• Published 22nd Feb 2016
  • 11,454 Views, 807 Comments

Empty Horizons - Goldenwing



Twilight wakes up, alone in the dark. And she's drowning.

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I: The Darkness

Twilight was drowning.

Her eyes shot wide open as she began to rise, her legs jerking in a panicky ascent to an uncertain surface. A jolt of pain raced down her spine as her horn hit against something hard above her. She couldn’t move. Her hooves were tied, her neck, her barrel, her whole body was held in place, wrapped tight in some cold, unmoving web.

What’s happening? Where am I? She fought to calm her racing mind, to drive the panic out and find that calm core of reason that had helped her surpass every problem before.

Darkness. She was in total darkness, underwater. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t breathe. No matter how frantically she called upon her magic, she felt nothing, saw no warm purple glow from her horn. She was completely helpless.

The panic rushed back in a hungry flood, overwhelming her mind even as her lungs threatened to burst open. She kicked and bucked and shrieked through tightly closed lips, but to no avail. There was nopony coming for her. Here would be the end of Twilight Sparkle.

Then suddenly, movement. She could feel herself rising, feel the acceleration pushing her down against her bonds. The sudden burst of motion was so abrupt that it nearly jolted her mouth open. The panic receded ever so slightly, pushed back by the twin efforts of curiosity and hope.

She could feel it now: the cold chill of air running over her wet horn. The water was going down. She would survive.

It was almost too late. Just as the air touched the top of her muzzle, the reflexive urge to breathe grew too strong, and she sucked in a great shuddering gasp of water. A violent spasm wracked her body as the mixture of water and air rushed into her lungs. With renewed vigor she channeled magic once more and, even though she couldn’t see her horn’s glow, pushed the killing liquid out. The water burst from her mouth as she took in huge gasps of air, her whole body shivering as warm tears mixed with the icy cold drops that clung to her fur.

The movement stopped without warning, causing Twilight to wince in pain as her restraints pulled against her soaked fur.

After an eternity of silence, she opened her mouth to speak. A raspy cough came out instead. Her chest heaved as she inhaled another few lungfuls of life-giving air.

“H-hello?”

Her voice came out quiet and afraid, and was sucked up by the oppressive darkness far too quickly for her taste. She fought to control her chattering teeth as she waited for any response, for any sound at all. But, no matter how hard she strained, all she heard was the rush of blood pounding in her ears.

“Rainbow Dash? Applejack? Is anypony there?”

Silence.

Twilight’s breathing sped up and grew shallow. She squirmed helplessly against her restraints. “Help! Somepony help me!”

There was a sudden loud thunk from directly in front of her, causing Twilight to jolt in surprise. For a full minute she remained silent, listening to the noise echo into nothingness, barely even breathing, barely even thinking, for fear that she would miss something.

A harsh green light flared up before her.

“Ahh!” Twilight yelled out in pain as the brightness assaulted her eyes. She squinted against it, reflexively trying to block it out with one of her restrained hooves.

She could hear something, just barely. Her ears twitched at the sound of low, muffled voices from somewhere nearby. Was she in some kind of enclosed space?

“Ah, fuck,” the voice mumbled. “Still alive? Sabre, hoof me the pick!”

Twilight cracked an eye open, letting it adjust to the light. A spidery black lattice stood between her and the light, and behind it she could see a hazy silhouette moving about. The light moved and bobbed along with it, reminding her of hornlight following its owner.

Twilight screamed as a hefty spike punched through the wall before her with a sickening crunch. It ripped a long tear downwards before disappearing back into the light, only to return again just a moment later.

“Quiet, girl! Shut up before ye bring every beastie in town down on us!”

“Here, let me in. I’ve got her.”

An armored hoof shoved itself over her mouth and cut off her shrieks of terror. She continued to scream into it as the spike dove down again and again, tearing at her bonds.

“Sabre, we’ve got some movement closing in.”

“I’m not leaving her behind, Trails. Get these others out, too.”

“Eugh, right. This stink is gonna take forever to get out.”

Twilight whimpered as the last of her restraints was cut, and she fell limply into a puddle of thick green ooze. She lay there, quietly trembling, waiting for the spike to come down again and end it all.

“Miss, you alright?”

Twilight looked up as a hard, metal hoof touched her shoulder. A heavily armored form, only just recognizable as a pony behind the glowing blue lights set into its helmet and the interlocking plates that covered its torso, stood above her. It was unlike anything she’d ever seen before. If it wasn’t for the tinny, distorted mare’s voice that came from it, she would’ve never thought there to be a pony inside.

Twilight opened her mouth, a flood of questions all desperately fighting to go first, but all that came out was a weak, “Uh… I…” She looked around hazily. Massive, worn stone bricks surrounded her, the encroaching roots that gripped them black and lifeless. The walls disappeared above her into an inky blackness, a blackness which surrounded her in every direction, watching like a hungry predator just beyond the range of a brilliant blue lamp that rested on the floor. Green ooze tugged at her hooves as she shakily stood up, and for the first time Twilight noticed the thickness and taste of the fluid in her mouth. Behind her was a pony-sized black cocoon, one side torn to shreds, still leaking.

A changeling pod?

Changelings.

It all came back to her at once. Her brother, the wedding, Chrysalis, Princess Celestia lying beaten on the floor, the changeling swarm buzzing hungrily just beyond the shield. The changelings are attacking!

She turned back to the armored mare and pulled her closer with both forelegs. “Changelings are attacking Canterlot!” she exclaimed. “We need to find my brother! Where are my friends?”

The mare cocked her head, taking a step back. “I’m not sure what you mean, miss. My team is working on these other pods. You need to come with us.” She gestured behind her.

Twilight’s gaze followed the mare’s hoof. Five other pods were arrayed against the wall, another armored pony ripping into them with a pickaxe gleaming with the slick green liquid. This one had the bulkier shape of a stallion.

Just as she looked over, the stallion finished tearing apart the first pod, and a soaking wet Pinkie Pie fell out. Twilight reached out with her magic, catching her friend and easing her gently to the ground as she rushed to her side.

“Pinkie! Are you alright?”

“Aughhh…” Pinkie moaned, rolling into her back. “Twilight...? What happened…?”

Twilight looked up as another armored pony, this one taller but still with the body shape of a mare, spoke up from the very edge of the lamplight. “Uhh, Sabre. We really need to move. Soonish.”

The first armored mare, whom Twilight took to be ‘Sabre,’ scratched at the ground impatiently. “Faster, Flint. We don’t have all day.”

Flint let out an irritable grunt as he stabbed viciously into another changeling pod. “Well, how about ye quit standin’ ’round and give me a hoof then, eh?”

Sabre snorted as she approached a pod. She punched a hoof against it, and a matte black blade extended from her armor, stabbing through the hard carapace. “ETA till contact, Trails?”

Contact? A dozen possibilities popped up in Twilight’s head, each worse than the last.

Trails let out a thoughtful hum as she peered into the darkness. “A pessimist would tell you three minutes. So for your taste? Sixty seconds.”

Flint pulled a tendril apart with a loud snap, allowing an unconscious Fluttershy to fall face first into the green ooze around her pod. He moved on to the next pod without hesitation, tearing it apart hastily.

“Fluttershy!” Twilight ran up to Fluttershy, rolling her onto her side and feeling for a pulse. Her breath was faint, but it was still there. She looked up to the strange armored ponies, narrowing her eyes. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Where’s the Princess?”

Trails glanced back. “Princess? You been living under a rock or something?” She turned back to the darkness with a low chuckle.

Twilight frowned, taken aback by the response. Living under a rock?

“Quiet,” Sabre said, still cutting at her pod. “My name is Sea Sabre. This big guy is Flintlock, and the chatty one is Star Trails. We don’t have any time to talk. You just have to trust us. We can answer any questions you have later, but right now we need to move.”

She pulled her blade out, and a wild-eyed Rainbow Dash tackled her with a raspy roar. Sabre grunted in surprise, stumbling back a step before easily shoving the violent pegasus aside. Rainbow rolled with the blow, jumping back to her hooves with a quick wing flap and settling into a shaky attack stance.

“Rainbow, stop!” Twilight jumped in front of her friend. “They’re friends!”

“Wh-what?” Rainbow was breathing hard, her eyes flitting about uncertainly. “Where’s—changelings? The Princess? Fluttershy!” Rainbow practically fell at her unconscious friend’s side, laying a wing over her protectively.

Pinkie stumbled to her hooves. “Owww. Everything hurts.”

“What happened?” Rainbow demanded, rounding on Sea Sabre. “Where is everypony? Why’s it so dark? And who are you ponies?”

“Rainbow Dash, calm down!” Twilight whispered frantically. It was hard enough to figure all of that out as it was, and she really didn’t need an aggressive blue pegasus flying around attacking things.

Flintlock snorted as he began tearing into another pod. “I didn’t sign up fer this.”

“Thirty seconds,” Star Trails said.

Twilight quirked a brow. Thirty seconds? How could she possibly know that?

Sea Sabre only spared Rainbow a brief glance before she moved to start on the final pod. “Believe me, miss, I’d answer your questions if I could. But right now we really don’t have the—”

A distant boom echoed out from the darkness, causing dust and small stones to rain down from above. Twilight’s heart skipped a beat at the high-pitched animal shriek that followed soon after.

“That’ll be the mines,” Trails said. She shone the light on her chestpiece down the length of the wide hallway they seemed to be in, though the light wasn’t strong enough to reach the end. “Now or never, Boss!”

“What was that?” Twilight asked, peering into the darkness. The armored ponies offered no response.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Pinkie said. Her tail twitched as she backed away from the noise.

“Hey! She asked you a question!” Rainbow Dash flew past Twilight and right up to Star Trails, sticking her muzzle into her armored face. “What was that noise?”

Trails took a step back, eyeing Rainbow’s wings. “You’re a—wow. Very fast flyer.”

“Careful, little mare,” Flintlock said. “Those’re hunting calls ye hear. I’d recommend ye stay outta Traily’s way.”

Rainbow pulled back ever so slightly, uncertainty flashing across her face as she glanced to the big stallion.

A shrill screech pierced the air, and Twilight picked out an inky black figure sprinting out of the darkness at alarming speed. Star Trails shoved Rainbow Dash aside with one hoof, mechanical gears on her armor ticking as what Twilight had assumed was a saddlebag began to unpack itself. A jagged spearhead poked out of the contraption, continuing to tick as Trails adjusted her stance. The ticking was cut off by a sudden jet of steam from the back of the pack, a javelin the size of Twilight’s leg leaping out of its brace.

The figure yelped in pain as it was struck, its face slamming into the ground as it lost its balance. It continued to skid across the floor, carried on by its own momentum, until it finally slid to a stop at Trails’ armored hooves.

Trails’ horn glowed a pale blue as she pulled the javelin out of the creature’s skull. She gave it a couple quick flicks to get the green ooze off the head before sliding it back into its brace. “Okay Sabre, really now. Can we leave?”

“Hang on, almost got it,” Sabre said, slicing into the pod before her.

Twilight stared wide-eyed at the corpse before Star Trails as green ichor dribbled out of the hole in its mottled carapace. A sickly sweet smell, like rotten fruit, assaulted her nostrils. The changeling was unlike any she’d seen before, its legs long and spindly and its mouth overflowing with razor sharp fangs. Its wings hung uselessly at its side, completely without filament, and it even seemed to have extra horns beginning to grow from its forehead.

“What is that?” Twilight whispered.

The final two pods popped open at almost the exact same time. Applejack stumbled weakly forth from hers, hat drooping down over her eyes as Sea Sabre lent a shoulder for support. Rarity wasn’t nearly as lucky, as Flintlock stepped back to let her fall down into the ooze that had spilled from her cocoon.

Rarity moaned, lying on her side. “Where am I…? What is—what is this?!” Twilight flinched as her voice suddenly jumped up a couple octaves. Rarity raised a green-soaked hoof up to her eyes, her lip trembling. “Oh, Celestia! It’s everywhere! Ew ew ew ew ew ew—” She began to shake herself wildly, voice still steadily rising.

“Shut up!” Flint barked.

Rarity froze, looking up as if she’d just noticed the ponies around her. She scrambled to her hooves, letting out a few high-pitched titters as she straightened up. “Ah, yes, hello.” Another little squeal escaped her lips as a thick green drop slipped off her mane.

“Twilight?” Applejack asked, still leaning on Sabre. “What’s goin’ on?”

Twilight took a deep breath. Her friends needed her to explain things, to solve the problem. Alright, start with what you know. You just got pulled out of a changeling cocoon by weird armored ponies, it’s pitch-black, and one of them just shot some warped version of a changeling with a steam-powered ponyborne ballista. She frowned. That was a disturbingly small selection of information from which to draw a conclusion.

She braced herself to say something that came very hard to her, looking between each of her friends. “I—I don’t know.”

Another monstrous scream echoed down the hall, this one accompanied by at least a dozen others, the calls echoing and overlapping like some high-pitched roll of thunder. Twilight’s ears flattened as the fearsome sound triggered a deeply seated fight-or-flight instinct.

Sea Sabre seemed totally unfazed by the sound from behind her armored helmet. She looked between her squadmates. “Alright, we’re moving. What’s up with that one?” She nodded at Fluttershy, still lying unconscious in front of her pod.

“I’ll get ’er.” Applejack pushed off of Sabre’s shoulder, taking a brief second to fix her hat before leaning down and pulling Fluttershy up. She wavered briefly as the pegasus’ weight settled onto her back.

“Ye got that?” Flint asked.

Applejack grinned weakly. “Don’t y’all worry ’bout me none, sugar cube. I’ll keep pace.”

Sea Sabre nodded. “Excellent. Trails, take point. Flint, vanguard. Rest of you in the middle with me. Let’s make for extraction.”

“Wait!” Twilight said, drawing a groan from Flint. She looked desperately between the six pods around her, resisting the urge to run from the predatory howls. “Where’s Spike?”

Flint glanced back towards the source of the changeling calls, which had since grown louder and more numerous. “We don’t got time for this, Sabre.”

“I’m sorry, miss, but we’ve already risked too much just pulling you and your friends out. We need to go. Now,” Sabre said.

Twilight exchanged desperate looks with her friends, seeing her own confusion and fear reflected in their eyes. Her eyes came to rest on Applejack, who gave her a reassuring little smile from under the drooping brim of her hat.

Twilight didn’t know what was going on, but her friends trusted her to find out. She’d have to stay strong, for them. Spike would have to fend for himself a little while longer.

“Okay,” she said. Forgive me, Spike. I’ll come back for you.

Without a word, Trails began to move at a brisk trot, her shoulder-light piercing the darkness before her. Sabre grabbed the lamp up off the floor with a wing and held it up high in the middle of the group. Twilight stayed huddled together with her friends in the middle of the group, while Flint brought up the rear.

They traveled in silence, with only the sound of their hooves on the stone and the shrill calls of the changelings to accompany them. Twilight eyed the chipped pillars and torn tapestries critically as they passed, vainly trying to piece together clues as to their location. The fabric was so old and mottled that even when Flint shone his light directly onto them, the image was impossible to make out.

Despite the strange environment and the constant screeching from behind her, Twilight felt her fear starting to subside. There was another, far more powerful emotion swiftly taking its place, an emotion which she had been slave to for all her life. Curiosity.

“Sabre,” she whispered. “Where are we?”

They came up to a pair of heavy, wooden double doors, one of which was resting at an awkward angle, its lower hinges having rotted out of place.

“Old Canterlot,” Sabre said.

Trails pushed the door open with a small burst of magic. The hinges let out a tired squeal as the door swung open, Trails’ light revealing a shallow staircase descending into a cobblestone plaza. With the help of their escorts’ lights, Twilight picked out a wide avenue running down the middle of a wrecked city. Most of the city was wreathed in the same deep, black shadows, but where the lights did shine it was practically falling apart from neglect, with loose stones and deep potholes littering the pavement, doors and windows lying shattered out of their frames, roofs collapsed into the homes beneath them and the blackened bones of dead trees decorating the walkways. Twilight gasped as she picked out a far too recognizable place, the wreckage of Pony Joe’s Donut Shop, the building cleaved in half by the upper half of a fallen tower as its signage hung limply from one corner.

Canterlot? She looked up, but there wasn’t a single star in the sky. The air was stale and stagnant. Only the sound of her breathing pierced the eerie silence.

“What—when—gah!” Twilight’s unfinished questions were interrupted by a rough push from behind, sending her stumbling down into the street and nearly flat onto her face. The sound of her hooves slipping against the stairs echoed loudly into the distance.

“Get movin’,” she heard Flint growl. “Don’t got all day.”

Twilight’s brow furrowed, her blood going hot at the stallion’s dismissive tone. She could feel magic starting to course through her and gathering in her horn—Oh, hey, what’s that? The magic fizzled out as she leaned in closer to the ground. From this close she was able to see the thick layer of dark purple algae which covered it in intermittent splotches, previously invisible in the darkness. Purple algae? She didn’t recall ever reading about purple algae.

She was pulled from her reverie by Rainbow rushing up to her side and nearly knocking her over. “Hey, don’t push her!” Rainbow snarled, ears back as she glared up at Flint.

Flint laughed. “What’re ye gonna do, little mare? Bite me?”

“Cut the crap, Flint,” Sabre warned, walking down the steps.

Twilight straightened up, brushed herself off and mentally filed the strange algae away for later. “It’s okay, Rainbow.” She put a calming hoof on the bristling mare’s shoulder. “I’m fine.”

With an indignant snort, Rainbow looked away. They made their way down the broken avenue quickly, with the six mares from Ponyville all taking in their surroundings with wide eyes and open mouths.

“Where is everypony?” Pinkie asked quietly.

“Don’t worry, Pinkie. I’m sure we’ll get our answers soon. They’re probably all fine.” Twilight frowned as they passed by Pony Joe’s, climbing over a pile of wide stone blocks. The more of Canterlot she saw, the harder it was for her to believe that there had been any survivors. “Probably.”

There was a sudden screech from in front of them as they crested the pile of rubble, and Twilight saw a group of six changeling drones dash into the light, all with the same strange mutations as the one she’d seen before. But these changelings were bigger, with longer fangs and jagged spines running down their backs.

Sabre tossed the lamp to Twilight, who reflexively caught it in her magic. “Hold this. Stay here.”

Twilight flinched at the hiss of steam as Trails fired her javelin, immediately silencing the lead drone. Sabre charged headfirst into the changelings with a fearsome roar, her wings flaring as blades slid out of the flexible armor that lined them.

She jabbed a wing forwards, the hard metal spike over her joint crushing one drone’s head in. She raised the other wing to deflect another drone’s charge, spinning around to slash at its side as it passed. A third drone tackled her as she came out of the spin. The two rolled down the pile of rubble and out of Twilight’s sight, locked in a deadly grapple.

Flint shoved his way to the top of the rubble pile, and for the first time Twilight noticed the unusually shaped pipe that hung from his side. She nearly fell over in shock as it spat a sudden gout of flame with a painfully loud boom, and one of the changelings collapsed as a leg was cut clean off.

Flint laughed heartily as the pipe at his side continued to fire, causing Twilight’s ears to ring with the sudden bursts of sound. Two more drones were cut down, their chests exploding with sprays of green blood.

Twilight screwed her nose up at the sulphuric stench in the air, her eyes stinging as it mixed with the rotten-fruit scent of the changeling corpses. She swallowed back bile as she took in the green ichor and stray body parts that littered the stones like a foal’s painting. The screeching had died away now, both before and behind them, as Sabre climbed back up the rubble towards them.

“Good work. Back in formation,” she said, even more splashes of green staining the cool grey of her armor.

Twilight stepped gingerly over the corpses as the group continued its journey. She looked back at Flint in search of distraction and nodded at the pipe by his side. “What is that device?”

“What, this ol’ thing? Hah!” Despite the full coverage of his armor, Flint’s voice gave Twilight the distinct impression of a wide, eager grin. “This here is a Mk. 10 Repeater from th’ good ol’ boys at Viridian Specialty Munitions. It fires th’ biggest damn bullet this side of Harvest, and reloads itself faster’n ye can say ‘don’t shoot me’.”

“So it’s… some kind of self-loading cannon?” Twilight asked.

“Wha—cannon? Ye ain’t never heard of a gun, girl?” He paused as she looked at him blankly. “Sweet Celestia, how long’ve ye been down here?”

Twilight cocked her head. Down here? She opened her mouth to ask about the strange word choice when Trails’ voice cut her off.

“Hey shush, you two,” she said. “Sabre, we’ve got something big moving fast.”

Sea Sabre swept her head-light about, illuminating the long-dead plaza they were crossing. “Where?”

“It looks like it’s—well, here.” Trails nickered thoughtfully. “That can’t be right.”

Pinkie Pie perked up suddenly, her tail twitching wildly and kicking up a sizeable cloud of dust. “My tail! Twitch-a-twitch!”

Twilight’s heart skipped a beat. Reflexes honed from all the time she’d spent with Pinkie Pie began to kick in.

Applejack gasped. “Duck and cover!”

There was a sudden sound of crumbling rock.

A huge gust of wind knocked Twilight onto her side even as she tried to run.

The ground shook as a massive black shape fell past Twilight’s peripherals, the impact throwing her back to the ground as she tried to scramble to her hooves. A loud, angry buzzing filled Twilight’s ears as she pulled herself up, coughing at the sudden influx of dust. She narrowed her eyes as she searched for her friends, but the dust was too thick to see far.

“What was that?” she heard Rainbow yell.

“Tartarus, that’s a big ’un!” Flint shouted. Twilight could feel the report of his repeater firing in her bones.

She flinched as another huge gust of wind slapped at her face. An ear-splitting screech cut through the buzzing as she straightened up and finally got a good look at their assailant.

It was a changeling, and yet not. The beast towered above her, easily the size of a two-story building, its chitin marred by old dents and scars from a lifetime of battle. It stood hunched over like a wolf, a line of razor-sharp spikes running down its spine, easily long enough to gut a pony. Its mouth was so full to the brim with fangs that some of them seemed ready to fall out. Two twisted, gnarled horns grew from its forehead, wrapped in a raggedy green mane. And there, barely visible on top of the backmost horn, was a little green crown.

Twilight gasped. “Queen Chrysalis?”

The Beast-Queen lunged towards Flint, her jaws wide open. Flint spread his stance, bringing to bear another gun he had mounted opposite his repeater. He spared barely an instant to line up his shot before firing.

The Beast-Queen screeched in fury, rearing up as a cloud of razor-sharp flechettes smashed into her face. Twilight stared open-mouthed as the massive deformed changeling reeled, swiping wildly at its surroundings and forcing Rarity and Pinkie Pie to leap back.

Sea Sabre’s commanding voice shook Twilight from her reverie, amplified as if by a loudspeaker built into her armor.

Run!

Twilight broke into a full-on gallop, almost tripping over a small pile of rubble in her path. She screamed in terror as she joined up with her friends, leaping over a rotted tree and falling in behind Sea Sabre.

The ponies ran down the dilapidated streets of Canterlot as fast as they could, the pounding steps and shrill hisses of the Beast-Queen close behind spurring them on. Twilight could barely see where she was stepping at this speed; neither she nor her friends had the powerful flashlights which their rescuers wore, and in her panic she had forgotten to pick the lamp back up. Twice they ran into small packs of deformed changelings, and twice they were swiftly dispatched by Sabre and Trails. Twilight stumbled at least a dozen times, barely avoiding the obstacles revealed to her by Flint’s light only seconds before she reached them.

A changeling leapt out of an alley, rearing up before her. “Gah!” She shut her eyes tight, magic coursing through her in an instinctive act of self defense.

Thick wetness splashed over her face, and when she opened her eyes again, the changeling was gone. There wasn’t any time to spare on disgust. She saw Sea Sabre watching her for a brief moment before looking forwards once more.

“We’re almost there!” Trails shouted. “It’s right through this building!”

Twilight caught a glimpse of her diving into the collapsed wreckage of an old tower. Everything above the third floor was long gone, and the rubble from its second floor was spilling out into the street. Sea Sabre skidded to a stop outside the entrance, crouching low as her armor began to unpack. Small jets of steam poured from a device on her back as it ejected a net tied between a dozen spherical weights. Twilight’s mane and coat stood on end as it passed over her, electricity arcing across its breadth, and another pained shriek came from behind her. Glancing back, Twilight saw the Beast-Queen toppling over, a group of drones coming to her aid as she struggled to break free from the charged net.

“C’mon, pick it up!” Sabre yelled, waving Twilight into the building. She almost ran straight into Star Trails, who was standing on the far side of the room, forehooves pressed against a thick stone slab that had blocked off a hallway.

“No, no, no, fuck!” Trails said. “It’s blocked! Sabre, we can’t go this way!”

Twilight’s friends ran inside right after her, Applejack practically falling over as she stopped to set Fluttershy down. Flintlock and Sea Sabre came in last, Sabre immediately heading for Trails.

“What? It was clear when we came in,” she said.

“Something must’ve disturbed it.” Trails shook her head, glancing out a shattered window. “Who knows? There’s all kinds of monsters in this damned place.”

A chill ran down Twilight’s spine. Monsters? Besides the changelings?

“Ye got a plan, Sabre?” Flint asked. “We got drones comin’ in, and I don’t think that queen’ll be too long.” The room began to flash as he started firing his repeater out the window.

Sabre stomped a hoof, pacing back and forth. “Damnit! We’re trapped like rats in a hole here. We’ll just have to hold out, hope the queen gets bored. We can handle drones.”

A trio of drones leapt through the windows as if on cue. Flint tackled the nearest one, crushing it against the wall, while Sabre and Trails quickly dispatched the other two with blade and javelin.

“It’s just a dumb rock!” Rarity said. “We can levitate it out of the way. Come here, Twilight.”

A huge black hoof smashed through the roof, claws scraping against the stone before it pulled back out. More rubble poured down on top of the slab. Outside, the Beast-Queen let loose another hungry scream.

Twilight watched as the three armored ponies each looked up to the new exit, then to each other. Flint cleared his throat. “We do have grapples.”

“What?” Applejack stumbled to her hooves. “Y’all can’t just leave us!”

Sabre shook her head. “We won’t.”

Flint shrugged, leveling his repeater back onto the windows. “Well, alrighty then. Come at me, ya big bugs!”

“Ahhh, what do we do, what do we do?” Twilight said, turning in circles. She could figure this out. She always figured it out. She could save her friends, if she could just solve this problem.

A faint yet deep rumbling reached Twilight’s ears. She flicked them about curiously, uncertain as to whether she was imagining it. The rumbling grew louder and louder, and within seconds it seemed as if it was right next to her, shaking the very ground beneath her hooves.

An overwhelmingly loud roar filled the room, much unlike that of the monstrous changeling queen. This one was deep, and draconian, and Twilight even thought she could hear the thunderous crackling of an inferno beneath it.

Brilliant green fire burst into being outside the building, nearly blinding Twilight as it wreathed the entire street in hungry flames. She stared slack-jawed as a massive purple dragon, at least twice the size of the Beast-Queen, leapt into view.

A fragile hope flared up in Twilight’s chest. “Spike?” It had to be him! The purple scales, the green spines! But no, there was something wrong. His eyes were red and angry, his mouth overflowing with teeth even for a dragon, his body marred by long scars that didn’t seem to have ever finished healing. And the way he moved was completely different. Gone was the waddling gait of the baby dragon she had known. This dragon stood and moved like a wolf, saliva dripping from its jaws as it growled at the changelings that dared to trespass on its territory.

“Oh, Spike.” Twilight choked back a sob as Spike and the Beast-Queen hissed at each other, each one pacing across the street. “What happened?”

“What—is that—Spikey Wikey!” Rarity cried. “What did that monster Chrysalis do?

“No time for that,” Sabre said, peeking out the window as the dragon charged. The Beast-Queen flew out of the way, jumping onto his back as drones pounced on his legs. “We need to move while they’re distracted. Trails!”

“Right! This way!” Trails didn’t wait for any response, jumping back out the entrance.

Sabre gestured hastily at Twilight and her friends, who were all frozen on the spot,staring with wide eyes at the thing that may have once been their friend. “Get moving!”

Rarity shook herself, her lips tightening. “Let’s go, girls. We need to run, if only so we may return to correct any atrocities that have been committed in our absence.”

“For Spike.” Pinkie said, fresh tears on her cheeks.

“And for the Princess!” Rainbow added, an angry snarl contorting her face.

Applejack let out a heavy sigh as she heaved Fluttershy onto her back once more, and the ponies followed Trails outside. Twilight resisted the urge to look back as Spike and the changelings fought behind them. Before long the sounds of fighting faded into the distance, but still they ran on at full speed. Twilight didn’t even spare a glance when they passed by the broken remains of her old tower. They didn’t stop until they reached a huge black wall, its rough rocky surface gently curving in all directions as far as Twilight could see.

“What is this? This wasn’t here before,” she said.

Flint stepped up behind her, scanning the city with his light. “Lady, I’m gettin’ real tired of yer questions.”

Twilight frowned, but before she could think of a snappy comeback, she saw Trails suddenly stepping out of the wall a small distance away.

“Alright, in here,” Trails said, panting.

Sabre nodded. “We can take it a little easy now. Let’s go.”

Twilight leaned in closer, and realized that there was actually a tunnel carved into the wall. It was only about twice the height of a pony, but wide enough for a couple dozen stallions to walk abreast. It curved at a gentle downslope, its walls smooth and clean.

“Where does this go?” she asked.

“Outside,” Sabre said, following Trails into the tunnel.

“Wha—”

Flint cut off Twilight’s question with an exasperated groan. “Celestia, just go.

Twilight huffed, walking quickly to catch up to Sabre. “Hey, I have no idea what’s going on, okay? We were in Canterlot during the changelings, and all I remember is being captured and then—and now Spike and—it’s all blank! How could this possibly be happening? This makes no sense!”

Sabre paused, cocking her head as she looked to Twilight. “You were here when the city was alive? Right here?”

Twilight blinked, taken aback by the quiet tone of Sabre’s voice. She let out a nervous little giggle. “Well, uh, not exactly right here at this exact position no, but yes, here in Canterlot. We were.”

Trails and Flint both came to a stop. The three armored ponies exchanged looks. Twilight flicked her tail irritably, wondering if they had some way to see each other’s faces through that armor.

“It’s… hard to explain,” Sabre said, resuming her walk. “It’s best I showed you.”

“Hey!” Rainbow skimmed the top of the tunnel before landing right in front of Sabre. “Listen up! We’ve been through a lot and my friends are all scared and confused. We’re not taking another step until you speak up!”

Twilight raised a cautioning hoof. She was beginning to put the clues together now. Canterlot covered in algae, and a full-grown Spike roaming its ruins? It all pointed in the same direction. “It’s okay, Rainbow,” she said softly. “I… think we should let her explain her way.”

Sabre nodded thankfully to Twilight before stepping around Rainbow. “Let’s move.”

Rainbow’s nostrils flared as she turned to Twilight. “What the hay, Twi? They aren’t telling us anything and you want us to just keep going along!”

Pinkie frowned, looking back towards Canterlot sadly. “Dashie, can we please not fight?”

“I think this is the right thing to do, Rainbow,” Twilight said, fighting to keep her voice calm. Last she remembered, the swarm had still been outside her brother’s shield, yet now there were drones running free inside the city. Had the changelings found a way inside, or had Chrysalis created a new swarm from scratch among the ruins? “Things might be… worse than we think. Just give them a little longer, okay?”

Rarity put a hoof on Rainbow’s shoulder. “Come now, darling, you can trust Twilight. If there’s anypony that can get our questions answered, it’s her.”

Applejack cleared her throat. “I for one would kindly like to keep on movin’.” She let out a wheezy little laugh. “Fluttershy’s a mite heavier’n I thought.”

A round of subdued giggles passed over the mares, leaving the air feeling noticeably lighter.

“Alright then.” Rainbow took a begrudging step aside. “But you may have to hold me back if they keep this up!”

Twilight rolled her eyes as she started after the armored ponies, her friends walking beside her. Her mind jumped from one terrifying possibility to the next, pausing only to briefly linger on Spike before moving on. She took a shaky breath before finding some small solace in her friends’ presence.

The journey through the tunnel was longer than Twilight had anticipated, becoming harder as it continued to slope down at a sharper and sharper angle. The air was stuffy and stale, and even though she couldn’t see the other side of the tunnel, it still seemed to press in on her with nothing but her horn and her escorts’ flashlights to drive the darkness away. Just as she had started to calculate exactly how deep they’d traveled, she heard the sound of water up ahead.

“Almost there,” Trails said.

“And without any salvage,” Flint grumbled.

Twilight arched a brow at that, but said nothing. Within a few minutes the ponies came to the source of the water, a deep pool at the end of the tunnel. She peered into the darkness around her, but saw no sign of any other exit. This was where the tunnel ended.

Bobbing gently on the shore was a boat, though it seemed far too small to carry even three ponies. She wondered how it had gotten there; there wasn’t any sign of a stream leading into or out of the pool.

“Get in,” Sabre said, beckoning towards the boat. Trails and Flint approached first, opening a small hatch in the center of the boat and climbing down inside.

Twilight blinked. What kind of weird boat was this, with a tiny hatch on top and the rest of it sunk underwater?

“It’s a submarine,” Sabre explained. “You seen one before?”

“Submarine?” Twilight repeated. She hadn’t seen one before, no, but the word did a good job of explaining the concept. “This boat goes underwater?”

Sabre just nodded.

Rainbow flew up a little higher, flapping excitedly. “Oh, that sounds so cool! Me first!” She immediately burst forward and dived into the hatch.

Applejack let out a heavy sigh. “Finally, some rest. Y’all mind taking Fluttershy here for me, Twilight?”

“Sure,” Twilight said. Her horn glowed as she gently wrapped Fluttershy in her magic and levitated her to her side. She noticed Sabre watching the unconscious pegasus intently, but didn’t bring it up.

After lowering Fluttershy down into Rainbow’s waiting hooves, Twilight climbed down the ladder which lined one side of the hatch. She looked around curiously as she came out into the cramped interior of the submarine, thankful for the distraction. Little dials and meters lined many of the walls, and the sound of gears ticking echoed up and down the narrow halls.

Sea Sabre entered last, closing the hatch securely behind her before squeezing her way towards the front of the ship. “Come with me if you want answers.”

Flint shrugged, looking to Trails. “Ready fer a spot of R&R?”

“You bet. The suit’s starting to really chafe on my neck.” She followed him towards the back of the ship, her voice fading away.

Twilight followed after Sabre with her friends close behind her. They packed themselves into what Twilight took to be the bridge of the vessel, if the large number of flips, switches, and wheels were any indication.

Sabre settled heavily into the seat at the front of the bridge before the thick bubble of glass that served as a viewport. She reached up and grabbed her helmet with both hooves, giving it a quick twist. There was a brief hissing as she removed her helmet, revealing her sea blue coat and short grey mane, a single white stripe running its length. She leaned back and looked at Twilight and each of her friends with pale red eyes.

“You may want to prepare yourselves.” As commanding as she’d been before, Sea Sabre’s voice was even more stony without the helmet in the way. It was deep for a mare, and it didn’t tolerate dissent.

Twilight gulped nervously, looking to her friends with a weak smile. She had the feeling that nothing she did would properly prepare her. “We’re ready.”

Sabre nodded, turning to the controls. She flipped a series of switches and began to manipulate the wheels which dominated the control panel with her wings. The ticking of the ship grew faster and louder, and there was the muffled hiss of steam escaping as the submarine rocked into motion.

“Things have—” She paused. “—changed since your Canterlot.” The submarine sank deeper into the pool, and the rock walls disappeared as they dropped out of the bottom of the tunnel. Beneath them Twilight saw old bricks that had been worn down almost completely spherical, half-buried in the sand.

“We don’t really live on the surface anymore.” Within a few minutes the sea floor dropped down abruptly, leaving them in what appeared to be open ocean. The submarine began to rise, rotating in a slow one-eighty.

“There’s a corruption down here. It warps things, makes them violent and wild. It’s not safe.” They continued to rise, further than Twilight thought possible. The tunnel hadn’t gone down this deep, had it? Even the wildest ballpark estimate she’d made didn’t go this deep. She frowned thoughtfully as an underwater mountain came into view. It looked vaguely familiar to her. She turned to her friends, seeing the same confused recognition in their eyes.

“The world you know is completely underwater. It’s been that way for hundreds of years.” Twilight saw some light filtering down from above as they drew closer to the surface. Her jaw dropped as she finally realized where she recognized the mountain from. Her chest tightened and her legs went rigid as her breathing began to speed up.

“No,” she whispered.

Finally the submarine reached the surface, bobbing gently as it was carried by the waves. Before her, Twilight saw the narrow peak of Canterhorn Mountain, just barely poking out of the water with enough room for a pony to stand on. The tallest mountain in Equestria.

She turned and ran, climbing up the hatch and forcing it open. She couldn’t breathe in the tight little sub. She needed fresh air. She needed space.

Twilight climbed out onto the open deck of the submarine, squinting against the salty gust of wind that blew into her face. She turned and turned, completely around, but all she saw was water. There was no land. No land to be seen in any direction. Just endless water.

She heard armored hooves climbing up the hatch behind her. Sea Sabre cleared her throat, taking a deep breath.

“Welcome to the future.”

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