old hunter-gatherer instincts remained. Though Man had the power to make of Earth a paradise at any time, he did not. Man would not share, he would not care, and he would not get along. When he could have lived in peace, he went to war for profit. When he could have cared for every illness, he kept healing only to the wealthy. As a species he did only one decent thing; at the end, the very end, thanks to nanotechnology, he finally fed every human. It only took 10,000 years to get around to it, and he did it only because nanotech made the cost of creating food from human waste essentially free, and it was deemed necessary by the elite to quiet the angry poor.>" The horror of the true depravity of humanity was difficult to bear. Cirrus had to stop for a moment, his pony life had made such memories painful to recall.
"<Many humans have claimed over the centuries that Man's achievements somehow made up for this essential cruelty to his own kind. Man invented music. Man invented poetry. Man invented science. Man went to the moon. It is easy to claim such things when the individual defending Man is well-fed, well-clothed, healthy and warm. Man made this sort of argument throughout his entire ten-thousand year reign, right up to the end.>" Cirrus took a sip of water from the little bowl that Lightning had provided him earlier.
"<But again, it was not just Man, it was the world that spawned Man, the planet, the universe, the physical laws that made him a monster. If Man was a selfish, insane, murderous ape, it was only because that was what the universe itself demanded of him.>" For effect, Cirrus switched back to the sweet, gentle language of Equestria, the ponies had suffered just about enough of the harsh alien English. "Today, we, we most fortunate of ponies, are no longer <newfoals!> I say that we are Equestrians, through and through!"
This brought cheers and hoofstomps of triumph.
"My dear ponies, we are free from the thoughts of the ape. We are free from the actions of the ape, the diet of the ape, the violence of the ape; the selfishness of the ape. These traits have been eliminated from our brains, our minds, our very souls. And today..." Cirrus paused for drama "...we are finally free of the terrible world that spawned that ape nature itself. By now, the Earth is gone!" A thunder of hoof stomps filled the air. "By now the Earth has been entirely eliminated, transformed forever into the stuff of Equestria itself. Thank you princess Celestia, thank you princess Luna, for giving us this new life! Thank you for saving us from being cruel, selfish, murderous apes!"
The crowd laughed and cried, stomped applause, and hugged. It was all gone. All the slums were finally gone. All the poisons, all the guns and bombs and rockets and nuclear devices, all of the biological and nanotech weapons were gone. All the stories of wars and fighting and killing were gone; all the military marches, the nationalistic anthems, the religious calls to dominion. The pain, the suffering the despair, all of it was gone, and in but one generation, only one single generation, even the memory that it had ever existed would be forever gone.
All they had to do was to simply not speak of it to their foals; and why would they? Tales of a terrible world and a shameful past were best kept buried. Their children would grow up free from the burden of any taint of earthly life. By comparison, Equestria was heaven; their foals would be true angels within it, native to the core.
For the next two hours, various ponies approached the podium and told tales of their lives, before their Conversions. Most of the stories were tragic, some were merely lonely, or sad, or troubled. Caprice thought to say something, then stopped; she had once been part of the elite, wealthy beyond all imagination. Becoming a pony had saved her soul, not her life; unlike everypony else, she had never lacked for anything material. She felt that she really had no right to speak.
One stallion talked of his suffering from an easily curable, fatal disease; he had no wealth but the free ponification had saved him. A mare remembered her days of hunger in the slums, eating rats and the time her father killed the neighbors for their threevee set. Another mare sobbed while she described the rape gangs in her part of San Mateo.
When the time allotted was up, the crowd began to disburse; they had sat shivah for an entire world, for an entire set of physical laws. It had been difficult, but this final letting go perhaps would free them from their past.
It was Ocean that found the strange stone. He had been sitting on it without even thinking about it; when he stood up he finally noticed why the ground had felt so hard. "Whoa! Check it out!"
Everypony recognized the stone, they had seen many like it when they had been brought to Summerland five years ago. It absolutely had not been there before.
"Caprice! Give me a hoof!" Boeing was having trouble with the arcane Equestrian glyphs engraved into the dark octagonal stone in the ground. The grammar was wrong.
The peach pony studied the stone. "I remember that about the stones set into the big corral they used to bring us here. This is the same thing." Caprice thought for a moment, then sounded annoyed. "Of course! Duh! It's not a language, as such. In the spell books it is used as a language, except for the spells themselves... look at it!"
It was obvious now; the stone had a spell written into it. Not a statement, not identification, or description or even a poem was there; the glyphs were being used thaumatically - as a spell. The stone itself was enchanted.
"So, like, what does it do?" Ocean's question was the obvious one to ask; everypony wanted to know.
Lightning, who had surpassed Caprice with such matters several years ago, took a look. After carefully studying the glyphs and pondering their meaning, he concluded "I think these stones -this stone, anyway- are kind of like our 'Ping' spell. It's a beacon, a pin in a map, a way to define where someplace is. Um... it's an address, really."
"That means the rest of Equestria can find us!" Teaspoon had come over with Lightning.
"DUUUDE! Maybe they already have! I mean, like, how'd this GET here?" Ocean looked around, eyes wide.
"That is a very good point, Ocean." Cirrus tapped the stone with his hoof. "But if somepony from outside brought this here, where are they? Why didn't they stay? Why didn't they say hello?"
"It must have happened last night." Kiwi was adamant "I was sitting here yesterday. It wasn't there then. It must have happened during the night."
"What if it's Windfeather, here to finish the job?" Goldrivet had finally spoken the hidden fear in everypony's heart.
"No, Goldie, just NO!" Sweetpepper was horrified at the thought. "Besides, ponies don't do that sort of thing!"
Goldrivet looked angry. "Ponies obviously can abandon other ponies. That's how we ended up here."
"Windfeather abandoned us, but he didn't try to hurt us directly!" Sweetpepper looked frightened.
"Maybe he couldn't then, because of all the fancy-ass unicorns that..."
"LISTEN UP!" It was Droplet. Everypony turned their attention to their alpha female. "We don't know the story here. Maybe this stone was sent ahead, like a... like a space probe. We know that unicorns can be trained to teleport. Maybe this was teleported here, to serve as a guide for a rescue force. I seriously doubt that this is an attack - because if it is, then all those grand words a few minutes ago were pretty meaningless."
Goldrivet turned to Droplet "Windfeather ABANDONED US!"
"Yes, yes he did." Droplet was calm, every bit the leader. "But abandonment is the act of a coward. Windfeather was a coward. He was a racist. All bigotry is just fear. If he'd wanted us dead, there would have been no crates at all. If he could tell those unicorns to transport us like that, imagine what else they could have done! We'd already be dead, if that is what he wanted. I don't think ponies can kill other ponies. Intrinsically, I think we are governed against it. Hurt, yes. Abandon, yes. but not outright, face to face kill. I literally don't think we can kill. This is something else."
"Is it a probe then? Are they coming for us? Will they take us away?" Caprice looked around at Summerland. Soon everypony was looking around. Summerland Village. Their home. They'd worked so very hard. They'd hauled and mined and sawed and nailed and painted and carved. The library, the wells, the thatched cottages. It was all so beautiful. It was... home.
Goldrivet hugged his precious Sweetpepper to him. He thought of their farm, the new forest, the orchard, their beautiful new barn.
"I almost wish it was Windfeather coming to kill us."