"What, in the name of the sacred stars, is that?" Luna gasped when Solar Flare got close enough for us to be able to see down into the cavern.
A roiling, blazing jumble of unconstrained magical energy seethed at the bottom of the charred crater that had once been the center of the city that had given birth to Sombra and Chrysalis. It was the mess I had caused. Okay, so it wasn't completely my fault, but I had made it much worse by acting on a lot of faulty assumptions.
The first thing I noticed was there was no dark magical energy involved. None at all. The second thing I noticed was the a huge, jagged hole in reality at the center of the tangle of energy. The few monsters left were trying to scrabble back into that rift, a job made very difficult for them by the out-of-control magical energy arcing all around them, looking for some dark energy to cancel.
Luna turned to me sharply. "Twilight, I think I hath never heard thee swear before!"
I wasn't aware that I had said anything. "Well, I don't think I've ever been this wrong before," I said, chuckling. "I was completely and utterly wrong about what those monsters really are."
I had the full and undivided attention of the entire bridge crew at that point, with the possible exception of the pony at the helm, who was keeping Solar Flare circling the crater.
"But it's an understandable mistake," I said as I grabbed the eyepiece of the pivoted telescope next to me and swung it around, searching the edges of the crater. "They look just like the things the dark magic pollution caused." Then I found what I should have suspected long ago.
"Twilight," Luna said quietly but urgently, "thou hast used foul language for the second time in as many minutes. I become concerned."
"It's a booby trap, and I'm the booby! Look at the narrow ends of that rift, the clusters of dark crystals there. They're dead now, but that's what opened the portal to a world full of shapeshifting monsters. This is a trap that Sombra set up to catch anypony who meddled with his crystal engine. I suppose I didn't set if off when I was here before because I was soaked with dark magic at the time. Or maybe it was faulty or..." I realized that I was babbling, and got back on track. "I don't know where it leads or what those things are, and it really doesn't matter now. What I need to do is fix all this, because I'm pretty sure that my magical kaboom has destabilized that portal. Look at the edges! Ooh, chromatic dissipation... That's a bad thing."
Luna turned her gaze back to the pit. "So these things only look like the creatures created by the dark crystal's magic because they imitated the first things they encountered in our world, just as they have now imitated changelings and pegasi."
"Yup! You're a smart pony, you know that?" I said, cheerfully. "And I'm a dumb pony. I spent a lot of time and effort creating a device to counter something completely different. I admit it: I'm an idiot."
"Fie! Were another pony to speak so of thee, I would seek redress! Turn thy mind to a better course, my love. What shall we do now?"
"You're right. Ooh... you are so right!" I said, thinking aloud. "Clock. Is. Ticking. Hmn... First, we break down the problem. We need to close the portal. That shouldn't be too difficult. Then we need to get rid of all that magical energy I let loose."
"Is it not a good thing that the energy now flows into the portal?" Luna asked. "Let it be taken away to the world of monsters and then seal the rift. Then shall both problems be done away with."
"What?" I turned the scope back on the crater. Sure enough, the swirling magic was flowing into the rift. "Mmm... It really shouldn't be doing that. Bad for peripheral stability. You know something? I have absolutely no idea what's going on!" I just couldn't help chuckling again. "But if that portal ruptures, it might mix several different realities together at once. That wouldn't be good... or survivable, probably. Might even crack the planet open like an egg." When I looked up from the telescope, the horrified expressions of the bridge crew made me laugh.
"Twilight," Luna said, frowning, "Art thou feeling well?"
"Are you kidding? I feel terrific! Okay, okay, I know that's probably a teensy bit because of the medicine, but really, I'm great. There's nothing to worry about! Yeah, so there's a big ol' rip in reality over there, but dimensional portals aren't very robust, and if I give it a good blast of a negation spell, it ought to fold the thing right up. No problemo!"
"Twilight, I am doubtful—"
"Oh come on! I'll bet you that I can pop that thing out of existence with one shot! Do you have any spare crown properties lying around that you want to wager? I'll put up the east tower of my castle. Yeah, it's kind of vulgar, but I didn't design the Celestia-forsaken thing."
"I do not believe thou art thinking clearly. Perhaps we—"
"Party-pooper!" I stuck my tongue out at her. "I bet you can't do this!" I was tired of arguing, so instead of trying to get around Luna to reach the hatch, I phased through the forward viewport. The wind caught me and smacked me against the outside of the glass, then I tumbled off to one side. "Weeeeeeheehee!" Was that what Pinkie Pie felt like all the time? Wow.
I stretched out my wings in a glide and used just the very tips of my primaries to steer myself toward the crater. Rainbow Dash had shown me how to do that. She was so cool!
Luna swooped down on my left and leveled out with me. She cast a worried glance in my direction but said nothing.
"Good idea!" I called over to her. "We should stick together until I whack Ol' Nighty. No getting separated. Isn't that the mistake all those dumb ponies make in horror books? Hey! Maybe I can negate her the same way light magic cancels dark. Wow... She's all dark and spooky and unhappy, so maybe all we need is something happy and fun to cancel her out. Wouldn't it be funny if all we had to do was hit her in the face with a pie? Wow, would she be surprised. Maybe we ought to try it. It would be funny even if it didn't work."
"Attend, my love!" Luna called out to me. "We near the rift."
"Huh? Oh yeah! Right, right! One negation spell, coming up!" I could do negation in my sleep. With all the experimenting I did as a young filly, it was something I had learned to cast almost reflexively, kind of like always having a fire extinguisher handy. Three deep breaths and then...
I never got to cast the spell because Luna's yell of surprise broke my concentration. As we swooped down close to the rift, tendrils of magical force shot out and enveloped her. I blasted them about two lengths below her as they tried to pull her into the portal, and most of them broke up for a second, but reformed and reattached. Luna struggled, but the things wrenched her around, keeping her from using her horn directly. Her kicks and wing-slashes had no effect at all.
I blasted them again and interposed myself between Luna and the rift. I cast a shield spell to block the tendrils, but they merely enveloped my whole shield and flowed past to grab Luna again. Fortunately, the second interruption gave her time to get her horn in line, and she cut loose, burning the tendrils away from my shield.
My muddled brain finally got around to giving me the best course of action, and I went back to the negation spell. I dropped my shield, poured all the strength into the spell that I could, and hit the rift dead-center.
The magical blow-back as the portal spell began to collapse was surprisingly strong. I think I might have blacked out for a second or so, or I may only have been seriously disoriented, but when I sorted out what was going on, I realized that I was again entangled in the tendrils of magical force, and they were pulling me down into the rapidly shrinking rift. I twisted around, looking for Luna and saw her above me, diving down as fast as she could, horn blazing even as more of the tendrils shot toward her.
The last thing I did before I was engulfed was throw a magical blast that cut the strands reaching for Luna.The reaction threw me downward, into the rift.
The last thing I saw was Luna slamming to a halt so quickly that she lost several midnight blue feathers as she was caught up in a levitation aura the color of afternoon sunshine.
Then the portal closed, and I was in darkness.
= = =
Somepony was screaming, "No, no, no! Luna, no! I need you!" Oddly enough, it wasn't me.
I was no longer bound by the tendrils of magic, but it was still very difficult to get to my hooves. I was in some sort of cavern, and there was a flat surface underneath me that looked like granite. It was inset with old-style magical runes, many of which were unfamiliar to me. A dim light suffused the area, making the irregular arches above me look like old bronze. Surrounding me was a very large horizontal circle of metal that appeared to have gone molten and spattered outward from its original position. It was still very hot, but solid, and I had no trouble stepping over it.
I peered around, trying to find the pony who had been screaming. She had stopped, and was instead alternately muttering and sobbing. The echoing in the cavern-like space made it difficult to tell which direction the sounds were coming from, but even distorted by grief and rage the voice was horribly familiar. Could it be...? But I was awake!
It had been less than a quarter of an hour since I'd taken the potion aboard Solar Flare, but I could feel myself slowing down, and my many aches and pains were making themselves known again. My euphoria was also slipping away. It might have been a natural reaction to the strange and possibly deadly place I found myself in, but I thought it was most likely that my alicorn metabolism burned through the drug faster than a normal pony would.
I didn't want to draw any attention to myself, so I fumbled the little flask out of my breastplate with my mouth, tongued the stopper out, and drank the rest of the mixture. It was only a few seconds before I felt much better.
Well, so what if I was trapped in an entirely different world with unknown, perilous creatures and a deranged Nightmare? I'd gotten out of worse situations! I decided to prepare myself and cast an object-specific teleport spell. Nothing happened. I figured I had a range of around two or three hundred miles for something the mass of the object I requested, and there wasn't a single key lime pie within all that distance? This world was awful!
I supposed I could try being aggressively cheerful instead. "Hey, Nightmare! Where are you? Don't be sad! Let me try to cheer you up!"
The answer was a piercing scream of outrage. So... I guess my idea sucked. Well, that was why I was stuck here, wasn't it? Sucky ideas. I sighed and called up a shield spell.
The Nightmare boiled out of the darkness between two pillars at the far end of the cavern and rushed at me, not even bothering to fully form herself into alicorn shape. She screeched and clawed at my shield while I made little soothing noises and tried not to laugh. "That's it, just let it all out and you'll feel lots better."
"I'll kill you! I'll tear out your entrails and feed them to you!"
"Shhh... Shhh... It's okay, it's o-kay."
"I'll rip your wings off! I'll snap off your horn and stab your eyes out with it!"
"Now, now, what good would that do? Just take some deep breaths and—"
"You're mocking me!" The Nightmare began to hammer on my shield with her hooves... and her face. Wow, she was really mad. "I will ANNIHILATE you!"
When she reared back for a really big smash, I dropped my shield for an instant and popped her in the mouth with a blade of magical energy. It was way harder than anything I would have used on an average monster, but I figured that the Nightmare was an undying spirit of evil and darkness, so she was probably pretty tough.
I was kind of surprised when it took the top of her head off.
But that was okay, because her head coalesced back from the fragments of roiling black stuff a few seconds later. Once she had her face back, she did look a bit shocked. Also, she didn't go back to her futile attack on my shield. Score one for off-the-cuff tactics, I thought smugly.
As long as there was a break in the action, I thought I'd ask a couple of questions that had been nagging at me. "So, what are you doing here, and where are all the monsters? I mean, I'm not even asleep."
I didn't expect her to begin to cry.
She was right, I had been mocking her before, but I couldn't help feeling a surge of sympathy for her when she broke down and wept in front of me.
"Hey," I said, fumbling for words, "I'm sorry. I'm taking this really strong potion right now, and maybe my judgment is a bit off. I didn't mean to hurt you. Well, okay, that shot to the face was on purpose, but you know what I mean, right?"
Ah, that was better. She was getting back to her old self.
"You sit there grinning?" she continued. "You are imprisoned forever! With only spirits and cold uncaring mechanisms and the burning heart of the world for company until time itself winds down."
"Well, there's you, too," I said glibly, though I was beginning to feel uneasy, even through the influence of the potion.
"I? The mare that turned your life to this end? You should wish for the company in the deepest cells of Tartarus instead!"
"Huh? This isn't your fault. Sombra set the booby-trap. Besides, Luna will come save me any minute, you'll see."
The Nightmare laughed at me. It wasn't a very nice laugh. "Oh, the vaunted genius! How pathetically wrong you are, how easy to manipulate."
I frowned. "Well, excuse me, Miss Gloomy-Pants! I'm kind of drugged up to my eyeballs at the moment, so maybe I'm not at my best. What are you talking about?"
"I suppose I should be flattered that my dreamspell worked so well on you. I not only twisted you into loving Luna, I even stopped you from questioning any of it." She blew air through her lips in a hiss of scorn. "A little push, a little tug, and you walked the path I led you along like a mindless puppet! Even better, you fought against anypony who had suspicions. Oh, I had you. I had you!"
The stupid potion kept me on my hooves. It made me happy that I finally knew the truth. But somewhere underneath my magically-induced bliss, a part of me shattered. "I'd like it if you stopped talking now, please."
She wasn't listening. She went right on with her rant. "But Celestia! It's always Celestia! I made you dance easily enough. You brought Luna to me, just as I'd planned, but she interfered!" The Nightmare broke off and screamed again, beating her hooves against the granite until the cavern echoed like thunder. "I was so close! I could have had her! My Luna! I could have been whole again!"
"Wait," I said, trying to stamp down the cheerful, uncritical acceptance that bubbled through my brain. "You used mind magic to force me into loving Luna so that I'd bring her with me when I came here to fix the monster situation? That's a pretty chancy plan."
"It nearly worked, didn't it? The last time I spoke to you in your dreams, I told you how much I would like to see you two separated, so of course you came to me side-by-side! I didn't even need to use magic for that," she hissed. "If it hadn't been for Celestia, it would have worked! I've been trapped here since you used the Elements to sunder me from Luna and drive me deep into the world. Celestia unknowingly triggered Sombra's trap when she cast the dome spell, and it opened a way to bring Luna to me. We would have been reunited! We would have been happy again!"
"So, this isn't even another dimension." I was kind of disappointed. "It's just the magical substructure of the planet? But where did the monsters come from?"
That got her attention. The Nightmare swung her head to face me and a slow, vile grin transformed her face into a mask of disdain. "Idiot!" she spat, then began to laugh again as fresh tears streamed down her cheeks. "Here... I'll show you!"
It was good that I'd left up my shield spell as we talked, or the things she summoned up would have killed me before I could have reacted. She seemed to pull them out of the rock itself, and they were nothing like the oozy black things I'd faced on the outside of the world. In fact, they were kind of pretty. They had marble and granite bodies, with diamond fangs and claws that glittered in the indirect light of the cavern.
I don't remember deciding to run. I simply found myself galloping through the strangely shaped halls and galleries of the metaphysical world. I suppose that an instinctual response can sometimes be the best in quite a number of life-threatening situations. If there is one thing a pony is really well suited for by nature, it was sprinting. I outdistanced the rocky monsters in mere seconds.
But I wasn't going to be able to run for much longer. I had only minutes to come up with some sort of safe haven before I came down off my magically-induced high and fell unconscious. If I did that where the Nightmare could find me, I'd never wake up.
At every branch of the tunnel up until then, I'd automatically chosen the one that was wider or led in an upward direction. That was dumb. Up meant out to my subconscious mind, but it wasn't the physical planet I was trapped in, so I could spend a lifetime tunneling up and never come close to the surface. When the Nightmare came looking for me, she'd search in the obvious places.
So I went down. It wasn't a great plan, but it wasn't awful. If the Nightmare had some way of magically tracking me, I was as good as dead no matter what I did. If she didn't, I was counting on probability, psychology, and a little trickery to keep me hidden. I chose the smaller or darker of each branching path I came to and flew over any surfaces that looked soft enough to take an impression of my hooves. When I began to feel tired, I picked the most sheltered space I could find and crammed myself into it.
I used a blast of telekinetic force to powder part of the stone ceiling above me and immediately poured most of my remaining strength into an irregular shield just barely big enough to surround me. The rock dust settled onto my shield, hopefully making it look like just another boulder from any distance away. The Nightmare had been in my dreams, and had evidently used that route to twist my mind even when Luna had been on guard, so I had to protect that avenue of attack, too. Fortunately, I knew a warding spell that would isolate me from the Dream Realm. It wasn't a healthy thing to do, and could have some very bad effects if used for too long, but the alternative was worse. I had barely finished casting the ward when I dropped into unconsciousness.
= = =
It was the armor that saved me in the first place. I suppose I might not have survived being hit with the catapult shot without it, but certainly after masking all my wounds and fatigue with spells and that awful potion, I had exerted myself enough to die of sheer exhaustion. It must have been the spells woven into the metal; I don't know how else I could have made it. I have no idea how long I lay unconscious in that place, but it was a full day at the very least.
When I came back to consciousness, my shield was gone and I was coated with rock dust. When I tried to move, the agony was so excruciating I almost wished I had died. I had more than enough magical energy to ease the pain, but I couldn't concentrate well enough to cast the right spells. After a long time of slow, shallow breaths and pitiful attempts at mental focusing, I managed to complete the simplest palliative spell I knew. That eased the pain enough that I was able to manage the next level of suppression, but I didn't dare go beyond that.
I was horribly thirsty and tried to summon a bowl of water. What I got instead of a proper drinking bowl was a little fountain that sprung out of the floor in front of my face. I was so thirsty, I wouldn't have cared if it had been a dog dish. I lapped at the flow cautiously, forcing myself to stop long before I wanted to. It was only then that I noticed that the water disappeared when it fell back to the stone floor. That worried me; I checked to make sure that the water wasn't an illusion, but it was real enough. My strategy for staying alive had worked, and seeing as how I wasn't going to be running any further anytime soon, I had no choice but to keep relying on it. I created another cloud of dust from the ceiling, reestablished my shield, added the ward to keep the Nightmare out of my dreams, and fell asleep again.
I woke up thirsty and hungry. I dispelled the shield, wiped dust off of myself, lapped more water, and tried for some food. I got some flowers, nuts, and apples, all too small to be cultivated, but I was far too hungry to be picky. Halfway through my meal, the recollection of my conversation with the Nightmare swam into focus, and I lost my appetite.
When I thought of Luna, the sheer longing in my heart made me ache. But of course, I knew that a love poison or Want-It, Need-It spell would have made me pursue her even more frantically than I had, and just as unquestioningly. Celestia, Shining Armor, Cadance... They had all tried to tell me... tried to snap me out of my self-indulgent, foolish, selfish, pathetic...
It hurt to cry. My ribs and belly and neck all lit up with pain while I sobbed. I told myself I deserved it for being so stupid. Was I really trapped in the world forever? The thought of never seeing Luna again was the worst thing I could imagine. We were happy together and good for each other; that should be all that mattered. Yes, there were a few attendant problems surrounding our love affair, including magical banishment, a very gloomy prophesy, and the fact that I wasn't really in love with her. But what relationship didn't have its little problems?
Now if I could just manage to stand up, I could start working on correcting those downs.
After a wave of agonizing pain, dizziness, and nausea, I decided to concentrate first on recovery. I drank and tried again for some more food. I had little success until I simplified my requests, then I got fresh berries, nuts, and grass: filling, but plain.
With a little food in my belly, I got smart and summoned a large amount of soft moss beside me and then self-levitated onto it. Even that little bit of floating hurt a lot, but I was much more at ease afterwards. I suppose I would have been even more comfortable if I had taken off my armor, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.
I shielded and warded myself, and slept again.
Celestia would have a plan. She would be the one to eventually pull me out of banishment. All I had to do was stay alive until then. I knew it wasn't exactly my fault, but I'd apologize to her and everypony else I'd wrongfully ignored and insulted by my behavior. And then I'd... what? I couldn't conceive of actually doing anything after that. I don't think I'd ever be able to be in the same room with Luna again, much less speak to her. But, oh how I wanted to!
And that gave me the motivation to get up again and get moving. There were things that needed to be set right.
= = =
It took me two or three days to get steady on my hooves and be able to move around for more than a few minutes without becoming exhausted. I was still unable to acquire any food other than simple wild stuff, but it was filling and no doubt better for me than the big plate of greasy hay fries I was craving.
I took off my chamfron and a few pieces of leg armor, but found no strap-sores and discovered that my hair was clean and looked as if I had recently groomed myself. I put the armor back on, blessing Celestia for the wonderful spellwork she had wrought.
I stretched and walked slowly around the area, actually examining the strange cavern for the first time instead of letting my eyes slide uncaringly over the oddly ribbed walls. I don't know what it was that finally made it all come together in my mind, but it was one of those shocking moments that happen only a few times in a pony's life.
When I was a filly, I had often gone with my parents to the upper end of Phaeton Street, where there is a cluster of used bookshops. We always went the same way, which was the shortest route from our house. But one day, while my parents were in Baltimare for a symposium, Cadance took me out for an afternoon walk and picnic. As we made our way home, talking and laughing, I glanced up a street we were passing and saw two shop windows stuffed with old books. I was gleefully overwhelmed to discover that there were more bookstores so close to home. Of course, I was very disappointed when I realized that they were the same shops I knew so well, just seen from a perspective that made them seem unfamiliar, but I always remembered the powerful sensation of surprise when my mental picture of the world shifted back into line with reality.
It was the same sort of surprise that hit me when I realized that the ribs of the halls, chambers, and passageways around me were only sections of great ringed structures, and that they were cycles of interwoven magic that turned almost too slowly to be perceived. I reached out with my magic, touched them precisely as I had learned to do with the Great Wheel of the Moon, and knew exactly what they were.
Wheels within wheels: they were the dynamic magical structure of the world itself. Not just a mass of metaphorical magic, what surrounded me and held me prisoner was a great mechanism.
It was a mechanism I could touch. It was a mechanism that I just might be able to influence. Suddenly, my odds for survival and eventual escape seemed a bit better.
= = =