The first thing that caught Twilight's notice was the smell. Her nose twitched as her mind tried to pinpoint exactly what it was. Then, very suddenly, her memory finally kicked in, and she realised it was smoke she was smelling right now. Instantly, her eyes popped open, and she sat bolt upright, expecting to find some kind of raging fire burring around her in her bedroom. But, to her shock, this turned out not to be the case. In fact, being in her room was not the case, it would seem. For instead of finding herself in her soft and warm bed, Twilight instead looked around to find her location to be, of all things, a study of some kind. Row upon row of bookcases surrounded her, and a simple desk lay nearby. Groggily, she got herself to her hooves, looking around with understandable nervousness. As for the fire, she soon turned to see that what she'd smelled was the smoke coming off a fireplace, beside which was a large red armchair whose back was turned to her. After blinking for a bit, Twilight let out a sigh.
"Oh, it's...it's just a dream."
While she allowed herself a brief moment of relief at that prospect, it was soon ended for her when she began to hear a low chuckle of some sort, causing her to look back to that aforementioned armchair.
"A dream? Yes...and no."
Gradually, Twilight's expression became one of curiosity, and she began to take a few steps forwards, inching herself closer and closer to whoever had just spoken. Eventually, she managed to walk around the chair, seeing who it was that now sat within it.
"A pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Twilight."
The Grandfatherly tone of voice fit the figure that Twilight now looked upon. A unicorn stallion, far older than perhaps any she'd ever seen before. Clad in a dark blue cloak, this stallion was a plethora of grey, from his fur, to his eyes, and especially to his long beard, which almost reached the floor. Twilight watched as he offered her a warm smile, his front hooves resting on a cane before him. Eventually, and after clearing her throat, the younger unicorn finally spoke to him.
A chortle escaped the stallion.
"And to you. I trust you have questions?"
Twilight raised an eyebrow, looking around her rather mundane-looking surroundings, before looking back to the stallion.
"Er...yes. This...this is a dream, right?"
The stallion nodded.
"You are dreaming, yes...and that is how I brought you here."
Twilight's eyes widened, and she took a step backwards, looking to this stranger with fear. The old pony, for his part, did not seem bothered by this at all.
"I know your thoughts, Twilight, and you needn't fear. I am no agent of Luna."
Though hesitant, Twilight nevertheless took another step forward.
"Then...who are you?"
Slowly, the stallion got up, his legs wobbling slightly as he rested on that cane of his. After taking in a few heavy breaths, he began to explain.
"My name is Starswirl. A pleasure to meet you."
Twilight's eyes narrowed slightly, as a look of familiarity crossed her face.
"Starswirl...Starswirl...I...I think I've heard that name before."
She gave him her full attention.
"A powerful unicorn from the distant past. There are records of you, but...not much details."
Starswirl nodded, looking to the flames in the fireplace.
"Yes...this world is not one I've had too much involvement with. Can't blame you for not knowing much about me."
Naturally, Twilight was confused by this.
A sly smile emerged on the stallion's face, and before Twilight could say anything, he tapped his cane against the ground once, instantly causing a reaction around them. The bookcases that had been in every direction suddenly, and on their own, started to move, along with the ceiling above them. These things and more all began to drift further and further away from one another, revealing where Twilight and Starswirl truly were. It appeared to be a place Twilight never could have considered possible, a veritable island floating through a sea of stars, as though the very universe itself was surrounding them. Her eyes widened as she took it all in, seeing worlds, stars, wonders she'd never imagined, all swirling around them. Her mouth gaped open at the sight of it, leading to Starswirl giving another little chuckle.
"Yes...I remember when I first saw this place myself. But...that was such a long time ago."
He returned to looking at his fireplace, staring at those embers as he let out a sigh.
"Starlight, my dear? Would you be so kind as to bring our guest some tea?"
Twilight, at last, turned back to face him, then looked around to see who he might have been talking to. Then, out of nowhere, a second mare appeared. From the looks of it, she seemed a degree younger than she was, probably in her teens most likely. With pink fur and a largely purple mane, she approached, using her magic to levitate a tray of two tea cups before them. She gave a smile and a nod to Twilight, who graciously accepted them from her, before looking to the older stallion.
"Will there be anything else, Sir?" the young mare asked.
Starswirl shook his head.
"No, that will be all. Thank you, Starlight."
The mare nodded, turning around and heading back to the "edge" of their little island. Before Twilight could stop her, she walked off it and, to Twilight's amazement, seemed to fade away entirely. Though stunned by this, Twilight soon looked back to Starswirl.
"No...merely a child who needed guidance."
Twilight paused on that, taking a sip of the tea that had been offered to her, before eventually reaching the question that had been burning on her mind for a long time.
"...Why am I here?"
Hearing that, Starswirl let out a long sigh.
"No matter how many worlds I visit...not matter what kind of mark I leave upon them...Twilights are always fascinating to me."
Confusion now took centre stage in Twilight's expression, and the stallion noticed, smiling to himself before giving another tap on the floor with his cane. A sound behind Twilight caused her to turn, and there, she saw what looked like glowing and floating globes, all looking similar, yet each bearing slight differences. Starswirl walked beside her, gesturing to each of them.
"There are so many worlds out there, Twilight. Some almost identical. Others...as alien as you could possibly imagine."
One world became a focus of Twilight's attention. Her gaze became dominated by strange and unfamiliar images. It looked like her, but with a different mane-style, and no glasses to boot. She was surrounded by her friends, by Applejack, Pinkie and Fluttershy, though they too looked different. Then, to her further surprise, she saw Rarity and Aurora. Like everypony else, they also looked different, and together, the six mares were talking and laughing with another, as though they had been friends for their entire lives. Another tap of the cane, and the image changed again.
"From the familiar...to the bizarre," Starswirl remarked.
And bizarre it was, for what Twilight now beheld was unlike anything she'd seen before. The creatures in this new image, were, from all observations, some kind of bipedal apes, all dressed in clothes. And yet, there was something familiar about them, especially in their hairstyles, that caused Twilight to pause for a moment. Another tap of the cane, and the image changed again, this time to a plethora of worlds, with similarities and differences aplenty. Twilight, naturally, had a hard time taking it all in, and Starswirl smiled as he stood alongside her.
"So many worlds...so many possibilities...each one adding something new and different and special to the whole."
But, his smile soon faded, replaced instead with a pained look.
"...For a time, at least."
At first, Twilight wasn't sure what he was talking about. Then, as if to answer her, she saw, to her horror, that some of the images were darkening, as though a great shadow were passing over them. Image after image, world after world began to fade from view, and when Twilight finally did manage to make them out, they had been radically changed. No longer were they images of life and joy and possibilities. Now, they were images of death. No signs of life, no colour, no sense that those worlds had ever been anything other than lifeless rocks. Words as dead as a stone, and within no time whatsoever. As one would expect, Twilight was disturbed by this.
"Wha...what was that?"
Starswirl's eyes closed.
"That...was a fate that too many have suffered. A fate that may one day be your own world...should the wrong things happen."
Twilight's head snapped in his direction.
"Is...is it war?! Is that what's happening?"
Starswirl considered it.
"War? Yes...but perhaps...not in the way you think."
He looked away, looking uncomfortable all of a sudden.
"For me to live this life, out here, observing so much...I once swore never to intervene unless I had to."
A frown came to him.
"But I have seen darkness fall too many times...to simply stand by again and do nothing."
He looked back to her.
"I cannot give you the full answer you seek...but know this..."
His eyes narrowed.
"...there will come a day when the eyes of evil, true evil, will turn to your world. And when that happens...it will seek to claim it...just as it did all those worlds."
Twilight saw where he was pointing, to the devastated landscapes she had witnessed, and a chill went down her spine.
"Remember this, Twilight Sparkle. Remember...what may come," she heard him say.
She turned, but to her shock, saw that he was no longer there. Nothing was there. No fire, no books, no desk, not even the multitude of stars that had been around them. Instead, all she saw was darkness around her, leaving her with a sense of confusion and helplessness that simply would not leave her. She raised her hooves to her head, shutting her eyes tightly, unable to cope with everything she'd seen and heard here. Then, as if to relieve her of this, she opened her eyes to find herself, once more, in the safety of her room. Nothing strange or bizarre or unexplained, just the familiar confines of her home. Her breathing had become erratic by this point, and after pinching herself to make sure she was indeed awake, she leaned back into her bed, letting out a long exhale.
"...Yes, Starswirl...I will remember."