The first thing that Cory felt when he woke up was a very severe migraine, like he had fallen head-first through a stone ceiling or something. He slowly got to his feet, then looked up to see a vaguely human-sized hole in the ceiling. Oh, so that’s why my head feels like a Sectoid commander tried to mind-rape me, the XCOM operative thought to himself as he looked at his surroundings.
He seemed to be in an old castle of sorts, the walls covered in vegetation as nature was slowly taking them over. The Volunteer looked down to see his plasma rifle and plasma pistol on the ground near his feet, both of which were still intact despite falling from hundreds of feet in the air. The psionic securely fastened the pistol to his right hip and firmly gripped his rifle as he walked down the first hallway that he spotted.
As Cory walked through the castle’s long hallways, he couldn’t help but wonder why the castle hadn’t been torn down yet. The crumbling walls and ceiling were a major health hazard, and the stronghold seemed like it hadn’t been used in a long time. Unless this was an important historical landmark, it didn’t make sense to just leave it standing as a big eyesore.
“Do you see anything yet, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight called out as a rainbow-patterned blur in the sky flew overhead. After she didn’t get a response, the lavender alicorn sighed and looked back at her friends. The six mares had been searching most of the Everfree for the past hour, and they had made very little progress in finding the mysterious entity that had fallen into the creepy forest.
Applejack stopped walking and leaned against a tree, trying to catch her breath as she panted, “Twi, Ah dunno if what we’re lookin’ for is even in th’ Everfree. How can ya be sure that it didn’t land somewhere else?”
Twilight shook her head in denial, “No, it’s in the Everfree, I know it is! Besides, there’s one place that we haven’t searched yet.”
“Hey, I think I found something, girls! There's a hole in the roof at the princesses' old place!" Rainbow Dash yelled out from above them, kicking up some dirt as she landed a few seconds later. The baby blue pegasus pointed her right foreleg in the direction of the old castle, the massive stronghold visible in the distance.
The Element of Magic smiled in excitement as she galloped as fast as she could towards the castle, her friends sharing tired looks as they followed Twilight at a more sedate pace.
After what seemed like an eternity of trying to get through the castle, Cory finally arrived at the main foyer. The room was relatively empty, aside from a few worn tapestries and rotting pieces of furniture scattered about. The XCOM operative spotted the tall, rusted iron doors that made up the foyer’s entrance and, after sighing in relief, made his way over to them.
He had gotten lost several times while he was navigating the castle’s confusing halls, and along the way, he had found a massive library absolutely filled with books. After thirty minutes of being lost yet again, he had stumbled upon a private study of some sort. Silk pillows were strewn about the room, and a wooden bookshelf stood flush against the wall. The psionic left shortly after when he found nothing of any real use inside.
With freedom now just beyond the doorway in front of him, the Volunteer pressed his hands against both of them, and pushed forward. The metal doors opened with ease, much to his surprise, to reveal a semi-roofless area with an odd, six-armed pedestal in the center. He could see another set of doors on the opposite end of the room, but his attention was focused on the night sky.
As a teen, he had been taught to look for certain stars and constellations when you needed to figure out where you were and which direction was north. To his utter dismay, Cory couldn’t find any familiar constellations or any of the “compass” stars in the sky. The moon was the only familiar celestial body that was still in the right place, but even then something felt off about it.
The soldier was almost too engrossed in his thoughts to hear the doors at the other end being pushed open.
Once the others had caught up with her at the chasm surrounding the castle, Twilight carefully made her way across the bridge with Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie following close behind. Once they made it across, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy flew over the chasm and landed next to the others.
“Alright, girls, the castle is right over there. Be very careful when we go inside, and try not to get separated from each other. We don’t know if what we’re looking for is dangerous or not,” Twilight advised her friends as they walked towards the castle’s entrance.
Rainbow Dash let out a joking scoff and waved a hoof in dismissal, “We know, Twilight, relax! If anything tries to attack us, we can take it down, no problem!”
The sporty pegasus was about to say more, but she closed her mouth upon seeing the glare that Twilight was shooting at her. The young alicorn was about to scold her friend when she saw a small flicker of movement in the corner of her eye.
She stopped just at the doors, her hoof raised and trembling a few inches away from the door. Twilight took in several deep breaths to calm her nerves, Calm down, Twilight, get a hold of yourself! Rainbow is right: we can handle anything we find in there. We possess the Elements of Harmony, the most powerful forces in all of Equestria! There’s nothing to be worried about.
She slowly pushed the doors open, her eyes darting around the room as if expecting something to jump out at her. When nothing tried to dismember her, she let out the breath that she didn’t know she had been holding. “Stick together, everypony. We don’t want a repeat of the last time we were here,” Twilight remarked as the other mares started whistling or rubbing their forelegs in embarrassment.
The six mares cautiously entered the main foyer, the doors closing shut behind them. About five seconds later, a purple-clad biped fell from the small section of roof above the doorway.
If those...”ponies” had stayed any longer, then I would have fallen right on top of them, Cory mused, turning to face the exit with a faint smile. He pushed the doors open to come face-to-face with one of the aliens, its teal eyes staring into his blue ones.
Time itself seemed to stand still as the two stared at one another, unmoving aside from the gentle rise and fall of their chests from their breathing. The sound of a door being kicked open drew his attention towards the foyer doors, which gave the midnight-blue alien enough time to charge him.
The psionic dodged to the right just in time to avoid being skewered by its horn, but he wasn’t quick enough to dodge a bolt of purple energy that struck him in the upper back. The inertia of the blast sent him and his plasma rifle skidding across the ground, but he recovered and landed on his feet to face the group of hostiles.
Cory formed a rift in his right hand, eliciting a gasp of surprise from them as he flung the vortex of psionic energy at them. They all barely had enough time to react as they jumped away from the rift, which tore apart the foyer doors and the surrounding area.
In retaliation, a cyan alien flew straight towards him with its hoof reared back for a massive punch. He merely grabbed the flyer and used its momentum to slingshot it into a wall, then jumped back as a pair of toned orange legs kicked out where his chest had been moments before.
The orange xeno glared at him as it pulled a rope seemingly out of thin air and started twirling it into a lasso. It swung the rope at him in an attempt to tie him up, but the XCOM operative sidestepped and grabbed the lasso, pulling on it with all his might and sending her flying towards him. A harsh head-butt to the orange pony’s skull knocked it out like a light, but left him with a temporarily throbbing forehead.
His entire body suddenly locked up, unable to move as he was slowly rotated to face an irate-looking purple alien, its horn glowing the same color as the aura that encased him. The dark-blue pony that stood next it stood there with an equally-furious glare painted on its face, its horn steadily growing brighter and brighter as if charging something up.
Cory tried to struggle against his invisible restraints, pouring every ounce of his willpower into fighting against the grip of the force holding him. His efforts were futile, a blast of blue energy striking him in the face and causing everything to fade into blackness.
Once the creature was knocked out, Twilight released it from her magic’s grip and nearly collapsed to the floor from exhaustion. Luna walked over to the strange being and not-so-gently poked it with a hoof.
“Rainbow Dash, Applejack, are you two alright? Both of you looked like you got hit hard,” the lavender mare behind Luna managed to get out amidst her deep panting.
“Ah…Ah think Ah’m good, sugarcube. Just…feeling a little woozy, is all. That big ol’ varmint sure packed a punch with that head of his,” Applejack responded as she stumbled slightly on her way over to their knocked-out foe.
Rainbow Dash sluggishly got to her hooves and stomped over to Applejack, "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Are you sure that this jerk is out cold? I don't want it to wake up and go on a rampage."
A blue glow surrounded the biped as Luna walked towards it, "Thou need not worry, Rainbow Dash. This creature shall be taken to Canterlot and kept under heavy guard until we decide what to do with it."
As the others conversed, Pinkie Pie stared at the strange object that had fallen off of the creature's back. She examined it from every possible angle she could think of, then started poking it with a stick she had found nearby. The object suddenly lit up on one end and let out a steady hum, prompting the hyperactive pink mare to gasp softly in wonder.
Pinkie quickly looked back at her friends, and seeing that they were still talking, she started poking the device with her hooves. The clanging of hooves hitting metal drew everyone else's attention towards the pink mare, who stopped jabbing at the object and giggled nervously.
Twilight rolled her eyes and carefully levitated the device over to Luna. The midnight blue alicorn nodded her head in thanks as she surrounded it with her magic, "Thank thee, Twilight. We shall take this to Canterlot to study it along with the creature. All of thee may come as thou please to Canterlot, but do make sure to be prepared for anything."
The lunar princess disappeared in a bright flash of light, and the Elements began their trek back to Ponyville.
The High Ethereal rose from his meditation and turned to face one of his brothers, who bowed his black headdress in reverence. "Welcome, Erusha. Speak what is on your mind."
Erusha remained in his bowing position for a few more seconds, then fixed his posture to be standing straight. "All of the slave races have finished preparing themselves, and our crafts are fully armed and fueled. The only thing we need now is your approval to begin the Trials, High One," Erusha told the High Ethereal as the latter nodded in satisfaction, floating over to stand directly in front of Erusha.
"This is pleasing news, my brother. We have already arrived in the Equestrian home system, and when we are in position, we can commence the Trials. Now, gather our brethren and bring them here, Erusha. It is time to..." the High Ethereal paused and turned to look at the system's only planet.
Erusha was silent for a few moments before he finally broke the bridge's silence, "Is something wrong, High One? It is...unlike you to be distracted while speaking to your brethren."
The High Ethereal tore his gaze from Equis to face Erusha, "It is nothing, my brother. I merely thought that I had sensed an...abnormality coming from the Equestrian's home-world."
The other Ethereal nodded and bowed his head in respect once more, "I understand, High One. Do not let me burden you any further."
Once his brother was gone, the High One turned to face the planet as he resumed his meditation. "When the Trials are initiated...I know where we must first send our forces," the High Ethereal calmly decided as the ship finally reached the right position.