• Published 16th Feb 2015
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My Little Apprentice: Apogee - Starscribe



Second Chance has her memories back, and now the responsibility of an entire civlization rests on her shoulders. Can she save her old world without betraying her new one?

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Chapter 5: Strange Knowledge

Twilight was falling, in a world that lacked form, color, or definition. She fell on and on in the dark, without even the coherence to question how she had gotten there or how long she had been falling. The first sensation to flow into her mind was a voice, a voice unknown and yet somehow familiar. It sounded much like a phonograph recording, except that there were no pops or scratches, but a voice of confidence. There was great wisdom in the female speaker, along with a weariness that reminded Twilight of Luna. This was not Luna, however. "Perhaps you were wondering why I bothered to transcribe words too vague to be useful. Generalizations protect the ignorant, while stimulating the curiosity of the wise. By Celestia, I pray thou art wise. This spell contains my vision, captured in its entirety. Witness and despair."

She had no eyes, but even so Twilight felt overwhelmed by the sudden illumination. She was high in the air, higher even than Cloudsdale. Below her was Equestria, her Equestria. Manehattan on the coast, with its modern electrical grid and impressive skyscrapers. Canterlot was a sprawling metropolis, and she could even make out Sweet Apple Acres on the outskirts of Ponyville. It was all there, in definition her eyes should not have been able to capture, an image of infinitely recursive voxels.

It was night, but Equestria was not as dark as it ought to be. It was burning. Canterlot was surrounded by an ocean of little firefly torches, borne by fell creatures armed and armored. The capital had been razed, and even as she watched massive reptilian shapes circled in the air above the castle. Occasionally they would dive down and send huge gouts of fire against a shield of solid magic, which grew weaker with each blast.

Suddenly the vision changed, and she was on the ground. Princess Luna stood in her awful might and majesty, armed with silver-black mithril and rippling with thousands of shadows. It was a sight no living pony (except perhaps her sister) had ever witnessed, a sight that had driven Equestria's enemies to madness on the field of battle. She stood in a field, except that it was a field that had been burned black in all directions. As Twilight watched, a ghost formed of flickering blue light, appeared in the air across from the princess. The form was not pony, but one of the ancient Precursors. He stood tall, nearly as tall as the princess, and wore a lordly robe on his shoulders. His face too was regal and imposing, and he looked into Luna's maddening gaze without fear.

"Tell me thou canst recover my sister and win this war!" she screamed at the ghost. "Tell me some part of Equestria might yet be spared!"

The ghostly figure smiled. "Princess, I give you my word on behalf of the Tower. We will do more than win this war. Become our allies, and we will become a force to make your enemies tremble. They will be left ruined and broken, so that none will ever dare challenge Equestria's sovereignty ever again. We will recover your sister, we will rebuild your cities grander than ever before. My word as one ruler to another. Just activate the bridge."

The vision froze, and over it Twilight heard Clover's voice in the darkness. "Temporal magic is a matter of predictive. Even the wise may only see the most likely outcomes. Equestria's future hinges entirely on this one choice. Either choice has one likely outcome. Either outcome is the death of Equestria. Watch and despair."

The vision resumed, and Luna's eyes hardened. "Never!" she screamed at the ghost. "Thy demands would make Equestria a zoo and its ponies pampered pets! We shall be equals or nothing!"

The ghost was unmoved by the frightening shadow-magic that twisted around Luna, shifting her visage into that which had frightened and horrified ponies for nearly a thousand years. The ghost didn't care. "Perhaps there was a time when we could have been equals, Princess. But when my people came to you in need, you sent us away empty. Now that the positions are reversed, does it surprise you we're asking for more? We'll fight your damn war for you! We'll die for you! We deserve to be a permanent part of Equestria after saving it!"

Luna shook her head. "Never. We shall fight on, and we need not thy help! Equestria will survive!" Her horn flickered into life, and the ghost exploded in a shower of light.

Twilight watched as the war waged brutally on. But the ponies of Equestria had been ill-prepared. Their armies had been ceremonial, and the war had begun as a decisive surprise-attack. Their enemies swept from city to city, burning and enslaving the population as they went. Within a few years, Luna and her last pockets of resistance had been wiped out. Equestria became a black land, worked by armies of slaves that sent huge tributes away to distant lands while their own foals starved. Without the careful management of the ponies, the land shriveled and died, and within a dozen generations was left lifeless, a black scar on the face of Equus that might never heal.

She was back in the clearing, and Luna was conversing with the ghost once again. She glared defiantly into his spectral face, then slowly lowered her head. "Very well." She sounded defeated. "Just... get 'Tia back... save our little ponies. Whatever it takes. Equestria must survive."

The spectral figure grinned. "Princess, Equestria will more than survive. Open the way, and in a week you and your sister will be sipping tea in Canterlot like nothing ever happened."

The princess nodded and looked behind her. As soon as she turned, the figure she was looking at materialized from the ether, and Twilight's stomach dropped out from under her. It was her! Princess Twilight Sparkle wore armor like Luna, crafted from silver and trimmed with purple. Beside her on the ground was a familiar cube of metal, glowing with internal light. Somehow, it was projecting the ghost, and she was controlling it. Clover had seen her, a full millennia ago! Her, Twilight Sparkle! "Do it."

Vision-Twilight stepped between the princess and the cube. "You can't do this, Luna! We both know what will happen to Equestria if you do, you've seen it!"

Awful shadows gathered behind her eyes, and for a second Luna took on the same awful visage she had in the previous vision. Twilight was cowed. "Speak not to me of visions, Twilight Sparkle. Open the way."

Vision-Twilight looked away from the horrible sight of the enraged princess and to the cube. "Truth, run the Rift program."

"Runtime?"

"Indefinite."

"Acknowledged. Working." The air in the center of the clearing began to ripple and crack with the force of invisible lightning. Like a force was clawing its way through reality itself, the door began to grow wider, until it was several times the height of the cube and several times as wide.

It was not like looking through a portal, opaque and featureless. It was as though someone had opened a three-dimensional hole in space itself, and through the opening was an entirely different universe than the one that ought to be there. There was gray soil, and behind it, a massive steel tower rising into a bleak sky. In front of the opening a great army was assembled, thousands of soldiers and dozens of massive machines far larger than any pony. At the very front was the ghost, recreated in living flesh, with a regal robe on his shoulders. "You did the right thing," he said, and passed through the opening first.

The army marched across Equestria, freeing the Equestrian slaves and leaving the enemy in ruin behind them. Twilight couldn't know if they had been true in their promise of a week, but they had been right about victory. Soon the vision of war had become one of peace, with armies of Builders going to work helping the ponies rebuild. Great mines carved entire mountains down to dust, and turned the most rural communities into technological marvels. Soon there was a second castle near Canterlot, with a Steel Tower stretching into the clouds.

Even as she watched, Equestrian society was turned over. Machines replaced craftsponies, assembly lines that could produce more than the fastest Equestrian factory in a single day. An infrastructure of wires and energy spread across the nation, with every pony city clamoring to be the first to enjoy the benefits of the new technology. Their allies were only too happy to give them more and more. Soon every house had light and heat and cool at the whim of even the poorest pony. Machines joined with the earth ponies in farming, and though it was far harder for them than the earth ponies, the machines never complained, and worked the farms so that the ponies could enjoy more time at leisure.

The newly constructed information network facilitated the birth of an entertainment industry unlike anything ponies had ever experienced, with everything from motion pictures to full immersion virtual reality games. Their allies provided all of these without asking for anything in return, except of course to be allowed to mine a few more distant mountains every year. And nopony noticed as the number of Builders with their mechanical bodies grew and grew every year. Within a generation, there was one to every pony. As the world continued to change, there were two to every pony, then five, then ten... and the architecture of the cities began to change. The ceilings and doorways got larger as the ponies were relegated to the topmost floors. The cities of the pegasi and the weather service had fared somewhat better, though even Cloudsdale looked increasingly deserted as ponies moved to the ground to enjoy the ease and benefits of the Builders’ perfect society.

Equestria in her vision was transformed before her eyes, from a nation of Ponies to a nation of Builders. As the years passed she watched the nation grow and grow, swallowing its neighbors and their resources with promises of prosperity and comfort. These promises the Builders always kept, wiping out disease and poverty with the might of their technology.

It was bad enough watching her way of life erased, but the vision took a darker turn as it neared its end. She watched legions of ponies and other races of her world, displeased with their lives and wanting more. She watched them embrace the technology the Builders used to make them into machines, which the early generations had rejected completely. After all, the ponies lived and died in their generations, but the Builders and their mechanical bodies never aged or died. The first few generations of artificial ponies soon gave way to those who took the bodies of Builders instead, so as to better fit in with the dominant species in their teeming billions.

With that, the final blow of her people had been struck, without the Builders ever directly harming anypony with a weapon. Their war had been far subtler than the one their enemies on Equus had waged to wipe out Equestria. In the end, their victory had been even more complete, Twilight Sparkle realized with deepening and growing horror. In her first vision, Equestria had fought valiantly and died proudly. In the second, they had surrendered their freedom in such tiny bites that in the end, Equestria had been much more thoroughly erased. Perhaps in the first eventuality, there would be many survivors from the tribes who could return to refound the nation one day. In the second, there would never be another Equestria. The second vision ended with a world of lifeless machines, all Builders. No unicorns, and pegasi. No dragons or gryphons. No potions or friendly rural villages like Ponyville. No magic.

Suddenly the vision ended, and Twilight was in the darkness again. She could sense the magic fading as the spell ended, and knew it would be only moments before it was released. "Now you have seen," came Clover's voice in the dark, weighed down with immense sorrow. "As I have seen. Two dooms; the death of our bodies, or the death of our souls. So I have foreseen."

"NO!” Twilight shouted vainly into the dark, as though by her volume she might reach back through the abysses of time and argue with Clover. She had to be wrong, somehow! Celestia and Luna would never have allowed anything like either of those visions! Celestia was wise and powerful, beyond any now living! None of their enemies had any weapons that could touch them! They would not have simply stood by and watched evil armies burn Equestria's cities! Nor would they have sat on their thrones and watched as Builders replaced Equestrians with machines. It wasn't the way it was supposed to happen!

"Temporal magic is an unreliable art. Unwise is she who swims against the current of time. Yet in my foolishness, I have learned forbidden secrets. Now thou hast learned them also. So I plea with thee, more learned and more wise; neither of these futures can be allowed to come to pass! If my vision is known, then perhaps these dooms may be averted!" The vision faded gradually, with the basement coming into focus around her. "We still have a Chance."

The spell fizzled and died, and the pull of ancient magic connecting Twilight to the scroll abruptly ended. The youngest Alicorn collapsed where she stood, shaking all over with the horrible implications of everything she had seen. Now she knew why Celestia kept that scroll hidden away, and why she had restricted much of what it said from the general public. Of course, her mentor had seen it, she couldn't doubt. Probably Luna too, since she was in the vision.

Princess Twilight had been in the vision too. How long ago had Celestia seen this? Did that mean she had known Twilight would eventually complete Starswirl’s spell and become an Alicorn? Had she only accepted her as her personal student because of a few seconds of some vision?

Yet the vision hadn't been perfect. For all its accuracy, it was missing something. Where had Second Chance been? Surely at such a crucial juncture with her own people she would have been right there as an advisor to herself and Luna! Ponyville had looked far too similar to the one she knew for it to be beyond the filly's lifespan. Even more frightening was the absence of Discord from anything she had seen. Whatever else Discord might be, Twilight entertained the notion that he had feelings for Equestria, and wouldn't sit idly by and allow it to be conquered. There was no way he could be happy about all that Order that was introduced, either as the Builders turned it into a machine or the invaders a blackened husk. Of course there were other nations for him to torment, but... if the mightiest nation on Equus had been overcome, then none of the others would last long either. Why hadn't Discord or her apprentice merited inclusion in the awful visions?

But there was no more time to contemplate those questions. Alicorn or not, Twilight would still need sleep. She rolled up the scroll, and brought it with her up the stairs. After seeing what she had just seen, she no longer had any desire to study it further and learn the secrets of the Precursors. She would bring it to Secret Lore, and he could stick it back in the catacombs to rot. If only he could take Twilight's memories of the vision and bury those too.

By the time she got up the stairs, what she found did little to reassure her. Her apprentice had woken at some point during her absence, and was staring out the window at the full moon. Her mane was disheveled, coat matted with sweat. This took Twilight off-guard, since she hadn't heard the filly scream. Then again, would she have heard anything from the waking world while trapped by Clover's awful vision? "Nightmares again?" she asked quietly, lifting the blanket off and away from her.

The filly nodded, and spoke in a careful whisper. Even with her own nightmares, she had the courtesy to think of Spike, sleeping soundly. "Pretty bad. Luna was there, though. She made it better."

"Can I join you?" It was a silly question. This was Twilight's own bed after all, which she had offered to Chance precisely because of how awful her day had been. She didn't expect the little pony to say no. And she didn't. For a second, she reached out toward her with feeble hooves, like a foal. Twilight climbed in beside her, fully aware that she couldn't stay long. After all her time in the vision, she was fairly certain morning was far closer than she liked it to be when she slept.

"What was it?" she asked quietly, pulling the little filly toward her and holding her there as close as she could. Normally she was incredibly awkward about things like this, but not tonight. Tonight Twilight seemed to know exactly what she needed to do, as though she were really a mother and Chance was really her foal. It felt more like simple kindness to a fellow pony. After what she had just seen, Twilight needed the comfort too. Maybe if she could comfort her apprentice, she would feel better.

There was a significant delay before the filly answered. Her voice was clipped and feeble, obviously fighting tears. "Something... from before. From my trip to Equestria. Luna didn't let it get me."

Twilight knew little about oneiromancy, except to know that there had been perhaps a dozen ponies capable of it in Equestria's entire history, and most of them had been taught by Luna herself. It wasn't seen as a particularly useful branch of thaumaturgy, since truths learned in dreams were always suspect and Princess Luna had always been more than capable of caring for all of Equestria's dreamers. It wasn't even useful as a weapon for evil ponies, since killing a dreaming pony only made them wake up.

She stroked the filly's mane in a gentle sort of way. "Equestria is lucky to have her back."

Chance nodded, though she hardly seemed satisfied with Twilight's response. "She told me you're supposed to give me this... thing called the... Potion of Arma! That's it. She said she was going to write to you about it once I woke up, but that I wasn't supposed to sleep without it until Celestia came."

If she hadn't been fully listening before, Chance had said the one word that was guaranteed to drag Twilight instantly alert. "Princess Celestia is coming here?" She sat up in bed, her heartbeat and breathing accelerating a little. "Is she coming soon? Why would she be coming?" There were more questions, questions she didn't ask. Have I not done a good enough job taking care of you?

Her apprentice quickly soothed those worries, repeating her exchange with Princess Luna in great detail. Twilight envied a recollection of dreams that vivid, though not so much what Chance was talking about. Whatever concern she had felt about Celestia coming to Ponyville was quickly replaced with worry for Second Chance's well being. Twilight Sparkle knew dark magic better than most ponies in Equestria, having defeated it many times. She knew what her apprentice was up against.

"I'll visit Zecora first thing tomorrow morning," she said, when Chance had finished explaining everything. "She's better with potion making than any other pony I know, and I'm sure she'll be happy to help. She can make up a few days worth, in case Celestia can't come right away." Her own worries about the Apocalypse Manuscript hardly seemed to matter now, not when she knew her apprentice was in mortal danger every time she slept.

They should've let Discord stay a statue forever.

* * *

The next few days passed almost without incident for Chance. She returned to school, returned to her lessons under Twilight's hooves, and generally tried to go back to life as it had been. Her magic was still beyond her, which meant studying with Twilight was limited to the academic as it had been when they had begun. She didn't speak with Truth again, not when they had used nearly all the coal in the Ponyville running the generator. The secret of her friends' cutie marks would have to wait a few more days yet. She never dreamed, ending every day with a foul-tasting sedative that nevertheless ensured her a whole night of dreamless sleep. It worked, if leaving her more than a little drained each morning.

She did visit Lyra after her third normal day of school, as much because her friends were all busy as because she was genuinely curious about what there could possibly be to give a presentation about. It was true she had met very little with Lyra. It was true that she had avoided the meetings. That didn't mean she didn’t think anything worthwhile could be happening in them. Chance had long-since given up hope that ponies might have had any contact with her people. They would've been well known if they had, right? There clearly weren't any humans around, or else Truth would've detected satellites in orbit.

It was strange to be in a world where there was nothing at all strange about an underage girl visiting an adult alone to consult about some specialized scientific topic, but that was Equestria. Twilight hadn't even blinked when she mentioned her intention to visit. Was it because ponies aged slower, or just that Equestrians themselves were less likely to abuse a child?

Lyra lived with another mare, though evidently Chance hadn't chosen to visit at a time when the other pony was around, for which she was grateful. She didn't like the idea of her otherworldly nature becoming general knowledge in Ponyville. That the CMC and Twilight's friends knew was enough.

The first thing that Chance learned was that Lyra was actually an excellent illustrator. Her talent for the arts extended past her namesake instrument to beautifully shaded charcoal sketches depicting all manner of things meant to be taken from Chance's world.

At the first image in the series, Chance had to fight not to laugh; Lyra's realistic style combined with her extremely limited information made for the image of a strange cityscape indeed. The skyscrapers were all made of brick and wood, with glass used sparingly and little visible metal except as iron decorative sconces and brackets. The streets had sidewalks, though they weren't elevated and there was little to separate them from the streets. She looked closer in fascination at an extremely creative depiction of an automobile, which looked like a Victorian carriage except without the horses in front. There were also wooden cargo carts, unchanged in design except that people rode in them instead of pulling them.

It was like looking at the image of a modern city drawn by someone whom had listened to a detailed explanation of a city without ever actually visiting one. The image was full of anachronisms. Stalls sold fruit, people carried briefcases and read newspapers. She could've sworn that there were telegraph lines strung up between buildings, and most balconies had little flower-pots. While there were no ponies in sight in the image, the city looked to her as one built by ponies might look several decades hence. Taller doors and the lack of anything overtly magical did not fool Chance.

Lyra had managed to capture the human form in startling accuracy. The basic shape was repeated hundreds of times in the first image she saw, though like ponies these humans seemed to wear very little. They also had short tails, which were tied off tightly so they never swung free. They wore thin metal plates on their feet, like horseshoes tied instead of nailed.

"Well?" Lyra watched with nervous anticipation, her whole body tense. A pointer hovered in the air near the illustration, which she had been using to explain each of the various aspects. Chance hadn't listened to much of that, though nothing she had heard had struck her as overtly wrong.

Chance moved closer. "Well, you captured the spirit of a city quite well. Everyone is always moving, and these people all look busy. That's good. Just how accurate were you going for?"

The unicorn considered the question only briefly. "As much as possible, obviously! Clover's records don't give us much, so I had to extrapolate. Does it look familiar? Can you tell which city it's supposed to be?"

"It's... pretty good." Good for a pony imagination, anyway. "You did a great job with the people especially. Except for the tail parts. Humans don't have tails at all." She pointed with one of her hooves, though she was far too afraid to actually touch the canvas. She might smudge the beautiful drawing. "There's a tail bone, but it doesn't break the skin, and there's no hair there. Also..." she gestured to the feet. "They don't look so much like hands. Humans aren't that closely tied to primates; their feet don't have a prehensile thumb. They're flatter, and only really used for walking."

Lyra took careful note of what Chance had to say on a notepad, and showed no sign of being troubled by the correction. If anything, she seemed fascinated. There was no sign of doubt so far as Chance could see. It was fairly impressive Lyra could be so attentive to what must seem to her a child. The proof Chance had to offer could've been easily falsified, really. How was Lyra supposed to know that the words she had heard and the images she had seen were genuine English?

"No prehensile feet, got it." The older unicorn looked up from her work. "Anything else?"

There was quite a bit wrong with the image, but Chance wasn't about to say so. On a general level, it had quite accurately captured the spirit of any number of modern cities, even if it was wrong about the specifics. "The stalls." She gestured at the many carts crammed between the alleys, offering fresh food or books or any number of other things. "Only slums have these, but these skyscrapers are supposed to be nice. I don't even think my parents ever got the news from a newspaper like this."

"They're on their way to work! Builders are supposed to always be on the go; I imagined that most of them wouldn't eat breakfast at home."

"You're right, most don't." If only she had been able to use her horn, she might've been able to draw what she was thinking on another sheet of paper. "Lots of people order something delivered. There are these things called drones. Think..." She gestured with her hooves. "Like a really big bird, but a machine. It carries a box on the bottom, and can fly by itself. You see hundreds in the air all the time. They can find you anywhere in the city, with fresh food, books, anything you need."

Lyra's quill scratched furiously for several more seconds. "Anything else?"

Chance shook her head. "It's pretty good otherwise. None of the other details are really that important. I'm sorry I interrupted your presentation."

Lyra shook her head vigorously. "Don't apologize! I asked you to be here! I wish I'd thought about asking these questions before I drew everything." She flipped to the next page of her board, which displayed a detailed profile of a single human. The image was from the front, with limbs splayed as in daVinci's Vitruvian Man. "Clover's writings of builder anatomy describe a bipedal primate with-"

Chance gasped, rushing up to the edge of the illustration and gesturing with a sudden panicked intensity. "Lyra, Lyra, what are these?" She gestured at the apparent seams in the limbs, along with what was clearly a dataport on the underside of the wrist. She nearly shouted, voice fearful. "What is this doing here?"

Lyra mimicked her fear, though it was Chance herself she seem to be afraid of. "I-It's just what Clover said! I didn't make it up or anything!" She put down the pointer, ruffling through a stack of disorganized books until she found what she was looking for, a dog-eared volume perhaps as thick as the New Testament, printed on wide format paper. She flipped through, until she found the page indicated, and thrust it out in front of Chance for her to see.

There were two types of writing; ancient-looking markings on the left side that looked almost like roman characters, and the right side in somewhat antiquated Equestrian. It was clear from the printing that both sides were meant to read the same. Chance couldn't read the left, as much as many of the letters were familiar, but she could read most of the Equestrian if she struggled.

Lyra had marked up the volume with highlights and underlines of various sections, and on both sides. Could she read the ancient Equestrian?

I was at first struck with fear at the sight of the Builders, finding their appearance a simulacrum of flesh. They moved with perfect regularity, as though every individual danced along to the beat of the same silent drum. Though clothing appeared to be universal, many of the females wore little enough that I could clearly see the division of limbs. Without fur, it was possible to see the seams. Most had small openings under the right wrist, whose purpose I could not guess. They did not bleed or show any other signs of injury, though few golems bleed.

It did not take long to-

Chance pushed the book away, disgusted.

"What's wrong?"

She shivered. "This Clover, the one who visited my world."

"Was she wrong? Her writings have been translated several times, it might not-"

"No, she wasn't wrong. It's just... my guess is, she visited somewhere in Europe or the Middle East." She shoved the book over to Lyra. "That description matches a Steel Tower city."

The unicorn levitated the tome back into the air, brushing the dust from its cover with an almost reverent respect. "I'm not sure I understand what's wrong. She didn't say anything about towers, but that doesn't sound like a very big deal."

Chance ignored the remark. She was too upset to feel bad about it. "How much contact did Clover have with Earth? What else does that book say?" She didn't feel like a curious filly anymore. She was Dr. Colven, sheltering from the emptiness of space under a Plexiglas ceiling.

Lyra looked down at her with concern. "She... went on a tour of the city. Went flying through the air in a sky-chariot. Met with the king, who wanted to know about Equestria and how we lived. She told him about all the trouble ponies had back then... The hatred between the tribes, famine, things like that. He wanted to come to Equestria right away to help, but the spell didn't work that way."

Chance was barely listening now, the color draining from her features. Or at least, it might have, if she didn't have a bright green coat.

"The king told Clover not to worry, since he had some friends in the sky who were very smart, and they would find a way to copy the spell she had used. She copied down the spell, and the king sent it to the most prestigious center of magical research there was, to a place called Avalon. She was only there for a day; that was as long as the spell lasted before it pulled her back to Equestria. There are a few rumors she might've worked with a Starswirl artifact after that, some sort of mirror or something, but if she did no record survived of what might've happened."

Lyra picked up the book in her magic, replacing it in its place of reverence. She embraced the filly, though it felt much more like the brief contact of a friend than what Twilight did.

It wasn't needed. Her words already made Chance feel better. "Avalon," she repeated, turning the name over on her tongue. "He sent spell diagrams to the Avalon Lunar Research Colony. I guess that makes sense, since the reactor crew was already doing research into extra-universal travel. Which means the humans your people knew were pre-war. That's hard to imagine..." She turned away, glancing at the door. "Everything else is great, Lyra... But I think I need to go now. Is that okay?"

She barely waited for the unicorn’s bewildered approval before scampering out the door and out onto the streets of Ponyville.

* * *

There was nothing in the world more frustrating to Twilight than a problem she couldn't solve. Long ago, in the days when she had been a powerless little filly without many friends, she had decided that knowledge could solve any problem. All she had to do was discover which knowledge was required for a particular situation, and correctly apply it. Her strategy had worked, and she had become a princess as a result. Even spells Starswirl couldn't complete were no obstacle to her.

But why did she feel so helpless now? She had already bought a sizable jug of the potion Luna ordered for her apprentice, a simple task since it was such a ubiquitous brew. There was nothing particularly troublesome about a few days of sleeping draft. No, what disturbed her was the implication that without it, her apprentice would have her spirit ripped out of her body and dragged off to... somewhere.

It wasn't that Twilight didn't trust Celestia with her apprentice's life. It wasn't as though she didn't think her own teacher would be far better at solving whatever this strange problem was. It was, rather, that Twilight didn't even understand why her apprentice was in such danger. Even Discord wasn't so dangerous that the only way to fight him was to run away. Her friends had proven that, and proven it even more by reforming the alien creature.

Maybe whatever was threatening Chance could be reformed as well, or blasted out of existence with – well, they didn't have the Elements anymore. Just because this enemy was new did not mean that knowledge did not exist to conquer it. Even if Celestia planned on resolving the danger in this one case, maybe Twilight could bring together the lost knowledge required to solve it forever.

The trouble was, she could find almost nothing in any of her books about the creatures Chance had described. She found a promising lead in a musty history text, describing a being called Arabus that had fed on the spirits of living ponies. Unfortunately, the book contained very little of what power the being had used or how it had been defeated.

In the end, the only book she could find among the hundreds of her library was one she had already read half a dozen times. She had read it, because it was the closest thing the unicorn tribe had to a religious text.

Twilight had never had time for such abstract, inapplicable learning, even if her parents had been more traditional. Yet, out of all the old faiths the tribes had once practiced, this was the only one Celestia hadn't discouraged. The thin book contained no rituals, no prayers, though it did contain a creation myth.

"What are you reading?" The little voice came from so close that Twilight jumped, causing a stack of books behind her to tumble in an uneven heap. The wanton tearing of so many bindings nearly took the breath from her, though she managed to stop herself from gasping this time.

"Sorry, Chance. I didn't hear you come in!" Twilight exhaled, counting to ten in her mind before opening her eyes again and lifting the books with her magic, returning them to an ordered stack.

"I know. That's how I knew you were reading something interesting." The filly strained to get a look at the slim volume Twilight had spread on the table.

Twilight gently pushed her to the side, closing the book with a faint pressure from her magic."You wouldn't be interested in this," she said, lifting the book out of Chance's reach. She expected the pony to tug back, but the resistance never came. "A mentor is supposed to teach facts, not mysticism."

If she had expected that remark to settle the filly's curiosity, she was sorely disappointed.

"Mysticism... like religion? Do ponies have religion, Twilight? " Chance sounded very small as she spoke, her voice as feeble a squeak as ever.

"I'm not sure I understand the question," Twilight replied. Twilight just sounded confused. "There have been half a dozen versions of the Precursor Cult over the years, probably more that have gone undocumented. Prior to the uni-"

Chance cleared her throat loudly, silencing Twilight's impending lecture. "Not in the past, Twilight. Are there... Do ponies worship anything these days? Do they say prayers and read from special books and do rituals and stuff?" Then a pause. "What's in that book?"

"Oh." There was a pause, then a confused look. "Some ponies do. Depends where they came from, their upbringing, families. Generally religion is falling out of favor in most parts of Equestria, though." She fell silent for a moment, but at Chance's intense expression, she continued. "Plenty of ponies used to worship Celestia, despite all she did to discourage it. Earlier-"

"Did your family? Did you?"

Twilight wrapped her wing around the filly. Twilight hardly knew where the instinct came from. It wasn't as though her parents had ever taught her the power of a wing-hug. Yet wherever the instinct came from, it was instinct somehow, impossible to completely ignore. "What's this about, Chance? You've never asked about this before..."

Chance shook her head vigorously. "Just... I was just wondering. Ponies don't seem like they need it."

Twilight sighed with relief. "Ponies don't need it. The Griffins have an organized religion, with strict rituals and rules. Zebra tribes revere many tribal deities, as well as giving reverence to their ancestors. Ever since the unity of the tribes and the founding of Equestria, ponies have been free to believe whatever they wanted – usually nothing. Ponies have tried to worship Celestia in the past, but... she won't allow it."

"But why are you reading about it now?"

Twilight shrugged, though there was no reason to conceal the truth from her. "I'm looking for all the information I can on the demons that are trying to hurt you. Only, any books that would have anything substantial have been destroyed, since studying Outsiders is considered Sorcery."

"So you thought that you could learn about demons from a religious book?" Chance chuckled, though her expression was dark. "If yours are anything like ours, they probably aren't very accurate." A shiver ran through her body, her eyes becoming distant and haunted. "Probably for the best."

"You know more?" Twilight couldn't restrain her curiosity. She reached for her pen with her magic. "It would be extremely helpful if you could tell me everything you know. Since you never studied Outsiders, the things you learned wouldn't be illegal."

Chance appeared to consider that a moment, glancing briefly at the book on the desk. She seemed to be deep in thought, and Twilight feared she was about to say no. She didn't, though. "How about... you tell me what pony religion says about them, and I'll tell you what's right and what isn't."

Twilight took a deep breath, levitating the book off the table and closer to her. "Before I show you any of this, I wouldn't be a good teacher if I didn't make sure you understood that none of this is actually true. Don't take this the same way you take my magic lessons. Magic is testable and repeatable, but-"

Her lecture was interrupted by near hysterical giggling from the filly.

Twilight stared, dumbfounded. "What's so funny?"

It took the filly several seconds to collect herself enough to respond. "Oh, it's nothing. I just thought about what some of my friends back home might've said if you told them that magic was testable and repeatable."

Twilight wasn't sure what to say to that, so she just kept on going. "Well, the story goes like this. In the beginning, two forces existed: Destruction and Protection. They existed in perfect harmony; neither could out-step the other. In their balance the stars and planets were formed, as their harmony allowed the natural cycle of nature to proceed. Yet neither force was satisfied. Protection wanted beings who could appreciate its creations, and Destruction wanted to tear the stars from the sky. While they were in harmony, neither force could overmaster the other, and so nature continued its course. Life emerged, and grew in complexity. Yet just as the forces of the universe were in balance, so they were in balance in the animals, which weren't aware or intelligent the way they are today."

"Protection couldn't kill Destruction, since it was completely against its nature. Yet it could not watch forever as time advanced endlessly in a universe that had no eyes to experience itself. So that force hatched a plan; it tricked Destruction."

"How?" Chance listened with rapt attention.

"In every species, exactly equal amounts of Protection and Destruction were invested. This was because if one instilled more of itself than the other, then that force would become weaker, and the other would rule. As the Alicorns rose, Protection invested more of itself in them than any other living thing, and Destruction seized on the opportunity. Destruction was sure that in a few thousand years, the disparity between itself and Protection would become so great that it could snuff the sun and send Equus careening madly into the void."

"Destruction underestimated the Alicorns," Chance supplied, scooting a little closer to look at the illustrations as Twilight flipped through the book.

She nodded. "Never before had a species ever had more of one than the other. Blessed by Protection's magic, the Alicorns opened their eyes and understood. They became Protection's allies, and quickly rose to be more powerful as a species than either of the old powers. Since they contained the power of both beings, they could destroy as well as protect. The war was terrible, yet in the end the Alicorns triumphed and cast Destruction Outside, never to destroy again."

"Protection was very weak; it had invested the greatest part of itself in the Alicorns. Without its old rival, it freely sacrificed all its power, its very essence, to give understanding to the other races of Equestria. Ponies broke from their herds and could see as the Alicorns could. Griffins and dragons took to the sky and became mighty hunters, zebras and minotaurs and all the rest became intelligent. Protection even opened the understanding of the animals."

"So in this story, the demons and stuff are really just Destruction, furious about being kicked out of the world?"

Twilight nodded again. "That's about right. There are plenty of variations. Sometimes the powers are pictured as a pair of ancient Alicorns named Cosmos and Galexia. Other times they get mixed up in the stories about Precursors, in which you were Protection's first attempt, but you were too much like it to be able to fight destruction, and so you lost where the Alicorns won."

Chance laughed bitterly at that. "I'm not so sure about that. Considering the way 'Precursors' acted, I wouldn't be surprised if Destruction made us in this story." She sighed, sitting back on her haunches. "I suppose that could be where the Outsiders came from. There is no time Outside; seconds stretch into infinity and pass in nanoseconds. When I first got to Equestria, I was lucky I was still even a little bit sane. I don't think three-dimensional finite minds are meant to experience a dimensionless, infinite abyss. Are... are Protection and Destruction gods in this story? Does the story explain where they came from?"

Twilight shut the book, returning it to the table. "Not in the versions of the story that are most popular today. They were natural forces. Like wind, or gravity, or magic. Actually, according to the Mythology, magic is the power of Protection expressed; the bit of itself within every pony is what channels magic. Dark magic is likewise the power of destruction, channeled through the tiny bit of it within everypony. That's why unicorns like Sombra were so dangerous, despite not having much magical aptitude. Different ability completely."

"I think... I think the things I saw might match that. They did feel more like forces than intelligent beings the way you usually think about it."

"That's heavy," a new voice agreed, from just around the corner. Twilight turned and saw Spike was standing there, sipping from a mug of tea that had long gone cold.

"Spike, have you been hiding around the corner this whole time?"

The dragon nodded, shame faced. "Most of it."

"You could've joined us, Spike. It's not like we were talking about anything secret." Twilight levitated the book so he could see the cover. "Haven't you read this before?"

"I guess. Not enough dragons in it." He looked to Chance. "You sure your world didn't have any?"

The filly rose to her hooves again, nuzzling him. "Not unless you count the ones in movies. Most of those were mean, and they didn't actually exist. Computer generated."

"Yeah." He lifted the mug to his mouth, exhaling a steady stream over the surface of the tea until it steamed again. "You said something like that. I guess I just hoped that since you remembered more, you'd remember more about dragons."

She shook her head, looking back towards Twilight. "Do you need me for anything else? Are we going to have lessons today?" Her eyes fixed on the ground. "I... My horn still isn't working right..."

"No, I don't think so. Were you planning on doing anything with Spike?"

The filly's face brightened. "Now that Truth's working, I was hoping to use it to make a tablet computer." She looked over to Spike. "Wanna help? If we can find all the raw materials, I could show you one of our dragon movies. There was one series I really liked when I was little..."

* * *

"Everything is secure, Queen Chrysalis." The changeling lowered her head in respect, though Chrysalis felt nothing of the real emotion that would've been behind it. She didn't move close to embrace the supplicant in the traditional way; she had not forgotten how many times this creature had tried to kill her.

Her advisor's twin did not bow, though more genuine respect seemed to be emanating from him. But then, even an eldritch will would have difficulty resisting the instincts of a changeling drone. "We are more than capable of ensuring this mission is a success, Queen. You do not need to go out of your way and travel with us. We know how to transport precious cargo."

She strode past the two of them into the cargo car, passing between dark crates and machines strapped securely to the walls. She found what she was looking for exactly where she expected, wrapped in blankets and tough padding. It was a cell of wax covered with protective slime. The future of her species waited inside, curled tightly against the motion and the dark.

"We are familiar with the procedure," the female said. She had an alien name once, just like her twin. It had been so long since they used them Chrysalis no longer remembered what they had been. "You could remain with the hive; you do not need to travel."

Chrysalis sat beside the cell that housed her growing daughter. "If I could remain with the hive, I would. Yet I can't be certain my instructions will be followed." She narrowed her eyes, focusing on the female. "Until my young daughter's mind is strong enough to resist foreign invasion, I need to remain close enough to protect her from danger. Or do you mean to tell me that she is not in danger around you?"

All of them knew Chrysalis would see the lie in her words if the female dared to speak. She didn't.

"That's what I thought." She rose to her hooves, moving past them to the front of the car. She inspected the blacked-out windows, the tightness of the straps. "Were the other arrangements made as I requested?"

The male nodded. "Our contact with the railroad has agreed to follow our instructions and transport this car to our Seaddle facility without allowing the car to be opened along the way. We've already bribed the appropriate cargo inspectors."

"Excellent."

"I'm not so sure," the female argued, glancing furtively around the room to be sure nopony else was listening. It was no secret that the two of them disagreed with her more often than not. Chrysalis tolerated disagreement only because they never expressed disloyalty in the presence of any of her other intelligent servants. When they were in public, they made a show of absolute obedience. Further, she could count on them being generally obedient when she insisted. If only the two of them hadn't become so valuable...

She groaned. "What aren't you sure of, Equilibrium?"

"You always template new queens with your own memories. Yet, if you wanted a stranger's memories instead, why not use one of us? Going to such great risk to use the memories of such a specific alien is dangerous enough, but targeting the apprentice of a princess is even more dangerous. Considering the disaster that was the wedding-"

"And if you wanted an alien, you could use one of us," the male offered. "Save the danger and the expense. We might not have invented the techniques she used to travel to Equestria, but we know the technology nearly as well."

Chrysalis shook her head vigorously. "I have my reasons, and they're nothing to do with knowledge. No, the two of you have been changelings for far too long." She turned her attention back to the waxy cell and the infant growing slowly inside. "She needs to have all the resources of three species, but without any of their failings. It would be easier to use one of you, but that would not accomplish my purpose."

With a loud metallic click, her servants outside shut and locked the car, plunging them into absolute darkness. It was a long ride to Seaddle.

Author's Note:

And with that, the last of the scenes salvaged from the old MLA is over, along with another chapter. Thanks to all those of you who take the time to drop a comment. It's been a little discouraging so far, so you guys have been a huge help for me to stay motivated. Thanks for sticking around... I'll try to keep it worth your while.

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