res·pi·ra·tion (res-pə-ˈrā-shən) n. 1. the movement of respiratory gases (as oxygen and carbon dioxide) into and out of the lungs...
— Medical Dictionary
The dull sound of hoofsteps on soil echoed throughout the streets of Ponyville as a mare galloped frantically toward its outskirts.
"Oh Celestia, help me... Please be there!" Twilight Sparkle whimpered between gasps for breath. "Please be there!"
The sun had already set, which left the town painted in a mix of grays and a bit of dull orange reflected from the clouds near the horizon. Few ponies remained outside, and even fewer gave more than a fleeting glance at the mare as she raced past them. "The princess running somewhere while muttering to herself" was not an uncommon sight ever since she arrived in Ponyville, and more often than not, her reason to do so wasn't something for them to worry about. And even if it was, they figured she would call upon them if they were needed.
This was a mistake. A huge mistake! The biggest one yet! Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Twilight Sparkle inhaled once more. Her mind raced as she struggled to think, not to mention to keep her body and her surroundings in check. Houses, trees, bushes, birds, ponies and pets rushed past her vision, their lines gradually blurring together. The mess of shapes and colors started to make her nauseous, and her legs stumbled a few times, at one point almost making her fall over.
She cursed silently, shook her head, and focused on correcting her vision. Though it worked, her blind and panicked sprint now caused her to lose track of where exactly she was. Though it was near impossible for most ponies to become lost in a town as small as Ponyville, in her current state, even her own house felt like wandering inside a maze.
Her nostrils flared as she caught wind of Fluttershy's cottage nearby, and she remembered that it was right next to the nearest entrance to the forest. She followed the scent, and soon enough, the large opening among the dark and thick foliage of the Everfree was right in front of her. Her heart leapt at the sight, and she only paused for a moment before galloping straight into it.
Please be there! she thought and gritted her teeth as she tore through the undergrowth. If you don't have a way to fix this, then... then I'll...
For the first time ever, the mysterious Everfree – with all of its wonders and horrors lurking around within – completely avoided her attention. Occasionally, she would hear an odd noise in the distance, and once even a bit too close for comfort, but her gait and gaze remained unfazed, and her legs just kept dragging her forward.
Come on! How much farther do I—yes! There it is!
She almost squealed at the sight of the familiar dwelling just up ahead. Her joy quickly dissipated, however, as the distance closed between them.
No... NO! Don't tell me she's...
There was no light bleeding out of the holes in the large tree's trunk, nor were there any strong aromas in the air to let everypony around know of the latest brew boiling inside.
"NO!" Twilight screamed. She rushed up to the home and pounded her hooves on the door, only to find it locked, just as she feared. "This can't be happening! Zecora! Are you in there? Hello? Help me!"
There was no response. Twilight groaned in frustration and proceeded to gallop around Zecora's home a few times, hoping to find at least some clues as to where she may have gone. Unfortunately for her, not all who tried to follow the zebra mare in the forest were her close friends, and she was quite proficient at leaving no trail behind.
"No!" Twilight whimpered. She leaned against the side of Zecora's hut while panting from the exertion. "Where the hay are you? I need you! I need... somepony. Anypony!"
Pressure built just under her eyes, quickly reaching a painful degree. She lowered her head, focused on the glands just under her eyelids, and began to squeeze out the tears held within. To her surprise, the agony in her chest began to subside as well. The scientist in her head immediately started taking mental notes about how this process was no mere side effect of her mood, not to mention how efficiently it was able to relieve emotional stress.
She paused in that train of thought as a new wave of pressure formed inside her chest. She focused on it, and a burst of laughter traveled up her throat, followed by several more. Her eyes continued to bleed tears while she laughed at herself uncontrollably.
It didn't really feel that good, but at least it brought some relief. As soon as the laughter stopped, however, she slapped herself, inhaled again, and tried to regain her composure.
It didn't work. Even though she throttled back her thoughts and her breathing, Twilight still felt on edge. Her limbs were twitching. She heard the constant roar of her blood rushing and boiling in her ears. Pressure built within her eyes and her skull, now threatening to burst them apart.
"What now?" she muttered while grasping her head. "What is going on with me?"
There was a stab of pain in her chest, making her gasp. She then realized that her heart was still pounding as though she were in mid-sprint. Cursing again, she took a deep breath and focused on bringing her pulse under control.
The pressure immediately began to subside, then disappeared altogether, along with the tension in her mind. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief and fell back on her haunches, resting her back against the tree. She couldn't help it. Another wave of giggling bubbled up inside her and forced its way out.
"Great..." she muttered to herself while giggling. "Just great! What the hay am I going to do now?" She buried her face in her forehooves. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! How could I not see this coming?"
"Ah, Twilight Sparkle, most magical and wise!" Zecora said as her guest stepped into her home. "To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?"
"Hi there, Zecora!" Twilight replied while setting down her saddlebags. "I just dropped in to..." She trailed off and gasped once she managed to take in the scene before her. "Oh my gosh! Sorry, am I interrupting something?"
"Not at all, my dear!" Zecora said with a smile. "My practice was all but done. And now that I have company, I need not go on."
"You were... practicing how to balance yourself on top your head?" Twilight stammered. "On top of a bamboo pole?"
"For my task, this is the most effective pose. It keeps the mind clear and does not let it close."
"Oookaaayy... and if you don't mind that I ask, what exactly were you doing?"
"Quieting my mind, then allowing my thoughts to stray. But not very far, as I need their help to find the way."
"Oh, I see..." Twilight said. A heartbeat later, her eyes widened. "Wait... you mean you were... meditating?"
The striped mare nodded.
"Wow, that's amazing!" Twilight said with a grin of excitement. "I've read so much about meditation techniques, but I've never actually seen anypony perform them." She began to circle around her host, who remained motionless in her odd pose. "They're said to be an excellent way to block out mental distractions and allow you to think more clearly about... well, everything, I guess."
"There are many things to find where your mind can tread," Zecora said. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment while muttering something that her guest couldn't hear, then slowly climbed down from the pole. "All you must do is chase away the storm in you head."
"Well, um... somehow it's never really worked for me." Twilight gave an embarassed chuckle. "Half the time, all I ended up doing was fall asleep..."
"Practice and patience are the keys to the way in," Zecora said sagely. "Employ them both to reveal the unknowns within."
"'Unknowns within'?" Twilight's eyes widened. "You mean... it can even allow you to unlock some kind of hidden knowledge?"
Zecora just nodded once more.
Twilight sat down before her host. "Zecora..." she began, now with determination in her voice. "Are you willing to share a little more about this?"
Twilight lay motionless for a while. Her limbs went slack, and her whole body felt like it was deflating. A gentle breeze touched the forest around her, its soft voice making her head feel heavy. A dull ache emerged in her eyes, which only faded when she let her eyelids slip closed.
Perhaps I should just go back home, she thought and took another deep breath. The smell of dry leaves hung in the air. It felt relaxing. Maybe try to get some shuteye, then—
Her blood ran cold, and her legs gave a small jerk. She quickly opened her eyes and shook her head violently to push back her fatigue.
No. Never again. Not another night in that thing.
Oddly enough, as the image of it flashed in her head, the first thing she felt was a moment of pride. Despite her current state, she had to admit to herself that not everypony could have thrown such an elaborate machine together in less than an hour, let alone actually make it work.
But her pride quickly gave way to dread and disgust. All those wires, all those tubes running in and out of her. The mechanical whirring and hissing sounds piercing her skull all night. Her air and blood being sucked out and pumped back in by some lifeless construct. The very thought of it sent an icy feeling down her spine. They may have kept her alive, but they didn't make for a good night's sleep, to say the least.
No, this is nothing to be proud of, she thought and sighed. It's just another example of what desperation can drive a pony to do.
"Fully body control? What the hay is that?"
"Well, Spike..." Twilight replied, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "How should I explain? Hmm... Take your heart, for example. Do you remember ever having to actually force it to keep beating?"
"No... I guess..." Spike tapped his chest proudly. "Little guy's been working fine on his own since day one."
"Or how about your digestion?" Twilight went on. "Your hearing? Can you imagine how amazing it might be to have greater control over these things? To maybe have the ability to make them stronger... or even turn them off if needed?"
"Hmm..." Spike scratched his head. "Well, I'd love to be able to turn off my hearing in the morning so you can't wake me up," he said with a grin.
"Har, har..." Twilight rolled her eyes. "Anyway, this meditation technique Zecora showed me works really well. Once I'm deep enough in the session, I can get in tune with my body like never before, including my magic. So I figured: 'why not combine the two?'"
The dragon blinked. "Combine them to do what?"
"If I gain full body control, I could send myself to that place whenever I want," Twilight said in an excited voice. She flipped a page on the book in front of her, her eyes scanning the contents thoroughly. "All I need to do is use this spell I'm working on while deep in meditation. After that, the possibilities are endless. I could just tune out all distractions. I could have much better control over complicated magic, or pretty much anything I want to do."
"Sounds like another crazy idea..." Spike muttered. "Hey! Can we go see if Pinkie is throwing another party today? Mmmm..." He licked his lips. "I could really use some of her cupcakes right now."
"Ugh..." Twilight groaned in frustration. "Not now, Spike! Can't you see I'm trying to work here?"
"All right! Jeez... take it easy, will ya?"
The bushes to her left rustled, making her ears perk up. Twilight gasped as the noise came again, this time from a different direction, which jolted her out of her cocoon of depression. Her head snapped up, and she immediately began searching for whatever was lurking nearby.
"H-hello?" she called out. "Is... is anypony out there?"
The shadows of the dark undergrowth lay still. A few moments of silence passed, though they seemed to last entire minutes. Then it started again. Twilight bit her lip as her eyes jumped from one corner of the clearing to the next. Her hooves tensed up, pressing her body more tightly against the trunk of the tree at her back.
"Zecora?" Her legs started to shake. "Is... is th-that you?"
If something really was out there, then she couldn't see it. If it had a voice, then it wasn't using it. For all she knew, it didn't even breathe. The only signs of the intruder's presence were a few dancing leaves that it nudged, as well as the noise it made as it continued to circle around her. Or so she figured, at least.
Predators instinctively pursue a target running away from them. Such movement signals that the prey cannot fight, only flee...
The words from that book flashed in her mind. Twilight Sparkle felt another moment of pride for being able to memorize it so well, just like every other book she ever came across. She then felt her heart sink into her guts once the implication of said words hit her.
The noise at the edge of the small clearing halted for a moment, after which it changed direction. It began to move back toward where she first noticed it. This soon fell into a pattern; it would move back and forth in a wide arc right in front of her, occasionally pausing or picking up the pace. She never once caught sight of it, only the trail of sound and upset leaves it left behind.
"Okay... let's do this!" Twilight announced to herself with a sigh. She trotted to the center of the room, plopped down onto her haunches, and closed her eyes. "Let's see... 'step one: control your breathing.'"
Twilight slowly counted to ten, after which she took a deep breath. She held it for a while, exhaled, then inhaled and held it again. She repeated this process about a dozen times. Her whole body felt light, almost nonexistent, as if floating in an empty void. Her breathing slowly turned into a silent and smooth flow through her lungs and throat, barely noticeable once she stopped focusing on it.
"'Step two: quiet your thoughts.'"
Twilight turned her attention to her mind. Though normally she kept it packed to the brim with threads of thought related to her studies, it now seemed as though a maelstrom of nonsense had moved in to take their place. Images of her friends drifted past her internal vision like clouds of dry leaves riding a silent breeze. Scenes from her childhood played themselves out all over again. A mental alarm went off that she needed to take out the trash today; none of these things seemed typical, let alone worthy of a rational mind.
But she would not let this upset her calm state. Just like with her limbs, she focused her mind and began to let go of everything that clung to it. One by one, every stray thought swimming around in her head dissolved into the darkness. A few of them tried to crawl their way back, but she immediately pushed them away.
A great sense of calmness washed over her. Twilight felt almost disconnected from her body now. For a moment, however, she was dragged back by a smile tugging at her lips. She had done everything the way she was supposed to, yet her mind was not "empty." She now realized that "empty" wasn't the right term for it after all. Her mind was clean, transparent, like a diamond polished to perfection.
It felt wonderful.
"'Step three: initiate the spell.'"
Breathing heavily, Twilight leveled her horn with the undergrowth and began to track the noise with her head. If anything was to jump out at her, she would be ready for it.
Her hoof shot up to her mouth to block a scream from getting out. Another sound came, identical to the first one, but this time from behind her. It followed the same pattern as the previous one, and the two creatures now circled around her in unison.
Twilight bit down on her hoof to keep herself from screaming. She tasted something coppery in her mouth. Her head swiveled back and forth as she expected something to jump her at any moment. Her eyes were losing focus again as they scanned every shadow around her, her mind painting each one as another monster out for her blood.
"Who are you?" she shouted. "What do you want from me?"
No response came. Her whole body was shaking now. Her wings squirmed about on her back, making her eyes widen. She fluttered them slightly, then opened them and flapped them a couple of times.
Maybe this... she wondered. Maybe I could just...
She looked up at the dense canopy high above her. With the sun now beneath the horizon, and the moon not quite in its place yet, there was no light seeping through, making the coverage look like a veil of thick, dark clouds.
No way. The forest is too thick here. She gulped. If I mess up and crash, then...
Her wings fluttered again as her mind raced. She figured she could just hover in the air above the clearing, which might even save her from the first strike. But if those things could jump high enough – and most residents of the Everfree could – then she wouldn't last for much longer.
On top of that, some of the predators in the forest could fly as well.
Oh Celestia! No... this can't be! I... I'm going to...
Her head was starting to feel light, and the rest of her limbs went numb and felt like they were filling with lead. The edges of her vision began to blur.
The noises around her stopped, and a terrifying silence settled on the clearing. For a few moments, all Twilight could hear was her own breathing and the slow drumming of her pulse.
The spell executed flawlessly, and the magical energies surrounding her were in a stable state. All she needed now was a target.
"Let's start with something simple..." she thought and concentrated on her eyes. There was a brief tingling sensation in them as the spell did its work. She waited a few seconds and slowly opened them.
"Hmm... no immediate signs of change..." she muttered and levitated her quill to jot down a few notes. "Although I do feel them a bit more... acutely, I suppose.
"Okay, how about—whoa!" Twilight exclaimed in surprise as she attempted to shift her gaze a little. The moment she willed them to move, her eyes began to turn in separate directions, completely out of sync with each other. One half of her vision now showed the bookcase to her left, and the other was centered near the window in front of her.
"Oh my gosh..." she said to herself. Her quill almost tore through the parchment as it flooded the scroll with line after line. "This is amazing! Both eyes can be moved individually. Separate and complete control over every single muscle..."
The lavender alicorn messed around with her new ability for a few minutes, upon which it became a little too nauseating to continue. She refocused her vision, then, now more curious than ever, she contemplated the next phase of her experiment.
"Rainbow Dash is constantly mocking me that I have 'no proper wing control'" she thought and smirked. "Oh, I'll show her some 'wing control' now..."
Her wings shuddered slightly as the magic coursed through them. Once the sensation was gone, she carefully attempted to move them. Instead of her usual clumsy flailing, both her wings unfolded smoothly and exactly as far as she wanted them to. She then tried to move them on their own, just like with her eyes before. The tip of her left wing began to draw circles on the floor, while the right one picked up the parchment lying next to her and twirled it in the air.
"Fascinating..." she said. "I wonder if I could—" Twilight shook her head. "No. One set of limbs is enough for now."
Still, at this point, the last thing she wanted to do was stop. If the spell worked so well for limbs, then it only seemed logical that it would do the same for internal organs. As she pondered which one she could test first, the example she mentioned to Spike echoed in her mind.
"Hmm... I wonder if..."
She gasped in surprise and almost doubled over when a sudden dose of pressure appeared in her chest. Moments later, she felt a sharp pain as her heart fell into an irregular beat, after which it began to slow down altogether. Breathing heavily, she quickly focused on the organ and did her best to force it into a calm, not to mention healthy, rhythm.
The pressure slowly dissolved, allowing her to breathe a sigh of relief. She waited a little to gather her courage and focused on her chest again. Her limbs twitched, and everything around and within her seemed to intensify as her pulse rapidly accelerated, exactly according to how she guided it. She then tried slowing it down, almost to a crawl. Everything went numb. Her head turned into a heavy sack of jelly resting on top of a pile of hay. Darkness crept into the corners of her vision.
Twilight quickly returned her heartbeat to normal. She found that, as long as she payed it minimal attention, her pulse would remain stable.
"Okay, so at least it still retains some of its autonomy..." she thought. "I just hope the same would apply to my lungs, or I'd—"
There was a brief tingling sensation in her chest, followed by sense of crushing emptiness.
Twilight took a deep breath.
She had only a split second to react. Her wings flew open. The ache in her chest flared once more. Fire rushed into her veins, burning the lead out of her limbs, and the roar returned to her ears. Everything around her turned bright as if they came under the midday sun. For a moment, she found herself mesmerized by the sight.
Twilight nearly jumped as the bushes before her flew apart in a cloud of leaves and dirt. The foliage behind her began to rustle violently as well. Her wings flapped as hard as they could, rocketing her off the ground.
Something large slammed into the tree just inches beneath her. Her teeth ground against each other at the bloodcurdling sound of wood being ripped apart. She didn't dare to look back. All she wanted to focus on was to stay in the air and gain altitude.
Breathe! the alicorn's mind screamed as she flew half-blind. The strong rush of air against her face all but washed away her ability to concentrate. Thick, dark branches rushed past her vision, and some of the smaller ones slashed and bit at her hide. She winced at the pain, but didn't slow for one moment.
Breathe, Twilight! Don't stop! Don't think! Just breathe!