An unconscious pony returning to the waking world generally responds to the last thing they heard before everything went dark, and so Twilight's first coherent thought was The rose is a nice touch, but you should really take out most of the citron.
Her eyes slowly opened. A thin sheet of translucent gold fabric rustled some distance overhead, shifted by the light breeze produced by a nearby ceiling fan.
It took a little while to get out of the canopy bed. For starters, the thing was huge: it could easily hold at least eight ponies of Twilight's size, and that distance was being traversed by a pony whose legs weren't quite under her full control. Additionally, the mattress offered full and firm support while still being remarkably plush and divoting under her shifting weight. It was a remarkable achievement in sleep technology and one which tripped her up no more than three times, with the added benefit of each tumble leaving her partially embedded in a plush, firm, and remarkably comfortable mattress.
Eventually, she had all four hooves planted against the carpet, and was relatively sure of how all her wing joints were currently folded. (She generally avoided thinking about those joints, because it was much like accidentally focusing one's attention on their own snout: you tended to spend the next day aware of just about nothing else.) A few more blinks cleared what she was hoping would be the last of the drug's fog, and she looked around.
In the years before Ponyville, she hadn't done a lot of traveling: home, school, some very short family vacations, and going along on Spike's yearly health trip to the volcano, just to make sure he came back in one piece. But in the time since the Elements had been rediscovered, she'd visited a fair amount of the world, and even some of the missions had seen the palace paying for temporary accommodations at the destination site. It gave her memory a basis for comparison, and so her mind quickly came to a rather confused conclusion.
It's almost like a hotel room...
A very regal hotel room. The sort of thing which most Equestrian facilities would designate as the Princess Suite while silently praying that no actual Princesses appeared to evaluate it.
The carpeting was refined: a short cut which offered comfort and a degree of natural bounce on each step while preventing static electricity from building up. The bed was the bed, at least until somepony tried to adjust the canopy towards the vertical and turned it into a rather refined sailing raft. There was what she recognized as a food storage cooling device off to the left. An open door showed the way to the bathroom and the gigantic sunken pool which awaited her within. There was a nightstand, a closet (currently closed), several tasteful paintings, a balcony which could be accessed via what appeared to be a huge panel of sliding glass, and -- another door. One which, based on what Twilight knew of hotel rooms and was currently applying to one of the world's most comfortable cells, had to be locked. The door which just about had to lead out.
Twilight took a deep, slow breath, followed it with another. There was no one else in the room with her. She couldn't feel any magic as currently being active upon her form: there were enchantments in the room -- the cooling device, the lighting, more than a few thaums had been dedicated to flash-heating the pool -- but nothing had been cast on her. It was possible that she was being watched through means magical or mundane, but if so, the viewers weren't giving themselves away. It meant she had time, to think and plan. Because the kidnappers had done something very strange...
A few more deep breaths, and she paid a little attention to the nightstand. There was a small pile of papers on it, topped off with a rather large card, one which stood next to a waiting quill and tiny bottle of ink.
Welcome To Your Kidnapping!
Before you begin to explore all the activities your abduction has to offer, we'd appreciate it if you'd take a few moments and fill out this card. (By doing so, you will help us to improve not just your own future snatchings, but you'll be providing a service for kidnapped dignitaries everywhere.) It's just seven simple questions and won't take more than a few minutes of your time, we promise! And after that? Get ready for the kidnapping of your life! Until the next one, which your feedback will help to make even better!
#1. Did your abduction happen on schedule?
#2. Do you feel as if you were treated with courtesy and respect reflecting your station?
#3. Were there any flaws in our technique? (Be honest! This is the only way we find out how we can improve!)
#4. As the victim, can you think of anything we might have done differently?
#5. (Repeat business only) On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate this against other kidnappings you've experienced? Please provide a baseline average for all prior abductions, then a number for the current one.
#6. Are there any individuals you'd like to indicate for special merit or fault?
(This line had a small, claw-written addition: 'Dear Princess, I hope your head feels better. It's my first abduction and I'm worried sick that I might have hurt you. Please accept my apologies for anything which might have happened. Sincerely, Roy.' All on one line, with none of the proper formatting required for a letter: something which nearly brought Twilight's headache back all by itself.)
#7. Based on first impressions alone, how likely are you to recommend our abductions to all your friends?
That's all we want to know right now! Enjoy the rest of your kidnapping!
Twilight stared at the card for a while. There didn't seem to be much else a sensible individual could do with it, especially as the room contained nothing suitable for setting it on fire.
After that, there were priorities. For starters, they had provided her with a bathroom, and so she used it. Then there was the food storage device: she found it mostly held snacks and while they were of rather high quality, there wasn't exactly anything suitable for long trips. Still, it was resources, and so she went back into the bathroom, took a few of the towels which were far too large for her use, and then folded them carefully into the interlocking pattern Rarity had carefully taught her. It left her with two loaded quasi-saddlebags, ones which wouldn't fall apart without the jostling of repeated vibration -- something mere movement could easily qualify for. She'd have to check them for integrity every so often.
There were bottles of grooming product. She dumped them out, cleaned them thoroughly, filled them with cold water and resealed.
And then she went to the sliding glass panel.
It might have been locked. Or perhaps she was meant to go on the balcony, stare out across the world which no sane pony would have ventured into, think about the dangers involved and the sheer level of insanity required to create such an environment in the first place. Something which would have sent so many trembling their way back to the bed, feeling it was easier to confront the madness within than without.
But she had faced down Nightmare. She'd been in the presence of true insanity during every encounter with Discord. She had attended Pinkie's parties, and every one from the second on had been of her own free will.
Twilight stared through the glass, and thought about the madscape.
Okay. This clearly isn't Equestria. This couldn't be less Equestria if it tried. That means I'm way out of teleport range for getting home, but I had to expect that. And it isn't an illusion being projected onto the glass to scare me, because I can't feel any magic -- a small wince as she remembered the other option -- and it can't be a movie projector putting that picture there, not with so much depth. I don't know what's holding all of that up and with the lava underneath it, I'll have to keep an air purification spell running constantly along with shifting heat at all times just to stay alive. And I can't trust myself to fly across all of that: maybe Rainbow could keep the shift going and stay up at the same time, but I'm still in training. So that means trotting and short-range travel from safe zone to safe zone.
There was a way to get here. That means there's a way back. It could be somewhere out there. But it's more likely to be in this building. So -- go out, get the view from there, and then find another route in, one which doesn't involve the risks of a blind teleport to whatever's on the other side of that door. One glass panel implies more, and as soon as I see anything promising...
Twilight's kidnappers had done something very practical during the abduction, just about the first thing anyone had to do if they were thinking about capturing a pony: they'd shut down her magic. They'd even done so triply, although that last aspect might have been accomplished unawares: cover the horn, immobilize the limbs, get her out of range. But they had also done something very strange.
They'd brought her into the room, left her on the bed to wake up on her own, with no open supervision. And at some point while doing so, they had taken the restraint off.
It was possible that she was about to bring a lot of anti-magic measures crashing down on her horn. Or somewhere within her prison was a turtle who'd just been exactly that stupid. Either way, she had her next move. She was either going to find out just what kind of subtle workings were waiting to attack her -- hopefully something she could counter -- or she was on her way out.
Her horn ignited. She put on the improvised saddlebags, and then the glow intensified, portions of her field went angular as her effort increased --
-- and then she was outside.
Also, utterly confused.
(Which really didn't represent much of a change, but at least she was doing it outside.)
Twilight looked at the outer walls of a new castle, stone illuminated by something she could not find. Stood on a strange surface under a pure black sky, breathed in translucent black air, and tried to think of what to do next.
"So this is the pipe," the armored Lunar staff member said. There was more than a touch of yawn within the words. "Like you can see. The pipe. Right there."
"It's hard to miss," the dark blue, middle-aged unicorn said, and that statement bore more than a touch of sarcasm.
"What with it being a pipe and all," the other pony continued in what seemed to be agreement. "Sticking out of the street."
"What's your name?" the recently-arrived unicorn asked.
"How long have you been awake, Moonquake?"
The younger stallion thought about it. "Um..."
"Right," the older cut off the thought, at least for what little thought there was. "And why am I here? Why did the palace summon me to the kidnapping site?"
"Because there were turtles," the sleep-deprived pony replied. "Flying, talking turtles. Talking means sapient. Turtles means other species. And you're the head of the Immigration Department. You deal with more sapient species than anypony, every day. So somepony thought we should bring you out here and ask what you knew about turtles. Who flew. And talked. And left behind giant green pipes. With a sheet of paper taped to the side."
Crossing Guard closed his eyes and mentally reviewed everything he knew about Equestrian criminal law before coming to the regretful conclusion that even this level of provoked murder was still illegal, then opened them again and went back to looking at the pipe.
There had initially been more than a little confusion involved with the summoning, and part of that had involved the type of pipe. He'd originally been half-pulled out of his office while under the impression that he was being brought out to see a giant smoker's pipe, especially after having spent days making sure Chief Kaizo's ceremonial ones were set up in the Day Court under proper buffalo standards. However, this pipe had turned out to be of the plumbing variety, only considerably larger than most such specimens ever became. It had been jammed into the cobblestones in such a way as to leave it sticking straight up. It was about twice the height of the average pony, and the open mouth on the upper end was three times as wide.
"We can't see the dirt," a nearby Solar pegasus told him. "We went up for the overhead view, and -- it's dark. No matter where we look from or what kind of illumination we use, it's just -- dark."
Crossing, who was still putting his soon-to-emerge speech together, simply nodded.
"Also, there's sounds," the pegasus added. "Occasionally."
"Occasional sounds," Crossing tried.
"Well..." The pegasus visibly considered his words. "Have you ever seen a carnivorous plant? Like the ones with the cupped leaves and trigger hairs on the inner surface? An insect lands inside it, and the leaves sort of -- slam shut?"
"It's like that," the pegasus concluded. "Only bigger."
Crossing took a deep breath.
"As the head of the Immigration Department," he began, "this is my official opinion on the matter: during my time on the job, there has never been a talking, flying turtle who's applied to become a citizen of Equestria. I haven't been part of any cultural contact with flying, talking turtles. I've never heard of a nation which hosted sapient turtles, flying or otherwise. The most I've done with turtles is take one down from a fence post when somepony put it up there for no reason. A bog-standard turtle and incidentally, also a bog turtle." And with one last desperate invisible jaw lunge, hoping against hope to clamp down on common sense, "Has anypony tried contacting the Canterlot Archives to see if they know anything about this?"
"Yes," one of the youngest mares said. "I went there immediately after none of the witnesses recognized the species involved. One of the senior historians I woke up thought the situation sounded vaguely familiar, but she also said she was going to need a few hours to find the right references. Plus wake-up juice. Lots of it. So we're just sort of reaching out to anypony who might hear more other-species legends and stories than usual, sir, and one of those ponies is you."
Crossing sighed. Yes, there were times when the ID was the court of first resort: a few exceptionally intelligent ponies who were looking to avoid a cultural kerfuffle would seek advice on what they shouldn't do. (More commonly, others would race in screaming for help and protection from the consequences of the horribly offensive action they'd just stumbled into with all four legs.) Looked at from that point of view, it did make some sense to call him in. But...
"The Princesses have been briefed?"
"Yes," that young mare nodded. "As much as we know. But we could barely talk to Princess Celestia: she got the basics, but then she had to go to the ceremony. You know how that is, sir: even with what happened, there's so much to lose if we have to start all over. But she was very unhappy. She didn't want to go, but..." A soft sigh. "And we got to Princess Luna before she went to bed, and she doesn't know anything about the turtles, or this pipe. But she's furious, sir. She nearly went down the pipe, even after we told her what was written on the paper. But she's agreed to wait and see if we can learn more about this, or find somepony who'll volunteer to go down. Plus we have a speed flyer on the way to Ponyville, to contact the Bearers and Princess Twilight's brother. We have to wait on Princess Celestia before we can send anything to the Empire and her older brother. And that's -- as far as we've gotten. So if you could give us any help, even an expert guess..."
Crossing sorted through the speech, then went for what seemed to be the currently important parts. "Go down the pipe."
The mare nodded, swallowed. "Somepony... has to. It could be a trap, but -- it's the only communication we've had with the kidnappers, and... that's what the paper says. That somepony needs to go down the pipe. And..." Another gulp of saliva made its way down her throat. "I think -- you'd better read the sheet, sir."
Crossing looked at the white notice, still taped to the green pipe. He trotted closer, squinted.
"'Only one pony may enter,'" he slowly read aloud. "'One pony will have the chance to save your Princess." And then the next sentence registered, forcing his words into a softer tone as the impact hit them. "One pony... will die, again and again, until the Princess is found and returned.'"
He had to squint a little more to read the next line, which was in rather small print.
"'No deaths final. All perishings guaranteed painless. Current pipe configuration and the Lands Beyond designed under open source. Frustration, bouts of cursing, angry invocations of local deities, and attempts to rage-quit are hereby contractually agreed by whoever enters to be entirely the fault of the visiting pony and as such, no emotional damage lawsuits will be honored.'"
His eyelids were almost completely closed now.
"'Send somepony who deserves it.'"