Luna sat in her chambers, feverishly reviewing the recorded findings on the living substance, which had been dubbed ‘the ash’. With no way of knowing what it was, when it would wake up and what it would do, Celestia moved it in a magic field from the gardens, into the laboratories beneath the Castle. She had the brightest minds in Canterlot observe the substance trying to learn everything they could about it.
Initially, the Scribes had referred to it as ‘the tar’; however, close examination quickly revealed that it wasn’t a liquid, but more of a sand-like substance. As such, it was redubbed ‘the ash’, leading to other mentions of the word ‘tar’ in the report to be scribbled out. Any attempts to take a sample failed, as not even a single grain would detach from the whole form. Through careful study, the Scribes found that the mass was held together by a unique magnetic field, emitted by each individual grain and keeping it whole. On the bright side, Luna mused, it made moving the entirety of the ash much simpler, with no risk of any being left behind.
Whilst sifting through the mass, however, the Scribes had found something very interesting; it appeared to be a metal device, the same size as a single grain of the substance, yet clearly foreign to it. It was spherical with a single piece of blue glass, which periodically gave off a small flash. The device also refused to part with the ash, but the Scribes were able to move it to the very edge of the mass to examine it. Sadly, they were unable to find any answers from it, but Luna theorized that, if she could sense a presence in the mass, the device could play a key part in helping her understand it.
Luna found herself struggling to remain still; the ash so fascinated her—an intelligent, alien being, left on their doorstep! She wanted to be down in the lab right now, just in case the creature awoke, so she may speak with it first…
She laughed softly; Celestia had spoken of her student, Twilight, bearing similar enthusiasm in studying the unknown…
There was a knock at the door, jarring Luna out of her trance. “Enter.”
The door opened, and a guard poked his head in. “Princess Twilight Sparkle and the other Bearers have arrived, your highness; they’re on their way to the lab.”
Speaking of Twilight… Luna nodded, trying to contain her excitement. “Thank you.” Celestia had written a letter to Twilight asking her and her friends to come examine the ash; if it was indeed intelligent, she could think of nopony else more suited to the task of introducing it to their land. Celestia promised that, once they had arrived, they would make attempts to awaken the creature. Luna placed the various parchments on her desk and headed out the door, trying and failing to hide a spring in her step in the presence of the guard. Once she rounded a corner and out of sight, however, she broke into a full sprint.
- - - - -
Outside the doors to the laboratory, Celestia resisted the urge to roll her eyes when Twilight and her friends bowed to her, yet again; she appreciated the gesture, but had hoped they’d have grown out of the habit by now. Still, she smiled warmly at the six as they stood. “I thank you for coming on such short notice, my little ponies.”
“Anything for you, Princess!” Rainbow Dash said proudly, springing into a salute.
Celestia noticed Twilight practically leaning to the side, hoping to get a glimpse into the lab behind her. “What do we know about the creature?” She asked eagerly. “Is it intelligent? Is it friendly? Does it talk?” She did a little dance of excitement. “OOOH, I have so many questions!!” She quickly remembered her company, however, and calmed down with a blush and sheepish grin.
Celestia smiled. “Patience, Twilight… The creature does appear to be… alive, yet we know little else. We just need to wait for--”
“I’M HERE!!” Yelled Luna as she skidded around the corner at the end of the hall and galloped up to the group. “I’m… here…” she panted, her flowing mane sagging with exhaustion. “Sh-shall we… begin?”
Celestia giggled. “Yes, I believe you’ve been patient, dear sister…” She said teasingly; Luna blushed furiously as Celestia turned towards the door. The moment she opened it, Luna and Twilight immediately ran straight past her and into the lab.
“It’s here!!” Luna said, gesturing Twilight over to a wooden, circular table in the middle of the room. The edges of the table were affixed with six slabs of stone, each with a green glowing rune embedded in them. A solid green line encircled each rune before forming a line towards the center and forming another, much larger circle that connected each line. From the large circle, a hemispherical green barrier rose, two inches thick.
Within the barrier lay a sight that confounded the ponies; a puddle of a black substance, piled like an amount of dust, occasionally sending ripples across its surface. Twilight carefully approached the barrier to get a closer look, bewildered. “So this fell from the tear from last night?”
Luna nodded as she paced around the table. “We’ve dubbed it ‘the ash’; it was initially called the ‘tar’, until we found it isn’t made of liquid, but of something resembling sand. It doesn’t appear toxic or corrosive, yet we’ve taken every precaution; nopony has touched it with their bare hooves, and we intend to keep it that way until we know it’s safe.” She stopped pacing and leaned in towards the ash. “In addition, last night Celestia and I… sensed something from it. It was faint, but it was definitely there… It’s a living creature, capable of thought! I even sensed it dreaming! Yet we…” She glanced at Celestia. “...we felt it would be best if we played it safe.”
Rarity approached, regarding the ash with interest. “I must say, its texture is… intriguing.” She tapped her chin with a hoof before gasping with delight. “Oh, I’ve just come up with dozens of ideas! Hems, veils, ribbons—oh, they’ll be gorgeous!!”
“You ain’t gonna try to make this thang into a dress, now, are ya darlin’?” Applejack asked, sashing at the creature warily. “Ah don’t think it’d appreciate that…”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no!” Rarity said, shaking her head quickly. “But I could design hundreds of ensembles using this color, this texture… I shall call it,” she gestured with a hoof to emphasize the name. “‘The Midnight Desert Collection!’”
“Good to see ya have your priorities straightened out, Rare…” Applejack muttered, rolling her eyes.
Fluttershy found the nerve to examine the ash; she delicately approached the barrier and leaned in, staring at the substance without a word. After a solid minute, she finally turned to her friends. “It’s definitely alive,” she said. “You can tell by the way the edge of the ‘ash’ keeps shifting, even slightly… Almost like it’s breathing. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was unconscious!”
“WHAT?!” Pinkie Pie yelped, suddenly popping her head out of Fluttershy’s mane. “Everypony needs a conscience!” She suddenly threw her head back and burst into song. “Wheeeen you wish upon a staaaarr--”
“‘Unconscious’, Pinkie!” Twilight said, cutting Pinkie off. “As in, it’s asleep! We don’t know when it’ll wake up.”
“Well, hopefully it’s soon!” Pinkie said sternly, hopping out of Fluttershy’s mane, leaving the pegasus to wonder how she’d gotten in there. “Somepony needs to teach this thing right and wrong!”
The ponies examined the substance in silence for another few moments, quietly forming theories regarding the ash, its origins and its intentions.
Celestia cleared her throat. “Now, my little ponies, listen,” she said. Luna, Twilight and the other Bearers gathered before her respectfully. Celestia took a deep breath and spoke in a serious tone. “We know not what this creature is. We don’t know what it wants, where it came from, or what it can do. All we know for certain is that we need to keep it contained, until we learn of its intentions. Until then, the creature shall not leave containment under any circumstances.”
Fluttershy dragged a hoof along the ground uncertainly. “W-What if it… doesn’t like being… contained?”
Celestia shook her head. “It won’t be able to do anything about it. This barrier is almost completely impenetrable whilst those runes are in place.”
“And even if it does break out and cause trouble, we can handle it!” Dash said, hovering some distance over her friends and jabbing at the air with her front hooves.
“Yeah!” Applejack said, rearing up. “That lil’ pile o’ dust ain’t nothin’!”
Luna bit her lip. “It might not be--” She began uncertainly, but Pinkie Pie suddenly shook violently.
“W-w-w-hoooaaaa!” She said. She batted at one of her ears. “Itchy ear,” she opened her mouth and pointed at her tongue. “Drah tunn,” and finally leapt to her hooves and shivered violently. “Chilly back!”
“What’s that one?” Dash asked.
“Oh, I’ve gotten it all the time while babysitting the Cake twins!” Pinkie said cheerfully. “It means somepony’s about to break out of something!”
Twilight frowned. “Break out of some--”
Her eyes widened. Pinkie’s smile fell. Slowly, all eyes moved towards the barrier encasing the ash.
An unseen force pulled one of the runes off the edge of the table, letting it fall to the floor with a dull ‘clump’. The barrier fell.
- - - - -
Slowly, I felt the world return to me, gradually pulling me out of a pitch-black darkness. I could hear voices, but they were muffled and unclear… They all sounded female, that much was certain.
My ‘body’ felt weak, yet as I slowly regained consciousness I felt more and more of my mass respond. I evolved from simple twitches to full blown ripples, and before long I was able to regain my sight.
For a moment, in my blurred vision, I could only see green. I could feel myself spread out across a smooth, flat surface. As my vision cleared, however, I could see something through the green… I was in some kind of… castle chamber? It wasn’t Perspective’s lab, obviously.
I finally remembered what had happened before I’d blacked out, my brain pulling out the memory in the same way you’d pull out the TV remote after sitting on it. The Rift… I’d tried to cut its power, but the generator overloaded and caused the Rift to open a portal; it wasn’t the portal Perspective was seeking, though, as evidenced by his confusion and panic. Smite and Trauma tried to get him and the kidnap victims out while I tried to… shut down the Rift. Dunno if I succeeded, since the thing sucked me in before I could find out.
And now I was… here. I examined the chamber; I was in what appeared to be a green forcefield of some kind, atop an old wooden table in the center of the chamber. I spotted six runic stones gathered around the barrier.
Okay… I thought. Wherever this is, magic calls the shots. Fair enough.
There were tables and bookshelves gathered at the far sides of the room, all littered with various alchemical fixings and dusty tomes, respectively. I rotated my gaze around the room, and my mass nearly bubbled in surprise.
Eight. There were eight horse… things, of a wide palette of colors. Their faces seemed capable of displaying a wide variety of expressions, as I noted from the looks of concern, curiosity and attentiveness they showed. They were standing on the far side of the barrier, examining me closely.
Keep it cool, keep it cool… I thought. Don’t panic, get a picture of what’s going on, then plan accordingly. I still couldn’t help but feel anxious; MHAs often reported being taken to alien worlds—it was an occupational hazard—but this was my first time, and now I was wishing I’d paid better attention in “Extraterrestrial Diplomacy” back at Moore.
Keep it cool, I thought. First off, I need to see if I can reach the team.
“Smite?” I said through my transmitter. No response. “Trauma?”
After a moment of silence I brought up the Neural Interface. I glanced at the Signal Status; it had a big red X over the bars. That only happened when there was a jammer nearby…
...or when I was very, very far from any link to the nearest Department Network.
The portal hadn’t just tossed me randomly around the country, or even the planet. Perspective’s gimmick was dimensional rifts.
The horses around me appeared to be different species. Two of them looked normal (relatively); one had an orange coat, blonde tail and mane, the braids making me lean towards female, and what looked like a tattoo of three apples on her flank. The other one, who seemed on a chronic sugar rush, had a violently pink coat, a darker pink tail and mane that bounced with every movement, and a flank tattoo of… balloons?
They looked ‘normal’, in that they didn’t have any extra features like their colleagues. There was one horse that I could only refer to as a ‘unicorn’, judging by the horn; it had a flowing, almost stylish violet mane and tail, a pure white coat and a flank tattoo of some form of three gems or diamonds. It stood with a real sense of grace, as if it felt a need to look good doing everything, even something as simple as standing.
Two of them were winged horses; pegasus, or pegasi, I believed was the correct plural. One had a cyan blue coat, and a blazing rainbow-patterned mane and tail. Its flank mark was a bit more… abstract than the previous three; a cloud with a rainbow-colored lightning bolt arcing from it. It was looking at me almost like it was eager for me to act out of line, giving me shifty, suspicious looks. The other pegasus, yellow with a flowing pink mane and a flank mark of butterflies, seemed to be the rainbow-horse’s opposite; it actually seemed very quiet, keeping its head down as though hoping not to be noticed. Yet it also seemed very interested in me, tilting its head to the side in curiosity. For a moment I feared that it had realized I was awake, but when it didn’t say anything I opted to keep the act going. Play dead… Play dead… Much easier when you don’t have to breathe.
The last three horses seemed to be of a higher status; they all had wings and a horn. One of them, roughly the same size as the first five, had a purple coat, dark purple tail and mane with pink highlights, and what appeared to be the image of a starburst on its flank. The remaining two horses, who appeared to be of authority given the crowns and jewel-embedded legguards they wore, were about twice the size of the ‘average’ horses.
One of them, the largest, had a radiant white coat, a mark of a glorious sun, yet its tail and mane were the most fascinating. They reminded me heavily of the Aurora Borealis; a mix of pink, blue and green that flowed in an unseen wind. The other horse, though smaller, looked no less… majestic. It had a dark blue coat and a mark of a crescent moon. Its mane and tail was also quite interesting, this one looking like a view into a gorgeous night sky, littered with stars and hemmed by a flowing blue outline.
Okay… I thought. Smart money’s on these being the locals...
The largest ‘Royal’ horse cleared its throat, with a female voice rather than the predicted ‘neigh’. Immediately, the other equines filed in front of her, at attention; perhaps ‘Royal’ was closer to reality than I thought. “Now, my little ponies, listen,” it said in a female voice.
Ponies… I noted. ‘kay, makes sense… Ponies that speak English, apparently, but… Constants and variables, and all that jazz.
“We know not what this creature is,” the white ‘pony’ continued. “We don’t know what it wants, where it came from, or what it can do. All we know for certain is that we need to keep it contained, until we learn of its intentions. Until then, the creature shall not leave containment under any circumstances.”
I frowned internally; that didn’t sound too friendly. Alright, sounds like they’re not keen on letting me out, and I doubt they’d release the ‘creature from the Black Lagoon’... or, rather, the actual Black Lagoon, if it asked nicely.
I tried to figure out a plan; if they weren’t as friendly as they appeared, I needed to get out, find a way back home. But first I needed to know where I was, and if there was a way home; I could ask them now, but they’d likely shrug me off as a guinea pig that talked. No, I needed them to see that this lab rat would bite; that any hopes they had at controlling me were quite futile.
“W-What if it… doesn't like being… contained?” Asked the yellow pegasus, her voice barely above a whisper.
Which I DON’T… I thought. I glanced around the barrier and looked at the table; it was old, built from a thick, glazed wood. It appeared to be built like a picnic table, with gaps between each plank; they’d probably assumed it wouldn't be a problem. I fed an ultra-thin tendril into one of them; yeah, I could get through this. It’d be a tight fit, and I had no idea if the barrier covered the underside of the table, but it was something. Once I got a tendril out I could feed the rest of my mass through. It wouldn't be a quick escape, one that would need a minute or so without any of the ponies seeing me, but it’d be an escape nonetheless.
The white pony shook her head. “It won’t be able to do anything about it. This barrier is almost completely impenetrable while all those runes are in place.”
...Or I could knock one of those runes loose, I thought, interestedly. Thanks for the tip. I began feeding a tendril into every gap I could find, about one grain wide. Just gotta find a clear way to the underside, then I can yank a rune out of place… Then we’re gonna have a chat that doesn't have this shield between us.
“And even if it does break out and cause trouble, we can handle it!” Said the rainbow pegasus proudly, doing her best Rocky impression in midair.
Though two of my tendrils found dead ends in the wooden maze beneath me, one found a crack that led to the underside of the table. Peering through it, I was relieved that the barrier wasn’t there. Carefully, I slid the tendril beneath the surface, feeding more mass to give it a better chance at gripping the rune. As the tendril reached the edge, I slowed to a crawl and moved it towards the closest rune.
“Yeah!” The apple pony said, rearing on her hind legs; I noticed she had a Southern accent. “That lil’ pile o’ dust ain’t nothin’!”
Oh, this pile o’ dust is SOMETHING, Deliverance… I thought as I wrapped the tendril around the rune, tight enough to get a firm grip. Just one big pull…
“It might not be--” the blue ‘royal’ pony began, a hint of uncertainty in her voice.
A weird gibbering from the pink one made me stop and glance at them. The pink pony began twitching madly.
“W-w-w-hoooaaaa!” She said. She batted at one of her ears. “Itchy ear,” she opened her mouth and pointed at her tongue. “Drah tunn,” and finally leapt to her hooves and shivered violently. “Chilly back!”
...Was that a mating call or something?
“What’s that one?” The rainbow pony asked.
“Oh, I’ve gotten it all the time while babysitting the Cake twins!” The pink one chirped. “It means somepony’s about to break out of something!”
‘Somepony’? I thought in a monotone.
A pause. ...Wait a minute, is she…?
The purple ‘royal’ pony frowned. “Break out of some--”
Her eyes widened. The smile fell from the pink pony’s face, and every pair of eyes in the room slowly turned to look at me. I felt my mass tense with fear, like a teen caught leafing through his father’s Playboys.
...Now or never!!
I yanked the rune off the table. The rune fell to the floor, and the barrier faded instantly. I withdrew my tendril as I rose to my normal form, adding some height for a bit of extra intimidation. I let out a vicious snarl, causing the ponies to jump back in fright; the yellow pegasus immediately cowered behind her friends, covering her eyes in her hooves. I slid off the table, baring my teeth and flexing my claws; it was my usual tactic to terrify my opponents before I even considered giving them the Nightmare. “Where am I? Who are you?” I growled.
I noticed a mix of horror and disappointment on the blue 'Royal's face, like the one you get when the Rescue dog you'd thought reformed suddenly bites someone. Before long, however, she and the white Royal scowled and stood in front of me. Their horns began to glow, yellow for the white, dark blue for the other. The ponies behind them, emboldened by their leaders, dropped into defensive stances (except for the yellow one, who remained prone behind them).
“We are Princesses Celestia and Luna…” the white one said; I assumed the smaller one was Luna, given the moon on her flank. “And I ask that you calm yourself.”
“Or…” I said, my mass rippling with agitation. “You tell me where I am and why you saw fit to imprison me.”
The pony called Celestia took a breath, and spoke in a louder tone. “You're confused, you've awoken in a world alien to your own, and you don't know who you may consider a friend—I understand...”
"You're right about that..." I replied harshly. "Though I'm a little hesitant to befriend someone who considers immediate detainment a form of greeting." I inched forward, flexing my claws. "Now... tell me where I am!"
Celestia narrowed her eyes. "Creature... First I asked, now I warn... Stand. Down. You've nothing to fear from us, so long as you comply..."
Oh, THAT was a threat…
“You’re right…” I growled. “I’ve nothing to fear from you…” I dropped into a combat stance, reading my claws. “But you've everything to fear from ME!”
The rainbow pegasus suddenly went airborne. “BRING IT, YOU BIG PILE OF ASH!!” She yelled before streaking towards me, hind leg ready for a divekick.
“RAINBOW DASH, NO!!” The purple one yelled.
Her hind leg landed in my shoulder with a dull ‘wump’. When I didn't flinch, ‘Rainbow Dash’ gave a confused “Huh?!” She grasped her hind leg and pulled, but I gripped her in my mass tightly.
I turned to address the Princesses. “Strike one. Wanna answer my questions, now?”
The Princesses gaped, but quickly regained her resolve. “Release her, beast!!” Luna yelled, a white glow overtaking her eyes.
I shrugged. “Sure.” I waited until Rainbow was pulling at her leg with all her might before releasing her; the pegasus flew back with a panicked yell before colliding painfully with the wall, sending books falling from the shelf. “Now…” I said loudly. “Where am I?”
The Princesses glanced at each other and nodded. “Twilight!!” Celestia yelled. The purple one she seemed to address quickly stepped forward, a purple glow surrounding her horn. The trio of royals bent their heads, and a collection of energy gathered at the tips of their horns.
My eyes widened—or rather, the places where my eyes should have been, flexed in a similar gesture. This could be bad…
Three concentrated beams of purple, yellow and blue energy flew from their horns and straight into me. The force of it made me stumble backwards, but other than a soft warmth from where the beams pierced my mass, did nothing else. That’s all the beams were: force. If they’d actually used a form of fire spell, then I’d be screwed.
The trio ceased channeling the beams, gaping at me, dumbfounded. “How…?” Celestia breathed.
I held up two claws. “Strike two…” I said. “Wanna see what happens when you strike out?”
“C’mere, varmint!!” Yelled the apple pony. I glanced to the side to see her completing the Southern Stereotype Trinity; stetson hat, southern accent and, to top it all off, she was tossing a lasso at me, with a rope I didn't know she even had. The rope fell around my head and quickly tightened as the cowgirl pulled on her end with her teeth.
“Get ‘im, Applejack!!” Rainbow yelled, still picking herself up off the floor.
I stared at the lasso around my neck; I could just let it slip through my mass and let ‘Applejack’ look a bit silly, but I was done. Sure, I wasn't exactly what you’d call a ‘common find’, even in an alien world; odds are I would interest what passed for a scientist. But from the sounds of it, they knew I was intelligent, yet treated me like a lab rat. They were gonna hold me in this lab and likely perform experiments on me, for whatever reason—maybe they sought to weaponize me. Wouldn't be the first I’d heard of aliens who attempted to utilize abducted MHAs to improve their arsenals.
I was gonna show them what a grievous error they’d made.
I wrapped a claw around the rope and gave one quick tug. Applejack stumbled forward, the rope flying out of her mouth. I moved to the side as she stumbled past and held a claw over her head.
I met Celestia’s gaze.
I tapped Applejack’s head.
At that moment, I realized I might have acted too rashly. I’d hit the pony with the Nightmare before glancing at what she’d see; I figured they wouldn't treat me any better.
But the moment Applejack’s eyes glazed over and the Nightmare overtook her, I saw her fear.
I saw her standing outside a farmhouse, engulfed in flames that reached up to the sky. Yet it wasn't the fire itself that terrified her. I heard her echoed cries in the vision, wailing at the inferno. “APPLEBLOOM!!” Over and over and over, she cried, wailed and screamed the name.
I snapped back to reality; Applejack was on the floor, screaming and sobbing uncontrollably, hugging herself in her forelegs. “NO!! NO, NO, NO!!” She wailed, her breathing becoming erratic and shallow.
“What did you do to her?!” Twilight screamed at me, unwilling to approach her wailing friend, likely out of fear of the Nightmare being contagious.
It wasn't the first time I’d earned some less than favorable response my power; people felt uncomfortable with how I could make them live their darkest fears at a whim. I wasn't so keen on the power myself; fear should never be in anyone’s control other than your own. That’s why I was content with using my mass to fight, only using the Nightmare as a last resort, or a show of strength to convince other opponents to surrender.
Yet this was worse… It was easier making someone fear something like fire, insects or darkness. This pony, though… I was making her mourn the loss of someone she clearly cared for, making her watch helplessly as that loved one died… This was beyond cruel.
I held my claw over the screaming Applejack and faced the Princesses. “I’ll make it stop if you agree to answer my questions,” I called over Applejack’s screams. Don’t call my bluff, please…
“But…” Celestia began, glancing between me and her wailing subject.
“YES!!” The yellow pegasus suddenly broke through the group and ran up to me, her face soaked in tears. “YES, WE’LL TELL YOU!! WE’LL TELL YOU EVERYTHING!! JUST PLEASE, PLEASE, MAKE IT STOP!!”
I stared at her for a moment.
I touched Applejack’s head and dispelled the illusion. Applejack stopped her screaming and her eyes cleared, but she seemed to find it difficult to stop sobbing. Her breathing didn’t slow as she glanced around the room, trying to figure out what had just happened. She glanced up at me as I gazed at her sadly.
“I’m… I’m sorry…” I said. “I didn’t know what you’d see, but… But that’s no excuse. What I did is unforgivable. That’s something no one should have to experience.”
I slowly bent down and reached towards her; she flinched back, but otherwise remained still as I laid a claw on her. “I’m truly, truly sorry.” I said. Applejack stared at me with her bloodshot eyes as I straightened up and faced the Princesses. “I promise… I won’t do that to any of your subjects again.”
I slithered back towards the table, taking in their expressions; the yellow one seemed somewhat relieved that I’d dispelled the illusion, yet unsure of what that said about me. The others kept watching me, eyes wide in terror as I sat on the table and folded my hands.
“So, how about we start over?” I asked. “Where am I?”