CHAPTER 11: Disillusionment
The exit portal wasn't as kind as the mirror had been. The friends were dropped from the air several feet to the ground. Each landed with a grunt of surprise, some on their hooves, though others were less fortunate.
“Everypony here? Nopony hurt?”
“Despite the fall, I am fine.” Rarity looked around. “Where are we anyway?”
“Looks like the same room the mirror was in.” Fluttershy's appraisal was right. It was the same room they had left, minus the mirror itself.
“Wait, how do we get back?” asked Rainbow Dash.
“I don't think we can. Not until we're finished. We've metaphorically burned our boats. The only way to go is forward.” Twilight reached for the door handle.
“WAIT!” yelled Pinkie, jumping in front of her.
Twilight stopped, a hint of annoyance on her face. “What is it Pinkie?”
“My knee's achy!”
“Stretch it out then.”
“No! Don't you remember? It's my Pinkie Sense! It hasn't been active for a long time, but that's because it hasn't had reason to.”
“What does it mean?” asked Spike, a full believer in Pinkie's odd abilities.
“Like I told Twilight when she was washing off the mud that sprayed her from an earlier prediction, an achy knee is the sign that something scary's about to happen!”
The friends looked towards the door, waiting with bated breath. They sat like that for two whole minutes, Pinkie constantly shifting her knee to try to compensate for the ache. When nothing happened, Twilight sighed and grabbed the handle. “I trust you Pinkie, but we have to keep moving.”
She threw open the door, ready for anything. Nothing but another hallway. “Oh. Well Pinkie, it looks like your prediction wasn't about the doo-” Her train of thought was derailed as she turned back to look at Pinkie, whose mane had drooped and straightened.
“Are you okay, Pinkie?” She had seen this once before, when Pinkie had jumped to conclusions about the surprise birthday party. That was the only time Twilight had really seen Pinkie mad. Well, maybe that and the time she had thought Applejack broke her Pinkie Promise. But the party ordeal had been different, like Pinkie had been scared her friends were abandoning her.
“Yeah... yeah, I'm fine.” said Pinkie. Her eyes were far off and glazed over. She shook her head and they cleared up, her face lighting up with a smile. “Sorry about that. I'm don't know what came over me.”
Twilight noticed Pinkie's mane didn't return to its normal bounciness.
“Well, if you find out what that achy knee was about, let us know.” Twilight made a mental note to watch her friend, but she thought pushing it any further might cause unnecessary problems.
The group filed out into the hallway. The only noises that could be heard were their gentle breathing and their hoofsteps echoing off of the walls. Wherever they were, it seemed to be fairly well kept despite being abandoned. Decorations lined the walls, some familiar and others outlandish. And some were a strange combination of the two.
“Why would anyone hang up knives like that?”
The group stopped. The two longer than normal blades were crossed, forming an X, in front of an elaborately painted shield.
“The aesthetics are rather nice, though I never would have thought of the design,” continued Rarity.
“There could be symbolism behind it.” Twilight stepped closer, looking at herself in the reflective metal. “Shields are defensive, of course, and the knives could symbolize industry and provision of base needs at home. It could be a standard for national unity, wherever we are.”
“Ah suppose that would make sense. Noble things to want to display.”
Rainbow cleared her throat. “Not that this isn't interesting or anything, but we're not here to sight see. Let's keep moving.”
They quickly found the front doors, which were heavy and beautifully polished oak. “It's so strange,” Twilight commented. “A castle this well kept should have occupants, yet we're the only ones here.”
“Maybe they're all outside, enjoying the weather,” suggested Fluttershy.
Twilight pushed the door open and immediately froze in place.
The air coming from the other side was so bitterly cold she couldn't even think straight. Every square inch of her body screamed out in numb pain. It was a cold far colder than she'd ever experienced. The howling winter wind poured into the entryway, sapping the heat and the conversation.
Twilight acted on instinct alone, throwing up a magical shield around them, restoring the temperature to a more bearable degree. The door shut with a slam.
Rainbow was shivering violently. “What. Was. That.”
Fluttershy remained silent, eyes full of fear and pupils constricted. She seemed the most affected.
“I didn't feel anything.”
“Hush Spike, you're a dragon. You hardly feel lava.” Twilight dropped the shield now that the outside temperature had equalized. “Alright, something's going on out there, something we haven't necessarily prepared for. I mean, that's what I imagine when I hear about the cold that drove the original founders of Equestria out of their land.”
“So what do we do?”
“Well, I can place homeostasis fields around each of us, but that will passively sap our energy. Any hiking we do will be that much harder, so it's only a temporary fix. We need to find the direct cause of that cold and either avoid it or stop it.”
With their magical protection in place, the ponies braced themselves as Twilight opened the door once more. The wind blew and clawed at them, but the shields stood firm. “Let's head out and get this taken care of as quickly as possible.”
The ponies stepped out onto the snow covered path, which lead down into a barren forest. Nothing seemed especially out of place. The sky was partially cloudy, letting the sun peek through in some places while blotting out vast sections of land, as if the Pegasi around here had gotten lazy.
As they walked through the trees, Twilight noticed there was no life in any of them.
“They're made of stone.”
“The trees. They're made of stone. It's called petrification. Put simply, these woods have become fossilized. Very interesting. I've never seen such well preserved samples before, to say nothing of an entire forest.”
They continued down the path. Seeing as they had no idea where else to go, it was the only logical route.
“I see somepony!” called Rainbow Dash after some time. Sure enough, if they strained their eyes, the group could see a distant shape growing steadily larger. As they neared it, they could see it was a tall stallion pulling a wagon.
“We'll ask for directions,” decided Twilight. No sense in being restrained by pride when they had a time sensitive mission.
Once they got within hearing distance, Twilight called out a greeting to the stallion, who was focused very intently on the ground. “Excuse me sir? Do you know where the nearest town is?”
“Do you have any sense of decency?”
Twilight was taken aback. “Pardon me?”
The stallion scoffed, unhooking his cart and fumbling around in the back, all the while avoiding the group's gaze. “For the love of the gods, get some clothes on.”
A pile of garments flew through the air and landed at their hooves. Rarity lifted them up with her horn. “Ooo! Cloaks! I was actually planning on making a line of these the other day.”
The ponies donned the cloaks, which, as Rarity noted quietly, were not at all fashionable. They were dreary grays and browns, functional but not particularly pleasing.
Once they were clothed, the Stallion looked up, obviously off-put. “What were you doing out here without any protection anyway? Did you not see the snow around you?” Twilight noted he was protected by a heavy fur coat of some sort, with a rimmed hat protecting his head and obscuring his face. He also had a thick accent, most similar to the Southern Manehatten dialect, that made him difficult to understand.
“We, uh. Well...”
“To answer your earlier question, the nearest town, Moon Pool, is just down this path. You were heading the right direction. Have a little common sense though. You're obviously foreigners, and we normally don't take kind to them. Keep to your own business and don't do anything weird. I won't charge you now for those cloaks, but come talk to me at Orchard Fields some time tonight.”
Without saying another word, the stallion pulled off once again, the cart rumbling behind him. The friends watched him for a while, until he turned a corner and was out of their sight.
“Alright, I'm confused,” admitted Rainbow Dash.
“I think we all are. Why would anypony wear something if it weren't fashionable?” asked Rarity, tugging at the tie on her cloak as if it were a live cobra.
“He said something about 'protection.' Could he have meant from the cold?” asked Applejack.
“Only one way to figure out.” Twilight prepared herself, breathing out as if she were about to take a dive into a frozen lake. Because she might as well be. She dropped the homeostasis field around herself and...
“Hey. These cloaks are working. I still feel a bit cold in my hooves, but nothing unbearable.”
She took down the rest of the fields, grateful that they no longer had to worry about the energy drain.
“So how do these work? They contain the heat given off by your body, bouncing it back and thus your body heat compounds. Ha! Brilliant! Simple, yet refined.”
They continued once more, chatting idly about the landscape and the strange stallion. Hopefully they'd be able to get answers in this town, Moon Pool. Somepony had to have some idea of where an all-powerful corrupter could be hiding an Alicorn.
They crested a ridge, and finally the town was revealed to them. “Nice little town. Looks about as big as Ponyville.” The town looked pretty developed, with smoke rising from the chimneys, clothed ponies walking the streets, and some sort of meeting happening at the town square. Twilight grinned wildly. “Finally, time to get some answers.”
“Or more questions, as the case always seems to be.”
“Always the optimist, Rainbow.”