The -- platform? -- was readily supporting Twilight's weight. It was about six times her body length from back to front, but only two-thirds of that from side to side: she had the option to fully extend her wings without having them protrude past the edges, but only just. It had an excellent view of the castle in one direction, allowed her to get a glimpse of some of the other platforms if she looked to the back, and at the sides, there was... nothing.
The air was black. She didn't understand how that was possible. A black sky, yes: the darkest of a too-long night, shadows created by Nightmare trying to steal even memories of Sun. But to have that hue within the air itself, along with a total visible lack of both Sun and Moon, and still be able to see...
Technically, the lava offered more than sufficient illumination, all bubbling up from far too close beneath her, the length of a dangled tail strand away. (It had been the closest platform available and, not knowing what the local realm might do to her magic, she'd gone for the shortest possible jump.) But the flowing fire-reds and oranges only seemed to brighten the lava itself. Directly above that -- black. And to the sides of her platform, that darkness thickened. She could see straight ahead, all the way to the castle. There was some vision available when glancing back, at least until the shadows seemed to cluster well before the horizon. But while the castle itself was of impressive breadth, easily competing with the combined mass of Solar and Lunar wings, and all of that was perfectly visible as long as she stared straight ahead, any attempt to look to the side only found -- black.
Twilight's wings had been shifting ever since the teleport had brought her onto the platform: a surface that wanted to be rock and brick at the same time, deeply cracked in oddly regular patterns. She'd fully expected to have her legs moving from the moment of arrival, desperately trying not to keep her hooves against what had to be a hot surface until she'd managed to shift enough heat to do some good -- a technique she wasn't all that good with yet. But the platform seemed to be oddly heat-resistant for something hanging in black air so close to lava: there had been no threat of burn, and she only found out that her inexpert heat-shifting attempts were doing any good when she began to shiver.
She stopped moving. Wings, legs, everything, risking a momentary cessation of all attempts to perform pegasus magic. With the technique ended, the local temperature quickly evened out to its natural level: a pony-comfortable warmth which didn't even threaten to put the lightest drop of sweat in her coat, let alone froth.
Twilight slowly trotted to the forward edge of the platform. She looked down at the lava, and it placidly bubbled at her.
It was lava. She could see the heat there, at least when she managed to focus enough to briefly bring pegasus sight into play. But the heat drifted up for about a hoof-height -- and then stopped. There was an ocean of boiling rock, and then there was air, with no interaction between them.
It could be argued that she couldn't help her next actions and because it was Twilight, she didn't even make an attempt. She twisted her head at the same moment she swished her tail, bringing the full length of the pink-streaked mass into view. Her field exerted...
"OW!" And then her field instinctively clamped itself around her mouth, cutting off the rest of the yelp. Desperate eyes went over the castle for the third time, trying to spot any indications that the outburst might have been heard.
It was much the same as the other times. There were many windows available, along with still more sliding-glass panels and balconies. If she interpreted each such viewing perch as a potential victim storage area, then the castle would easily accommodate -- she rechecked her original count -- at least sixty sapients, and that was just for the rooms she could see from this side. But either the majority of involuntary residents were sleeping or the place wasn't all that filled up at the moment, for nearly every room was dark. There were but five illuminated windows on the cell levels, and only one indicated a possible occupant -- something Twilight couldn't even be sure of: there had been a brief glimpse of dull, unreflective, and somewhat familiar-seeming black -- then nothing.
The lower levels had a little more activity. One window allowed her to see what had to be a stovepipe, with a grill some small distance beyond. A kitchen, and an active one: at least two turtles were busy puttering about, too wrapped up in their work to look outside. Another small light indicated what seemed to be a janitorial supply closet, and she was briefly amazed that one of those would even bother with a window. Elsewhere --
-- that light hadn't been on before. Twilight looked and for a too-long moment, couldn't look away.
There was a -- form -- lying on what seemed to be a padded surface. A species she'd never seen before, one which was resting face-down (if it even had a face) and so was that much harder to classify. It had no tail, a complete lack of fur, and the mane refused to extend down the back of the neck. It wore no clothing, although there was what appeared to be a towel draped over a portion of the back half.
There was a turtle standing next to that odd shape, height boosted by a stool. It was holding a pair of tongs, which were being outstretched towards a group of smooth stones. Minerals which were being heated on a grill.
The turtle selected a stone, carefully moved it until the tongs were just above what appeared to be the small of the creature's back, and set the mineral down.
The creature made a strange sound. Twilight shuddered, and quickly looked away.
She had to make a rescue attempt. No matter what the creature was, she couldn't just leave it to suffer. But by the time she looked back, the window had gone dark again, and to teleport into a darkened space which might have moving creatures within was to beg for all sorts of disaster.
I'll come back for you. For however many of you there are. But...
Her field was still active, her horn's corona glowing at the partial level from manipulation and air purification, something which would make her that much easier to see. She should have been moving, trying to find some form of concealment or looking for another way in. But the single most dominant part of her mind had been triggered. It was an aspect which had been gently moderated by layers of emotional development, understanding, and friendship -- but in those moments when she wasn't actively looking out for the thing, it was very much still in charge.
Twilight crouched down until her belly and barrel were resting against the strange (and strangely cool) platform, head just peeking over the edge, and slowly lowered the plucked tail hair towards the lava. Six hoof-heights, and nothing happened. Ten, and there wasn't even the faintest hint of smoke. Twenty --
-- the dangling end breached the invisible wall, and the entire hair instantly turned into ash.
Twilight stared at the little gray fragments as they drifted down. None of them caught fire until they were just over the lava.
There was no magic at work, at least none which she could feel. It was just -- physics. Fundamental laws which, prior to taking custody of the local realm, had undergone some degree of rewrite.
"This place," she whispered, "is weird..."
No danger from convection, and she was starting to wonder if she even needed the air purification spell. But with curiosity momentarily satisfied, she straightened up and surveyed the castle again. A small purple pony standing proud and brave under black sky.
Find a way in. Somewhere without a current occupant. This just became a rescue mission.
After all, no matter how the instinctive utterance might have initially come across, there was no way anything other than a dragon would react to the placement of a hot stone on its back with a sound of pleasure.
For those who were seeing the unicorn for the first time, the word generally used to describe the stallion was 'regal'. Those at a somewhat closer distance who possessed a little more in the way of insight and refused to allow their judgment to be clouded by a fog of hormones might have gone with 'self-absorbed.' (The two states were often mistaken for each other.) He tended to move as if he was the most important thing in the world, mostly because he truly couldn't perceive anypony else as being anywhere close to his level. Those few who managed to temporarily break through that carefully-constructed illusion were generally forgotten, at least until the nightmares which kicked in around three in the morning within a nightscape which Luna could never be bothered to visit -- something he would, upon waking, talk himself into seeing as just one more demonstration of his perfection. After all, when even his dreams were too perfect for a Princess, then just how magnificent was the waking reality?
He was white, and felt it was the only color which should be allowed for the worthy, which naturally just meant him. He felt he had Privileges, and that was a belief system which generally led to Rejections, all coincidentally performed by those he'd been just about to kick aside anyway. A partial list of the things he was completely immune to included shame, regrets, acknowledgement of fault (for of course he had none, or so he kept saying over and over to ponies who had stopped listening years ago), most of reality, and golddiggers, for it turned out that even those generally willing to put up with near-endless demeaning in order to gain access to some level of wealth had their limits.
The stallion had decided, based on the evidence provided by any available reflective surfaces, that he was the pinnacle of Equestrian civilization. (None of the other nations qualified for any consideration, in small part because he wasn't entirely sure what any of them were and would have been hard-pressed to locate his own homeland on a map.) He believed this on the level of the mark he'd managed to spend his life carefully, completely, and openly misinterpreting. He was the most important pony ever. After all, what was raising Sun and lowering Moon compared to giving the orbs something perfect to gaze upon?
The Most Important Pony Ever, who generally didn't rouse himself out of bed until at least noon, was currently rather frustrated with his inferiors. This was a natural and near-constant state. When you were better than everypony in a way which nopony could ever hope to measure up to, you never expected (or wanted) to have equals: after all, possessing those would mean you were tied in importance with somepony, and that was a concept he never wanted to entertain for long. Additionally, to regard anypony as being close to his level would risk descending to theirs. But when inferiors didn't openly and constantly acknowledge just how very inferior they were... well, that was annoying. And when those obvious lessers asked (or told: in this case, it was told, but no part of the stallion could ever admit that) him to do something...
At the moment, he had been asked to read and because it seemed as if no one would let him get back to his beauty rest until he'd finished, he was rather reluctantly doing just that. Those who had met him before were able to track exactly where he was on the piece of paper by the way his lips were moving, which also allowed the sharpest-eyed spectators to note his attempts to skip past virtually any word he didn't understand. ('Invocations' gave him quite a bit of trouble until he ultimately decided to ignore it.) Most of the spectators -- quite a few now, as ponies were more than a little prone to the lure of street theater -- who hadn't had the dubious benefit of previous experience were busy with simply watching the stallion, and more than a few had already swooned.
He finally finished, or at least decided the rest of the thing could be skipped in one go. Light blue eyes briefly surveyed the contrast of white paper on green pipe just before he derisively sniffed at the sheer artlessness of it all.
"And what," he sniffed again, "does this have to do with me? I'd certainly hope that you didn't summon me away from my very important duties --" something he claimed to have many of and in reality, they mostly seemed to revolve around pillow testing "-- in order to read this for you. Surely some of you must be capable of reading. Especially you..." He visibly fumbled for the older stallion's name, and then couldn't be bothered to recall it. After all, to do so would be recalling a failure. (Not the stallion's. His. He generally forgot those as quickly and cleanly as possible, only bringing those memories back for something truly important.) But still, in the name of getting home all the faster... "...who are you, exactly?"
"Crossing," the older unicorn said.
"And what is your position?"
"I run the Immigration Department."
Another sniff -- and then those elegant eyes widened. "Your supposed occupation is to allow undesirables residence in my country? I shall write a letter!"
Two ponies spontaneously unswooned.
"You already did," the stallion replied. There was an odd smile crinkling the dark blue fur. "Several times. Or dictated, possibly. Either one would explain most of the grammatical choices. Vlad --"
"-- Vlad, isn't it obvious why so much of the palace staff, Guards, and incidentally, myself, would summon you here? After the Princess has been kidnapped? After you've seen, and of course, thoroughly understood the message which her captors left behind? I know that after everypony here read it, you were the first pony we all thought of!"
The white chest puffed out, expanded by the pressure of swelling pride. "Of course I am!" he beamed, temporarily putting aside the insult of having been addressed by his other name so he could bask in the recognition to which he was eternally due. "I'm the first pony whom anypony should think of!"
"And we did," Crossing smiled. "Immediately. And in bulk. So since you clearly understand the situation and agree that you're the most suitable party available --"
By all rights, the younger stallion's ribs should have been cracking from within.
"-- here are your supplies." A nearby horn ignited, and a full set of saddlebags was deposited in front of that younger unicorn. "We'll expect you back in a few hours. Or minutes, given that it's you." And with that odd smile now occupying the majority of his face, "In you go!"
Blueblood stared at him.
A "...what?" slipped out, mostly due to lack of other vocabulary.
"Did you need a boost?" Crossing checked. "I'd just assumed that somepony as talented as yourself would be capable of self-levitation, but --"
"-- you expect me," the other pony failed to interrupt, because interruption implied that somepony else's words might have been important enough to say, "to go in there."
"Well, yes," Crossing agreed. "And rescue the Princess. Who else could possibly do it?"
The younger stallion truly thought of himself as being The Most Important Pony Ever.
And so he really didn't understand why bad things generally happened at the exact moment somepony began to openly agree with him.
Crossing waited as the other unicorn tried to put a few thoughts together, some of which involved the summoning of memory. It took a while. Getting things past the wall of denial generally did.
"I know her, don't I?"
"I would expect that you'd know the Princess," Crossing calmly replied. "From her coronation, if nothing else."
"...no," the distracted pony absently replied. "I tried to get into the coronation, but some stupid Guard was under the impression that I'd been uninvited. By name. Which she had on a list. In giant letters. A rather crude and amateurish prank. I would have bothered to correct the matter if it had been something important. No, I think I saw her... before..."
Three temporarily-aligned neurons flashed and, their work done, shut down for an appropriate six-moon rest.
"...there was a party," the suddenly-shaky pony said.
"Was there now?" Crossing inquired, the smile still there.
Sweat was starting to appear in the white coat, and the ends of the golden mane seemed somewhat frayed. "And then there was a -- statue..."
"Do go on," Crossing happily encouraged.
"Columns," the white unicorn considered -- quickly followed by "A COLUMN COULD HAVE FALLEN ON ME!"
"She was there! She walked in right after it all happened! There was cake, cake in my coat when I'd just had myself groomed, and there were the columns, the statue could have fallen on me, and then there were animals! The animals just burst in, and somepony was screaming about how they were going to love her, and that meant she felt somepony should love her instead of me! After I'd nearly been crushed!"
"Which would have been a grave loss for all of Equestria," Crossing solemnly stated. "Also a considerable dip in the revenue for both Canterlot's groomers and the local postal service alike. So if you're quite ready to go down into the dark --"
"-- it was a riot! Of animals and falling things and icing sticking in my fur for hours, when I hadn't done anything to deserve it! And on the way out, I got some shards of glass stuck in my hooves! What was glass doing on the Grand Stairway?"
"I'm sure I don't know," Crossing calmly replied. "I missed the whole thing. Generally, I spend the Gala enjoying the gardens with my wife. It's much more open. Not to mention a lot less stuffy."
"You're a commoner! How does a commoner attend -- but they let the animals in, and you've allowed so many -- so many..." Three mares snorted and turned away, just as the shudder collapsed most of his rib cage from the outside in. "...and she was there, at the riot, and she didn't save me..."
"The superior stallion," Crossing regally stated, "will set an example for the commoners. So would you prefer having a pegasus drop you in?"
The white stallion temporarily forced his hyperventilation to a more normal pace, giving his brain the oxygen it didn't know how to work with.
"It's a pipe."
"It's probably dirty in there." More shuddering occurred.
"Could be," Crossing amicably agreed.
"And there was something about -- dying..."
Crossing mentally noted the ordering of priorities, then considered that the younger stallion might not have entirely minded leaving behind a good-looking corpse. "Repeatedly. However, that's with no deaths final and all perishings painless. Really, there's no consequences whatsoever for the bold stallion who goes in. Excepting fame, glory, and the gratitude of Equestria's newest Princess."
"They could... they could be lying..."
"Now why," Crossing gently inquired, "would a perfectly adept group of professional kidnappers ever do something like that? We can also bring in a ramp if you'd like to trot up."
The stallion's eyes desperately went from side to side. Several ponies watched that movement, and he didn't care to remember any of them.
"HEY!" the younger unicorn screamed, pointing a trembling left foreleg. "ISN'T THAT A DEMONIC DUCK OF SOME SORT?"
Just about everypony, in spite of their better judgment, looked. The others were distracted by the sudden flash of the stallion's corona. And then everypony, whether turning their gaze back to center or blinking away dazzle, got to listen to four hooves desperately pounding their way down the road, incidentally kicking up enough dirt to require an emergency grooming seizure of somepony else's appointment anyway.
"That's strange," Crossing shrugged as the last of the floating dots faded out of his vision. "I really thought he would have wound up as a cowering bundle at the base of the pipe before trying that. So now that we've --"
"Sir?" a young mare carefully cut in. "...what was all that about?"
"We were told," Crossing replied, "to send somepony who deserved it. Have you ever met Vlad before?"
"Well," Crossing stated, "for some odd reason, everypony who has, when they thought about a pony who deserved the chance to die repeatedly, thought of 'Prince' Vladimir Blueblood first. And since we'll be waiting on the actual rescuer for a little while, it seemed like a good time to get a little group revenge. In my case, it's for the series of rather offensive letters he had sent into my office when a zebra family moved in at a distance which violated his personal space. In case you're curious, that's a radius of twenty blocks."
Several hard nods within the group indicated memories of personal encounters, along with a certain degree of satisfaction regarding how things had just turned out.
"Prince?" the mare eventually tried.
"Only," Crossing said, "in the definition where some of the original Houses wouldn't formally join Equestria during the Unification without gaining some minor concessions. Like the right to keep and pass on their titles, no matter what those were, or how comedic they eventually became. To my knowledge, he's the last pony Prince standing on the continent: all the others got tired of the giggles. He usually tries to claim he's entitled to it through being some kind of fiftieth cousin to the thrones. Well, technically, just about everypony of the same species is a fiftieth cousin to everypony else..." He shrugged. "So the true answer to why he was brought in is threefold: time to kill, a desperate need for a laugh, and popular demand. We're waiting on the Archives. The real rescue attempt --" and he glanced at a recently-returned Solar Guard.
"I got a moment with the Princess," that pony said. "Without disrupting the ceremony: I talked during the downbeats. There's been stories about this pony passed down through the Guards, and now -- well, there's different stories, and..." He took a breath. "As soon as they hit the water break, she'll send the letter. After that, it'll be an escort teleportation relay from the North. If we're lucky, he'll be here shortly after noon."
"We've also taken other precautions," the still-slightly-confused mare added. "I don't understand some of them..."
"Such as?" Crossing asked.
"Why are there three fillies in Ponyville who've been rounded up and locked in their bedrooms?"
Twelve Guards spontaneously shuddered.
"...oh," the mare slowly said. "Them. What about the Bearers?"
"On the way," a slightly-swaying Moonquake told them. "But we can't let them go in. We can't lose them, not after having Princess Twilight taken. Plus we could only have one try it to begin with. They're mostly coming so they can worry on the spot. It's going to be on him."
"There's a lot of stories," one Solar Guard reluctantly said. "Too many. I guess -- this is where we find out which ones are right..."
"Waiting on the Archives," Crossing ticked off. "Waiting on the Princess. Waiting on him. Sometimes waiting is the hardest part, everypony. So we'll wait together. Maybe that'll make it a little easier."
"Sir?" the mare tried.
"Yes? -- okay, what's your name?"
"Sunspot, sir. I have -- two questions. Why are you still here?"
"Because maybe I will remember something, and you need all the hooves you can get right now," Crossing reluctantly said. "What's the other?"
"Isn't... isn't anypony going to do something about that demonic duck?"
Everypony briefly glanced at the red-feathered waterfowl. Multiple eyes drifted over the horns and pointed reptilian tail. The duck quacked.
"Not really," Crossing shrugged. "It's Canterlot. We get them all the time. Okay, who needs a drink?"
"Buy it yourself," Crossing said. "And there's no swimming in the communal drinking trough." (The duck dejectedly wandered away, feeling completely unappreciated. It was as if all it was good for was distractions.) "We're sure the fillies are locked up?"
"That's what the last report said."
Crossing briefly considered the dubious benefits of prayer. "Then we wait. And we hope that Princess Twilight can hold on until we reach her."
"Excuse me," the lead flying turtle apologetically said to Twilight, "but we were all sort of wondering --" a brief nod backwards to the twenty who were hovering in a rather narrow line "-- exactly what you were doing out here?"
Twilight, who didn't have time to figure out how they'd all just appeared without the benefit of a teleport, instead noted the nature of that formation, flared her wings, and took off to the left. Her first intent was to get an angle from which she could attempt to cast something with a wide area of effect.
Her first result upon reaching the border of the platform was an abrupt headfirst impact and rebound.
She tried to recover as the turtles swooped in through that narrow corridor, got her head up and horn ignited in time to aim for the first. But even instinctive magic could be slowed by thought, and her reflexes were slightly blunted by the recognition of another twist to the local physics. For Twilight had just learned what was holding the platforms up.
It wasn't magic. It was pressure.
A vise grip exerted by the edges of the partially-hollowed void.