Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Secrets in the Depths

“Okay, obvious question time.”

Twilight's ear twitched at Spike's statement.

“What in the world uses steps this big?”

Trixie poked him. “Dragons, DUH.”

“Bzzt, nope!” Spike folded his arms. “Dragons don't usually bother with stairs when we get this big. We either fly or just crush rocks into slopes.”

An arc of electricity ran down the nerves in Twilight's spine and she spun around to face the step behind her. Deeply embedded in the de facto wall were jet-black, waxy stones with a liquid red aura outlining them. They had no eyes, but she could feel something watching her. No, that wasn't quite right. It was gazing into her, burrowing into her heart. Beat by beat, it twisted barbed wire around her chest, twisting like a tourniquet--


Twilight had pulled a lifetime's worth of air into her lungs before her body said she had enough, though the panting that came afterwards expelled almost all of it. “What… what was that?”

“Trixie's out of it, too.” Spike ran over to her, giving her frozen form a big shake. 

Trixie gave her own gasp, then fell to the ground on her side, legs pumping like she was running for her life.

“What the buck is going on here?!” Twilight punched at one of the stones, but it didn't budge. She spun around and bucked at it, kicking with the full force of an earth pony engaged. Thunder rang out through the cave, and the normal stone of the stairs cracked, crumbled, and rained down on them. The black rock she'd meant to smash fell out of the wall intact, clattering onto the ground. 

Twilight reached out with her magic to pick it up, only for the magic to dissolve in a snap and skitter the rock across the floor and over the next step. She landed next to it before she even realized she'd followed it, and her two guards landed a moment later.

She picked it up with her armoured hooves and held it to her lit horn, looking at it, smelling it, and finally, looking at it with her Sight.

“These rocks are the source of the contamination,” said Aurora. “I can feel it emanating from it. An unshielded pony holding this would get sick for sure.”

“Worse than that.” Twilight watched as the magic oozed off the stone, giving off little flickers of light blue light as it did so.

“What's worse than what?” Trixie asked.

“Sorry, was responding to Aurora. See this rock?” Twilight held it up. “I have no idea what it is, but not only is it impossible to hold with my magic, it seems to be actively corrupting any magic it comes into contact with. The ice magic in the air in Moscolt is being turned into high-energy contamination at a nearly perfect efficiency rate.”

Spike whistled. “And there's gotta be tons and tons of it down here. Enough to poison the whole city… well, if we don't even try to evacuate. Seems to be really slow, though.”

“Whatever we do, we can't let this stuff spill out into the city. It would be…” Twilight froze, words dying in her throat.

“Yeah.” Trixie poked at another piece in the wall. “What I want to know is: how did it get here? Doesn't seem natural. And if it's not, how long has it been here?”

Twilight stuffed the rock into her saddlebags. “No idea. Maybe we'll find out at the bottom of these stairs.”

Spike looked down the staircase. “Think so?”

“Oh, we'll find something. You don't build a giant staircase like this only to have it lead nowhere. The only question now is what we will find…” Twilight joined Spike in looking over the edge and raised an eyebrow. “Scratch that. The real question is: how do we get down there in a non-geologic time span?”

Spike spread out his wings, turning the stale cave air into a gale. “I'll glide us down.”

Trixie’s coat drained a few shades of colour. “You're kidding me. There's no way you can carry us both and fly like that.”

“You're right, I can't fly. But I'm getting pretty darn good at gliding. And I don't have to hold you both for very long. I can even just let the three of us fall most of the way and spread my wings at the last moment to bleed off most of our speed. The spells in our armor suits should take care of the rest.”

Twilight hummed to herself for a moment. “That would likely work, if you can keep hold of us when you open your wings… Wait, don't you keep some rope in your bag?”

Spike snapped his fingers. “Yeah! We could tie you two to me, and then we don't have to worry about my arm strength!”

“Just the rope strength.” Trixie shivered.

Twilight reached into Spike's bag. “It should hold us if I put a spell on it. Just gotta be careful so it doesn't get messed up by the pollution in here. Come on, let's do it.”

Trixie sighed. “I'm going to lose my lunch, I just know it.”

“I'm afraid lunches are an acceptable casualty.” Twilight spun the rope around them, wrapping the two ponies to the dragon’s sides. It felt like being forced into a bad yoga position while wearing sandpaper, but it would do. With a few extra knots and spells put in for safety, Spike lifted them both and plodded over to the edge. 

“On three. Secure your lunches!” Spike chuckled.

“Ugh.” Trixie groaned.

“One, two, three!” Spike tipped forward with his wings spread wide. 

They dropped like a stone, ready to splat on the ground. A hair before impact, Spike twisted his body in some odd way and they soared. The quick drop put all kinds of extra wind under his wings, sending them nearly to the ceiling. 

He angled down, picking up even more speed before banking right, passing step after step with only inches to spare. Dozens flew by, then hundreds. The heat soared as Spike continued flying, the temperatures quickly climbing beyond summer. 

Twilight's horn blazed with light to keep up so they could see. The scene was the same no matter how far down they went, until at last they were close to what could be considered “ground.” The stone of the earth was replaced with light blue, glowing crystal. Red mist was replaced with a fog of the same light blue colour, and the temperature plunged.

Spike flapped hard, putting on the brakes but ultimately flailing. His wings hit one of the giant crystals, and they spun into a spiral. The world tumbled over itself as Trixie screamed.

He pulled in one wing, sending them towards a wall. Twisting to have his sides vertical, he swung his feet forward and kicked off the cavern wall. Somehow, this put him level as he came in for a landing. Both ponies put out their legs like they were a chariot, skidding to a stop and holding Spike up instead of the other way around. 

“Well.” Trixie shook like an airship engine in desperate need of a tune-up. “Let's never do that again.”

“Hey, I thought it was fun!” Spike pulled lose one of the knots.

Twilight pulled out the rest of them with her magic. “What's not going to be fun is getting back up.”

Now it was Spike's turn to lose some colour from his scales. “Oh.”

“We'll burn that bridge when we get there. What's the reading on the meter?”

Spike pulled it out and gave it a snack on the side, then turned one of the dials. “‘Zero’. Guess it overflowed and broke. That's not good.”

Actually, the meter is correct.” Aurora made a noise like she was smacking her lips. “The contamination is zero here. We're directly above the ice mana krene here. The environment shields will protect us from it, but if they fail, everypony here will freeze to death in seconds.”

Twilight gulped, and relayed that information to her compatriots, who responded the same way. “Yeah, let's get moving before we turn into pony-shaped Popsicles. Exits…”

Spike pointed a claw behind her. “Looks like that's the only one.”

“If that's the only one, that's the only one. Let's go.” Twilight walked around a large crystal in the center of the chamber, finding the exit Spike was pointing at. It looked more or less like a natural cave path, and even had stone instead of crystal after a few strides inside. The light from the mana in the air was more than enough to see, though she had to be careful to not exhale directly ahead lest it turn into an opaque cloud right in her face. They walked for several more minutes, when a fork in the path popped into her vision.

“... Twilight?”

Spike's voice made her jump, then shake her head to clear the mental fog. “Did it happen again?”

Trixie rubbed her head. “Yeah, we froze up. Something isn't right here.” 

“But it isn't affecting me.” Spike scratched his chin. “Is it a pony-only thing, or maybe a unicorn-only thing?”

Twilight’s ear twitched. “It's an annoying thing, that's for sure. Spike, you're our backup. Bonk us if it happens again.”

“Will do, but which way do we go?”

Twilight looked to the extra path to her right, then the main one ahead. “I'm not sure. I--” Her ear twitched again, and she shut her mouth. 

Holding up a hoof, she heard a beating just louder than the one being made by her heart. The sound of a hoof in a violent confrontation with a pony's body. More, there was another rhythm, that of hoofsteps on stone down the side path.

She waved at her guards, and they scurried quiet as mice beyond the rightward path, then pressed themselves against the stone.  

With a wave from Twilight, Spike took the spot closest to the entryway and crouched low. His legs and claws were compressed springs as the pony walking towards them approached, the hoofbeats now louder than ever and echoing through the tunnel. 

The instant a nose came into view, Twilight blasted a shield into place around the group and the new pony. At the same time, Spike exploded around the corner, grabbing the pony and swinging him around in a half circle to kiss the wall.

Trixie was next with a syringe in her magic that plunged into the pony's neck, making him squeal as something or other was put directly into his system. 

He tried to shake Spike off, but wobbled and fell over almost immediately. In seconds, he was out like a light.

“Trixie?” Twilight asked, eyebrow raised. “Why do you have a needle?”

“Well…” Her cheeks turned pink with blush. “I was having trouble with non-lethal knockout spells, and then remembered anaesthetics were a thing. So I might have borrowed some from the medical wing? After asking a doctor.”

Twilight chewed on this, and her tongue, for a moment. “Okay, fine. But keep working on those spells and let me know about anything like that next time. I was hoping to interrogate this guy.”

Trixie looked down at the knocked-out magenta stallion. “Oh. Well, he'll be up in a bit.”

“No time to wait. I heard a fight or something up ahead. You two follow behind; I'll take the lead. Keep quiet so we can ambush if possible.” Twilight dropped her shield and strode through the tunnel as much as she could while keeping her hooves from telegraphing her presence. The ground was rock and crystal, but the rubber on the bottom of her armor made nary a squeak as she pushed forward. 

The sound of fighting wasn't there anymore, but there were voices. All were stallions, that was clear. It was also plain to hear that they were from Stalliongrad, and speaking the local language. Beyond that, there was no telling who they were. Majestics, Templars, Lunarians, mutated Arctic guppies, anything was possible, and it sent Twilight's mind into a frantic overdrive. 

A silence dropped onto her for a moment, freezing her hooves to the ground. Her ears twitched under her helmet, reaching out for any sound waves. A few came, powering her legs to move forward bit by bit. The path turned sharply to the right, with the junction having a heavy security door left open. It was lifted up to be flush with the ceiling, but could be dropped in an instant, and its heavy locks would take quite a bit of time to get through even with magic. 

One of the stallions around the corner finally spoke up, speaking Rush. <<So what do we do?>>

Twilight held up a hoof to stop her guards from moving. 

<<I'm not sure. Nopony has ever resisted this stuff before.>>

Resist? Resist what? This can't be good, and teleportation is out of the question with these time losses and near a mana krene.

Try using your Sight?”

Listening to Aurora, she engaged her Sight, and it looked like swimming in blueberry soup. Just a sea of coloured murkiness. Squinting, she pushed forward and felt her nose boop the wall. She leaned forward a bit more, tried to focus farther away, and five little off-color points appeared, one being surrounded by the others.

She turned to Trixie and Spike, and made four pawing motions on the ground without touching anything. Spike put his hand on Trixie's shoulder to explain the plan, as he'd been there during rather similar training scenarios with Luna: Twilight goes in with a bang, they follow in the confusion. 

Twilight burst through the doorway, ready to grab the first hostile and break them in two. But she stopped. Tied up in the midst of four stallions was a mare with a brilliant white coat, a stylized purple mane, a restraint ring on her horn, and three blue diamonds in her flank. One of her stylish saddles was on a table nearby, along with a dress. Their gaze met, and in a flash, the mare's eyes went from “bored” to terror. 


A burst of light exploded from Rarity’s horn, and a blade shot through the air, turning only at the last millisecond to avoid Twilight's head, which turned to follow it. Instead of hitting her, it hit a large button on the wall, and the security door came crashing down, trapping the six ponies with a crunching wham!

Twilight turned her head back to Rarity, only to see her already out of her restraints, including the sealing ring that was on her horn. One of the stallions was choking on a throwing knife lodged in his voice box. The others were getting out blades, and in one case, loading a saddlegun. Rarity was already back in her dress.

Shaking off her shock, Twilight pulled out her sword and cut into the saddlegun being loaded, cracking the mechanism. The follow up attack was to cut his leg to disable him, but he fell before her blade could strike. A throwing knife was embedded halfway into his forehead.

It was then that she finally noticed the two wooden walls opposite each other, both lined with hung tools, and that more knives were flying into them, suspended by a blue aura. They punctured the walls like paper, then burst out from them a few centimetres away from the entrance holes before puncturing the opposite walls, perforating the hostile caught in between and suspending them on nearly invisible wires. 

By the time Twilight turned to face the final hostile, Rarity already had a brilliant ice-blue telekinetic sword plunged into him. The seamstress had moved without hesitation, and no remorse was written on her face.

Twilight's heart had stopped, just like time itself had seemed to do, and Rarity was rushing towards her. Rarity had just killed four ponies. Rarity. And she was still moving.

Twilight lifted her sword.

A tiny pink crystal emerged in Rarity's magic, and as the two came face to face, the fashionista smashed it on the ground. Pink dust swarmed around them, engulfing the both of them in an opaque cloud of swirling pink gas as Twilight dropped her sword.

“R-Rarity?” Twilight sniffled as Rarity finally stood stock still, mane covering her eyes as she looked to the ground. “Is that—”

“I didn't want you to find out this way, but fate seems to have other plans.” When she looked up, there were tears in her eyes, but fire in her words. “Pay close attention, Twilight, I have a lot to say and this field will only last for a very short time.”

“Rarity, you just killed some ponies!”

“Yes. I did.” Rarity put her hoof to Twilight's lips. “Time is short. Darling, listen, I am a spy. I've been working for Celestia for years now, trying to break this conspiracy from within.”

Twilight’s mouth dropped open, squeaking but otherwise silent.

“The dead ponies here are former employees of one of the Majestics. I don't know how or why they did it, but they stole Honesty. The Majestic Twelve have the rest locked up somewhere, and I’ve no idea where or why they need them. But when the renegades stole Honesty, I saw an opening. I was tracking it, hoping to get it before Agent F or you got here, but I obviously failed.”

“Rar—” Twilight squeaked, but Rarity pressed her hoof harder.

“Twilight, listen to me. The Majestic Twelve are not united. They're backstabbing bastards and that's their weak spot, and they know it. They, or more likely One, sent Agent F to kill these ponies, and she would have succeeded without question.”

Twilight’s mind almost broke in two, one half wanting to cry with Rarity over a bottle of red and the other racing to pull at the rope offered. “There are twelve? You know them? Who are they?”

Were twelve. You neutralized number Eleven, the Duke of San Palomino, and Ten, General Towers. I neutralized Six, Duchess of Cloudsdale, and flipped Twelve. He's working with me, but we have to be careful or we're both dead.”

The blades that punched holes in the walls just now replayed in her mind, then replayed again in the Duchess’ office in Cloudsdale. “That… that was you? You were the assassin?”

“Spies don't show mercy, Twilight. I've been trying to uncover the identities of the others but they always use those damn changeling amulets and refer to each other by number. 

“I don't know what their final plan is yet, but it's only maybe half complete. They needed the Elements for… something, and they would have stopped at nothing to get them. 
“I've been in too deep too long to back out now. If I'm discovered, they'll send Agent F, and not even Luna could protect me from her. Which means you cannot, ever discuss what I'm telling with anyone or anything, not even Celestia, because somehow it doesn't matter if it's just you two when you talk. This field I put up right now is the only reason I can speak freely.”

Twilight glanced at the pink fog, reaching out with her senses and Sight to figure it out, but got nothing. Only a void.

Rarity continued, “I've been able to keep them from finding out that you're an alicorn, but it's getting harder by the day. That… thing they made contact with knows things that should be impossible. Even actions taken by Celestia alone, but there's no rhyme or reason I can find behind what they're able to uncover and what they're not.”

Twilight looked at Rarity's disgust. “Thing?”

“Starts with an I, has two O’s, and ends with an S. I know you know it, and whatever you do, do not say the name! Ever! You'll not just break this shield but attract its attention, and there's nothing you want less than that. 

“I'm stunned it doesn't realize what I'm up to at this point, or maybe it does and approves? I'm not even sure. The Majestic Twelve think they're using it to their own ends. I think it's the opposite.”

“Are you sure they aren't just using you?” Twilight covered her mouth. The words had just come out.

“That's all in the life of a spy, Twilight. But I'll admit, the only reason they haven't killed me is that they think I'm well under the influence of the geas. As long as they think I'm useful, I'm safe. And a pony that can meet with Celestia anytime? Always useful.

“Beyond that, I know they have another base like Farriér’s hidden away somewhere, I just don't know where. Every time I think I figure it out, I'm dead wrong. And if I keep it up I might just get dead.”

Twilight grabbed Rarity’s hoof, her heart filled with tears she just couldn't shed yet. “Rarity, come with me, we can figure out where they are and what to do together!”

Rarity shook her head. “No. Agent F — Flicker — she's unstoppable. I tried looking into her weakness, and not even the Majestics know of one. She's the one that killed Towers before you hit him with morphine. Mystery only knows how One keeps her in line.”

Twilight picked her sword back up. “I can handle the danger.”

“Twilight, you let Rainbow get caught by Farriér and locked up until I let her out.”

Lightning hit Twilight square in the chest. “That was…”

Rarity pulled out a green crystal and golden amulet from her pocket. “I know you broke up the harvesting lab under Manehatten, but they already have quite a few, and I managed to acquire one for my own uses.

“But that's not going to matter in the slightest if Flicker gets here. She's not fooled by the amulets and she's on a mission to exterminate this splinter group and take back the Element. I was hoping to trick these four into telling me something interesting, but since you showed up, I had to act prematurely. Now I don't know where they're keeping it and don't know which of the Majestic Twelve they're working for, but Flicker…

“Twilight, there's several members of the Majestic Twelve that want you dead now. The only reason Flicker hasn't killed you is that One has issued an edict to let you live for some reason. Flicker has been an obedient lapdog for One up until now, but she doesn't agree with the orders and will likely kill you if she sees you. 

“She's on her way. Follow me out, pretend you're after me, head straight, and then leave this city as soon as you can. If you don't, you'll die.” Rarity reached out pulled her tight into a hug, squeezing her around her sides and whimpering in her ear.

Still holding and shaking, Rarity continued, “Now, last chance to ask questions. This bubble has about twenty seconds left.”

Twilight didn't want to ask questions. She wanted to tell Rarity it would be okay. That she would make it all better. That she would crush those who would dare hurt or subvert a Bearer, one of her dear friends.

If not even conversations with Celestia herself are safe, though…

Twilight, the rock in your bag!”

Rarity was squeezing the mysterious rock into Twilight’s side, tingling her right through Aurora. 

“Rarity, do you know anything about these rocks?” Twilight broke the hug and pulled out her “hot sample” from the stairs.

Rarity looked down and sighed. “Disrupters. Or the ore they're made out of. Charged, they can make anypony with a horn stunned for a few seconds. I know they've tried to use them against you before, the ones that want you dead. They used intermediaries to stay anonymous while still handing the disrupters out to mercenaries. I hear that if you give these things enough power any of the tribes can be affected, but I don't know how they do it. I only know there's a ward you can use against them.” She pulled her dress up to reveal a blue symbol on her side. It looked like a triangle wave with a vertical arrow through the middle.

“I don't recogni—”

“No time.”

The pink mist was giving way to the brown wood and grey stone of the cave, along with the heavy banging of ponies trying to wreck a security door. Twilight put a hoof through the mist, and it parted. Leaping through it, she pulled on the locks to get them open. 

“Sorry, darling, but you're going to have to do better than that if you want to catch me red-hoofed!”

Twilight looked back, and Rarity had all her gear back on, and was laughing behind a fetlock like a purebred noble. 

“After all, who would believe Generosity would be so greedy? Tata!” Rarity pulled open a door leading to a black void. The little throwing knives under her saddle fluttered out and gathered in her back, just under her shoulders. They linked together, forming a mesh in a very particular shape.

“Wings…” Twilight whispered.

Rarity jumped, fell, and vanished into the black.

She turned back to the locks, which Spike's flame was starting to eat through. One at a time they popped under the strain of her magic, and she jumped back as the dragon pushed it open.

“Are you okay?!” Trixie jumped through the door, horn alight like a sparkler fountain. 

“Fine, and I found the way out. This way!” Twilight ran to the door Rarity had dashed out of and took in what was there to see, which wasn't much. Some of the cave ceiling could be seen immediately above her, but everything else was darkness. 

A clawed hand on her shoulder made her back muscles jump.

“Twilight, I heard Rarity. Was that her?” 

“Likely. I'll explain what I can later. But she flew out this door somehow, and we need to follow her. Ready to fly us again?”

Trixie whimpered. 

“No time to complain. Spike, rope!” Twilight yanked it out of his bag and tied the three of them together once more. 

“I'm going to have a fear of heights after this. Trixie just knows it.”



“Too bad. Jump, Spike!”

Spike gulped. “Okay. Never flew in pure darkness before, but here we go!”

Gravity took hold, pulling them into the stale, damp air and allowing the darkness to consume their world. Every second was wind blowing in their faces and darkness. Even Twilight's Sight couldn't pierce it.

It was a minute or two before they saw anything at all. Ahead, the cave was coming to an end, with one exception. There was a gap in the wall directly ahead of them. Beyond, only more darkness.

“Go through the hole?” Spike asked.

“Go through the hole.” 

The stone blew by them with a low whoosh, rocking Spike and making him wobble. 

“You okay, Spike?” Twilight yelled over the breeze. 

“On it. Was just unexpected is all. So, where are we going?”

Twilight blinked, then pointed dead ahead. “Another hole! There must be a path in the air leading through the cave!”

“Going in!” Spike grabbed them both and squeezed as they passed through, the wind once again giving them a love tap on the face. The moment they cleared the hole, yet another appeared ahead of them.

“Trixie thinks she's going to be sick.”

“Twilight, is it just me, or is that the same hole?” Spike asked as they soared through it. “I don't think I'm flying in circles.”

Twilight shook her head and switched on her Sight. “We're not! And I can see some differences in each one, but not huge differences. Another one incoming!”

It whooshed by them, and Spike rocked a little in the air. “I think I'm getting the hang of this!”

“Twilight! There is definitely a spell of some sort going on here. The odds of these lining up like this…

Twilight looked around, seeing mostly darkness along with another hole in the cave wall. And naturally? Just for ponies? In this location? Unlikely.

“Anypony see that?” Trixie yelled.

“See whaaaaaaaaa—!” The cave bloomed with light, revealing an interior space large enough to fit a city. No, not a city. Twilight gulped down her awe. An entire Duchy!

The cave space was akin to an enormous geode, the inside lined with crystals ranging in colour from purple to pearly white. Giant stone staircases, dwarfing the ones leading down the cave from before, were scattered throughout the walls. They went every which way, overlapping themselves in ways that danced on the grave of three dimensional geometry. Giant obelisks made out of the disrupter stone jutted out from the ovoid wall, each pointing to the shimmering light source in the center that felt like a summer sun. Though they soared, it looked as if they were standing still in the massive space.

“Whoa.” Spike wobbled a bit in mid air. “Guys, I don't think we're just underground anymore. There's no way this was just… underneath Moscolt.”

“I think you're right.” Twilight shielded her eyes from the brightness at the core with her fetlock. “Somewhere after we got to the krene, we must have passed through a fold in space without realizing it. Like a portal whose edges were all in the rock, so we couldn't see it. We could be anywhere at this point, even in another plane of existence. Theoretically. I don't actually have much else to go on.”

“Another plane of existence.” Trixie whimpered. “I think I'm going to faint.”

A gust of wind beat them all on their rear, pushing them forward. “Crap. Twilight, I just looked behind us, and I can't see where we came from. Where should I land?”

“Does it matter? Without more information, any guess is as good as any other. Find someplace you think you can set down on and head for it.”

“How?” Trixie yelled. “Everything has to be a thousand kilometres away! Even the stuff below us!”

“Maybe, maybe not. This is too far for our minds to really tell. And there still seems to be gravity, so, let's use that! That's almost ten meters per second squared.”

“So we dive?” Spike asked.

Trixie whimpered again.

“We dive.”

Spike pulled in his wings, and they fell. Wind started rushing passed them, putting them at terminal velocity in seconds. The wind was the only clue that they were even really moving, but that's not what punched Twilight in the heart. Spike had turned and dove alright, aiming straight down, but they were still heading for the light.

“What's going on? I turned! I know I turned!”

“Double back!” Twilight switched to her Sight for only a split second before the light overwhelmed her and she had to switch back. “Fly back the way we came!”

“I'm trying!”

No matter which way he turned, the light was always there, growing larger, getting closer.

“We aren't in normal space! Every path leads to the center!”

“It's like a singularity?!” Twilight grabbed hold of Spike. “What in the name of Mystery kind of magic is going on here! There's no way this should be possible without a dimensional collapse!”

Trixie just started screaming.

Spike tried to turn in a vertical loop, to no avail. “I don't think the spells here care about that, Twilight!”

“Twilight! Look!”

The center light was a flickering mass of yellow, orange, and purple on its outline. The centre, however, was Equestria. All of it, and everywhere all at once. Blinking could sometimes isolate six or seven snapshots of life, from cities to forests and ponies she'd never seen before. 

It's a long shot, but… “Head inside, Spike!”

Trixie stopped screaming just long enough to yell “Are you nuts?!”

Spike spread his wings to catch the tail wind. “Trixie, I don't think we have a choice. I hope you know what you're doing, Twilight!”

“So do I!”

A riptide of gravity took hold of them, pulling them forward. The wind rode it along with them. Everything just sped up, or rather, the core grabbed onto everything and pulled it in. The heat was about to set them all on fire when they finally plunged into the orb.

Where am I? Twilight opened her eyes. No. That wasn't right. They were already open, right? She was certainly seeing something. Many somethings, at that. She was back home in Ponyville, resting on Celestia’s pillow, soaring in Canterlot, sunbathing in Marelaysia, all at once. As she gazed deeper, she found herself in Manehatten at a Pinkie Party. One that was held years ago as a housewarming event for Pinkie's move to the city to start her own business. The laughs and tears came all at once, like at the party, but different.

Then she was at the wake for Granny Smith. The sorrow there was felt by everypony, and as much as she felt it then, she was even more sure of it now. That was followed by Big Mac and Fluttershy finally admitting their feelings to each other, and the brief but ridiculous feud between Carrot Top and Applejack involving produce artillery guns.

The pigs ate well that week.

She reached out, or at least that's what it felt like. She was grabbing into something, either the feelings she had or something more tangible. Maybe feelings were tangible here.

Trixie's voice called to her, or maybe it was just the memory of the pony. Spike joined in a second later with some snarky quip. She had trained him well, but she wanted to stay. If she left, there would be no telling what would happen. And after all, Applejack was here, so it couldn't be all bad.

“You have to let go.”

That couldn't be right. That was Applejack's voice. She wouldn't tell her to leave.

“You're not meant to be here. Don't worry, you can leave. It's okay.”

What did that mean? What even was this place? And why would Applejack — no, not her. Not her friend. Not exactly, anyway. It could have her face and voice, but she could see her for what she was now.


“You have to leave. It will be okay. Trust me. Let go, and you'll be safe.”

She wanted to stay. It was warm here. Open. But was Applejack telling the truth? Did she really have to leave?

She mentally punched herself. If she doubted Honesty, what point would there be in anything?

So she let go. 

More scenes of Equestria past and present floated by, running ever faster as the sound of roaring water filled her ears, and then, her lungs.

She choked on the cool water. It was refreshing in a drowning kind of way, if such a thing were possible. Her body gagged, but her heart was fine. After all, Applejack promised her, and a promise from Honesty was always kept. Then came the light.

There was screaming, all right. Lots of it, from both Spike and Trixie. It started the very instant they were ejected from the strangely vertical, small-town-width cylinder of water.  Twilight joined in after she was done exhaling water. The world was tumbling over itself as they fell, plunging through a few clouds that obviously had no respect for her pegasus magic or the spells in their armor. As Twilight lit her horn for a spell, all that came out was a sputtering of sparks.

Below them was a verdant field with lush green grass, bordering the ocean. A warm sun was in the afternoon sky, and the temperature was that of a pleasant late summer day rather than the dead of winter. Rich brown rock was exposed wherever the grass hadn't taken hold, and mountains lay beyond the grass opposite the sea.

The column of water gracious enough to spit them out was emerging from a permanent mass of clouds over the edge of the land, forever dumping untold millions of gallons into an enormous lake that immediately drained into the sea. This repeated over and over, so many waterfalls from nothing but a dense but thin cloud, all draining either directly into the sea or on the coast. It stretched into the horizon along the beach in both direction.

A dragon’s hand squeezed her side tight as Spike pulled in his wings and pointed the three straight down. They plummeted through the air as one would normally expect of physics, which was notable given how much the rules of nature had been sleeping on the job lately.

Unlike before, however, Spike was in control of the terms of engagement. The moment they stabilized in the general direction of “eating dirt,” he spread open his wings and pulled up. They caught the air like one would catch a ledge, bleeding away speed and changing their direction to something not destined to end with a permanent dirt nap.

Now in a steady glide, Spike was dutifully aiming for shore instead of the brilliant blue lake directly underneath them. The only problem was that while Twilight's magic was seemingly on the fritz, her mind wasn't, and every calculation she did told her the same thing: they were in for a water landing anyway.

If her horn wouldn't work, the next step was her pegasus magic. With all her will and might, she tried to summon a tailwind, but it unfortunately only resulted in a different kind of tail wind.

“Really, Twilight?” Spike asked.

“I was trying to use magic!” Forget the sun. Her blush could warm Equestria from now on.

Although that wouldn't be very true for very long as they splashed down into the drink. The water was cool, but not the cold one would expect given where they were just a few hours ago. On instinct, Twilight started to paddle with her legs, and somehow they managed to float instead of sink; their heads were back up above water in just a moment.

Shaking, shaken, and soaked, they crawled their way onto a dirty shore before flopping onto the warm grass. Spike let go of the ponies, the likely bruises on their sides a fair trade for saving them: the rope had gone limp during the surreal voyage, its spell gone much like the other magic they had.

Aurora, are you still there?

Unable to respond. Safety mode engaged. Systems reforming. ETC two hours.”

Wow. It even knocked out Aurora. But it sounds like she was smart enough to protect herself.  Twilight blinked and looked down at her armoured body. But I'm stuck in deployment until she wakes up.

Trixie pulled at the still-tangled ropes with her teeth. “Where the hell are we, anyway? What was that?”

“In order?” Twilight nudged Spike to help them get free, but he looked like he was going to pass out on the grass. “We're at the Eternal Falls. It's a protected wilderness park at the far west end of Equestria, north of San Palomino but well south of Stalliongrad. We just got thrown several thousand kilometres away from where we were.

“As to what in Tartarus that portal was in that what in Tartarus chamber, I don't know. I've never seen, never felt anything like it. But I think Honesty had been there — I could hear it talking to me.”

“Are you sure you weren't dreaming?” One of Trixie's ropes snapped. “I only heard us screaming.”

“No, I'm not, but that's what my gut says and that's all I have to go on right now. I'll ask Celestia but I would bet all the donuts at Sugarcube Corner that the Sisters don't know either. And then there's the matter of Rarity.”

“Rarity?!” Spike pushed himself up, and more water from his wings drenched the two ponies. “Twilight, what happened to Rarity?!”

Crap. She had wanted to avoid that topic. No avoiding it now. She sighed and looked for a way to explain without putting her in danger. The sun, though, reminded her of Honesty. Maybe the Element was watching her, and truth was the only option in her heart. Yet, she couldn't say everything. It would get Rarity killed for certain, and Spike would never forgive her for that, to say nothing of her own conscience.

“She's mixed up in this somehow. She wouldn't tell me everything, except to have faith in her and leave her be. And to not tell anypony. She might be compromised by the Majestics, but I'm going to take her word. I'm only telling you two because you were there and there's no getting around you knowing. But neither of you can tell anypony, anyone, or anything that she was there. She's made it clear that even breathing the words could put her at risk, and there's no place safe enough to be an exception. Got it?”

Spike, free of the ropes, sat and hugged his stomach. “Rarity…”

“I can't bend on this one. You both have to promise.”

Trixie splayed out on her belly and sighed, still panting from adrenaline. “I swear. Not like anypony would believe me.”

“If it's for her.” Spike sniffled. “But I'm worried.”

“You and me both, Spike. But right now we need to get back to Stalliongrad.” Twilight lit her horn again, and this time managed to keep a telekinetic field going for ten seconds or so. “My magic is still kinda fritzy from that… whatever it was. But it looks like it's coming back. Spike, do you still have your pages? If I recall correctly, this area is near a leyline.”

Spike pulled off his backpack and took out a stack of soaked papers. “I don't think I can send these.”

“They're wet, but not destroyed. There's trees over that ridge there. Worst case, my magic is messed up for a good while and we use wood to make a fire and dry them out. Better case, I recover faster and use magic to restore them. With any luck, we'll be back within the hour.” And hopefully, there before this “Agent F.” If not, we'll see how unstoppable she really is.