Ten minutes after the flyers departed, Twilight gathered the last of their group and with nervous smiles all around, jumped.
They fell. At first, it was a familiar sensation. The rush of wind. The upturn of a weightless stomach. The intense, terrifying rush of free fall. But somehow, somewhere along the way, everything changed. She knew they were still going downwards, as indicated by the strange glowing lights continuously rushing by. Some seemed distant and some seemed far, though how that could be possible in such a narrow corridor, she couldn’t be sure, but all Twilight knew was that those lights, all of which contained the silhouette of something or another, flew upwards as they fell downwards.
Twilight felt herself stretch and compress, drift off toward hazy dreams despite being wide awake. Twisted and turned inside and out, the young mage felt the very universe dilate around her-
And then it was over. The sensation of gravity returned, darkness broke, and somewhere below, the faintest pinprick of something appear. It was faint at first, but the pinprick became a speck, the speck a dot, and that dot grew until they realized what it was.
Quickly, Twilight pulled out her wand and began the incantations as a glowing, amethyst aura surrounded her and her four friends. The slightest of tugs indicated that they were slowing, bringing their velocity to a safer level till they came upon the portal. With a rushing woosh, they fell through and Twilight brought them safely down on a patch of reddish soil beneath. Softly, the girls groaned as the strange sense of vertigo slowly dissipated from their bodies and minds.
“Land sakes,” Applejack muttered, “that’s the last–”
Words fell silent on her lips as Graves instantly appeared, a wraith in that long brown coat that blended with the soil around as he held a hand to her mouth.
“Quiet,” he said softly, his words barely a dull rumble. “Might not be safe.”
Only after Applejack gave a silent nod of understanding did Graves remove the hand and beckon them towards a patch of stone where Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy waited. Once congregated, Graves peaked around their cover before turning to the group.
“Okay, not exactly sure what’s going on, but I don’t think we’re on Earth any more.”
“And what makes you say that?” Twilight asked. Graves pointed up.
They looked up. Of course they hadn’t before. Who needed to see a bunch of rocks? But that’s not what they saw.
“But… how?” Rarity gasped. “How is that possible?”
Good question. How exactly was it possible that they saw the sky? A blood-red one in fact with jet black clouds whipping about by invisible, gale-force winds? Surely, no sky like that had ever existed in their own world. It just wasn’t possible, especially not with a single, gaping hole floating in midair through which they had so recently fell.
“That’s not all,” Graves muttered. “Look.”
Following his pointing finger around the rocky patch, the girls looked and saw nothing. They turned around and saw nothing. It was then that they realized that save for the little patch of soil they’d landed on, no ground existed at all. After the sky, they should’ve expected more oddities, but how exactly is one supposed to predict that the land they stand upon is a piece of stone floating in the sky? It was only a single stone, just one of many that floated around like comets in the evening sky, some no bigger than a small boulder while others could have been mountains in their own right. And beyond those stones, in all directions, that blood-red sky and those swirling, black clouds.
“Okay, this is weird, even for me,” Pinkie Pie frowned as she looked about as her cerulean eyes began to swirl with dizziness. “What kinda crazy, topsy-turvy place is this?”
“No idea,” Graves shrugged. “But it gets weirder. Watch.
Before the girls could gasp, Graves stepped right over the edge of their floating plot of land and… just… kept walking? Gears ground to a halt as the girls looked over and saw the marshal standing perpendicular to them, his feet firmly planted on what should have been a vertical cliff but clearly wasn’t.
“Okay, I’d officially like to go home now, please,” Fluttershy squeaked.
“It seems like the laws of physics don't operate normally here," Twilight mused as she picked up a stone, released it, and simply watched it float in place. “There’s no real up or down here. It’s sort of just what you make of it.”
“Sounds like Discord would love it,” Rarity murmured.
"Yeah, about that," Rainbow Dash chimed in with a hand hesitantly raised. "That kinda freaky deaky stuff wouldn't happen to mess with anything like, oh, I don't know... the very fabric of space and time, now would it?"
Rainbow Dash looked back to Graves, then rounded back towards the confused scholar.
"You followed after us, right? Ten minutes on the dot, exactly?"
"Told you," Rainbow Dash snorted snorted.
"Well pardon my well-placed skepticism," Graves retorted. "I tend to go with the less impossible explanation."
"Why, what's going on?" Twilight asked as the constant questions spurred on her curiosity. "What happened?"
"Okay, so it goes like this," Rainbow Dash explained. "We drop down half an hour later, just like the marshal says, go through that... whatever it was, and make a clean landing. Only, Big G here ain't too pleased to see us, saying something about us jumping the gun. What he doesn't realize is that I'm a flyer, and I've got timing down like nobody's business, so there ain't no way I would've missed a signal like that. So I'm having a hard time believing it, but then you girls come through, and it's all sort of actually making sense.
"Um... what?" Twilight blinked.
"Rainbow Dash left half an hour after me, but arrived not five minutes later. You girls left ten after and got here in one.
Now it was everyone's turn to blink.
"Couldn't it simply be the difference in aerodynamics? Twilight postulated. "Maybe different amounts of wind resistance would have-"
"Thought about it, wouldn't work," Rainbow Dash shrugged. "Big G described his posture, and there's no accounting for that much difference between us, and there's no way you guys would have caught up to me like that."
"So, what yer sayin' is that... time's workin' wonky up in here?" Applejack chimed in.
"Think so," Graves nodded. "And worst part is that it seems to be going faster. So however long we spend in here, more time passes back up top."
It didn't take long for the full implication of that statement to sink in. The armies of the allied forces would soon begin fighting whatever dark spawn Nul's miasma had birthed. The very purpose was to buy those girls time to do their job. But if time truly was passing more quickly for those on the surface, then more than ever, time was of the essence.
"Okay, so clearly nothing's working like we expecting it to," Twilight said, having to shake her head hard to clear away the thousands of questions bubbling up around her. "Nevertheless, our priority is still locating and taking care of Nul as soon as possible. How do we do that?”
“Probably head that way,” Graves nodded, raising his spell gun and pointing it towards a glowing ball of light far off in the distance. Twilight couldn’t be sure, but if her astronomy intuition was correct, all the flying piece of land seemed to be orbiting around that spot.
“Alright then, so we gotta hightail it over to that glowey thingamabob and give Nul the ol’ what for,” Pinkie Pie grinned before a sudden pause. “Any idea how?”
“You move. Like this.”
Graves leaped, but instead of coming back, he simply flew away, sailing effortlessly through the air towards another floating land mass above. Hands made contact, feet came next, and before you knew it, he was standing back up from and looking right back, albeit whilst hanging like a bat clean above their heads.
“Okay, that’s just weird,” Rainbow Dash grimaced. Flying was one thing, but all this topsy turvy stuff was something else entirely.
“Try it one at a time,” Graves called out as silver eyes darted about. “Rainbow Dash can grab you if you miss, so don’t worry about that. And whatever you do, keep quiet.”
One by one, the girls launched, some more gracefully than others and with a good deal less nervous flailing around. But no one, not even the usually uncontainable Pinkie Pie, said a word. Even she recognized that some places just weren’t appropriate for fun.
As they practiced, Graves waited, keeping his growing apprehension carefully bottled up inside. He knew they were on the clock; battles could be lost in a single instant and every second here equated to who knows how many seconds elsewhere. But he also knew that rushing in unprepared would bring about those instances all the quicker. So he waited for the girls to acclimate themselves and hoped that those who were buying this opportunity could afford to pay.
Fortunately, the girls were fast learners. As Rainbow Dash zipped around, whispering hints and tips on keeping bearings, the Ponyville troop improved at a rapid pace. Hands out, eyes on the prize, it wasn’t but a few minutes before the collective lot was bouncing from one floating rock to another like a bunch of pretty pinballs. Graves smiled.
“Alright. Let’s go.”
Falling into line once more, the Equestrians set out, one carefully trailing behind another in single file as Graves lead the way. There was no need for a map any longer since the glowing orb drew them in like flies to a candle. But there was a need to watch out for danger. What that danger would look like, none could say. After all, no human had stepped foot here for, well... probably ever.
Suddenly, grey eyes flashed in alarm and Graves shot a fist into the air. Instantly, the girls froze, each crouching down low towards whatever land mass they stood upon. Nobody saw what had set the marshal off. Not yet at least. But slowly, by watching the direction of his gaze and tracing it with their own, the six girls found themselves looking at the same piece of floating debris.
They spotted it.
Walking around from the far side came a… a thing. What it was, they couldn’t say, but from the darker than pitch color of its skin, they could easily tell where it came from. Shambling on short, spindly legs, the creature was little more than a large blob dragging about unnaturally thick arms, knuckles dragging along with a dull scrape in the stony soil behind it. If that were enough, it would have been fine. But right in the middle of its dense black torso was a massive, leering grin full of giant, bone-white teeth. Wide enough to nearly split its body in two, the creature needed nothing more than that maniacal smirk to let everyone in eyeshot know what it was thinking.
Eat. Devour the flesh and bone, the sinew and marrow. Consume and feast down to the last delicious morsel and drop of sweet, succulent blood. Then continue to eat. Devour it all till nothing remained, and then devour more. Consume it all.
Whisper silent, Graves drew his spell gun and charged. The creature stopped, sniffing around as the leering grin curved downwards in confusion. It smelled something. Something new. But before it could say what or where, a piercing bolt of lightning lanced right through its center and burst the little imp into a cloud of black mist that faded into the ether.
Only after several more moments of quiet observation did Graves finally signal for them to gather.
“Okay, now what in the name o’ Granny’s sweet apple custard was that?!” Applejack hissed as softly as her vehemence would allow. “That thing weren’t natural; I’d bet my hat on it!”
“Probably one of Nul’s pets,” Graves frowned as his gunmetal grey eyes continued to dart about. “Spread out, his power can only affect the world through others. Here, where it’s nice and thick… guess he gets to be a bit more direct.”
“But that shouldn’t be a problem, right?” Twilight asked. “It looks like your lightning can disrupt their corporeal form and once dissonance sets in, the magic dissipates into back into an inert form, right?”
“So basically, boom stick make them go bye bye?” Rainbow Dash grinned. The young mage just sighed.
“I can handle them,” the marshal nodded in reply. “Question is how many and for how long. Any idea how long patching that hole’ll take?”
“Depends,” Twilight frowned. “Honestly, I won’t be able to say until we get closer. I know it’s risky, but it’s also our best chance of making sure it’s done right.”
Not the best scenario. With so many floating rocks around, those creatures could be lurking in dozens, maybe even hundreds of ambushes. Graves looked up towards the glowing sphere: it still floated far away, only about the size of a baseball from where they stood. Not the best scenario, but still the only one they had.
“Alright then,” he shrugged. “We keep moving.”