by bossfight1

Chapter 3: Starting Over

The ponies glanced at each other as I sat patiently, my claws folded. I kept glancing towards the prone Applejack, who was slowly recuperating from the vision, the occasional sniffle escaping her. Finally, Luna took a breath and approached. “You are in a laboratory beneath Canterlot Castle.”

I shrugged and shook my head. “Don’t know where that is.”

“In… Canterlot?” Twilight said, raising an eyebrow. I shrugged and shook my head again.

“Capital of Equestria?” Celestia asked. Shrug and head shake.

“Most awesome nation on Equis?” Rainbow Dash said, spinning a hoof as though to jar my memory.

I sighed. “Yeah, sounds like I’m not just around the corner from home…”

“We could have guessed as much…” Luna said. “You did fall through that… tear in the sky…”

I nodded. “Yeah, I figured. See, that was a portal between dimensions. It’s no stretch of logic to assume I’m further from home than most.”

Luna tilted her head to the side. “You seem… rather calm about this…”

For NOW… I thought. “Well, I’m certainly concerned…” I said. “But, the thing is, in my line of work, we’re told that things like ‘logic’ and ‘normality’ aren’t exactly prominent. We’re subjected to all kinds of weird—hell, I’m not the first to be flung through dimensions.” My gaze fell to the floor. “...And I wouldn’t be the first who failed to return…”

The ponies gazed at me—the air of nervousness, with a dash of hostility, fading to one of concern and… sympathy, to my surprise. The yellow pegasus approached me, sadness in her eyes. “Gosh, I’m…” she said, her voice quivering. “I’m so sorry…” Rainbow gave her a quizzical look; she seemed to be saying, ‘Yes, comfort the being that plunged our friend into her worst nightmare.’

I breathed heavily—an act that never served any real purpose. “Don’t worry about it… I didn’t say I’m definitely here to stay, I’m just saying I should… Learn to accept that possibility. They’ll probably search for me—dimensional affairs aren’t unheard of back home, it’s just… The DSR—the Dimensional Search and Rescue—they haven’t found anyone like me yet… Someone lost in the laundry of the universe…”

Despair began to slowly creep up on me, but I pushed it back; there’d be time for that later. I looked up at them. “Unless you guys can send me home?”

Celestia blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I mean, you’ve got magic…” I said, gesturing to the runes on the table around me. “It’s not completely implausible that you guys can handle dimensional travel?”

Luna put a hoof to her chin. “Perhaps, but… While we are capable of similar feats—teleportation, namely—nopony’s dabbled in such affairs.”

“We could probably look into it!” Twilight chimed in. “Maybe the space where that… tear thing was last night has some residue or something!”

I nodded slightly. “Maybe. It’s something…

I stared dully at the floor to the left of the pegasus in front of me. She took another step closer. “Are you okay?”

I shrugged. “Guess I’m trying not to… think about it too much, at least not yet. I’ll… take stock later, probably.” I took a calming breath and sat up. “So… I have a… general idea of where I am, let’s move on to the ‘who’. I know you’re Princesses Celestia and Luna…” I pointed at the respective royals before addressing the other ponies. “I think I heard Twilight… You’re Rainbow Dash, and that’s…” My voice trailed off for a moment as I glanced at the pony on the floor. “Applejack…”

Applejack’s breathing had returned to normal. Her eyes were still red from tears, but she seemed to have calmed down. Slowly, she stood up on shaky legs. She half-walked, half-stumbled into a nearby table, taking deep breaths.

“Hey…” I said softly; she didn’t turn. “You gonna be okay?”

Applejack needed a few moments to find her voice. “...I… I think so…” she mumbled.

I glanced at Celestia. “Maybe we should get her some water, get her in a bed or something.”

“No, no, it’s…” Applejack said, her voice growing stronger. “I’ll be fine… Just need a minute…” She turned and fell to her haunches, leaning back against the table. She hugged herself with her forelegs and closed her eyes, taking breaths like someone practicing yoga. The ponies stared at her, all clearly suppressing a desire to comfort their friend. I figured I’d get my questions done quickly.

After a moment I turned to the others. “Right, where were we? ...Names, right…” I glanced at the three unnamed ponies.

“Um, I’m… I’m Fluttershy…” the yellow pegasus said softly, avoiding eye contact; if she hadn’t been so close I might not have heard her.

“I am Rarity,” the unicorn said with a small bow, though she didn’t drop the cautious gaze.

“That leaves…” I began, turning to the place the pink pony had been. “Wait, where--?”

POOMPH. The pink one’s head suddenly burst through my ‘chest’, grinning widely up at me. It was amazing how I didn’t notice her—my consciousness spread throughout my entire mass, almost giving every single grain of it a pair of eyes for me to see. I could usually sense something—whether it be sound, sight or smell—even if I wasn’t focusing in that direction. The point is, I basically had a wider range of sense than most, and I didn’t even see her move.

“I’m Pinkie Pie!” She said happily. She surfaced in my mass and backstroked down my body and to the floor, where she hopped on her hooves and rejoined her companions.

I gave (or tried to give) a bewildered glance to the other ponies; they acted like this was common practice for Pinkie, given the way they didn’t react the same way.

“...Right, so, that happened,” I said before turning to the Princesses. “I… think I’m good for questions—for the moment, anyway. I assume you have some of your own?”

Celestia and Luna stared at each other, uncertain. Finally, Luna turned to me. “Well, yes…” She said, a hint of eagerness in her voice. “If you’re willing, of course…”

I suddenly felt a familiar sensation ripple in my mass—it was the equivalent of a rumbling stomach. “Actually, mind if we discuss them over a meal? I hate to ask, but I don’t think I’ve eaten since… Pfft, I dunno, lunch… yesterday.”

Luna blinked in surprise. “Oh! Of, of course, we can!” She turned and hurried towards the double doors at the far side of the room, passing a nervous-looking Celestia. She opened one of the doors and poked her head outside. “Have the kitchens prepare lunch for nine, please--WAIT!” She peered back at me. “Is there anything you…?”

I shrugged. “Whatever doesn’t kill me.” Seeing as there was a pony in the room named ‘APPLEjack’, it was a safe bet they had familiar foods.

Luna nodded before poking out again. “Whatever they can prepare within ten minutes!”

“Yes, Princess,” came a deep, authoritative voice from outside. I slid off the table, causing the ponies to take a cautious step back. I sighed internally; I’d gotten similar responses back home, but at least there, most people knew I was an MHA. Here, from what they’d seen, I was a monster… Not that I hadn’t at least earned some of it.

Luna regained her confidence first. “Let’s head up to the dining hall, shall we?”

I nodded. “I’ll keep close to you; your subjects probably won’t freak out as much if they see me with you.”

The ponies turned towards the door, but stopped when they noticed that Applejack hadn’t moved. I stopped beside her and stared, concerned. “You coming, or you need more time?” I asked softly.

Applejack slowly opened her eyes and took a long breath. “...I think I’m okay…” she said softly.

Fluttershy walked up to her. “You sure?”

Applejack nodded. “I reckon a meal might help…” She walked slowly ahead of her friends, an almost sleepwalking-like stiffness in her step. I stared after her, not losing a bit of guilt. It wasn’t helped when Rainbow Dash shot a poisonous look at me once Applejack left the room. Silently, I followed Luna out of the lab, and the nine of us moved slowly up a dim, yet pleasantly designed corridor.

                -                -                -                -                -

I fiddled with my transmitter in my mass as we walked upwards. It didn’t seem to be damaged, so I had that going for me. It had an efficient solar-powered battery and, as we reached the upper levels of the castle, sunlight wasn’t an issue for them. In fact, their sun seemed to be… different to the one I’d known (I was never an astronomer), so the battery seemed to charge quicker.

I tried to really grip these positives as we walked—find the brighter sides to this disaster. The locals didn’t seem too hostile (so long as you didn’t traumatize one of their own in front of them), they spoke English (or whatever they called it here), so no language barrier, and, from a glance outside, the world itself was actually quite a spectacle.

The city outside the castle was a bustling metropolis filled with hundreds of other ponies. The buildings were white-ivory affairs with purple, tower-like roofs. I noticed, though, that some of the locals seemed to be of a more “stuffy aristocrat” disposition, given the way they were dressed and aimed their noses skywards as they walked.

The guards lining the halls were pegasi of various colors, all decked out in gold-plated armor that looked to be straight out of Ancient Rome. They all stood stock-still, at attention, until they caught a glimpse of me; then they did a subtle double-take, trying to figure out exactly what I was. I kept to myself, trying not to attract too much attention as we walked down the halls.

Most of the ponies around me looked unsure whether they should be terrified or take action against me; only Luna, Fluttershy and Pinkie seemed somewhat relaxed around me (the latter hopping along, humming to herself in oblivious cheer). Applejack seemed to have forgotten me entirely, her face expressionless as she walked ahead.

Finally, we appeared at a tall set of double doors. Passing through we found a nicely designed dining hall, with a long table surrounded by five chairs on each side, with a more intricately designed chair heading both ends. A plain pony (no horns or wings), dressed in what could basically be described as a maid outfit, was busily wiping down the end of the table with a cloth. She glanced up at us as we entered and seemed to notice the Princesses first. “Ah, Princess, just finishing up in…”

Her gaze trailed over to me. Without any pretense of restraint she let out a loud shriek and sprinted out the door on the far side of the room. Some of the ponies gave me a look, which I responded to with a simple shrug. “I’m used to it.”

“Why doesn’t everypony take a seat?” Luna suggested quickly. “I’ll, ah… go check on the kitchen staff!”

By that she means, ‘tell them not to panic about the alien’, I thought as I slithered towards a seat at the left corner of the table. The ponies took some care in choosing their seats, leaving the seat to my immediate right empty, to no surprise. Applejack didn’t seem to care much, as she sat directly across from me, focusing a blank stare at the empty table in front of her. Twilight sat next to her, staring at her friend sympathetically.

After a moment of legendarily awkward silence, Luna returned from the kitchens. “They’ll have everything out in a moment!” She reported, trying to lighten the tone. She cantered around the table and sat at the end closest to me. I gave her a quizzical look; in spite of what happened downstairs, she seemed to have a strong interest in me. Unlike the others, she seemed ready, almost thrilled, to believe that there was still a chance of me being friendly.

Before long a pair of sharply-dressed unicorns entered the room; their horns were glowing with the same aura that enveloped the levitating water-filled pitchers beside their heads. The pair instantly noticed me but exercised better control than their earlier colleague. They cantered towards the table and began pouring water into our glasses; I noticed the pitcher being held by my server quivering anxiously as it poured. Their work complete the pair walked uniformly into the kitchen; the moment they broke line of sight I could hear hurried, almost panicked whispers between the two.

Applejack leaned forward and took her glass in her mouth; she leaned back and took a generous pull of water before laying it back on the table. She glanced up at me; I could tell she was trying to figure me out—the monster that plunged her into her own personal hell, now showing concern and remorse. I broke eye contact, in an attempt to get me off her mind.

Before long, several more suited ponies entered, pushing carts loaded with chrome trays of food. I couldn’t help but notice the signs of fear in their eyes as they placed the platters on the table before quickly pushing the carts back into the kitchen without so much as a backwards glance. The meal was an appetizing assortment of salads, desserts and fruit dishes. I quickly dug in, feeling my mass quickly dissolve the food in my mouth. Despite the ravenous welcome of the food, I couldn’t help but notice the tensity in the air; the ponies were trying not to make eye contact with me as they ate, not uttering a single word. I noticed Applejack only taking small amount of food, and even then, not eating it so much as playing with it.

I did my best to put it out of my mind and continued to eat, before noticing Luna watching with great interest. “I must say, I… didn’t expect you to be able to eat,” she said.

I shrugged. “Really, food and water sorta… fuels my consciousness, which stretches to every last part of my mass,” I explained. “Basically the same as how you’d eat or drink, to keep your strength up. No one back home could really figure out what I’d become, but we figured out most, if not all of how it works.”

“So you’re not… common among your people?” Luna asked; I noticed Twilight leaning forward, a similar curious gleam in her eyes.

“Well, it’s a rather long story…” I said. I shifted my transmitter to the tip of my claw and held it out. “I’d have an easier time showing you, but I doubt you guys have a projector or anything…”

“A projector…” Luna said. “Like the ones in movie theaters?”

I glanced at her. “You have one, then?”

Luna shook her head. “No, not here… They’re not commonplace anyway, at least not in Canterlot.”

“Eh, just as well…” I said, leaning back. “This thing can connect to projectors, but only if they’re wireless—this thing uses complex radio signals, you see? Too small for wires. And I’m guessing you guys don’t have anything like that.”

Luna pursed her lips in thought. “...I might have an alternative, actually… You say the device gives off signals?” I nodded. “May I see it?”

I hesitantly held the transmitter out towards her; the ponies tensed up slightly, Celestia more than any other. Luna’s horn lit up, and she aimed it as close to the transmitter as she could. For a moment, nothing happened. Then a bright light erupted from the tip of Luna’s horn, turning it into a magical spotlight. The light hit the ceiling, where I could see the ‘desktop’ of my transmitter.

“Yep, that’ll work!” I said, sifting through the files on my transmitter as I stood up. “If you could turn and direct that at the wall, please?”

Luna stood up and adjusted her seat so she could better aim the projection at the wall. The ponies leaned forward and backward in their seats to get a glimpse at the screen. I approached the wall, leaving a thin tendril to hold the transmitter close to Luna’s horn, in fear of disconnecting. I opened the onboard library in my transmitter—capable of holding roughly thirty terabytes of data—and piled up a presentation on Humanity 101. “Now, before I begin…” I said. “I’m not that qualified in this kind of thing—in terms of intellect I’m essentially a normal guy back home. I’m not a philosopher, a historian, or a scientist, or someone in politics, etcetera… So if you want more specifics in certain areas…” I gave a laugh. “I am the wrong person to turn to. So! With that in mind…” I stood to the side, creating a rigid ‘pointer’ from my mass.

I pulled up the Vitruvian Man. “This,” I said, pointing at it. “Is the native race of my planet; a human.” I noticed some weird looks. “Uh, it doesn’t have eight limbs, those are just to show the range of motion on the human’s legs,” I pointed at the man’s legs. “And arms.” I pointed at the man’s arms. “The arms end in hands, with five ‘fingers’, used for grasping things.” I flexed my claws meaningfully. “Humans are bipedal, meaning they walk on two legs, and have hair covering their bodies; depending on the part of the body, the hair ranges from ‘peach fuzz’, like on the arms and legs, to large patches on their heads, occasionally on their faces and in… Ahem, other areas.”

I noticed Twilight and Luna glancing between me and the Vitruvian Man, trying to find any similarities. “I’ll get to me in a while, I just think it would be easier to give you an idea of where I came from, so you can better understand why I’m like this. SO.” I moved ahead in the presentation to an image of an average human, with a carrot, an apple and a turkey leg to the side. “Humans are omnivorous, meaning we eat veggies, fruits and meat…”

The ponies recoiled somewhat, making me stop. “...So eating meat is… frowned upon here?” I asked hesitantly.

Luna shook her head. “No, I mean… There are other civilizations who… eat meat, namely those of the Griffon Kingdom. We’ve made efforts here in Canterlot to... accommodate emissaries, but otherwise, yes, ponies don’t eat meat.”

“Well, I can cope,” I said simply. I moved on with the presentation, giving a brief rundown on the immediately important aspects of humanity—technology, some anatomy, a brief glimpse into some culture. Truth be told, I likely had enough data in my transmitter to answer any of the more complex queries they had, but only I could access it, unless they figured out a way to use it themselves. I even disclosed humanity’s darker aspects—war, discrimination and the like. I figured it would be better to be truthful where I could, if only to help build a foundation of relative trust.

Finally, with a decent-enough image of humanity painted, I moved on to Act II. I pulled up a news article on the first metahuman. “So… In 1971, a brutal anarchist group in the nation of France seized the Louvre Museum, taking over thirty people hostage. They sought to burn the precious pieces of art there, to represent the nation ‘rising from the ashes of the past’ or whatever—I don’t really know, they were rather deranged. For a while it looked like the hostages weren’t getting out, but then the first metahuman arrived.”

“Calling himself ‘Epoch’, the metahuman created small fields of differing gravity—capable of pushing or pulling with various degrees of force—to disarm the anarchists and free the hostages. Of course, the sighting of a man with godlike power worried the governments; what would stop him from abusing this power? What would stop France from having him work as their superweapon?” I brought up another series of clippings, showing the reveal of many other metahumans in various nations. “That is, until hundreds of other metahumans popped up across the world; people who’d been terrified of what would happen if their powers were discovered, suddenly emboldened by the discovery that they were not alone. These people who were born with an impossibly diverse number of abilities—flight, super-strength, invisibility, super-speed… With no means of knowing when one will be born, or how these abilities came to be, the thought that any random schmuck on the street could suddenly spit fire at you, terrified the general populace.”

“The governments decided to have a long, adult conversation about what they were gonna do with the metahumans; some opted to have them militarized, to serve their respective nations… But that carried the implications that metahumans would, in the eyes of some, be used to conquer, to impose the will of a nation upon another. There was also the fact that the metahumans were still humans… Living, breathing, thinking humans, who might not want to fight in a war. There were discussions regarding their destruction, but they quickly died under the knowledge that metahumans might not die so easily, and might give them reason to wipe out normal humans, or ‘Basics’, as they’ve come to be known.”

I brought up a clipping regarding the DMHA’s founding, as well as its logo and a few images showing metahumans in training. “So, after much deliberation, the governments formed the Department of Metahuman Affairs—a global, government-funded organization that would locate and train new metahumans, whether they be born with these powers or given them in some freak accident, then enlist them as Metahuman Agents, or MHAs. MHAs would work to protect the population from threats and enforce the law in areas of their jurisdiction; from small time robberies to full-fledged invasions by forces terrestrial or otherwise. But more often than not, MHAs combat metahumans who use their abilities for their own gain—Malefactors, guys who decide working for the betterment of humanity is beneath them.”

“And what of you?” I turned to see Celestia narrowing her eyes. “Where do you fit in?”

“I’m an MHA,” I said flatly, bringing up my Basic Dossier; essentially my license, codename, area of jurisdiction and so forth. “Serial Number 6043, Codename ‘Dread’.”

Celestia narrowed her gaze further as she examined the screen. The other ponies seemed confused, even surprised, that this creature was an official. Luna seemed fascinated as she beheld the dossier on screen.

“So…” Twilight said slowly. “Where you come from, people with these… abnormalities… They use them to… protect people?” I nodded.

Pinkie Pie suddenly let out a shrill gasp. “You’re like superheroes!!” She said eagerly.

I shrugged. “More or less; MHA’s the official title, though. Calling ourselves ‘superheroes’ detracts from the professionalism expected of us. But if you wanna call me that, sure.”

Pinkie squealed. “This is so amazing!! Do you guys wear costumes? Secret identities? Secret lairs? Awesome cars you drive around like ‘VROOOOOOOOOOOOM’?!” Her voice was getting higher in pitch and volume. She stood up in her chair and bounced excitedly as she continued. “Ooh, what about sidekicks?! What’s your sidekick’s name? And what about arch-nemesis-is-is-is-is?! Do you ever beat him and he shrieks to the sky,” she climbed on the table, fell to her knees (impressive flexibility, for an equine), arched back and yelled to the ceiling, “CURSE YOU, DREEEEEAAAAAAAD!!!”

PINKIE PIE!!” Twilight yelled, breaking Pinkie out of her rant. Pinkie gave a sheepish grin before hopping off the table and sitting back down. Twilight turned back to me. “So you’re an… MHA…”

I nodded. “And now we get to the ‘me’ portion of this presentation.” I turned off the transmitter and pulled the tendril back. “So… Four years ago—in my world, year 2021—I was a normal human, age 24. I was in my house when some weird truck dropped a canister on my lawn. In a moment of glorious intellect I picked up the canister; it ruptured and sprayed a substance in my face, not unlike this.” I pulled my mass out, in the same way you’d stretch out your t-shirt to show a stain. “Two days later, this is what I became. I submitted myself to the DMHA, to learn to control this new form. I found that, on top of this mass letting me shapeshift, slip into enclosed spaces and such, I could also…”

I trailed off, my gaze drifting over to Applejack again. She was facing me, laying her head on the table with her stetson tilting to the side.

I sighed. “I can also form a link with someone, through touch, and discover their… their greatest fears. I could then put that person into that fear… I call it ‘the Nightmare’.” I noticed a hint of surprise and sadness in Luna’s eyes, like I’d touched on something. “Basically, I can plunge someone into a vivid illusion of their deepest, darkest nightmares. I could make someone who’s afraid of fire suddenly see themselves bursting into flame. I could make an arachnophobe suddenly see hundreds of spiders all over their bodies. I use this power as necessary—like causing a distraction in more stealth-oriented situations, or to pacify criminals.”

The ponies weren’t looking particularly impressed, though that wasn’t my intention; I’d had my fair share of critics saying my power wasn’t exactly wholesome. Still, I probably wasn’t inspiring much confidence that I wasn’t a…

“Monster…” I glanced at Celestia, who was looking aghast and disgusted.  Luna and the other ponies seemed to be trying to decide how they, themselves, felt about my power, but Celestia looked fairly confident in her statement. “You… are a monster…”

My gaze fell to the floor. “Not the first time I’ve heard that…”

Celestia stood up and walked around the table. “You use fear… as a weapon…

I raised a claw. “Now, hold on…”

“You force people, no matter how deserving, into a state of pure, blind terror?” Celestia continued, walking towards me.

Hoo boy… I thought. “Can I just say…”

“There was another like you...” Celestia continued darkly; she closed the distance between us and leaned in close, baring her teeth. “A cruel being who enslaved an empire, and plunged those who defied him into their worst nightmares… Yet you believe yourself different because you choose to do it to those you deem deserving? Because you are authorized?!” She finished, eyes aflame with indignation.

I remained silent for a few moments. “I try not to use it.”

Celestia blinked. “What?”

“I only use it when I really need to.” Celestia opened her mouth, but I raised a claw to cut her off. “And yes, I’m aware that, within a minute of regaining consciousness, I used it on… on Applejack. But what you need to understand is, I don’t know you people. I woke up on an alien world, imprisoned in a laboratory, with no idea of what you were going to do to me. Then when I broke free and, however brashly, asked where I was, I took your request for compliance as a veiled threat, and responded with a not-so-veiled threat. Everything that happened downstairs could have been avoided—more on my part than yours, admittedly—but it happened. I felt the need to show you that I couldn’t be controlled, even if that wasn’t your intention… So I used it.”

I glanced at Applejack again. “But when I saw Applejack’s fear, I…” I trailed off; the blank look with a hint of curiosity hadn’t faded in her eyes. “...I hated it. The few times I use the Nightmare, they’re usually simple—heights, fire, things like that. That makes it easier for me to do it to the guys I’m fighting. But Applejack’s one of few who have something a bit… deeper… More personal. When I saw her fear I realized just how much of an idiot I’d been.” I glanced at Celestia again. “When I said I’d make it stop if you answered my questions, it was… It was a bluff. I would’ve stopped it either way and… and worked things out from there.”

Celestia’s expression softened somewhat; she took a step back. “I never asked to be made like this,” I continued. “And when I first discovered what I could do, I was horrified. So I decided, it’s only for emergencies. I hold my own in a normal fight, as you’ve seen, so I can still do my job without making people face demons they’re not ready to face. But even in times where I need it, I make sure to end it as soon as possible; because no one deserves that kind of punishment.”

“So if you still think me a monster because I do use the Nightmare, fine,” I concluded. “But believe me when I say, the times I do use it are few and far between. And, to reaffirm what I said before, I will notEVER… use it on any of your subjects ever again.”

Celestia stared at me, an unreadable look on her face; she was either having a war in her mind over how to feel about me, or was simply remaining skeptical. Either way, she slowly turned and returned to her seat. I returned to my own and sat down, stiffly. The other ponies seemed a bit more relaxed now, though I could tell they were also skeptical about the legitimacy of my story.

The rest of the dinner passed in silence broken only by the occasional clink of silverware against plates. Even the mood of the, to put it lightly, ‘eager’ Pinkie Pie seemed dampened as she, too, tried to decide how to feel about me. The only one who seemed okay with it was Luna; on the surface it seemed she believed that I didn’t use the Nightmare very often, but something told me there was something deeper going on in her head. I wouldn’t press, though; I’d probably hindered any hopes at coexistence enough, as it is.

Finally, Luna and Celestia stood up simultaneously. “We must tend to the sun and the moon,” Celestia said. “Since today’s last train to Ponyville has likely departed, we will have rooms prepared for each of you.”

Rarity covered a soft yawn. “I must say, today’s… drama has certainly taken its toll…” she said softly. She and her companions each stood and headed towards the door.

I stood up and turned to Luna. “Should I… head back to the lab then?” I asked, half-joking.

Luna gave a small smile. “You’ll have a room as well.”

I noticed Celestia walking off stiffly, a look in her eyes that seemed to say, ‘I’d rather he didn’t.’ I ignored her and nodded appreciatively at Luna. “Thank you.”

“Why don’t you head with them and take your pick?” She suggested; this time the look from Celestia was far less subtle, and was shared by Twilight and her friends.

“Sure,” I said; I’m ashamed to admit that part of me only agreed to spite Celestia. She didn’t seem so bad, but I could tell her comparing me to that ‘other’ she’d mentioned was about as far from a compliment as you could get. Still, I hoped to patch things up between us—if I was here to stay, odds were we’d see a lot of each other for a while. I turned and followed the ponies out of the dining hall, who seemed somewhat eager to keep their distance from me…

Except, again, for Applejack; she seemed to have vastly recovered from the Nightmare, but also seemed to be trying to wrap her head around what exactly she saw. She walked sluggishly along, her eyes on the ground in a way that made me worry she’d bump her head into a wall. Before long, though, we arrived at what appeared to be the guest quarters; a long hall with eight sets of double doors on either side. Out of consideration I took the room at the far right, letting the ponies take rooms that were ample distance from my own.

The room itself was pure white, with marble furnishings and a four-poster, king-sized bed. Despite only being conscious for about an hour, I, too, felt the day’s events bearing down on me as I slithered towards the bed. Not caring to lift the covers I simply threw myself onto the red comforter and let myself melt into a black puddle of exhaustion.

Coulda gone better today… I mused, recounting everything that had happened. But it’s not unrepairable. I can work things out… I’ll HAVE to, if I’m stuck here…

My thoughts drifted to home…

To the rift, and to how it had tossed me to a completely random dimension, with only a glimmer of hope that I’d ever get home…

How I might never see my team again…

Never see my family again…

Never be home again…

My last thought before falling asleep was whether I could shed tears in this form.

                -                -                -                -                -

On the balcony of the castle’s highest tower, Celestia’s sun fell beyond the far horizon while Luna’s moon rose, filling the sky with her beautiful stars once again. Yet, neither failed to notice that the other had done their job with none of their usual grace or reverence; their minds were busy, clouded with thoughts of the one called ‘Dread’.

Celestia couldn’t help but feel a dark foreboding sense in her heart. A being whose very essence could breed fear, who claimed to use it justly… Even if he was being truthful, even if he used it as little as he claimed, nothing good could come of fear being imposed at a whim. She’d worked for over a thousand years, seeking to ensure her beloved subjects would never face such terror… And yet this being had done it in front of her in less than a minute… She couldn’t bear to think about what poor Applejack must have been feeling at the moment, but was thankful her student and her friends would be there for her.

Luna, on the other hand, had a more curious and optimistic air when thinking of Dread. He’d admitted to being brash, and had profusely apologized for his actions… He’d shown legitimate concern for Applejack after putting her in his ‘Nightmare’, and seemed to make every effort to start over. He seemed eager to explain himself, where he came from and what he did; more encouragingly, Dread appeared to be someone seeking a worthwhile use of his condition, protecting innocents and defending his world from threats. On top of that, when things had calmed down he actually seemed rather friendly.

The two sisters did share some thoughts on Dread, however; they observed that he seemed to be in control of his abilities, and held a greater intellect than his beast-like tendencies implied. From what they could tell, he didn’t come here of his own free will, given the method he’d arrived in and how he’d asked where he was. He seemed to understand he might not make it home, though the sisters had differing thoughts on how he’d cope with this development.

“I’m not sure if I can trust him…” Celestia said, once the moon had been raised.

“He certainly has reason to earn your skepticism,” Luna said agreeably. “But I feel he wishes to start over. He has been open with us, and I don’t see what he stands to gain at this point from further hostilities.”

“Perhaps…” Celestia said. The sisters stood at each other’s side and stared up into the stars, which blinked as though having just awoken from blissful sleep. “We should still keep an eye on him… What he did to Applejack could be a very strong indicator for who he is.”

Luna frowned and turned to her sister. “This… distrust… It wouldn’t happen to stem from somewhere else, would it? Because you did compare Dread to King Sombra…”

“And you don’t see the resemblance?” Celestia asked softly; there was no hostility in her voice, only the tone of one affirming a point.

Luna lowered her head. “I do, it’s just… I don’t think we should be so quick to judge. Being viewed as a monster can take it’s toll.”

“One is not labeled a monster without earning it...” Celestia muttered.

Luna looked up at Celestia. “Did I earn it as well, sister?” She asked, a hint of bitterness in her voice.

Celestia looked at Luna, shocked. Her expression quickly softened to one of sorrow and remorse before she leaned over and nuzzled her sister. “Forgive me, dear Luna… It’s just… This… Dread… I’m worried about the person he may be.”

Luna remained still for a moment before returning the affectionate nuzzle. “Let us see for ourselves… And whoever he is, we will face him together.”

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Knock knock knock.

With a startled quiver of my mass I awoke to the sound of someone knocking. For a moment I’d forgotten where I was, but quickly remembered—the Rift, the lab, the… ponies… the likelihood that I might be stuck with said ponies…

I quickly reformed when I also remembered that knocks are typically the sign of someone wishing entry. Wishing to illuminate the pitch-black room, I glanced over at the table next to my bed; it had an old-fashioned looking lamp sitting atop it. I reached over and turned its switch; it sprang to life like it had a lightbulb, but the flame-like light inside made me consider it a magic-powered device. The lamp gave the room some much needed light as I climbed out of the bed and hurried to the door.

I opened the door gently and peeked through it, trying to keep my teeth obscured—whoever wanted to see me probably wouldn’t appreciate a black Hellmouth greeting them at the door. “...Applejack?”

The pony was staring at me, a hint of sadness in her eyes. Quietly, I stood aside and held the door open, silently inviting her in. Applejack slowly entered the room, evading eye contact as she passed. For a moment she stood some distance from the foot of my bed, her back to me as I silently closed the door. She turned to me again, trying desperately to find the right words. Her eyes still had traces of red around the edges, and the fur on her face was matted down with dried tears… I couldn’t tell if it was from back in the lab, or if they were more recent.

“Again, I’m truly… truly sorry…” I said earnestly. I lowered myself to be more on her eye level. “Nothing makes what I did even remotely okay.”

“Just tell me somethin’...” Applejack said, with a firmness that conflicted with the sadness evident in her eyes. “What I saw…” She paused, needing to take a deep calming breath. “It... wasn’t real, right?”

I nodded quickly. “Just an illusion, formed of your mind. Nothing more.”

This seemed to make her feel a bit better, but only slightly. “...Will it ever be?”

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“Will that… ever happen?” Applejack asked, almost pleadingly.

I stared at her, wishing I could tell her what she clearly wanted to hear. “...Applejack, I… I make illusions… They don’t have any say in what will or won’t happen in the future. So, I don’t know…”

She didn’t seem to be completely devastated—or surprised—by this news. “Yeah…”

“Also, it’s… You’re not afraid of losing her in a fire…” I said. “You’re afraid of losing her, period. So… I don’t know if it’ll happen. It might or might not be a fire…” I ran a claw through my mass awkwardly. “...Who’s Applebloom?” Applejack blinked in surprise for a moment, so I quickly clarified. “I saw what you fear—I could hear you screaming ’Applebloom’...” There was a pause, then I smacked myself in the head. “Crap, I’m sorry, I--That’s just twisted, I shouldn’t have... never mind…”

“No, no, it’s okay!” Applejack said calmingly. “She’s mah little sister. She lives with me, mah brother, Big Macintosh ‘n Granny Smith on our farm, back home.”

“...Cute kid?” I asked awkwardly, trying to keep the mood light.

Applejack frowned in confusion for a moment, before nodding slowly. “She’s a sweetheart, sure, but…” She smiled—the first I’d seen of her. “Heh, she ‘n her friends get into a mess ‘o trouble on a daily basis… They always say they ‘learned their lesson’, but then they go off and do something that teaches ‘em another!”

I smiled as she gave a healthy laugh. “Well, human kids are the same…” I said; I noticed her eyes tearing up again, though I couldn’t tell if it was from sadness surfacing again or from laughter. Applejack sat on her haunches and wiped a tear away with a hoof as she giggled; the smile on her face made me happier than I’d been since I got here. I moved up beside her and put an arm around her shoulder. “You know… The thing about… what you saw? It says a lot about you and… how much you care for Applebloom, if that’s the thing you fear more than anything.”

Applejack smiled warmly. “I ‘ppreciate it… Thanks.” She covered a yawn with her hoof. “Hoo doggy, I oughtta hit the hay…” She stood up and headed towards the door. As she opened it she looked back at me. “Ya might not be so bad afterall…” She said before departing, closing the door behind her.

I sat there for a moment before standing and heading towards the bed. “Well… that’s one…”

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A blinding snowstorm buffeted the cliff face, sending showers of frost falling from the edge above and dusting the various surfaces in white. The wind howled in a manner reminiscent of the wendigos of Equestria’s past—a shrill, haunting noise that changed in volume and pitch with each change in the wind.

At the edge of the cliff, a portion of the snow began to glow a dim crimson, brightening and dimming in a manner similar to breathing.

Though the howling winds were deafening, they failed to obscure a single, piercing noise that hissed from the space...

A low, foreboding laugh.