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My Little Apprentice

by Starscribe

First published

When a remarkable spell summons a human mind into the body of a unicorn filly, Princess Twilight Sparkle does the only thing she can think of: Take on an apprentice.

Continued in: My Little Apprentice: Apogee


Twilight Sparkle learns that the trust and goodwill of the Princess isn't always a good thing as she's given the trust of an important assignment. When that assignment turns out to be long-term, how will she handle taking care of a filly of her own? How will she handle this strange new filly, who proves to be much more than she appears. As a matter of fact, she seems to be from an entirely separate universe.

Meanwhile, Second Chance has kept only enough of her memories to know that she isn't what she should be. The wonderful world of Equestria has its own dangers, and she seems to have a knack for attracting trouble. The more of her memories return, the more she wishes she could just forget. But you can't forget when all of Equestria depends on you remembering.

Only one thing's for sure: The longer Twilight keeps this strange filly in her care, the stranger her own life will become, and things she thought she knew about Equestria will unravel before her eyes. Strange ancient devices, an eccentric mint unicorn and her so-called "Equestrian Precursor Society" are only the beginning for Twilight Sparkle as she begins a journey of her own. She too may wish she could simply forget. Unfortunately, it's too late for either of them.

Prologue: What the Night Mare Said

Princess Luna, Dreamweaver, Shadowcrowned, Diarch of the Moon and Sovereign of Equestria, knew something was seriously wrong with her night. She knew the stars in their multitudes, none could stray from their course and Luna not know it. In the stillness of her night she counted each, and found each in their appointed place. Yet the strange feeling that something was amiss remained.

Luna took flight from her balcony, spreading her great wings and eating the miles far faster than any of her thestral guardians could keep pace. Equestria’s cities had changed greatly since her banishment. Many no longer darkened when the evenings came, lighting electric stars of their own. Yet there were no disasters in Equestria’s cities. No magical horrors descended, and activities continued as usual.

So why didn’t the feeling go away? Nothing seemed amiss with the dreams of Equestria’s folk, not moreso than usual. Most who slept did so quite soundly, or required not more than a little nudge to help return them to peaceful sleep. If the cause of her disquiet lurked in dreamtime, then it concealed itself better than any foe she had ever faced there.

It took her nearly an hour of searching to discover the source of her discomfort, gliding aimlessly through the sky above the small town of Ponyville.

The anomaly was very hard for her to describe. It was no living thing, no animal or pony at any rate. As she circled closer, the word she found herself using to describe it was “spell.” Like all spells, the anomaly had a complicated, almost mathematical structure, formed entirely of the energy of magic. Yet despite being composed entirely of magic, the anomaly also violated several of what she had always taken to be the sacrosanct laws of the way magic operated. Its complexity was vastly beyond what should’ve been able to remain stable, more information than thousands of Canterlot libraries all fused together.

Yet instead of collapse, the strange energy followed in an intricate circle, constantly rebalancing itself. It did not draw upon the natural magic of Equus, though the air around it seemed far colder than anywhere else.

Only one spell she knew of had the complexity to constantly recast and improve itself in that fashion. The inventor of that spell had never managed to cast it. Until recently, Luna would’ve said that nopony could.

There was nothing to see with her eyes, just a patch of empty sky practically identical to all the others. The spell didn’t seem to guide itself with much purpose, just drifting lazily along as though it were a leaf in an invisible breeze. Luna could have, at a whim, drawn out what little energy the spell used to sustain itself and collapsed it right there. She considered that course for a long time as she tracked it, considering the chaos it might cause…

She almost did. But as she established a connection with the spell in preparation for unraveling it, she felt something unexpected through that bond, enough to give her a moment’s pause. It was not a strange feeling, actually it was one that surrounded her almost all the time. It was the feeling of somepony dreaming.

So instead of destroying the bewildering spell before it could cause harm, she focused on the bond with the object, drawing a fraction of her vast intelligence into the dream within.

* * *

Somewhere in the distant spiral arms of a common galaxy orbited a world that had once practically shone with crystal water, its surface blanketed in life. Life had clambered from that cradle to surround their home with orbiting stations, tiny capsules to protect against the clawing dark that surrounded them on all sides. The planet’s only moon bore host to even larger settlements, cities of hundred thousands above and below the surface in protected domes and lava tubes.

The settlements were empty now, and the lights of every station had ceased to flash. Of all the mighty race that had built them, only a single individual remained. A female, not quite six feet in height, with a body unnaturally thin from life in low-gravity. She wore no protection against the vacuum. Dark flats kicked up billowing clouds of lunar dust as she walked, her arms hanging limply at her sides.

The lone woman’s short brown hair was caked in the dust, along with every bit of exposed skin she had. In the endless lonely eons, she had filled the empty sand with her footprints. Except where micrometeorite impacts had distressed them, they remained.

In this strange place that was no place at all, the woman could see her homeworld clearly in the distance. She tried to look away as she walked, but always lacked the will to tear her eyes away. The fires of her home replayed themselves over and over. She saw the little flashes of light that each represented the death of a city. She watched stations tumble from their orbits and the land turn from green-brown to gray.

Yet still she watched, for time beyond the lifetime of her species she watched, knowing that to look away would be much worse. If she didn’t remember, who would? If she didn’t save them, who would?

The woman had no way to measure the years she spent, which had stretched long enough that huge swathes of the surface had been worn down to mark the paths she took. There was no food, no air, and no rest, but she wanted for none of these. One needed a body to die.

After an eternity of darkness, she heard a voice that was not her own. She stopped in the shadow of a massive metal structure, beside the hulk of a Lunar Transport Authority vehicle, its big wheels dusted with a gray patina.

Within her self-imposed banishment, she recognized the influence of another mind instantly, even when she could not precisely identify what it was trying to say.

The shadow thickened beside her, growing dark enough to obscure the vehicle and the sand both, though not dark enough to give her anything like a coherent outline to judge what it might be. There was no air for speech, but that mattered little to her now. This wasn’t really a moon.

“If you’ve come to offer me release again, my answer is still no.” Her voice was raspy from eons of disuse, yet the knowledge of how to speak had not left her. “My vigil continues. I will not abandon them.”

It was difficult to describe the feeling of the entity turning its attention on her. It had no eyes exactly, nor organs or being as her species had understood them. It was like the woman herself, an intelligence. A spirit. Like all the others she had known in the void, its power stretched beyond her comprehension, complexity dwarfing anything she had accumulated during her brief physical life.

She had already been reduced down to her lowest energy state, however. There was nothing more the awful things could do to her but wait for death to die.

Only this one made no aggressive move. It made no move to inflict the ghost of physical pain on her, nor did it vainly call up the dark memories of her past. She was not forced to watch her city burn again. She did not have to hear the screams.

It took only moments for the being to form eyes, shining aquamarine amid the twilight. There was no malice there, no blind rage at her for the audacity of existing. It spoke.

Like all those that visited her eternal dream, the voice came in an alien tongue, stretched and modulated as from a poorly configured communicator. Of all those beings, few attempted to move beyond that point. Learning her language was trivial to the beings that came, with full access to her memories and mind, but few bothered. They usually switched to physical torture about then, and she was forced to endure it for another eternity. It beat being alone.

Those that bothered to learn her tongue were much worse than the ones that simply tortured her. They had the same goal, but they usually accomplished their work emotionally instead. Knowing English was only the first step to bringing torture far worse than mere pain.

Yet given the vast gulfs of time that stretched between their visits, she had come to relish them. Speaking to another being, even one without desires she could comprehend or goals beyond her madness and pain, was better than nothing. She had through practice and repetition, developed a technique for teaching her language as swiftly as possible.

She employed it now, reaching out to the intruder with her mind and projecting an image. She accompanied the image with the word used to represent it, and a few sentences in English that used the word. Then she picked another image, and repeated the process. The procedure might have taken dozens of years if it did not move at the speed of thought, the speed of light really. At this point, the difference in her case was semantics anyway.

She started, as many languages did, with the concepts used to represent individuals. “Boy,” “girl,” “man,” “woman” came first, along with “they,” “us,” and “we.” It was how she always taught her language. Her partners could always tell in short order what she was trying to do, and generally cooperated. She gave them the very tools they would use to torture her.

This time was different. The presence, far greater than herself, accepted the image she offered without objection. When she had finished, it did not allow her to move on to the next. Instead, she found herself the target of an image. She saw a brightly-colored animal cantering through a field of swaying grass, an animal that looked almost like a horse. Her memories refuted the image, as well as the idea that they had come in rose reds and pastel pinks. The presence provided sounds to accompany the image, sounds that would have been difficult to replicate with a human mouth. Yet in memory they were clear, and without the biological limits imposed by actually possessing a body she could say the word clearly. “Colt.”

The presence wasn’t just listening. The presence was trying to teach her in return. When the lone woman sent the next image, the one for “girl,” she received the image of a young, female animal and strange sounds that translated much more closely to “filly.” Something similar happened with “man” and “woman.”

It was then she allowed herself to feel some hope, something she had not felt in time longer than the entire lifespan of her civilization. She had been drifting through the void for so long, that she had entirely abandoned the idea of ever encountering life that was similar enough to human that she could see it as sapient, and it might see her the same way.

The pace of language exchange increased, and she committed each new word to perfect memory. With each new concept they shared, she became convinced that she was dealing with a civilized creature. It understood what a “family” was, it understood the “tribe” and the “city” and the “nation.” It understood wheels and knives and writing. Though every image of objects and places featured the strange quadrupeds, many of the objects were quite recognizable to the woman. Musical instruments, cooking utensils, books, and much more. Though the images of cities and towns she saw were clearly of a primitive civilization, she could recognize them without hesitation for what they were.

It did not understand nuclear fusion, or rocketry, or even radio telescopes. Yet as time stretched on, she found the presense did understand honor, loyalty, mercy, and love. It knew evil and selfishness too, and it saw virtue and vice just as she did. In short, it was an alien physically, but from a civilization uncannily similar to the one she had left behind. Had it not been for all the four-legged equine images, she would’ve thought she was speaking with another human.

As with all who visited, attention from the woman weakened the protection of isolation. The strange form grew more distinct, a shadow that thickened gradually into a being that grew to resemble the images she was showing the wanderer in exchange for English words. Even though she had begun to expect it from the images she saw, the woman was still surprised that the stranger did not appear in some way horrific or unnatural to her eyes.

The being was strange, of that she would not have argued. Her coat midnight blue, splotched with a darker patch near her flank. Wings like some great bird melted smoothly into her side, and a twisting spiral of a horn on her forehead. Stranger than all of that was her mane, like a curtain of the night sky itself, flickering with a shifting array of constellations that the woman knew from her own home space.

Like the woman herself, her guest wore clothing, though it was quite limited by comparison. She had armored horseshoes, as well as a breastplate and a simple crown atop her head, yet that was all. If her species valued modesty as humans understood it, she made no sign. But that was consistent with what the images had shown her. Most of the creatures she had been shown had worn little or nothing, so she came to expect it.

She did not attempt to communicate before finishing her language lessons. The woman had tried that before, and it always ended in disaster. So she waited, passing each word back and forth in its turn. She stopped only after having exchanged the most commonly-used hundred thousand or so, enough that she had to stray into technical subjects for which her alien partner clearly had no translation.

The woman had resumed walking by then. Walking was automatic, one of the few things she had consistently done during every eternity she had spent alone as she watched the death of her species. The presence followed, walking and sometimes flying along near her on its graceful wings. Like her, it seemed to be an expert manipulator of her dream, for though it looked to need air as much as she did, it didn’t suffocate or struggle.

Learning another language had been a momentous intellectual endeavor back when the woman had been a physical being, with limits to her concentration and memory as well as the speed of her conscious thoughts. None of those limits remained with her now. Even at the greatest possible speed (and perhaps because of it) the whole process involved enormous effort, leaving her as close to “exhausted” as it was now possible to be.

The last woman found her way to her favorite rock, one with a surface she had worn down with thousands of uses. She added a little more wear by plopping herself down, hands folded in her lap as she processed all that she now knew. Language, after all, conveyed a great deal about the species that created it. For instance, her alien companion had nearly a dozen different words for “friend”, but “evil,” “mean,” “wicked,” and even “sociopathic” fit under a single word like “bad.” Her intellect had always been considerable, and stripped from her physical limits the woman considered all of these things simultaneously, as the quantum computers of her home had done.

“Why dost thou watch?” The words of her visitor were no longer distorted. Though it must now know it, it did not speak in the English she had taught it, but in its own tongue. The one she now knew was called “Equestrian.” The question came with a gesture, towards the planet far below. Terrible war echoed again and again, the same lives spent over and over. Unlike the real war, the one in her imagination had left no survivors. Only the woman herself, to wander so long that she forgot even her own name.

“Because I must,” she answered, not bothering to hide the despair those words brought. She used the alien’s own tongue to answer, as much for the novelty as anything else. She was probably the first human ever to learn an alien language. She might also be the last. “Nobody else can. If I forget them, then it will be like they never existed. But so long as I remember, then it will still matter that they lived. I won’t let the universe forget us.”

The alien was silent for some time, sitting down on her haunches in a way that must be more comfortable than it looked. Different skeleton. She (the woman could tell it was a she) watched the death of Earth beside her. The flashes of nuclear fire, stations plummeting from their orbits. Death, death, death.

“Art thou the last survivor?”

“No.” The woman flicked her hand behind her, at the massive metal structures rising there. “I was a child when the war began. I was born there, but grew here.”

“Thou wast sent to spread the tale, then? To warn others of thy foley?”

“No.” The woman’s hands curled into fists. “I was sent to save those who survived.”

“How?”

“I… I don’t remember,” she eventually admitted. “I knew once… but the trip has been so long that I forgot. I was…” She strained, reaching for more of her human experiences. The ones she had earned while she still had a body. “Sent somewhere. To a planet. Far away. I…” A smile began to stretch across her face. It was the first in a very long time. “I volunteered. Everyone before me died. I didn’t.”

The world drew closer, growing even more grossly out-of-proportion in the dark sky. The woman found herself shuddering as the awful death drew closer, her concentration beginning to fracture. She could hear a voice screaming in her memory; her mother’s voice. The agony of it nearly drove her mad. “Stop!” She shuddered. “I can’t! No closer!” She whimpered, pulling her legs to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. “I knew you could be no different… I knew you had come to torture me. They always do.” She buried her face in her arms. “Just get it over with.”

None followed. Instead came a flash of confusion, followed by a wave of guilt and concern. The illusion of Earth returned to its place in the sky. She turned away from that image and focused all her attention on the frightened woman, resting one of those massive wings on her shoulder. “Not so. I have not come to destroy, but to heal.” She said something else then, something quiet and confident. The woman heard it.

That word caused a shiver of recognition to pass through the woman, and she opened her eyes, wiping frightened tears away with the back of her sleeve. It worked, but smeared her face with lunar mud. “How do you know-”

“Your name?” The mare with the sky in her hair leaned down. “We saw thy memories. Saw the nightmares.” Her voice grew softer, as though she were speaking to a small child. Despite their similarity in size, that was how she began to feel. Even the many years she had experienced alone gave her nothing compared to this mighty creature. “There is healing if thou wish it. An end to the nightmares. Thou need not torture thyself to remember the fallen. Of all ponies, I ought to know.”

She sat up, collecting herself. Removing the threat of the torture she thought had been coming after all was a powerful motivator, but the newcomer had done even more than that. She had given her hope. “I don’t think you know the sort of patient I am.” She looked down at her hands, shivering. “I gave up my body. I don’t think my species evolved to survive much of what I have seen. There might not be healing for me anymore.”

The compassion she felt from the alien did not waver. “I too considered myself beyond redemption. It need not be so. As thou sayest, thou art a spirit. It need not be so any longer. It would be impossible to heal you here, just as it would be impossible to aid your nation in death.” She extended a hoof. “Come and see.”

She imagined it very much like a handshake offered to seal a contract. Of course, she knew on some level that being restored to a body was not impossible. Her own would be kept on ice awaiting her return even now. Being physical again had its disadvantages, but… considering even her endless years had failed to present a way to interact with the physical world, she couldn’t help but see this as a golden opportunity. Whatever her mission was, she couldn’t accomplish it in “death.”

“If you saw some of my memories, you saw what I looked like. Can you recreate that body?” She held out one of her hands, turning it over in the sunlight. “This body? Only alive?”

The mare did not retract her hoof, though she did frown a little. “If it were possible, we would. It is not. Perhaps in time, but we may make no promises. Life as thou hast known it might not survive on our world.”

The last woman considered that for a very long time, at least so far as she now reckoned it. Only moments past in the true, waking world, if even that. “I… I haven’t ever had four legs before.” She took the extended hoof, gripping it firmly in her hand. “Devoting my whole existence just to remembering them doesn’t do them any good. Helping would be better.”

“Indeed.” The pony shook her hand, then shrugged free. Her horn began to glow with energy, though She could not know what that could mean. “We will cause thou to sleep. Some little time will be required to prepare. Sleep now in peace; we have the authority to grant thou this small boon at least.”

She felt it; whatever strange force was contained inside that horn, it did have the power to make her sleep. Sleep, something she had not experienced since she had left her body behind. Yet she fought it, at least for a while. “Wait! Before… Before you go, tell me your name. It’s only fair… you know mine.”

The mare stopped, the glow fading from her horn. “We suppose that… would be so.” She smiled faintly. “The ponies of Equestria call me Princess Luna. There are many titles, but we find these frivolous and unnecessary. Luna will suffice, just as we refrained from the use of thy titles.” Her smile widened slightly. “This is what friends do among your species, yes?”

She tried to return the smile. “Yes… I suppose it is.”

* * *

The last woman was not conscious of time then as it passed within her endless dream. This was no punishment for her, but rather a great relief. As a result of her sleep, she was not conscious of any time without the strange alien who called herself “Luna.” When next she woke, stirring abruptly in her seat beside her familiar crater, she found the midnight mare already waiting beside her.

She also felt different. It was hard to identify exactly what felt different, but something certainly did. When was the last time she had felt this awake? She really had been missing her sleep. Maybe she should’ve tried dreaming herself up some valium before now. “Greetings.” The glowing pony inclined her head. “I am sorry not to wake you sooner. It has taken time to arrange that which we discussed.”

She rose, bowing very slightly to the royal mare. She might not be a citizen of the mare’s nation, or even its planet, but Luna was the first (and only) friendly being to visit her in all the years of her wandering. “Don’t worry about it.” She smiled slightly. “I didn’t even dream.”

“I would expect not,” the horse-like creature agreed. “You were dreaming already. It would have been no rest at all to send you to another. I could not risk this spell would collapse by attempting such a thing.”

She didn’t know what to make of that, though she knew she didn’t like the use of the word “spell.” Something to do with the sort of person she’d been before her “death,” though she couldn’t remember specifically what sort of person that had been. She resisted the urge to start walking again. She felt so alert, so full of energy, that she couldn’t remain still anymore. “I assume you woke me because you’re ready now?”

Luna nodded. “I have already made the first of many changes, altering your pattern somewhat to help you accept Equestrian magic to stabilize yourself. The results have been… dramatic.” The tone was uncomfortable, something she hadn’t sounded yet.

“Is that why I feel so much more awake?” She remembered very little about the nature of her present consciousness, besides the fact she had suffered much pain to get there.

“I believe so. The spell summons forth magical energy sufficient for thy embodiment. When the process is complete, a spell will be cast to create a physical form as closely matched to thy spirit as possible.”

“You’ll be casting this spell?”

Luna looked… disappointed? No, that wasn’t quite right. It was too hard to read the emotions of a being far vaster than herself. “No, but fear not. Another pony just as capable has been given the task.” Luna advanced a pace towards her, eyes flashing like falling stars. “Before that time comes, we wish the answer to a question that has pressed upon my sister and I.”

She nodded. “I’m in no place to refuse demands… if it weren’t for you, I’d just keep drifting forever.” She forced her eyes away from the sky and her planet reflected there, using the pony’s stellar mane to capture her attention instead. No planet died there.

“Art thou one of the builders?” Along with the question came a string of images. She could make little sense of them. Another being, fiercely loyal as he died in an alien war. All knowledge somehow circumscribed together in a single object, a great cube. Cities, skyscrapers, and beautiful music.

“Yes,” came her reply. “Only, we’ve never called ourselves that. We used the name ‘human’ instead.” She took a breath. “Why aren’t you casting the spell? You know me, my tongue, my people. There can’t be many others who do.”

Luna sat on her haunches, looking up at the stars. “We… I… wished to. But creating life includes responsibilities I could not afford to accompany my responsibilities ruling Equestria. Tho- you will likely be helpless upon arrival, like a foal. I have been mother to mortal ponies before, but…” she shook her head vigorously. “I’m not ready to do it again so soon.”

Luna gestured, and she sat down beside her. She didn’t really want to, but she had no desire to disobey her savior. She felt one of the soft, feathery wings fold against her shoulder.

“Fear not. It is my responsibility to watch over the dreams of all Equestrians. That will soon include you. Even if I am not your mother, I will remain in contact. Together, we will overcome your nightmares. Just… not tonight.“

“What will we do tonight?”

Luna’s smile was clearly genuine this time. “Magic.”

Chapter 1: The Filly With No Name

Chapter One: The Filly with no Name

It was an ordinary day in Ponyville, if any day in Ponyville can be said to be ordinary. Ponies went about their peaceful business clueless to the significance of the danger all around them. As usual there was only one pony for miles aware of the significance of the occasion, and that pony was Princess Twilight Sparkle. This wasn’t the first time Celestia had trusted her with something critically important. As she paced back and forth in the library, she ran over the text of the letter again and again, afraid that she might’ve missed something.


Twilight -
A visitor will be arriving in Ponyville who desperately needs your attention. She has the potential to do great damage if not properly dealt with. I don’t expect danger tonight, but keep the elements nearby just in case. There is no greater trust than placing the future of somepony in your hooves. I expect you to give her all the care and attention I gave you.

The letter went on to describe a very particular spell in exquisite detail, something Twilight couldn’t remember Celestia having ever done in any of her letters before. The diagrams were enormously complex, beyond the capabilities of most unicorns. Twilight had spent nearly the entire morning going over the spell, referencing half a dozen different books to try and figure out what its purpose might be. As well-stocked as she kept the library, Twilight had found nothing. It was all she could do to suspect it might very well belong to a school of magic she had never actually learned.

Even stranger had been Celestia’s instructions to go with the spell, giving her an exact location and time it needed to be performed, without a word on what it was supposed to do. It obviously had something to do with the mysterious visitor Celestia had hinted at. Her mentor could sure be infuriating sometimes, giving very little information in order to give her the “opportunity” to figure things out for herself.

A loud knock startled Twilight from her reverie, and her concentration abruptly faltered. The sheaf of papers scattered, and naturally it was completely out of order. It was all she could do to stay calm as she carefully lifted each back into the air, trying to rearrange them in the correct order.

“I’ve got it!” Spike called from somewhere over her shoulder.

“Hi Spike! Is Twilight here?” Spike didn’t have time to reply. Next thing Twilight knew, her friend Pinkie was peeking out at her from behind a nearby bookshelf, startling her so badly that the instructions she was struggling to gather slipped from her grip again. “Hi Twilight!” Pinkie tilted her head to one side. “I thought you had something really important tonight! Shouldn’t you be getting ready or something?”

Twilight sighed. “Yes, Pinkie.” With great effort, Twilight exhaled, scooping up the scattered sheets before looking back to her friend. She was pleased to see Pinkie had remembered her instructions, and was wearing her Element. Whatever else might be said about the earth pony, she could be relied on when it really mattered. “Less than an hour, actually. You didn’t see any of the others on your way here, did you?”

Pinkie stepped calmly into the center of the room, shrugging. “Nope, but don’t worry! I’m sure they’re all on their way over. With how important you made this sound, I’m sure everypony is galloping here right now!”

“How important Princess Celestia made this sound.” Twilight corrected, though she didn’t expect Pinkie to appreciate the distinction much. Still, it seemed her friend was right, because no sooner had Spike returned to his chores than the doorbell rang, in a faint and dignified sort of way. She turned to answer, but as she had expected, Spike darted ahead of her to answer it himself.

“Hello dear!” As usual, Rarity showed no sign she even recognized Spike’s unusual behavior. “Is Twilight in, by chance? It’s just that she visited the boutique this morning, and mentioned something about needing me for some secret assignment from the princess.”

“Yeah…” Was all Spike said, staring at the mare in the doorway.

Twilight very calmly pushed him out of the way with one hoof, opening the door the rest of the way. She was relieved to see Rarity wasn’t alone, but the other Elements had come as well. Even Rainbow Dash, who was notorious for being late to everything. “Please, come in Everypony! We don’t have much time to get ready. According to the princess, everything happens in less than an hour!”

They filed in, crowding around the center of the library in a disorganized gaggle. Twilight faced them, straightened the stack of paper she was still carrying in her magic, trying not to feel as frazzled as she looked. Of course her friends could see the signs of a very stressful day for her, and she smiled at the worry and concern she saw from them. Even if nopony else could understand how serious things were, at least they were there for her. She could always count on the magic of Friendship.

“Would you mind explainin’ exactly what we’ll be doin, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, perhaps the foremost in her concern.

************

They had arrived just in time. As they neared the location Celestia had described in her letter, Twilight could already feel something was different. Even Rarity seemed uncomfortable as they moved in the near darkness, for all that she lacked Twilight’s magical sensitivity. Once they got within half a mile she no longer needed Celestia’s instructions to guide her. She could feel something like a pressure building in the air as if there was already a powerful spell in progress. It was a little like watching Celestia raising the sun, at least in scale.

This magic was nothing like what the princesses wrought, though. This magic was wild and uncomfortable, like someone rubbing against the grain of her fur. As they got closer, Twilight kicked herself into a canter and then a gallop. She had felt magic like this before, but not from the princesses. From Discord. The closer she got, the more glad she was that she had heeded the Princess’s counsel and brought the Elements along. And it wasn’t as though she had anything to worry about, right? Celestia had never put them up against anything they couldn’t handle before.

“Alright girls, just like we talked about.” Her friends surrounded the focus of the strange energy, which at this distance was visible to magical and mundane senses both. They stood in the center of an open, empty field, perhaps a quarter mile from the edge of the Everfree and at least that far from the path that eventually led to Zecora’s hut. A light breeze had changed to a wind blowing away from the center of the field, bending flowers and grass and sending fallen leaves and other debris scattering. Twilight herself could see… what was it?

It was not so much a living thing as it was a pattern in the air, of immense complexity. Her magical senses behind it as a sphere of sorts, with thousands of onion-like layers. At the same time it was no solid object at all but a wave, like water creating its own shape by reflecting endlessly inward. The thing was absorbing the latent mana of Equestria like a sponge, soaking it up the way a pony that had gone without water for days might drink. It was clear why Celestia had dispatched her so urgently. Magic was absolutely necessary for life to exist. As this object grew, even the grass of the field began to look gray and brittle. She would probably have felt weak herself were it not for the torrent flowing into the object from all around them, sustaining her and her friends.

Aside from the wind the night was almost silent, but Twilight found herself practically shouting as she took careful steps toward the object, her friends looking on with clear apprehension. “Get ready!” She told them all. “I’m only strong enough to try this once. If it looks like I’m losing, use your elements! We can’t let this thing get any closer to Ponyville!”

“Got it!” Rainbow Dash called, shouting to her from perhaps twenty meters away.

“Don’t worry dear, we’ll be right here watching. We won’t let that dreadful thing get the better of you!”

Only Pinkie looked less than her best. The strange magical effects in the clearing looked to be wreaking havoc on her. Twilight could see from the center that her mane had lost much of its usual volume, and she watched the exact center of the circle with immense fear and suspicion.

Twilight stood perhaps ten hooves from the structure. This near, she could feel it pulling the strength from her. She hoped she hadn’t delayed too long, that she wouldn’t get even the one chance. Twilight gritted her teeth, and cast one of the most difficult spells of her life.

It became clear immediately that however strange the spell Celestia had given her, it was exactly what she needed now. The purple glow from her horn began very faintly, not much brighter than the light spell she had used to help illuminate their way here in the dark. As she twisted her mind and concentration into the patterns she had carefully memorized, the light began to shape itself into a structure of its own, growing brighter as it wrapped itself around the thing in the air. As the spell grew, she became conscious of something else passing between herself and the structure. Thoughts.

“Another! It’s just like the nightmare said!”

Twilight had easily lost concentration earlier, but she would not lose it now. The spell demanded every fiber of her conscious mind, so she could not reply. She could only ignore the profound feeling of being watched, analyzed and catalogued by something vast and alien. The spell drained her strength faster than any she had before attempted, but Twilight muscled through the pain. Each of her friends had something to contribute to the Elements of Harmony. For her it might be well said that her contribution was magic.

“You’re wrong.” The voice said. Twilight had no spare mental energy to contemplate how strange it sounded, lacking gender or emotion. It was even stranger than Discord, though thankfully she had never had the displeasure of that being invading her head. “It won’t work, I already tried. Over and over and over. I-“

Twilight released the spell. All the energy, the greatest investment of power she had ever produced, went blasting from her horn. Her eyes glowed with the reflected light of phenomenal power, which illuminated the center of the field in a column of purple brilliance that stretched up and up into Luna’s perfect sky. The thamatalogical force took every ounce of her strength, and Twilight was unconscious before the light had faded. Still, she had done it. The invisible structure of energy and intent was gone from the field, as well as the spiraling magical dead-zone. Ponyville was saved, and perhaps all of Equestria.

************

“You were right.” The voice sounded different than the first time Twilight had heard it. No longer was it remote and strange, but very near. She opened her eyes to find something that should’ve been impossible waiting for her. She rested in pale grey sand. She felt drained and weak, completely exhausted from the spell, but forced herself to sit up anyway.

She sat at the crest of a hill, which slopped off dramatically into an enormous depression unlike anything she had ever seen on Equestria. It was a crater, the likes of which she might observe on the surface of the moon using a telescope. The dry gray sand under her was finer than any she had felt before, and seemed to reflect the light of some distant source. Her seat was stable, which was very fortunate. As she saw the strange figure beside her, she jolted and struggled to right herself, finding her coordination was somewhat lacking.

“Careful. There’s not much gravity here. Might go bouncing right down into the crater.” The being had an indistinct outline that was more shadow than form, but the outlines formed there were not Equestrian. It sat on a large stone not far from her, and looked to be quite a bit taller than she was, perhaps nearly at a height with one of the princesses. Even as she watched, the thing reached one long appendage down to the ground beside it, lifted a rock in spindly fingers, and hefted it over the edge of the crater. The stone flew much further than she would have naturally expected, soaring a quarter of a mile or so before it came to a rest near the bottom far away.

The being seemed to sense it was being watched, though Twilight could not see enough of the details to make out a face or what emotions it might be feeling, assuming it even had them. “I always aim for the lander, but no matter how hard I throw, I can’t hit it. Suppose it wouldn’t be hard to alter gravity, but that feels like cheating. Like it would make the simulation less real if I didn’t use the same constants.”

The being was speaking Equestrian flawlessly. If anything, it had a little of a Canterlot accent, like the neighborhood where Twilight Sparkle had grown up. But though she understood its words, she could not comprehend its meaning. Still, she could follow the way it seemed to be looking, even if she couldn’t see any eyes. Far away, on the other side of the crater, Twilight could make out strange metal shapes, like a four-legged animal covered in reflective gold. Beside it was a flag, too small and distant to make out what symbols might be there, and something like a cart without anywhere to hitch a pony to it on the front. At least, she thought she saw that. These objects seemed strange and unimportant, and she quickly returned her attention to the speaker.

“Princess Celestia told me you would be coming.” She said, trying to sound braver than she felt. Was it her imagination, or did the figure seem to be getting smaller? It was hard to tell, but the more scrutiny she gave it, the more the shadows seemed to be melting. It was like watching the snow after the Winter Wrap-up. The melting was very slow, but it was definitely happening. “Who are you? What are you doing in Equestria?”

There was a pause, and she felt the scrutiny of the strange being upon her again. Now that she wasn’t spellcasting any more, it hardly seemed so frightening. It was more fearful than anything, like an animal she had startled that was debating a speedy retreat. “I can only answer one of your questions.” It said after a pause. “Because I don’t remember the answer to the first question. I know…” There was another pause. The voice seemed to shift up in pitch slightly when it resumed speaking such that it was distinctly female now. “I like coming up here. Looking down at the earth. It’s right there, see? Not like it looks now, but how it used to. The blue, the green. It’s beautiful.”

That wasn’t an answer, but Twilight followed the being’s gesture. It might have strange thin limbs and a stretched body, but some forms of communication seemed universal. There was an object of some kind far away, a round something in the far distance. Twilight had no word for “planet”, since in her world there was only Equestria. It was unlike anything she had seen, it defied the very laws of the universe she had come from. There was a sort of beauty in the glowing sphere of blue and green as it reflected a distant sun. Seeing it just made Twilight long for home. Just how had she gotten here, anyway?

“I don’t remember how I left. That thing you did, just now. It’s… I’m changing. Forgetting.” The figure was barely taller than she was now, and seemed to be changing in other ways now. The longer she watched, the more it seemed the outline hadn’t been so unfamiliar after all. Had she been completely sure she wasn’t talking to another pony? “I’m not mad or anything.” She reached down, seeming to struggle to lift another stone, and heft it into the crater. It didn’t travel half as far before impacting the dirt and rolling to a stop. The figure seemed to stare at the object in the sky, which gradually changed. Blues and greens changed to grays and browns. Was this what it looked like to see a world die? “I’m not sure, but I think I wanted to leave.”

Even as she watched, the figure finally seemed to grow definitive. It had been a pony sitting on the stone. A filly in fact, with a soft green coat and yellow mane. Twilight felt herself relaxing as the shadowy presence vanished. If anything, she found herself wondering just how she could have mistaken the poor creature so badly. The light of the dead gray world cast everything in gray, made it look like the color and strength had been drained from her somehow. Only Twilight herself retained her natural hue as the light began to fade.

“I hope… you’ll help me. But no matter what, thanks. For the second chance.”

**********

“Twilight! Twilight, you’ve gotta get up!” The voice was worried and urgent, and also familiar.

“S-spike?” Twilight moaned. Unlike her vision on the strange moon, her exhaustion and soreness was almost crippling in the real world. The effort it took to open her eyes was monumental. Once they were open, she was greeted with a familiar face. Spike looked seriously concerned, and behind him were all her best friends. “The Library? How did we…” She was in her own bedroom. The window was still open, and it was clearly still night outside.

Pinkie Pie was the first to speak. “It was that thing! Everything was getting heavy, but then you were like, BSHWWWWWW! And it was like, VWWWWWW POW! And you were like, ahhhh!”

“Uh…”

“You collapsed, dear. Once you had put on that dazzling display, it seemed as though you were simply exhausted. Applejack here carried you back, and we’ve been here worrying about you ever since.”

Her strength seemed to be coming back, however slowly. She managed to rise into an awkward sitting position so she could get a better look around. Everypony looked happy to see her awake, but she could tell at a glance there was something she wasn’t being told. Like they were hesitant to upset her by telling her something they knew she wouldn’t like. “What?” She asked, as if by staring at their faces long enough she might pierce their hesitation and figure out what was really going on. “Did that spell turn me blue or something?”

“That would be awesome!” Rainbow Dash broke the silence, though she looked as nervous as any of the others. “But…”

“Fer’ cryin’ out loud.” Applejack sounded a little frustrated, and she stepped forward to explain. “That spell of yours, did you know it was gonna make a pony?”

As her faculties began to return in earnest, Twilight noticed that her friends were all standing together, as if they were trying to shield something from her vision. As Applejack spoke they parted. Somepony had spread a blanket on the ground. Resting atop it was. “Second… Chance…” She repeated the little filly’s last words as she stared, remembering the crushing depression she had seen as the filly watched her planet die on the alien moon. In the candlelight of her bedroom her pastel green fur was exactly the shade of the green planet Twilight had watched fade to gray.

The little unicorn filly was curled up tightly, her coat looking as though it had been recently groomed. She had no Cutie Mark, nothing that might hint at her identity other than her last words in that other universe she had reconstructed in Twilight’s mind.

“You know her?” That was Spike, standing beside the strange filly. Her friends all seemed to be keeping their distance from her, but he showed no sign of their fear. He hadn’t felt the magical riptide, or the alien shape made from magic in the air. To him she was just another filly, with a sad expression on her sleeping face.

“I, um… don’t think so, Spike.” Fluttershy spoke very quietly, though none of them had any trouble hearing her. Even addled Twilight was too used to this to miss a word of it. “See, this, um… this…”

Twilight startled them all by rising to her hooves. She felt stronger by the moment. She wasn’t going to be casting any more major spells tonight, but at least she had the strength to move again. She had a good feeling that before too long she was going to be in for a nice long sleep. Tomorrow she would probably outdo Rainbow Dash’s capacity for sleeping late. But for tonight, she walked past her friends and to the edge of the blanket. Both Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked as though they were about to reach out and prevent her, but neither did. Twilight Sparkle felt no fear anymore, and she bent down to nuzzle the little creature like a mother might do. The filly opened one tired eye, and gazed up at her with the gray of her dying planet. Her frown turned to a smile and she closed her eye again, peacefully asleep.

“Celestia said we would be getting an important visitor, not an invader.” She turned to face her friends, standing between them and the strange new filly. “I don’t know much about her yet. But when I cast that spell, I saw into her thoughts for a second.” She glanced once behind her, at the little sleeping filly. “I know what Celestia meant. She’s from another world. Somewhere sad and very far away.”

“Like the Everfree?” Pinkie asked. “Wait, no. I wish the Everfree was further away. Can’t be.”

“Much further.” Twilight confirmed. “I think she was trying to get away, so she came here. She wanted my help…” That last she muttered very quietly to herself, even more than Fluttershy.

Her friends still looked skeptical, but far less fearful than they had seemed earlier. Applejack voiced the objection that seemed to be on everyone’s mind. “What about when she first got here? That business with the magic was mighty unsettlin’.”

Twilight nodded. “I know. I still don’t really understand that, or why she needed Celestia’s spell to stop.” She paused, collecting her resolve. “She can stay here with me. Until I can figure out what’s going on, I don’t see any reason not to make her feel as welcome as anypony else in Equestria.”

Author's Notes:

A/N: Hey everybody! Never written MLP Fanfiction before, so I hope you’ll go easy on me at first as I figure out what I’m doing. I’ve read so many different Equestria/Earth connection stories, but I never found a story that was quite what I was looking for. I’m excited to begin this literary journey with all of you! I look forward to your comments, and hope to be prompt in my responses.

Oh, and an extra- special thanks to the wonderful Zutcha for the fantastic art!

Chapter 2: Pancakes

Chapter 2: Pancakes

The filly named Second Chance had never slept so soundly in her life. Not that she had much to compare it to. As a matter of fact, she could remember very little of anything, and nothing about sleeping. Most of what she could remember was from the night before. A field lit by a full moon, with tall grass swaying under a breeze. Being burned and sore and weak. A bumpy ride on the back of something pink and warm. Then some healing cream for her burns and a bath in cool water.

That was it. As she began to stir in her makeshift bedding, she struggled to put together anything more than her immediate memories. But when she reached back, all she could grasp was an endless blackness spotted with stars. This was not a pleasant memory, so she stopped trying to think about it and focused on what had roused her in the first place: the smell.

She kept her eyes closed and inhaled deeply through her snout, smiling at the buttery scent. Pancakes. She knew what pancakes were, and it was a fond knowledge. Besides, she was hungry! At least, she was pretty sure that was what that feeling meant. There was something strange and unfamiliar to the sensations she was feeling. As if her limbs weren't where she expected them to be. She felt like something was painfully, obviously missing, but she couldn't figure out what it was. Did it have something to do with how warm she felt? She couldn't remember her name, but she knew she wouldn't lie here all day when there was food nearby.

The first thing she did was open her eyes and look around. The soft shades of living wood were all around her, the ceiling high and far away. She could not see the sun, which must mean she was inside. The sky outside was gray, and rain was pattering comfortably on the roof above her. Almost everything she saw seemed to be made of wood, more than she had ever seen in one place before. She felt like there was something valuable about all this wood together in one place, but for her it just made her feel safe.

When it was clear to her that she was in no danger in her present position, she tried to sit up. Her body responded and she struggled to a standing position. Unfortunately, she swiftly learned that standing purely on her hind-legs wasn't as easy as she expected. Rather than rise gracefully from the bed, she tried to stand and fell on her belly, her hooves crashing on the wooden floor. A few more attempts proved no more successful, though made plenty of noise on the wooden floor. It was only on her last attempt that she managed to catch herself with her forelegs. Once in this position, she didn’t wobble or fall over as she had expected. Indeed, it seemed going on four legs was natural for her. Why did that bother her so much?

“Ummm, is everything alright?” The voice came from behind her, so unexpectedly that she squealed and fell over sideways, whimpering. “Guess not.”

She kicked and struggled, having never righted herself from such a fall before. As she did, a figure came into view from beside her. A bipedal creature, with purple scales and bright green spines. His eyes were quite large, along with his head. His claws were sharp, and were very close to her face. He might’ve been frightening despite his size, were he not wearing a pink apron and holding a spatula. She stopped struggling and giggled instead.

The lizard-creature stopped, eying her warily. “Oh, sure. Laugh all you want. Bet you’ll stop when you try my pancakes.”

Her giggling stopped at once, eyes growing intent.

“I thought so.” He folded his arms, looking down in mock soberness. “Say you’re sorry!”

She opened her mouth, trying to reply. But the words seemed slow in coming, almost as though she had forgotten how to speak. This discovery turned quickly to fear. Maybe she had! Maybe she wouldn’t be able to communicate with the people of this place, wherever it was. She would be trapped forever in her own mind, and they would think she was awful and mean and abandon her and she would freeze out in the cold. Heck, she couldn’t even walk!

This fear proved in vain. With a little effort, she managed to coerce her lips into forming the word. “S-sorry.” Her voice was higher than she had expected, but it was unmistakably hers! Her grin got bigger, and her legs twitched a little in excitement.

It wasn’t as though she could stay lying here all day. With renewed confidence, she pulled her legs close to her body and rolled, standing more confidently this time. The motion seemed to come naturally when she didn’t fight it, as though her body knew what to do better than she did. And perhaps it did. Maybe the less she tried to control her movements, the easier they would be. That was confusing.

The lizard-thing watched her apprehensively, seeming quite relieved when she didn’t fall over again. “You can walk, right? Ponies still walk in whatever world you come from.”

The lizard spoke casually, but the words held so much meaning they gave her pause. The word ‘ponies’ meant something to her, but not the same thing the lizard seemed to mean. The way he used ‘world’ seemed to imply he knew she was from somewhere else. That had to be good! Maybe he knew how to get her home! She closed the distance between them rapidly, and standing seemed to be a little taller than he was.

Her motion was so abrupt it seemed to take the reptilian being off-guard, though he didn’t move away from her. “Yes!” She said, nodding vigorously. “I walked all the time! Do you know what world I’m from? How did I get here? What are you? Why is everything made of wood? Why do I have four legs?”

It was the lizard’s turn to laugh. “I think most of that’s for Twilight to tell you, she’s the magic expert. I can tell you about me though! I’m Spike! The ferocious and powerful dragon!” He stood a little taller and more erect, but rather than making him look more imposing this only emphasized the lacy white-and-pink apron. If Spike the dragon noticed her stifled giggle, he took it impressively in stride. “What’s your name?”

Her smile faded, and she looked back blankly. She remained in this position for several awkward seconds before muttering. “I… can’t remember.”

Spike frowned. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. Twilight said it might be Second Chance. You talked in her mind… more magic stuff, I guess.”

The name was new to her, but at the same time, it seemed to fit. She wondered what her friends might think if they could see her. Then she wondered what a friend was. “Yeah!” She nodded vigorously. “That’s it!” She looked away from Spike, walking past him toward the stairs. She was walking fairly easily now, so long as she didn’t think about it. “Those pancakes smell ready.”

The dragon nodded. “Yup! We better get down there before they get cold!” He took off down the stairs, moving on two legs all the way. This seemed like the way she ought to be moving, and thinking that made her stumble and fall again. She was fortunate that she hadn’t actually started descending the stairs, or else she might have made it down faster than was probably safe. Even so she whimpered, shaking away the strange bipedal thoughts before rising again. Whatever her befuddled memory might be telling her, it was abundantly clear she was meant to walk on four legs. What had Spike called her, a pony? Ponies moved on four legs, so far as she remembered. A brief image of a brown furred animal came to mind, along with the image of bales of hay and rolling fields of something green and brown called corn.

Then the vision faded, and she returned her attention to the stairs. At the bottom of those stairs she could see shelves covered in books, and a large open space probably meant as a peaceful area to read in. Very slowly Second Chance took the steps, one at a time. She kept her thoughts focused on the hunger she felt, and the promise of buttery relief only a few meters away.

Her hooves proved to grip the rough wood better than she expected, and she did not slip or fall all the way down. Maybe her balance was getting better the longer she remained awake, or maybe it was the hunger. Either way, she made it down to the landing and the wide open area with the books. There was an open doorway not far away, and the smell seemed to be coming from beyond. She trotted eagerly inside.

The little dragon seemed to be an adept cook, even if he had to stand on a stool to reach the burners on the stove he was cooking with. A large metal tray had already been piled high with round, perfect-looking pancakes. There was a table against a wall already made up with all the condiments and accessories Second Chance expected to find there, along with low benches around it and one tall chair she guessed was for the dragon. She didn’t have to be told to take one of the three places that had been made up, plopping herself down on the bench.

“Twilight should be here any second. I made an extra-large batch since she’s always hungry after doing magic.” He carried the tray over to the table, placing it in the center where they would all be able to get to it easily. There seemed to be two separate piles on the tray. The largest seemed to be made with berries, and the smaller with… rocks? Little red stones, glinting in the grey light from outside. The rain was still coming down, and it obscured Chance’s view of whatever might be out there. From her low vantage point so close to the ground, all she could see was sky. “I bet she wouldn’t mind if we started without her. There’s no telling when she’ll get back from Canterlot.” The dragon leaned a little closer to the tray, his eyes focused on the top of the smaller stack as though it were his prey about to make its escape.

For some reason it seemed wrong to her to begin eating without her host. No doubt this person named “Twilight” was the one whose house this was. The name seemed familiar to her for other reasons, even if she couldn’t precisely identify what those were. Something with lots of grey rock and a distant blue-green ball, but that image didn’t make any sense so she dismissed it. “Spike?” She knew it would’ve felt nice if people had held a meal for her. Maybe she could do the same thing for Twilight. “Who is Twilight?”

This seemed to startle the dragon, who straightened at once and dropped his spatula. He glanced over his shoulder, as if he expected to see someone standing right behind him. There wasn’t anyone there though, and he looked back to her, relaxing. “Oh, yeah. Twilight. Her full name is Twilight Sparkle. Or Princess Twilight Sparkle, since she’s the newest Princess of Equestria. You’re very lucky Twilight was the one to find you. Except for Celestia, there’s nopony better at magic, not anywhere! I’m not really sure what happened last night, but apparently it was all pretty scary when you got here. Twilight made sure nothing bad happened.”

Second Chance listened intently, distracted from her hunger and its potential relief only hooves away. She began a mental list of everything she knew about Twilight. She lived in a library, which probably meant she was smart. She was apparently really good at magic, whatever that was. She had touched her mind somehow. She was a princess, which meant royalty. That was like a ruler, right? “Do you think Twilight Sparkle can tell me why everything’s messed up? It’s like… I try to remember, but everything isn’t where I put it.” She reached up, scratching the side of her head with one hoof. The motion jostled her unruly mane, part of which went tumbling down in front of her eyes. It was bright yellow. That seemed strange, though she couldn’t say why. “If that makes any sense.”

“No, not really.” Spike answered, honestly. “But if anyone can tell you, I’m sure Twilight can! That’s actually why she went to Canterlot! The Royal Library has some of the oldest and rarest books in Equestria. So maybe she’ll come back with a book that can help!”

Second Chance sighed, letting her foreleg fall to where it had been resting before. Then she sat up, looking suddenly intent. “Are all books written by dragons?”

Spike seemed taken aback by the inquiry. He took a moment to collect himself, giggling a little before hopping up into the chair that was clearly his. “Not most of them. Most dragons just sorta collect jewels and gems and gold and stuff. Why?”

The filly lifted one of her hooves above the table again, thrusting it toward Spike to make her point clear. He just stared at her. After a few seconds, she grew exasperated and supplied the obvious answer. “I couldn’t write like this! It’s almost flat… I couldn’t hold a pen!”

Spike burst out laughing, and kept it up long enough to make her blush, sagging a little into her seat and trying to hide under the lip of the table. Her ears drooped, though she barely even registered that was happening. “W-wait, you’re serious?” His tone communicated absolute disbelief. “Is that what your world is like? Do none of the ponies there know how to write?”

Chance shook her head somewhat nervously. It seemed half of what she said ended up with her being laughed at. As friendly as the dragon seemed to be, she couldn’t help but be painfully reminded of her ignorance when in his company. “It’s just… I dunno how anyone would write with hooves.”

He seemed to realize what he was doing, because he didn’t laugh at what she said, not even a giggle. “If you needed claws to do stuff, everypony would be in trouble. I don’t know how to explain it, since I’ve got claws. But you’re a unicorn, so you’ve got magic to make it easy.” He gestured at her head, as if something there would explain everything.

She hardly felt like that explained anything. “I don’t have magic.” She repeated that last with disdain. When she thought about magic, she remembered cheap tricks and slight-of-hand. She remembered silly things, something people used to explain away the parts of the world that didn’t make sense. It wasn’t something real, not like Brownian motion or Hawking radiation was real. “Nobody does. There’s no such thing as magic.” She sounded confident then, perhaps the most confident she had sounded so far.

Spike did not have a chance to reply. He opened his mouth as though he were about to, but then there was a loud popping sound from a room over, along with a brief flash of white light from the open doorway. In from the library walked Princess Twilight Sparkle.

She was big, even from where Chance sat upright at the table. The purple mare wore matching saddle-bags heavily stuffed with books, and she looked a little scorched around the edges. Like she had just walked too close to a bonfire. As she watched the Princess named Twilight walk calmly into the room, her eyes abruptly went wide and she fell backward out of her seat, landing painfully on her back.

Second Chance saw through the world. For a second everything was gray, transparent. She saw through the table, through the pancakes, even through Spike. The purple Alicorn stretched to incredible height, a brilliant halo of energy burning from her horn and radiating from her eyes. This was not a creature of matter, not entirely. She stood as it were in higher and lower realms both, dangerously close to where her own existence was concealed. Before this torch she was an ember, eclipsed and in danger of being swallowed.

Then the moment passed. Her sight returned to normal, and she was sprawled on her back. She couldn’t see the being of frightening power she had briefly witnessed, though she could still sense the power nearby. She did hear another voice, one she could only assume belonged to Twilight. She expected something loud, angry, something to shake the house all around her. That was not what she heard. “I’m sorry if I startled you, are you alright?”

Something strange happened then. A slight lavender shimmer seemed to engulf her, tingling on her skin. Force lifted her slowly through the air, setting her upright on the bench by the table. Only when she was stably planted did the shimmering fade, and with it the light emanating from the horn on Twilight’s head. So that was magic, huh?

She didn’t look so frightening now, so long as she didn’t look with anything but her eyes. She did look… regal? Second Chance couldn’t say what made her feel that way. Her eyes went to the horn, then to the wings folded at Twilight’s sides. Somehow she knew that was a reflection of something bigger, though she lacked the language to properly describe it.

Of course, she’d also been sitting there staring, and Twilight smiled awkwardly. “Uh… is that a no?”

She shook her head hastily, though she was afraid to meet the Alicorn’s eyes directly. “N-no! I… I mean yes! I mean…” She stopped, whimpering. Why could she talk to the dragon so easily but not to the pony who had apparently saved her life? “I’m fine.” She leaned back, bracing her hooves on the underside of the table so she wouldn’t fall backward.

“So you can talk.” Twilight relaxed visibly, shrugging out of the saddle-bags and levitating them back into the other room.

“She sure does!” Spike supplied. Now that Twilight had arrived, he began serving the pancakes flipping them expertly with his spatula onto their three plates. “You wouldn’t believe the things she’s told me about the world she came from, Twilight! She said nopony has any magic and all the books are written by dragons!”

“Really?” Twilight raised an eyebrow as she sat down, seeming to suspect what Chance was about to say.

“That’s not what I said!” She defended, though in truth the dragon was only half wrong. Still, there had been something she didn’t like in Spike’s expression when she had mentioned magic. Somehow she’d felt as though she had misspoke, and she didn’t want to make that same mistake with such an important pony. The pony to whom she apparently owed a great deal.

Spike looked hurt, but Twilight raised a hoof to silence him. “Later Spike. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about where you’re from after breakfast. You wouldn’t believe how hungry I get after teleporting so far.” She smiled sheepishly, even as the pitcher of syrup lifted itself from the table and poured itself richly over the stack of pancakes on her plate.

Second Chance stared openly at this open display of magic, watching in absolute amazement. Her memory might be a mess, but it was very clear on this point: levitation should not be possible.

Twilight seemed to interpret this glance completely differently. “Oh, how rude of me! Would you like some?” At a weak nod, the syrup levitated over to her plate, pouring a liberal portion down for her. That done, the knife and fork lifted into the air above Twilight’s plate. It was exactly how Chance expected someone to eat, except that there were no hands holding the utensils and that was apparently a big deal.

“How do you…” She muttered, trying to find the most polite way to express what she was thinking. It was better than just staring at the Alicorn eat. Besides, she wasn’t exactly sure how she was supposed to eat, under the circumstances. Spike and Twilight were using utensils, so it wasn’t as though she had any other ideas about how ponies were supposed to eat. “Do that?” She gestured with a hoof at the floating fork and her glowing horn.

Twilight grinned, and tried to reply with her mouth full. “Muhmumh?” Then she paused, realizing what she had done. She held up one hoof, and took her time in swallowing before replying. “So you didn’t do magic where you come from, Second Chance?” The filly shook her head, and Twilight went on. “We can fix that, don’t worry. Levitation is almost universal to unicorns. I think it’ll take a little longer than we have at breakfast, though.” She smiled. “Your pancakes are already getting cold.”

They were already cold. For lack of anything else to do, she simply lowered her head to her plate and started eating. It felt incredibly awkward, but neither Twilight nor Spike gave her a second glance, so she decided this must be a pretty common way to eat. She wasn’t so close to the table as an adult pony would’ve been, so she had to stretch a little. That didn’t take away from the taste, nor did how cool the pancakes had become. She found herself thinking that she was eating the best thing she could remember. The buttery flavor, the sweet savor of the syrup, felt more genuine than anything she could remember. Actually, it was the only meal she could clearly remember.

**********

When it was done and Spike had started on the cleanup, Twilight took her into the library proper and sat her down to have a proper conversation. “On behalf of the princesses, I’d like to welcome you to Equestria.” She smiled as warmly as she could, the way she imagined Celestia might do in her place. Except in the defense of Equestria, Twilight had never observed either princess in any attitude other than kindness toward her fellow beings. If she was going to fill in for them, she ought to have the same attitude. “We do have a few questions for you. I hope you don’t mind. It’s not every day we get a visitor from another Universe!” She levitated over a stack of paper and a quill, preparing to take note of the filly’s responses. She tried to ignore the way Second Chance stared at every little display of magic, and even considered writing with her mouth in the earth-pony way instead, since magic seemed to frighten and amaze the unicorn filly. In that way as well as many others, she seemed not unlike a foal. She made a mental note of that inference, though she wouldn’t write that down in the filly’s presence. She knew from experience that most fillies and colts hated anything that connected them with youth, and would feel deeply wounded at any comparisons between them and foals. She wouldn’t take the risk that Chance would somehow spy out her notes.

Still, when she had been in Canterlot this morning Celestia had been very clear. She was to find out everything she could about the Filly without upsetting her, and return that information to Celestia immediately. Most importantly, she had been assigned to determine if their visitor was dangerous, or heralded some malicious intent. Celestia hadn’t said as much, but Twilight’s mind immediately jumped to the Invasion of Equestria by the Gryphons. Of course she hadn’t been alive back then, so she had no personal memories of the event. But she had read plenty about it, and the misery it had brought to ponies before the eventual peace. If more of the strange magical-devouring objects from the night before starting appearing all over Equestria, it would mean disaster for all three of the tribes.

“I’ll try. I don’t remember very much.” She fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat and refused to meet Twilight’s gaze. Mentally, the Alicorn had already prepared the little spell she had been considering all morning: A truth detection cantrip. The pretext of taking notes meant that the Filly probably wouldn’t think twice about why her horn was glowing.

“Well, we might be able to fix that eventually.” She offered, levitating a few different volumes from the shelves around them closer for Chance’s inspection. “This one’s my favorite.” The filly looked on without comprehension. “Whoops. Don’t know why I thought you would understand Runes if you didn’t learn magic in your world. It’s called ‘A Resourceful Unicorn’s Memory Secrets’. I don’t know how I would’ve passed some of my classes back at Celestia’s academy without some of these spells.”

Her smile did little to reassure the filly. If anything, the green pony only looked more nervous, withdrawing a little into her chair. She never took her eyes off the levitating volumes, as though they were making fun of her. The instant Twilight made this realization, she put them away. “We can worry about that later. It does lead into my first question, though. Magic. Your arrival had some strange effects on the local magic. Do you know why?”

The questioning went on for well over an hour, and by the end she had filled several pages. Unfortunately none of what she was most interested in, concrete information about the world that Second Chance had come from. She had learned plenty of other information though, and it was this she diligently prepared and gave to Spike to send to the Princess immediately.

She had learned the filly was honest, as her truth spell never alerted her to deceit once during their conversation. Even so, it was clear that causing her to remember even minute details about whatever life she had lived before caused her extreme discomfort. Twilight had no desire to cause the filly distress or to interrogate her, so hadn’t pressed. Some answers had come quickly, like the one about whether she or anyone else Chance knew about wanted to harm the ponies of Equestira.

That question had actually provoked a smile, though it hadn’t lasted long. “I couldn’t hurt a world this cute.” She had said, glancing into the kitchen behind them at Spike as he finished the dishes. “Anyway… I don’t think I was the sort of… pony… who hurt things, back there. I wouldn’t know how to do it if I wanted to.”

“What sort of pony were you?” She had asked, excited to explore a realm of questioning that didn’t cause Second Chance discomfort.

Still the filly took a long time to reply, closing her eyes and wrinkling up her face in obvious concentration. Eventually she reached over and took a book from within reach, holding it up with her forelegs. She was very clumsy about the gesture, but Twilight could see what she meant. “The kind who read lots of books.” She sounded very proud, either of the statement itself or her ability to recall it. “And I made lots of…” The book slipped from her hooves into her lap. She hardly seemed to notice as she spoke, totally lost in thought. “Constructs. There were physical, but not. Invisible, but present. Very useful.”

“Magic?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Maybe, though.” She shrugged. “I don’t really remember.”

In other ways Second Chance was not unlike any other filly. After twenty minutes of questioning she started to fidget. After an hour, it was clear her attention was wandering and her answers were getting less focused. Still, her last question had got her attention. “Do you have any plans, Second Chance? Now that you’re here in Equestria.”

She shook her head, looking suddenly nervous instead of simply bored. “I… don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I don’t have money to pay for a house or anything…” She paused, looking around suddenly. “Equestria has money, right?”

Twilight nodded, smiling. “Don’t worry about that, Second Chance. You’re too young to be expected to fend for yourself. There are plenty of wonderful ponies who would love to take in a little filly in need, but I don’t think that’s for the best.” She didn’t want to say as much, but it was abundantly clear the filly was seriously helpless. She stumbled when she moved, she couldn’t handle objects, had no understanding of magic or the wider world. Most parents would simply be unequipped to handle her. Besides, she was an ambassador from another universe! Even if she didn’t remember much about it yet, she had clearly come for a reason. Twilight had felt that powerfully on that moon as she watched that strange world die in the night. Maybe she had ran away to escape it? Or maybe she had been sent as a warning that whatever had happened there would eventually come to Equestria? After all, if someone from her dead world could come here, surely the danger could too.

Twilight had a bad habit of letting her mind extrapolate to the worst possible situation, as she had during countless royal visits and many of her own personal misadventures. She dismissed the frightening thought for one based much more concretely in reality. “If you’re okay with it, Spike and I would be happy to let you stay here with us. I’ve always wanted an apprentice! Spike’s a wonderful assistant, but he couldn’t help with magic. Maybe you could!”

The filly beamed, and in that moment it seemed very difficult for Twilight to tell she wasn’t a native Equestrian after all. Without hesitation or apparent reservation she sprang across the distance and weakly embraced her. “Really?” She seemed practically beside herself with excitement. “You would do that?”

She felt a little awkward returning the filly’s embrace. Twilight had a feeling she had more to learn than Chance did.

Author's Notes:

Hello again everybody! For my first story ever on this site, I had no idea of the level of feedback I was going to get. Thanks everyone who took the time to read or rate or comment. I appreciate those who give me feedback very much, either positive or negative, and I try to implement every suggestion I can. Which isn't to say that I'll change the direction of the story, but I sure will fix the mistakes people point out. I intend to keep a consistent weekly update schedule, so long as projects or finals don't get in the way in a month or two.

Thanks again for your tolerance as I try and wrap my mind around this whole fanfiction thing! Another thank-you to my wonderful artist, Zutcha!

Chapter 3: Winter Dreams

Chapter 3: Winter Dreams

Second Chance was doing something she did every night now: having nightmares. All her memories from before Ponyville were nightmares, and she knew none better than this one.

She was on the moon.

It was a beautiful place, and one that mattered to her more than any place in her memory. She sat on the edge of a massive crater, whose extreme depths were so far away that they were shrouded in shadow. With one kick of a hoof, she stirred up a little cloud of dust that spun through the air around her in slow-motion, dancing in the weak local gravity. There wouldn’t ordinarily be atmosphere either, but considering her strong feelings on that matter there was always air for her to breathe and heat to stop her from freezing. She did not think of that as a mercy. If she had frozen out here, at least she wouldn’t have to see what happened to her planet.

The Earth was rising, as beautiful as she remembered it. Fractal clouds swirled over blue seas, and continents shimmered with green. If she squinted just so, she could almost make out the glint of metal where stations small and great circled in their orbits. They too were beautiful to her, for all the life they represented. Even in the depths of inhospitable space life could grow. Her people had done that, and she was very proud.

Normally in these dreams she would skip rocks down the side of her crater as she sat, hearing nothing once they left the protection of her bubble and skittered down the side of the mountain. It always started beautiful, just like the future of her people had started. Something was different about this dream, something that made it different than all the dreams that had come before.

She didn’t have hands this time, but sat as a pony on the large rock that she had worn smooth by her frequent visits. That didn’t stop her from skipping rocks, though. Since this was a dream, there was nothing preventing her from using her unicorn magic. She might not know the first thing about levitation in real life, but that didn’t matter. She had seen Twilight use the magic almost constantly; so much so that it felt natural to just levitate the stone off the ground and throw it into the crater with far greater force than ordinary muscle could produce.

She felt the shimmer of power as it passed through her bubble, then she could hear nothing but her own breathing as it fell bouncing. For the first time, the rock made it across the crater to the land beyond, where metal and white fabric stood silently against the night. In millions of years the radiation would be gone from Earth’s surface. Every structure and edifice her mighty race had built would weather and be covered by tectonic shift. Whatever race rose to sapience next would have no idea what had come and gone before them, not until they too broke free of the cradle and visited their nearest celestial object. These objects would be silent sentinels for billions of years, free from decay. Here they would remain until the sun had expended all of its hydrogen and began to fuze helium and carbon and on. As it expanded, the earth and moon would be swallowed, and with it humanity’s last fingerprint. Their last proof they had ever lived.

She watched as fire grew like flowers from the earth. Sometimes she tried not to watch, but it didn’t matter. The fire waited. It always waited for her, since it was only here for her to see it. The fire went on for a long while, a million little flashes. Then the smoke would rise, and turn her green planet gray. She had seen this scene a billion billion times. She had all the time in the world. All the time in the universe.

She could not hide from her beloved earth, no matter how long she waited. Her memory compelled her to see, refused to allow her to abandon her mission.

The second unexpected thing happened when she finally got together the courage to look up. There were no flashes tonight, no fire. The fire never came. Her beautiful planet kept on shining, reflecting the light of the distant sun. This shocked her greatly, because she knew this memory would play out exactly as it always did unless it was altered. She could do that, but she never did. She deserved to see what had happened as many times as it took. If she did not feel their pain, who would?

“Thy suffering is for naught, filly. Thy pain cannot restore them to life if thou endure it forever.”

It was the Nightmare. Chance remembered her from dreams before, the ones that had come before Twilight that she could not touch while she was awake because the Nightmare had made her promise. Her voice had come before into her dreams, but never like this. She was too alien for the Nightmare to visit closely. Her form was shadow and smoke, the distortion of a radio signal not coming in clearly. She could usually only stay for moments, which even for beings like them limited the ability to communicate a great deal. Always she looked as though she were in great pain, as though being in her dreams cost her tremendously.

“Nightmare!” She sprung to her hooves, looking away from her beloved earth and down to the majestic princess. She was distorted no more and feeble no more, nor did she look as though she were in pain. She stood a few paces away, her coat dark blue and her mane flickering with the twisting infinities of space. Starlight and endless shadow mixed together into the potential that swam in the dark, potential none of her world could see, but Chance could.

There seemed a level of recognition on her muzzle, a sadness as she met Chance in a display of equine affection that was both dignified and loving. “No longer. Thou canst call me Luna.” She looked down at the silvery soil upon which she stood, stirring it a little with one hoof. “The mighty magic has indeed worked its task. Thy mind, though strange, resists no more. We may visit freely now, as is our duty to all the residents of Equestria. I am no nightmare mortal, but its adversary. Celestia protects all her little ponies in waking, I watch over them in slumber.”

“Luna.” Chance looked up with gratitude. Her suffering was self-imposed, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t grateful for an excuse to suffer less. Though now she looked like a filly, the mind behind her eyes was very old indeed. “You stopped it.” She remained beside the towering mare, looking up at her planet again. “The fire, the death. It’s not happening.”

Luna shook her head. “Tis wrong to dwell on suffering thou canst not prevent. The fruits alas are bitterness and hatred, which grow upon themselves until thou are little more than thy suffering.” She walked past the filly to her rock, looking out on the crater and the metal vehicle further on. “How long hast thou been imprisoned here within’ thy mind?” There was great compassion in Luna’s voice, an empathy only one who has experienced such suffering can express.

Chance looked up again, surprised. “You’ve been here too?”

The princess smiled sadly, and did not answer for a long while. “Save that it was just fate, and to you cruel and undeserved. I was thrust into my prison for crimes truly committed. Yours is of your own mad devising.”

“It was all I had.” Chance said quietly, afraid to upset the one who had done so much for her already. So much that she remembered only in sleep. “Memory is all I am now. Memory, personality, probability. Chance.” Then she smiled. “Second Chance.”

“Indeed.” Luna looked up, and seemed to lead Chance’s eyes up with her. The earth shone closer than she had ever seen it before. Had Luna done that? It was so close she could almost see the cities, the structures, the life. “But if thy dwellingplace must be in memory, let us travel to fonder shores.”

“To earth?” Chance’s voice got cold. For a second, they stood on blasted rock. There were shouts, cries, sobs in the distance. The earth shook. Blood, bone, and death. The ditches were not deep enough to make a difference.

“NO!” She screamed, ripping away from the place, and from Luna. “No! Not earth! It’s not my home!” The princess reached out for her, but she was not quick enough.

Second Chance woke up screaming.

**********

Ponyville was beautiful, even in winter. Second Chance expected the snowy air to chill her, but found that her coat provided more than adequate protection from the elements. Even walking though the snow did not bother her, though Twilight reassured her that this was only the beginning and there was far more to come.

Chance hadn't really understood how Twilight could be so sure, until she produced a weather schedule clearly printed in the newspaper. It had taken nearly ten minutes of explanation for her to understand that it was a schedule and not simply a prediction. When it said there was a week of solid snows ahead, it did mean that literally. The temperature scale was far from familiar to her, but Twilight said that it would be too cold for a unicorn to be outside without proper protection. Maybe if she had been an earth pony she could've got away with it, but those ponies were made of sterner stuff.

Twilight herself needed no protection from the cold. Even so, she donned a scarf and matching boots for their short jaunt into town. Maybe it was out of habit that she dressed herself for winter, or maybe it was to fit in better with the citizens of Ponyville. Chance didn't know.

Chance had been in Ponyville for one full day, and hadn't actually left the library before now. She hadn't met anyone besides Twilight and her dragon. The thought of being introduced still frightened her a little, and she wasn't sure why. Twilight had been perfectly cooperative with this desire yesterday, wanting to make absolutely sure she was no danger to herself or to the population. Every examination had been attempted the day before, both magical and mundane. A dozen different spells had all confirmed what Twilight had learned from simple questioning. Second Chance was an ordinary filly in every physical way. There was no trace of the magical riptide, or of any other effects that might be hostile to life in Equestria.

This determined, Twilight had told her after her second breakfast in the library that it was time to get out and make some friends, and that a trip to put together her own wardrobe was an excellent way to start. Chance didn't argue. As much as the idea frightened her, her fear was nowhere as strong as the trust she had in the lavender Alicorn. How could she not trust the one who had saved her? The one who was giving her a place to live. The one who was going to teach her magic. When she thought about it that way, it was almost possible to forget about the fear she had felt when she had first met Twilight.

The weather pegasai had been busy. Rainclouds from the day before had thickened and darkened. Hoof-crafted snowflakes fell in twisting spirals. For some reason the ever-present white made her feel much more comfortable and welcome. She had no memories of her home, but it was easy to imagine that she might think of this place as home one day.

Twilight already had a place in mind to get her clothes made. There were no mass-produced fabrics to choose from, no way to buy some generic outfit and call it good. Anything worth wearing was tailor-made, and she knew the best in all of Ponyville. The best in all of Equestria too, though Chance wasn't to tell her that Twilight had told her so. Her ego could stand only so much inflation.

It wasn't a very long walk to the Carousel Boutique, though Chance could tell her guide had slowed her steps dramatically to allow her to keep pace. Spike had come as well, on the pretext of carrying Twilight's money-pouch for her. That had made Twilight roll her eyes, but Chance didn’t know why and hadn’t asked. She kept very close to Twilight, trying to make herself look as small as possible. Much to her relief it seemed that most businesses were closed and most ponies safe indoors. That meant introductions and explanations could wait, which was a great relief.

Chance walked with wide eyes through the mostly empty town. Even covered in snow, the rustic settlement was beautiful. The structures seemed to be made mostly of wood, with thatched roofs and white plastered walls. Glass wasn’t nearly as scarce as she expected, and windows were very large and artfully made. It was like a city right out of history, only better. Nobody dumped chamber-pots out their windows as they passed, and she never stepped in anything other than fresh white snow all the way there.

Despite what Twilight had said Chance found the crisp air refreshing and pleasant on her coat. The cold was a rare thing where she was from, and being able to go out in it so freely even rarer. Still, she found that the parts of her fur that stayed wet started to get cold as they walked, and by the time they reached their destination she was greatly relieved to get into the heat. Somehow she didn’t have to be told when they were getting close to the “Carousel Boutique.” If everything was named this plainly, she had a feeling it would be easy to learn her way around.

“Of course the Boutique is closed just like almost everything else, but when I told her about your problem, she insisted I bring you in right away.” Twilight said as she reached forward and carefully rang the doorbell. “She takes fashion very seriously. There’s nopony better, and she’s worth every bit.”

The door abruptly opened of its own accord, swinging inward. It was easy to feel less shy than she would normally with the promise of relief so immediate. Spike beat her through the door, and Twilight brought up the rear.

The boutique was even prettier on the inside than it was on the outside. Before she even realized what she was doing, Second Chance was moving between models and displays, each depicting an absolutely perfect outfit. It was strange just how good it all looked, though there was no universal rule among them. Somehow she knew that back home clothing had always matched some universal standard of what it had to do (she couldn’t remember what that was). Here, nothing was certain. One bright blue outfit has a dress with little bits of hoof-jewelry. Another had a scarf paired with a hat and not much else. Some dresses covered one part of the body, others covered different parts. The only thing these outfits had in common was how pretty they looked. Chance felt like a little girl again as she moved through it all, which felt all the more real from her height.

She stopped abruptly, staring at the little pink saddlebag that had given her that thought. Girl. What was a girl?

She didn’t have the chance to ponder the answer, because another voice called from nearby, and those thoughts died. “See anything you like, dear?” She looked up, and met the eyes of the first pony she had properly met since Twilight. Rarity was a white unicorn, with a flowing purple mane that seemed to shine even in the limited light coming in through the windows. Like Chance herself, there was a horn prominently on her forehead, and she lacked the wings Twilight had. She was doing her very best to conceal it, but there was a little apprehension in those eyes. Fear. Fear of her? Still, she wasn’t being overt about it, so she would try to pretend that didn’t make her even more nervous than she had been.

Chance nodded, though she couldn’t maintain eye contact with the older unicorn for very long. The pressure was getting worse. After all, she had just remembered that Rarity had opened her shop just for her, and that she could’ve been… doing whatever it was ponies did... instead. “I like everything! Did you really… make all these yourself?”

Rarity relaxed visibly, seeming to glow a little at the complement. “Why yes, darling. I simply refuse to sell anything I didn’t design personally. Every outfit is unique and personalized to the needs of the customer, because there’s no substitute for quality!”

Twilight stood beside her, suddenly. She wasn’t sure when she had walked up behind her, but she didn’t mind. It wasn’t as though Twilight was going to do anything to hurt her! If she wanted to, how close she was in the room would hardly matter anyway. “Rarity takes fashion very seriously, Second Chance. I couldn’t leave you in better hooves.” She turned to go, but Chance stopped her.

Why did she feel so afraid? “You’re not staying?” She tried to block the path with her body, but of course Twilight could easily just step over her if she wanted.

Twilight nodded. “It takes quite some time to get all the proper measurements for just one dress, Second Chance. Rarity’s making you an entire wardrobe. But I won’t be very far.” She gestured out the window. Chance strained as high as she could to look at where she was pointing. She was too short to be sure, but it looked like a shop, one of the few that didn’t have a “closed” sign outside. “Just going to do a little shopping of my own while anything is open. I used my last scroll writing to the princess yesterday. Besides…” She narrowed her eyes, though her smile just got wider. “I’d forgotten how much fillies ate. With tomorrow’s blizzard, we probably won’t be able to leave the library all day! Unless you’d rather go hungry, in which case-“

“No!” Chance did not take long to weigh her fear of being away from Twilight against her desire not to go without food. Nothing in her limited memory could compare to the things she had eaten. Not even fear could compete with that. Besides, it wasn’t as though Rarity was mean or anything. If anypony was friends with Twilight Sparkle, they had to be nice!

“You will be just fine with me, Darling.” Rarity assured. “Now, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself. Do any of these colors stand out? We want something that really screams ‘you’!” She was still nervous, but what little reservations Chance was holding onto faded when she saw Spike was staying behind too. If anything, she felt even safer with the dragon than with Twilight, and seeing that he was sticking around made her relax immediately. She turned away from the purple Alicorn and walked back toward a display on the left wall, watching the outfits spin slowly around on the round platform.

“I… uh… It’s all pretty…” She stammered after a long delay, desperate to say anything that might satisfy the dignified unicorn.

Rarity seemed far from satisfied. Her fear, if it had ever been there, was replaced with a very professional expression. “Yes dear, but does any of it feel like you?” She took a step forward, putting her hoof down on something out of sight. The spinning display stopped spinning, then started rotating much more quickly the other way, stopping in front of a short skirt in several different layers, with straps that wrapped around the forelegs but not the back. “Like this, perhaps. The diamonds are simply marvelous, are they not?”

Chance’s jaw dropped as she stared. Yes, the skirt was wonderful! Much too large for her of course, just as all the outfits here were clearly designed for adults. That wasn’t what had made her stare, though. That had been the little sparkling gems, combined with the word “diamonds”. The word connected immediately, and rather than answer Rarity’s question, she started babbling incoherently, reciting everything her memory had suddenly connected. “Diamond! Metastable allotrope! Cubic crystal lattice, billion years! Drill, resin, scalpel!” She blinked, beaming. Then she realized Rarity was staring, and she lowered her head, suddenly embarrassed. Her ears drooped and her tail fell limp behind her as she muttered. “Maybe something less flashy? Where I come from, diamonds are... only used in tools, really. They’re too special for anything else.” At least, that was all she could remember. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to wear something so expensive! She didn’t like the idea of clothes valuable enough for someone to try and steal.

Rarity shook her head once to clear it, then nodded without argument. “Of course, dear.” She said, though a little of her apprehension seemed to have returned. “Any of these colors suit you? What did you wear before?”

The answer came before she even knew what she was saying. “Olive drab, mostly. Jumpsuits. I dunno how many different ones I had, but they all looked the same.”

“Olive… drab?” The apprehension was replaced with actual horror, her eyes getting wider. “With your coat, and that mane? Absolutely not! I won’t allow it.” She took a step closer to her, letting the display carousel resume its normal spin. “Whatever this ‘jump-suit’ was, I’m sure it was equally dreadful, so no need to explain it.” She gritted her teeth, flipping her mane over her shoulder as she apparently steeled her resolve. “Leave this to me, young filly. Rarity will not allow such a travesty to continue!” She took Chance by the hoof and hurried her away. They passed through what was clearly Rarity’s home as well, attracting the attention of another white unicorn she only glanced at before being dragged to what was clearly Rarity’s workshop. Spike followed close behind, offering encouragement and complement to Rarity as she went, though he was clearly as ignorant in these matters as Chance herself.

She found a slightly raised platform waiting for her, and a suddenly insistent Rarity bidding her take various poses against the light of a large picture window. A long measuring tape lifted itself from a shelf in pale blue and began to take measurements entirely apart from Rarity’s own hooves.

That was about when she began to daydream. So long as she obeyed Rarity’s commands to take a particular position or make a given pose with some scrap of fabric she held to get a good comparison of color, she was more or less left to her own devices. Yes, Rarity was still talking to her, but she was mostly talking at her now, oblivious of her responses and not seeming to mind whether the answers came from her or from Spike by the door.

“What’re you in for?”

The new voice startled Second, because it was so much higher than Rarity’s and because it was so much nearer. Besides, it was clear the speaker was actually expecting a response. She looked up, and found the little Unicorn standing just behind a nearby mirror. She was about her own size, with a pink and purple mane that was naturally curly instead of carefully straightened like Rarity’s. Green eyes, and slippers on her hooves. She looked a little like she had just gotten up, which hardly surprised her. She wished Twilight had let her sleep in a little longer too.

She spoke quietly, afraid that by speaking too loudly she might alert Rarity to the fact she wasn’t really listening. “A full wardrobe, whatever that means.” She muttered, exasperated. “Twilight says I need to be ready for colder weather, but I don’t see the point.” She gestured at the other pony. “I’m not wearing anything, and neither are you. I don’t get what’s the big deal.”

“Really?” The filly looked sympathetic, though not as though she particularly understood. “It’ll be worth it. Even if it’s super boring now, I know my sister will make you something amazing!” She nodded emphatically. “A whole wardrobe is an awful lot… that’s at least three outfits, maybe four!” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you a rich pony?”

Chance shook her head with the biggest motions she could. “N-no! It’s just… Princess Twilight is taking care of me…” The filly just stared. “Twilight Sparkle? The purple a-“

“I know who she is! I just… didn’t think she did that?” She nudged her way closer. Rarity seemed to have finally finished with her measurements, and she didn’t react as the other filly came right up beside her so they could talk more easily. “You mean you live with the princess? Like… like one big sleepover? Every single day?”

She nodded. Though she opened her mouth to continue, the filly didn’t stop to let her keep going. “Wow. That’s amazing, er…” She glanced once behind her, as though she might find her name written on her rump for some reason. Maybe she was looking for that symbol the adults seemed to have. Tattoo? That was the word. When she didn’t find it, this seemed to make her smile even wider. “Sorry, I forgot to ask your name! I didn’t mean to or anything, it’s just… living with a princess… that must be pretty amazing.”

Chance shrugged. “Dunno. I’ve only been there since yesterday. She’s been very kind to me.” Without really thinking about it, she extended one of her hooves toward the other filly to shake. “I’m Second Chance. At least I think I am… that’s what Twilight Sparkle calls me…”

She felt a little silly with her hoof sticking out like that, but even sillier when the filly apparently recognized what she was doing and gave her an enthusiastic shake. “I’m Sweetie Belle! It’s nice to meet you!” Only when she had let go did she go on. “How long are you gonna be in Ponyville, anyway? I hope you plan on staying long enough for my big sister to finish with whatever she decides to make for you. Put it in the mail, and it will never be the same.”

Chance smiled at what seemed to be Sweetie Belle trying to persuade her to stay. “Don’t worry.” She reassured, looking serious. “I’ll be here for awhile. I don’t actually have anywhere else to go…”

*********

Twilight hadn’t been exaggerating about the number of errands she had to run. After staying up a few extra hours reading about childcare, she had every intention of doing this by the book. Of course it would be nice to get some personal advice on the subject from Rarity or Applejack, but Rarity was already with Chance and Sweet Apple Acres was further than she wanted to be from the filly on her second day in Equestria. Just a quick trip to the general store, another to the open-air market, and back home to drop everything off before she picked up Spike and Chance. If she knew the first thing about Rarity, it was that she was likely to take all day on a project like this given the opportunity. Besides, if her sister was there, that would mean an opportunity for Chance to make a friend her own age. That would have to happen sooner or later, and sooner would be better for them all.

At least, she assumed it would be. Did alien ponies have the same need for friendship that native ponies did? Maybe she should ask Celestia in her next letter.

It wasn’t thinking about her next letter to the Princess that had attracted her attention so pointedly as she reached the library. Rather, it was the team of Pegasai drawn up in the street in front of the Library. She recognized FetEx’s purple and grey logo on their vests even from afar, and sped her walk into a brisk trot as she approached. Even more interesting than the fact an entire team of delivery pegasai had been hired on the eve of a major winter storm was the object they had brought with them.

The lead mare turned from the act of knocking loudly on her door as she approached, taking the clipboard back into her mouth as she walked. She transferred it deftly back into one hoof as she reached Twilight, offering it to her. “Delivery for Twilight Sparkle.” The red-orange pegasus had somewhat of an eastern accent and sounded almost bored, despite her cargo. Together, the eight-pony team had hauled a crate too big to fit through her door, rough wood carefully nailed shut. She could see straw packing the inside. The mare coughed, offering the clipboard closer to her face to try and startle her from her staring. It worked. “Delivery for Twilight Sparkle.”

“Yes, of course. Sorry.” She glanced down at the form on the clipboard, reading over the information carefully. No mistake, though she doubted anyone else would have such an expensive package delivered at such an expensive time. Why hadn’t it just been sent on the train? Surely that would have made more sense than occupying eight pegasai with the delivery?

She had expected to see an important name on the “Sender” line. She did not expect that name to be Princess Luna’s. Twilight signed, and the mare handed her back a receipt. “Would you like my crew to help you get it inside?” She asked, sounding slightly more helpful now that it was clear Twilight wasn’t about to stand there and waste her time.

Twilight shook her head. “No thanks. It’s too big to get through the door, so I’ll have to telelport it in anyway. Thank you all for your hard work! Get home before the weather gets really nasty!” She made sure to tip the crew very well before they flew off. Each one gave a careful nod of respect as they did so, vanishing one after another into the sky.

“Have a good day, Princess Twilight!” The lead mare was last to go, securing her clipboard before lifting off into the sky, vanishing into the clouds almost before Twilight could blink.

She had been right about needing to teleport the crate inside. Under the circumstances, she had decided to move it into her basement, where it would be out of the way if anyone wanted to come in and use the library. She discovered an envelope had been nailed to one side of the crate, and it took great restraint to pull it calmly from the wood before she opened the enormous package to see what might be inside it.

Despite the way she spoke, the Princess of the Moon had been extremely quick about her note.

Twilight – This object has been in storage in the royal museum since before my exile. My sister and I agree it is relevant to our guest. Discover how. Anything else you learn would be of great interest to the ponies of the Royal Archeological Society.

-L

Twilight placed the note carefully on a nearby table before turning her attention back on the strange crate. It was well over pony height, and judging by the strain on the lowest section of the wood, contained an object of remarkable density. No doubt the smallest container possible would’ve been used to send it to her. The contents of the note had done much to grow her curiosity. Something to do with Second Chance? What could it be? Records of prior contact with her universe? An object that had actually come from there? She was excited to find out.

But she couldn’t, not now! In her excitement, she had completely forgotten that the filly had been with Rarity for at least a couple of hours now. As much as she knew Rarity wouldn’t mind, Twilight had no intention of taking advantage of her generous friend. She reluctantly turned her back on the crate, hurried up the stairs, and shut the door to the basement behind her. Whatever secrets the strange box concealed would have to wait.

Chapter 4: Past and Future

Chapter 4: Past and Future

“And you’re sure Rarity won’t mind?” Chance asked, surveying the substantial pile of soft pillows they had acquired from every bed and shelf and closet in the Carousel Boutique. It had taken several trips, since neither of them had the use of their magic, but the other filly didn’t seem to mind. Actually she didn’t seem to notice at all, as though this was the way things normally were. Chance tripped twice trying to drag a huge body-pillow up a set of steps, but in neither case was she seriously hurt. Nor was she laughed at, the way Spike had laughed at some of the things she had said when she first woke up.

“Positive.” Sweetie Belle insisted. “Just so long as we put them all back when we’re done. That’s the hardest bit to remember, but… do you think we should use the table here? I bet we could get the pillows to balance against these mirrors.” The white filly lifted one of the larger pillows into position, and struggled to get it to stop from slipping.

Chance gripped the other corner in her teeth, helping the other position the pillow so it wouldn’t fall. The process of building proved to require remarkable effort to do the pony way, along with balance and coordination that both of the aspiring builders lacked. The structure rose well over their height before it started to sway, and by then it was too late. Cushions came tumbling down all around them, and their fort became an ocean. Sweetie Belle had been right about one thing: Rarity didn’t bother them. With Chance’s measurements conclusively recorded, it seemed that not even an architectural collapse of biblical proportions was sufficient to draw her attention.

She kicked her way to the surface of the pillow sea, feeling as though she ought to spit a stream of cushions from her mouth. As she hadn’t been inhaling them that didn’t happen, but the thought made her smile and then start to giggle. Her companion joined in, emerging from somewhere nearby. “Well, I guess we aren’t getting any cutie marks for construction today.” She said with a sigh.

“Yeah.” Chance agreed, climbing her way onto clear ground. This proved to be much harder than she expected, and at first her flailing just landed her on her back in the ocean, wedged between the table and one of the mirrors. “Wait, what? We won’t get…”

“Our cutie marks!” The other filly proved to be much more expert at this sort of escape, and found her way to her feet much quicker. She began to drag pillows out from around where Chance was trapped, freeing her. “Only the most important thing in the whole wide world!”

Chance had no idea what Sweetie Belle was talking about, but it was obvious she should know. Rather than question any more, she nodded. “Oh. Yeah, sorry. I must not have heard you.” She turned back to the sea. “Maybe we could make them into a pyramid instead. I bet they would be easier to arrange if they were flat.”

“Good idea!” That was it. Chance’s confusion forgotten, they set off together to rebuild what their own clumsiness had destroyed. And again, and again, until they had built themselves a rather fine castle from cushions and pillows and sat proudly atop it (and the table) as its rightfully-appointed rulers.

That was about when the front door opened and Twilight came in. It was snowing again, and a stream of little flakes came rushing in even as the bell rattled. In unison the little fillies shivered, glaring at the intruder to their warm and comfortable space. “Sorry girls!” Twilight shut the door quickly behind her. She wasn’t wearing her saddle-bags anymore, which Chance took to mean she had finished with her errands and brought everything home before coming back.

“Rarity, I take it you got everything you need?” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the fillies, though she looked more amused than upset.

The commotion attracted Rarity, who emerged from her workshop wearing a pair of red spectacles. “Absolutely dear. Chance proved to be most cooperative. I should have something ready for her in a few days. Feel free to drop in-“ She stopped abruptly as she came in, looking in shock at the ruin the fillies had made of her front room.

“I was gonna clean it up!” Sweetie Belle offered shyly from beside her, hiding behind their cushion battlements as best she could.

“Thank you so much for keeping an eye on her while I ran my errands, Rarity.” Twilight offered to break the silence. “Would you like Chance to stick around a few minutes to help clean this up?”

The white unicorn closed her mouth with noticeable effort, shaking her head. “No Twilight, I don’t think so. She didn’t know any better. Sweetie Belle, on the other hoof...” She carefully lifted the pillow she was hiding behind out of the way, placing it somewhere else on the pile. “She ought to tidy this up on her own, to help her remember for next time.”

Twilight seemed relieved, but Chance shook her head. “I’ll help clean it up! I made half the mess, I can’t just leave it all.”

“No Chance, we can’t stick around. I know you want to help your friend, but the storm could start any minute!” She insisted, tugging Chance away from their castle. As she tugged, the whole thing came tumbling down at her feet.

“Awww… does she have to go, Twilight?” Sweetie Belle defended, climbing free from where she had been buried. Chance could only look up gratefully. She didn’t know why the other filly trusted her so much already, but it was hard not to return those feelings when they were so freely given. She supposed this was just the way all young ponies felt.

“You know Twilight, she really isn’t any trouble. I had already planned to have my sister and her friends stay here through the storm. She was simply crushed when they couldn’t make it.”

Chance looked up to see how Twilight would react, hope swelling. She hadn’t been here more than a few hours and already she felt closer to Sweetie Belle than she did to Twilight or Spike. Somehow she expected the Alicorn to say no. Sure enough, she watched a complicated series of expressions play across Twilight’s face before she eventually shook her head. “Maybe another time Rarity, but not now. She just got here, and we have stuff to do before she’s ready to fully join pony society.” She turned, looking to Sweetie Belle instead and seeming genuinely apologetic. “Maybe another day. Chance isn’t ready yet. Give it a few weeks. There will be plenty of time to play when the storm is over.”

Chance hadn’t argued after that. After all, Twilight Sparkle had saved her, and she was giving her a place to stay, and all. She felt like a very lucky and well-treated guest as it was, and she would not show ingratitude by arguing with her. “Sorry.” She scrambled awkwardly from the remains of the pillow-fort, tripping over herself more than she did the obstacles until she was out and on her legs again. She resisted fiercely, but mostly that just meant taking very small steps toward the door. Soon she was saying goodbye, and they were walking back to the library.

Chance couldn’t hide how disappointed she felt, though. Her ears and her tail had a mind of their own, and she couldn’t stop them from expressing themselves.

“I’m sorry Chance, I really am.” Twilight walked not far behind her, giving her a friendly nudge. The filly had little to show for her adventure, except a soft set of saddlebags not unlike those she had seen all over Ponyville. Wearing them made her feel somehow bigger than she had felt on the way over, but she wished it wouldn’t take so long for Rarity to make all the different things she had mumbled about. “But it’s a little early to be having sleepovers.”

Chance nodded. “I’m an alien invader.” She mumbled, more to herself than to Twilight. “I wouldn’t let an alien have a sleepover with someone else’s little sister either.”

Twilight looked for a moment as though she were going to argue. She couldn’t, though, and Chance could tell. “It won’t be forever, I promise.” She assured. “I don’t think you’re an invader, if that makes you feel better. I wouldn’t have taken you, otherwise.” She reached out, mussing Chance’s mane and smiling down at her. “Just give it time. Pretty soon you’ll be a normal citizen of Equestria, just like anypony else.”

“You think so?” Chance asked, between shivers. The sky was darkening now, very rapidly. The occasional drift of flakes was turning into a steady whirling, adding to the piles of snow that grew on every surface.

She nodded. “Absolutely.” Twilight Sparkle glanced up at the sky, then back to the filly beside her. It was getting to be too cold for her out here, too cold for anyone. She had a feeling Pinkie Pie would make her regret not introducing the new filly when they spoke next, but that worry would wait for another day. Somehow she felt that even Pinkie would be safely indoors now, no doubt bunkering down with an unhealthy quantity of hot chocolate and whatever else it was Pinkie did when she was alone.

**********

Twilight practically counted the seconds until she was standing in front of the box again. 9,461. Counting had gotten much easier since she had become a Princess, along with just about everything else. Well, except being patient. It wasn't as though she thought anything inside the crate would change in the interim. After all, Luna had said that the object had been known since before her banishment a thousand years previous. While she went about the work of retrieving Chance, her mind was elsewhere.

Aside from counting the seconds, Twilight would keep her curiosity satisfied by attempting to figure out logically what must be in that crate. First, if it had been old 1000 years ago, that meant it probably wasn't made of anything organic. If it was, it would have to be enchanted to survive that long, which seemed unlikely. If it was old enough to date to before the time of Discord, then the constancy of spells could not be trusted.

Still, it was very likely something kept and preserved for this long must have some strange or unique property. The ponies of those days had been known for what? Unicorn magic was still in its infancy back then, before it had been codified into the various Arcana and Schools. Before the cooperation between the tribes, most ponies were concerned almost chiefly with survival. There was no time to build fancy telescopes or experiment with strange magic from distant lands. If she remembered anything from all of those books on archeology she had read, it was that way back then, the only things treated with any deference were those meant to serve a religious function.

Unless of course, the artifact wasn't pony in creation at all. That left the dragons as the most likely candidate. Dragons usually used metals and gemstones in their lasting creations, which could very well have survived until present day. It was also possible their lesser kin the goblins might somehow be responsible, but Twilight doubted very much that anything made by that foul folk would have survived to present day.

Luna had said it had something to do with Second Chance, which could mean many things. It might be some historical analogy to the culture she had come from, some relic that Twilight could use to understand the filly better. Maybe it was an ancient golden tablet, depicting some dragon ritual used to travel between worlds. It wasn't as though such travel was unknown in Equestria. Many creatures were said to have their origin not just outside Equestria, but the entire world. It was said Celestia dumped most such incursions into the Everfree, but she couldn't get them all.

In the end it was late afternoon before she finally had the chance to open the crate. Spike was cooking dinner upstairs, and Chance had volunteered to help after hearing about Sweetie Belle's experiences cooking. That had not reassured Twilight in the least, but she figured that without Sweetie Belle actually present there was little chance that any number of fillies could foul up a simple salad. It would be worth it even if she ruined it completely, though. Twilight wanted to be alone when she opened the crate, in case it was dangerous somehow. Not that she expected it to blow up in her face, but there were many ways it might be dangerous.

Maybe it would remind Second Chance of home, and make her nightmares even worse! Even telling the filly about it might be a bad idea, if she expected it to have something to do with her when really it was just some esoteric magical device of interest only to an experienced mage like Twilight. So she locked the door behind her, hurried quietly down the stairs, and made her way to the edge of the crate.

As eager as she was to get a good look at what was inside, she intended to do that correctly. Instead of ripping the crate apart with her magic, she calmly removed each nail, arranging them in a similar pattern on the workbench nearby so that she could reuse the crate to send the object back eventually. First the top section came apart, and then each sidewall in turn until the object rested entirely on the crate's bottom section.

She had been right about the straw. Once one of the walls was removed, an avalanche of packing material poured onto the floor. There was so much that at first all Twilight could see was the edge of something metallic and angular. The metal was recognizable to her at once, but she dutifully continued her procedural unpacking until it was complete, holding off her inspection until the object stood unobstructed in the center of the room.

It was a cube. It measured taller and wider than she, constructed entirely of a silvery metal. It was smooth on every surface, without indentation or marking or recess. There wasn't a single dent or scratch visible on the object's surface, which did not surprise her as she saw what it was made from. Mithril, true silver, was the strongest and most durable material in all of Equestria. It was also one of the rarest, as the techniques used to mine it had been lost in the dimmest records of history. Many ponies weren't even aware of its existence, since it was so rare.

Twilight reached forward and tentatively felt the edge of the cube. She had seen Mithril before when she had attended Celestia's Academy for Gifted Unicorns, but never actually handled it. It was surprisingly warm to the touch, without blemish or imperfection of any kind. It was also quite a bit lighter than a cube of metal should've been, which might be because Mithril was so light or might be because it was hollow.

Her eyes were wide as she felt along one of its edges, moving carefully even though she knew there was nothing physical she could do to damage it. No kick would dent it, no knife would scratch it, and no spell would scorch it. She doubted even Discord in all of his chaotic might could influence this object, which was itself Order given form. That was the strength of true silver, and the value. That team of Fet-Ex delivery ponies had no idea they had been transporting something worth more than all of Ponyville combined. And now it was in her trust. This extraordinary artifact, dredged from the distant abysses of time.

She couldn't help feeling a little disappointed as she paced around the object. Twilight had been hoping for something from Chance's world, but this thing was clearly of Equestrian make. Mithril was the magic of the earth, older and stronger than anything a common Unicorn could conjure, but magic nonetheless. If Chance came from a world without magic, than that property alone disqualified that half of her suspicions.

So what did it have to do with Second Chance? She surveyed the object intently with her eyes, but found no trace of disharmony with the smooth central design. Determined, she planted herself firmly in front of it and closed her eyes, reaching out instead with her Second Sight.

It was a very simple form of magic, one almost any Unicorn could learn. But no Unicorn could perform the spell as an Alicorn could, plumbing the nethermost depths of matter and examining the very particles that made up an object. She would know its every secret and mystery.

Actually, she wouldn't. Her horn began to glow as she looked forward without her eyes, feeling the surface of the object and making it known to her. Twilight had never closely examined Mithril before, and never as an Alicorn. As such, it took only a second of contact before the level of information overwhelmed her, and she dropped to the ground like a puppet without strings.

There was something otherworldly about this object, but it hadn't been in the way she had expected. As she lay in a heap on the floor, she saw the strange shapes and images that had been everywhere within the metal, saw in a way that made the most detailed photograph look like a foal's crayon sketch.

She had seen metal before, seen in a cast iron skillet the way metallic atoms were surrounded by a sea of electrons, sharing and flowing between. That was what made metals such great conductors of heat. That was why the skillet was made from iron and not wood.

Mithril was not structured like this. Rather, Twilight saw what looked to be a lattice of... structures, each one incredibly small but far larger than an atom, each connected to the others with a thousand tiny bonds. It seemed almost as though she were looking at the cells of a living creature. The structures moved and communicated with each other, stored information, repaired themselves when they were damaged. No doubt this was what gave Mithril its remarkable properties: It was practically alive, capable of adapting to different circumstances and repairing damage. Heat became energy which became function.

Twilight Sparkle had only been connected for a moment, but she had no idea how long it took her to process the information her mind had shown her. In the end very little was understood, except to realize where she had seen those patterns before. The structures that made up True Silver were very similar to the construct that had appeared in Ponyville two nights ago. Not identical, but as though the same sort of mind had conceived them. An alien mind, operating on principles no pony could ever really understand, maybe not even Celestia.

She didn't have much more time to think about it, though. By the time she had collected enough of her wits to realize what was going on, someone was knocking on the door and calling out to her. "Twilight! Twilight, dinner's done!" It was Spike. "Twilight, is everything okay down there?"

"Yes!" She called hastily, jumping to her feet and looking for something she could use to cover the cube. An old blanket folded on a nearby shelf did the job nicely, though there would be no concealing just how strange an object this was if anyone got close enough to look. Once it was roughly covered, Twilight put out the light and hurried up the stairs, not wanting to take so long she gave Spike or Chance reason to get curious.

Twilight had been right about at least one thing that night. Second Chance hadn't messed up the salad.

**********

“How’s that, Chance?” Twilight asked, magically adjusting the blankets so that they were as smooth and orderly as possible. “Much better than the sofa downstairs, right?” She had brought the extra bed up from the basement and set it up in her bedroom, on the lower level. On some level she wished there were more rooms in the library so she might be able to have her privacy more often. Unfortunately the basement was occupied at the moment, and she didn’t like the idea of leaving Second Chance all by herself down with her equipment. Maybe in a few years, when she was older and Twilight was surer of the sort of pony she was.

Chance nodded, curling up under the blankets. “Much better, thanks! The sofa was okay, but it was dark and lonely down there by myself…”

The library as it turned out had not been constructed with temperature in mind. Twilight hadn’t noticed until now, though she remembered going about some of her days protected in robes or blanket in previous years. Was it the extra insulation of the feathers on her wings? She told herself that, even though she knew it wasn’t true. “Well we can’t have my little apprentice not getting a good night’s sleep, can we?” She dimmed the lights, retreating only a few paces. “Tomorrow we’re getting half a meter of snow, so that means your first day of magic practice!” She walked past Spike’s basket, which proved to already be occupied with one sleeping reptile.

Twilight did not expect to sleep tonight, not with the mystery of the strange cube still firmly on her mind, but she climbed the little ramp of stairs leading to her bed anyway. She could wait for the filly to fall asleep before heading out at least, so Chance could sleep without feeling like she was being left alone. Maybe that would stop her from having nightmares. There was no way it could be normal for a little filly to wake up screaming every night. Wasn’t it Luna’s job to stop Equestrians from having nightmares? Maybe she didn’t do that for alien ponies. She would have to ask the princess next time she was in Canterlot, or sooner if things didn’t get better for Chance.

“You’re so lucky to have a teacher.” She went on, though now she was in bed herself and couldn’t see who she was talking to easily. She spoke quietly so as not to wake the slumbering dragon, but wasn’t too worried on that front. Spike had slept through worse. “When I was a filly, I had to learn almost everything from books. With nopony to help me and give me advice…”

“I’m very grateful,” Chance murmured groggily. It sounded like the filly was already fighting to stay awake. But then, she hadn’t slept very well last night, and it was already later than most parents would let a young filly stay up. Maybe Twilight ought to institute an earlier bedtime? Chance kept talking, half awake. “I taught myself non-deterministic C when I was growing up… old tutorials on the net… took forever to figure out how pointers work… never thought I would see a pony outside a petting zoo…” Her muttering grew less distinct over time, and in very short order she was asleep.

Twilight listened of course, though what the filly was talking about was so without context that it was easy for her to get lost in thought and drift off. Maybe a few years ago the warmth of her own bed and the exhaustion of such an eventful day might have been enough to ensure she fell asleep before the time she had intended to sneak away. Now though, things were different. Twilight wondered if she actually needed to sleep at all, or if she kept sleeping out of habit. Maybe she should ask that in her next letter too.

When she was well and truly sure that her departure wouldn’t wake anyone, Twilight closed her eyes and forced the concentration it took to teleport short distances. What had once been a strain had become easy through constant practice. Now that she was an Alicorn, teleportation was easier than ever. No longer was she clumsily bridging two points of space, tugging them together like a foal’s crude crafts project. Now she could see the truth, could see that separation was an illusion and all space was superimposed upon itself.

These realizations were powerful and terrifying each time she made them. Wonderful because whenever they happened it seemed the entire world stood still. For a moment, an amazing moment, it would seem as though she understood. A feeling like all creation was known to her, every second of every minute from the first to the last, from one edge of Equestria to the other.

Of course those moments were short-lived, and their departure left her only with a powerful sense of longing. Was that what it felt like to be a princess? She might have been changed in body, but mentally she often felt like the same filly Celestia had agreed to take on as her personal student, all those years ago.

The library was dark and empty, or nearly so. “Oh, Owlicious.” She smiled. “Would you like to help me with some research?”

“Hoo”

“Excellent. Come with me.” She walked past several of the shelves, lifting book after book from the shelves as she passed, so that a small cloud followed with her. “I’m sure you can keep a secret.”

“Hoo”

Twilight shut the door to the basement very quietly behind them, locking it. “Exactly! It isn’t as though you could tell anypony if you wanted to. Except maybe Fluttershy, but she wouldn’t know what you were talking about.” She narrowed her eyes in mock suspicion, then turned away and led the way down. She flipped on the lights, removed the blanket, and arranged the tomes she had brought on one of the desks nearest to the cube. Owlicious perched himself nearby, watching with apparent interest. It was hard to tell an owl’s emotions.

“That’s right Owlicious, I’m going to see if I can find anything about this cube here in any of these books. Princess Luna said that this thing had been in Equestria for a very long time, so it’s got to be in some of these books on ancient cultures, right?” She spread the books out on the surface of the desk, selecting one that looked promising. ‘Equestria’s Ancient Inhabitants’ looked as though it hadn’t been read for a very long time. “Let’s see what we can find!”

Hours passed, it was hard to say how many. Twilight had powered through three-fifths of the books she had brought down without success. She had begun to actually feel tired, and was nearly asleep at her books, when a loud “HOO!” Startled her back into alertness. She had been turning pages for some time without actually reading any of them, muttering as incoherently as Chance had earlier.

“T-thanks, Owlicious. You’re right, I ought to get back upstairs. That filly wouldn’t be able to sleep as easy next time if she thought I was going to sneak off.” She got up and moved to close the book, but the owl abruptly landed in it, glaring at her. “What?” She asked, through an exaggerated yawn. The owl lifted free of the book she held in her magic, giving her a better look. Her cube was depicted in vivid illustration, set upon a plinth in some sort of temple. Twilight’s eyes went wide and she focused herself intently on the text, soaking up the information like a sponge.

-some accounts describe the Jebr stone as possessing the ability to vocally communicate with ponies, though as the stone has conclusively been demonstrated to be devoid of magical properties these accounts can be safely discounted as fanciful depictions and fictionalization. One cannot however discount-

Twilight abruptly turned the book over, looking for the title. ‘The History of Equestrian Science’ hardly seemed like a particularly relevant source. Why had she even grabbed this book? Twilight flipped to the index, and skimmed briefly through the summary on the following pages. Evidently the tome attempted to record the major advancements in mathematics and science over the ages, describing major findings and their sources. Returning to the page of interest proved that the so-called “Jebr Stone” was very early in the section about math, only a few pages in. She resumed reading.

-its importance in the development of our present mathematical model. The stone was reportedly first discovered by an Earth-tribe farmer when clearing a section of forest for cultivation. Early descriptions of the Stone almost always describe it being covered with symbols, symbols which were said to change and move over time.

The modern reader will no doubt discount descriptions of a non-magical object capable of responding to external stimuli as entirely fanciful. It was only quite recently, after the advent of electricity, that previous stories about the stone were taken seriously. Please see the “Modern Experiments” section for more.

We can only speculate at how ancient earth ponies managed to provide the stone with electricity, for none of the old accounts or records indicate this requirement. Indeed, the only post-Discord account describes the stone as it is now, smooth and evidently inert.

However they did it, accounts agree that the symbols were the same as those we use to this day to represent numbers. Since the properties of the stone have been verified via modern electrical experiments, many archaeologists have been forced to reconsider their theories on the origin of…

Twilight skimmed over the parts of the text that didn’t seem as relevant to her, such as the book’s intended subject. This wasn’t the time to study the origin of ancient math and science. Some of it, however, was too interesting not to read. According to the book, the stone reportedly taught the basics of arithmetic to the Earth Ponies who found it. Everything from the symbols for rational numbers to the way to calculate area.

There was only one problem: The stone seemed to be getting impatient with the ponies it was teaching. According to the book, its puzzles became too complex for the ponies of its day to learn. Eventually new developments ceased, and it became an object of religious significance more than a source of knowledge. Once Celestia and Luna had risen to power, the “Cult of Jebr” had fallen out of favor, and the stone had been boxed away.

Dr. Greymane of the Royal Academy theorized that the records of the Jebr stone might indicate the stone itself possessed sophisticated mechanical properties, such as those devices that were at that time only in their infancy in Equestria. With the aid of a Pegasus weather team and an exceptionally cooperative thunderstorm, Greymane’s team was able to provide constant electrical power to the Stone for several hours. The description of his experiments, in part, follows.

“We used three kilometers of looped copper wire to guarantee consistent voltage. If the Jebr stone was a mechanical device as I theorized, than it might very well have limitations exceeded by a lightning strike, just as most modern apparatus. The application of current produced immediate effect upon the stone. A light came from within, and the surface was transformed. Sections rose and fell as though animated by some internal force, though spell verified no magic was at work.

The symbols eventually stopped changing, leaving graphical descriptions of various objects from nature on each face of itself, rendered more clearly than any artist of any skill could depict. This aside from the face to which the current was applied, on which the surface was changed only enough to delineate itself into a rectangle along with a message in an ancient Equestrian dialect.

Unfortunately we were unable to maintain voltage for more than a few hours, and the effort of creating it for even that long had destroyed most of our equipment. It is unlikely we will be able to repeat the experiment until electricity proves easier to produce and control. Much later, we were able to obtain a translation to the message we had seen on the stone. The most correct translation appears to be ‘Harmony?’”

Twilight bookmarked that section of that book, placed it back onto the shelf beside all the others, and turned her attention back to the cube with a newfound feeling of respect. She walked over to it, feeling it again with one hoof. “So you taught us math, huh?” She asked, sliding along a perfect edge without seam or crease or dent. “A box. A box that uses electricity to teach math.” After what she had seen during her sight spell, Twilight had no doubt that old Graymane was dead-on in his assessment that the cube was mechanical. But what was its purpose? Why did it provide puzzle after puzzle instead of answers?

It was early in the morning now and Twilight was feeling the effects of her exhaustive search. She already had some ideas about how she could discover the answers for herself, but none of them could happen tonight. With a respectful nod to her helpful pet, Twilight crept back up the stairs to bed. She wondered if Luna would be sending an electrical generator tomorrow.

Author's Notes:

Another chapter done! I regret leaving the last chapter off on such a cliffhanger It seems like there's no way to live up to imagination. Nevertheless, here it is anyway. Hopefully the excitement can continue for many seasons to come.

Chapter 5: Lesson One

Chapter 5: Lesson One

The next day brought much of what was expected. Snow for a start, right down to the centimeter of what had been scheduled. Evidently the front door couldn’t even be opened, technically trapping the library’s three residents inside for the day barring some emergency. This was not what had Chance so excited, as much as she had expected it all. Rather, it was the promise of her first lessons in magic.

Twilight seemed to share her excitement, though she had a strange way of showing it in the filly’s eyes. “Alright you two.” She said, herding Chance and Spike up the stairs and back into the bedroom. “I am going to get ready for Chance’s first lesson downstairs. I want everything to be perfect. It might take a little while, so…” She paused, and her horn seemed to shimmer. Along with half the books on the shelves all around them, which abruptly pulled themselves into the air and surrounded the filly and the dragon. Twilight brought them down with a crash, easily over either of their head-levels.

“Here’s some reading material to get you started. Just a few of my favorite titles on magic. Under no circumstances should you come downstairs. I’ll come and get you when everything is ready.”

Twilight didn’t even give her time to protest that she couldn’t read the language the Equestrian books were written in. She collapsed back onto her haunches, looking around the both of them and sighing. “The pillow fort was more fun.” She muttered, mostly to herself.

Spike nodded in agreement. She felt him sit down opposite from her, looking the other way in the massive barricade. “You got that right.” He agreed, folding his arms. “She should’ve let me help set up! It’s not like I’m the one having magic lessons.” He lowered his voice, speaking more darkly. “Number one assistant my tail.”

Chance remained quiet until the sound of Twilight’s hooves had faded completely, and other fainter sounds had taken their place. “Hey Spike?”

The dragon sat up from where he rested against her side, looking a little more attentive. “Yeah, Chance?”

“Can I ask you… I mean, can I ask you a few questions?” She reached out, pulling a book off the top of the stack in her teeth and letting it fall to the ground in front of her. It felt very childish to be using her mouth to manipulate objects like this, as though she was a baby again. Still, it wasn’t as though she could use her hooves. Well, maybe real ponies could. Rarity had done some amazing things with her hooves yesterday, but Chance was not Rarity.

The filly took a moment to lean forward and inspect the cover. The volume was quite thick, a dull brown that looked like leather but didn’t smell anything like it. There were markings all over the cover, but she could make nothing of them. This seemed very strange to her, considering she seemed to be able to speak the Equestrian language just fine. Heck, even some of the markings looked familiar to her! But some of them didn’t, strange pictographic stars and horseshoes and similar things. “Course you can.” She could practically hear the glower in his voice. “It’s not like I’ve got much else to do up here.”

Chance spun around then, so fast the dragon had to pull away or else be knocked over. “Okay Spike.” She narrowed her eyes. “Twilight has asked me all sorts of things about my world, and I don’t remember very much right now. But she barely gave me any time to ask about Equestria!” She looked around her, then propped her forehooves up on the nearest stack of volumes, causing it to sway dangerously before toppling over. She ignored Spike’s wince as the books scattered, in a way probably not healthy for their spines. “I’m starting to feel really silly, not knowing about basic stuff. BUT.” She walked past him, then turned to face him again, as though she were about to charge. The body-language matched, anyway.

“No laughing at me. It’s not fair. I’m from far away, so of course I don’t know anything Equestrian.” She wanted to fold her arms across her chest, but of course she didn’t have any of those, and the thought nearly made her fall over. She settled for as serious a glare as she could give. She wasn’t going to be made fun of again.

“Okay, okay, gosh!” Spike put his arms up, defensively. “I won’t laugh. And anyway, I would rather think about your questions than why Twilight won’t let me help.”

Chance nodded, then relaxed, sitting down on her haunches again. It would have been a very strange position to her before, but it was clear her spine was shaped differently now. Did that bother her? “Okay, first question.” She wished she had an easy way to take notes, but at least all the memories she had made since coming to Equestria seemed to be sticking around, so she wasn’t too worried about forgetting. “What’s a cutie mark? Sweetie Belle seemed to think they were really important, but I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t wanna tell her.”

Spike nodded soberly, without a trace of a smile. “Everypony gets a cutie mark. It’s part of growing up…” He struggled for words, then just walked over and patted her rump. “On either side. Twilight has the starbursts. Rarity has her jewels. All the adult ponies have them. They show you what you’re good at. Your special talent. Of course, as a dragon, I don’t need a cutie mark to tell me that I’m talented.”

Chance nodded. “So ponies aren’t named after them? Cuz’ Sweetie Belle doesn’t have hers yet. It could end up being anything, right?”

Spike shrugged. “You’re asking the wrong dragon. That’s about all I know about cutie marks, to be honest. You’ll have better luck asking a pony about that sort of thing.”

She nodded, finding that response perfectly reasonable. As much as she had all sorts of other questions about cutie marks, it made sense not to ask someone who didn’t actually have one for information. Maybe if she was careful about how she phrased it, she could ask Sweetie Belle how she could get one of her own. “Okay. Next question… is Equestria a Monarchy? Because I keep hearing about a Princess, and I don’t really know what anypony means by it.”

“Princess Celestia.” Spike offered. He wasn’t laughing, but he did sound a little surprised. “Are you sure you haven’t heard of her? Maybe they just call her something else where you’re from. I mean, she raises the sun every day. That makes her a pretty important pony. Even as a dragon, she’s something special.”

It was Chance’s turn to look disbelieving. “She raises the… sun?” She repeated, her voice very quiet and eyes distant, as though she were reading a book that Spike could not see, suspended in the air.

“Yeah.” He answered, completely misinterpreting her response. “She’s an Alicorn, the most powerful being in all of Equestria… no, the whole world!”

“Impossible.” Chance argued, her tone flat. “The star Sol has a mass of 1.9891 × 10^30 kilograms. The force required to influence its orbital vector by even a fraction of a percent is on the order of 3.975641 x 10^32 newtons. No artificial energy source can-”

The dragon, who seemed to have been staring blankly at her, shook his head as though dislodging something from in his ears. “Hang on Chance, you started to sound like Twilight for a second.” He gestured to the window. “If it sounds crazy to you, you could just ask Twilight to take you to Canterlot. Anypony can watch, it’s a public ceremony. Actually Twilight and I used to watch it several times a week back when we lived in Canterlot.” He shook his head. “Before dawn that often? Forget it. Magic is less impressive than getting a good night’s sleep.”

Chance felt momentarily confused, trying to recall where those numbers had come from, or attach meaning to words like “newtons.” She failed, but not without making some other logical conclusions.

1. She trusted Spike.
2. Spike said he had personally witnessed Celestia raising the sun.
3. Via modus ponens, she was forced to conclude that Celestia indeed could raise the sun. Whatever a modus was.

Chance had no desire to be in the presence of a being that could perform feats like that. Twilight had been frightening enough at first, until Chance had determined beyond reasonable doubt that the purple alicorn didn’t actually have much of an idea of her true potential. No unearthly might had been brought against her. Twilight hadn’t even asked her why her mind and body were separate. Which was good, because Chance didn’t remember.

“So…” She replied after some time, still sorting out that last piece of information. “If Celestia can raise the sun, that would make her a…” She struggled for the word for a moment. Eventually it came, though it seemed a little strange on her Equestrian tongue. Like a word not in common usage, perhaps. “...goddess? Someone who can defy natural laws like that would have to be.”

Spike shrugged. “She just goes by Princess, and she’s actually really nice. Not scary or anything, like most ponies expect.” He rolled his eyes. “You ought to see the way everypony stresses whenever she comes around to visit. They’re shaking in their hooves! Twilight used to be that way, but… studying with Princess Celestia all those years, we learned that she wasn’t all that different from other ponies, in lots of ways. Even if she has ruled for thousands of years.” He trailed off, as though the question had become so mundane as to no longer be worth his interest.

“Okay.” Chance couldn’t think of anything else to say to that. It sounded incredibly strange to her… something told her that no organic form could last for that long, but that seemed far less impossible then repositioning a star and thus not worth bringing up. Maybe she would ask Twilight about the technical side of that one day.

She glanced down the stairs, wondering how much longer Twilight would take preparing for this lesson. It wasn’t at all the way she expected a first lesson to be, in any case. Wasn’t a first lesson supposed to be so basic that there wasn’t really any real risk involved?

A memory abruptly came to mind, a memory in which she was on two legs and not four. It was winter, just like it was in Ponyville, but she was out in the mountains and not safely indoors. Her family was visiting a ski resort, and she was small, perhaps not much older than she was now. Her legs wobbled on the training skis they put her in, despite the plastic connector going between them. At the end of her lesson, she had been taken on her first ride on a lift, and set on the most sedentary bunny slope the mountain had to offer, where she had glided fearfully all the way back to base camp. She hadn’t fallen once, which had been a subject of great pride to her at the time. At least, not until she tried on her own later that day, going down the same slope with the rest of her family. She had been so eager to impress that everything she’d learned was forgotten and she zipped almost straight down, smacked into a tree, and broke her nose.

As she relived the memory, Chance sat still exactly as she had been, mouth partially agape and drooling a little. The filly became conscious of Spike’s claw waving in front of her eyes. “Hello? Anyone in there, Chance?”

She blinked, pulling away from his claw which felt way too close to her eyes for comfort. “Good.” He tugged on one of her forlegs with sudden energy. “Twilight’s calling us! She’s finally done!”

Chance remained still despite the dragon’s tugging, sitting still for several long moments. “I remember what I looked like.” She muttered quietly.

Of all the statements that might have got Spike’s attention when he was so eager to get away from the bedroom, she seemed to have stumbled into one. “Really?” His eyes got wide. “You mean, you didn’t just look like a pony?”

She shook her head in exasperation as she moved past him. Now it felt like he was tugging her to stay, but she was far too intent on the magic to be distracted and couldn’t be slowed now that Spike wanted her to. “Would I be tripping over myself all the time if I had been a pony?” Even as she said it, the act of moving down stairs with a dragon so closely at her heels was nearly too much for her strained sense of balance. She recovered by bracing her back briefly against the wall, which steadied her shaking limbs enough to prevent her from sliding down the stairs.

“Oooh… were you a dragon? Or maybe, since you have such trouble with legs, you were something that doesn’t use their legs much! Like a… phoenix! Or sea serpent, or…” He went on listing off things that registered only dimly in her mind as they rounded the corner of the stairs that would give them a clear look at the ground floor.

The library had been transformed. The ground had been cleared of the furniture, and most of the shelves covered with dark cloth so that the books were protected. Twilight had done some amazing work on the floor, writing all over it with some thick black lines she could only guess were charcoal.

The diagram was unlike anything she had ever seen. Indeed, Chance had nothing in her memory even roughly comparable to the interlocking shapes that Twilight had formed, or the elegant script that surrounded everything. Only the central shape she recognized, namely the five-pointed pentagram. The points of its star featured prominently into the design, which sloped and flowed to encompass each of the points.

“Prepare yourself, Second Chance, to learn magic as no pony has ever learned it before.” She walked carefully along the edges of the star, stepping over the little objects that were resting at each point. She was grinning more widely than Chance had ever seen her. Indeed, it didn’t matter that she was a newcomer to Equestria. She could see just how incredibly proud the princess was of her work. And why shouldn’t she be? It was clearly very impressive. She stopped at the edge of the stairs, feeling suddenly fearful. This “magic” was an unknown quantity. Perhaps it was dangerous.

Spike seemed to share some of her uneasiness. “Ritual magic, Twi?” He stopped just beside Chance, not willing to step down the stairs onto the floor. Judging on the way he held himself, there was some genuine fear to his posture. “Why bother? I thought you were advanced enough to handle just about any spell you wanted without all the foci and stuff you used to need back when you were a filly.” He gestured at the complicated diagrams. “What’s with all the hocus pocus?”

She looked indignant. “Maybe for most spells, Spike.” Twilight stopped a few feet from them, facing Chance. “But not for one that’s brand new like this. It’s much safer to test new magic without any shortcuts. At least, that’s what Starswirls’s ‘Creative Thamucology’ suggested.” She looked away from the dragon, her eagerness apparent. “Come on Chance, follow me into the center. But don’t step on anything! Not the marks, or the objects… just the blank floor, okay?”

The filly nodded, though she was growing more hesitant with each step. Not only was she in a world of unknowns, but Twilight was apparently in unfamiliar territory as well. “Are you… sure this is safe?” She stammered, following Twilight very carefully into the center of the room. “I thought you said magic was all about studying and books and stuff?”

Her companion kept pace with her exactly, watching her every step to be sure that neither set of legs so much as scuffed the marks she had made. “Absolutely.” She confirmed. “But I was thinking about my own studies, about all those months before I finally got anything. I’m sure part of it was how much younger I was, with the body just not being ready yet. But plenty more is that I didn’t know what magic felt like. Like…” She paused to think for just a moment. It was clear this was not an unexpected conversation for her. Perhaps she had planned the entire explanation down to the word.

“Like magic is a limb you’ve never used before. You just don’t know where to start. Which is what got me thinking.” She nodded at the different parts of her spell in turn. “What if there was someone who knew all about what it felt? What if you could share that feeling, instead of having to grasp at nothing until you stumbled into it by accident?”

Chance might not be any surer of all these diagrams, but she did know what it felt like not to be able to control her own body. Maybe her magic wasn’t all that different. “So this is like… skipping the basics? You show me how you do it, and I’ll just get right to the intermediates.”

“In theory.” Twilight confirmed. “Of course, I’ve never heard of anypony trying anything like this, not even Celestia.” She shrugged. “It’s not really as crazy as all these diagrams and stuff make it out to be, Chance. All that’s going to happen is I’ll let you feel what I’m feeling while I’m doing some simple magic. You’ll have some good memories of how to imitate me after that. Pretty simple.”

“It doesn’t look simple.” The dragon muttered. Spike had taken a seat on one of the lower stairs, watching nervously. “That’s what she always says before something goes horribly wrong.”

“Spike!” She called harshly, glaring briefly at him. “What happened last week was completely not my fault! You were the one who interrupted my concentration!”

“Whatever.” Spike grinned. “This ought to be interesting, Chance. You never know what could happen when Twilight’s learning a new spell. Oooh! Do you think you could make this spell make Chance look the way she did before, Twilight? She said she remembers now, and I want to see! I wanna see what alien ponies look like!”

“Really.” Twilight looked momentarily at the filly in the star with her, though not nearly so forceful as Spike seemed to be. “Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about that later. For now, though… are you ready to experience your first spell as an Equestrian?” She turned away from the dragon, shutting him out completely as she focused on Chance.

She nodded, afraid that if she didn’t agree soon she might have second thoughts and try to run away or something. Not as though she would get very far with the doors snowed shut, but still! “Could you… talk me through it as you go?” She looked around at the diagram. “I want to be able to do magic like this someday. Everything you can tell me should help me understand how it works, right?”

The unicorn seemed taken aback by this remark, though her surprise was quickly replaced by a small smile. “Sure, Chance. Most ponies aren’t really interested in any of the details, so it’s nice to see my new apprentice has a healthy interest in the process.” She took a deep breath, and began to speak very rapidly and energetically. “See, there’s a focus at each point of the star for each of the five senses! Candle is for sight, sage is for smell, daisy for taste, tuning fork for hearing, and feathers for touch. Each point also corresponds with one of the Elements of Harmony, mostly to give the spell stability and help me focus. This is the functional part of the spell, which describes…”

Chance couldn’t say how long Twilight went on about her spell, except to say that she did her very best to watch. It was hard to stay focused on a language and system that she did not understand, though. It was as though she was a child lifted from her class in basic arithmetic into a college calculus course and expected to sit through a lecture. Twilight hardly noticed as her attention faded, going on and on about “ethical subcontext” and “entropic revitrification” with the passion of someone describing a treasured night with their lover.

Eventually, to her relief and Spike’s both, Twilight eventually finished with “...and that’s how it all works! Pretty elegant solution, right? Much more conservative with its coefficients than you might expect, but you can’t be too careful where mind-magic is concerned.”

Chance nodded vigorously, thinking of what she might say to get Twilight to stop explaining and start spellcasting. Her legs already felt sore from standing in place for so long, and she was fidgeting like crazy. “It’s pretty amazing, Twilight! But we better try it soon, or else… you might forget some of it, and it won’t work as good…”

Even to herself that sounded pretty weak, but Twilight was too absorbed in her excitement to notice and merely nodded. “You’re right. We better start.” She gestured to the exact center of the diagram, where there were four little marks spaced about where her hooves might be. “Stand there and don’t move until I say so, okay?”

Chance obeyed, positioning herself exactly where Twilight had indicated. This hardly did anything to comfort her in the face of her fear, but she had a feeling nothing would. When she had agreed to learn magic, she had crossed some invisible line in Twilight’s mind, and probably had been moving imperceptibly toward this point ever after. It would do her no good to act like a foal and run away, nor would it help her master magic. She did want to learn that telekinesis stuff Twilight did, after all! If this way presented a rapid method to master it, then so much the better! “You better start, before I change my mind.” She gulped, gritting her teeth together in anticipation for the pain she thought was sure to come.

Twilight Sparkle nodded wordlessly, her horn beginning to glow as she scanned the markings with her eyes. As she did so, the words and symbols began to lift clean off the ground, twisting through the air like living things. The light from outside began to dim, and the whole world seemed to grow quiet as Twilight muttered something, though Chance couldn’t make out the words.

The black markings began to take on different colors, melting between shades of purple and violet as they warped around her. Chance watched transfixed, reminded of the time she had seen a virtual demonstration of what it might look like to turn a sphere inside out. Was Twilight bending space somehow? That would be much easier to accept than so-called “magic”.

Despite her belief (or lack thereof) Twilight’s spell continued unimpeded, her horn glowing brighter and brighter, so bright that the filly had to close her eyes and look away. She wanted to cower, to flee from what she felt and saw, but didn’t dare move from the spot she had been told to stand lest some awful fate befall her.

There was a feeling of energy and tension in the air, an uneasy pressure that Chance began to recognize. Time briefly slowed, as that memory came rushing back to her. Unlike the fond images of skiing she had treasured earlier, this recollection was torture to her, and she fought it with every ounce of her mental energy. As a result, it was fragmented and choppy, and she was spared the full experience.

She was naked, strapped to something metal and ice-cold. None of her limbs would move, and there were tubes running into her body at various points. Cold fire poured into her veins, and she spasmed and screamed as the nano-solution reached saturation. It was bright, so bright she couldn’t see anything else, but she could hear cold voices talking to one another nearby over the loud rumble of machinery.


“Relax! You won’t survive disassociation long enough to remain coherent without the reconstruction solution at complete saturation.”


“She won’t survive regardless.”


“Prep another oxycodone injection, she’s going into shock!”


The pain lit up her whole body now, consuming her. She could barely hear the voices over the spasms in her chest. “She’s going into cardiac arrest! Cortical stimulators!”


There was a faint buzzing sound somewhere nearby. “Charged!” Brief pause. “Clear!”


The voices were gone, replaced with searing heat from all around her. Burning energy, scorching her, charring her. She wanted to scream, but inhaling only brought fire to her lungs, and the sound died. She was being twisted, torn, pulled up and up and up…


She was standing in the library, bright light glowing in her eyes uncomfortable but not burning her. Then Twilight met her eyes, and released the spell straight at her.

There was no pain. There were no words in any language she knew to describe the sensation of a spell, at least none that represented feelings she had felt previously in her life. It was a feeling of probability, where the impossible might just become a reality. As a matter of fact, there was no chance that it wouldn’t.

Twilight relaxed visibly, leaning against a shelf to keep herself upright, obviously panting with exhaustion from the effort of the spell. “It… It… worked…” She managed to say, looking tired but immensely proud. “I’ve got the connection.” She reached up, as if to wipe the sweat from her brow. Could ponies even sweat?

Spike approached the older Unicorn, looking unimpressed for all the lightshow, and with how suddenly drained both of the ponies appeared. “Are you sure? It didn’t look like anything actually happened.”

Twilight sighed. “Of course it didn’t look like anything, Spike. It’s mind magic. What did you expect to see, a bunch of floating brains?”

“That would be pretty cool…”

“Spiiiiike.” She sighed, shaking her head. It was amazing to Chance just how fast Twilight Sparkle seemed to be able to recover from the enormous effort she had just expended. She was already breathing better, even if she still looked tired and frayed along the edges. “That’s not the point! That would be silly anyway.” She turned back to the filly, her face softening. “Can you feel the spell?”

She nodded, a little hesitantly. “I think so. It’s like…” She struggled for words, then said the first thing that came to mind. “I’m in signal wait mode. Connection established, no input. Does that make sense?”

Her answer seemed to confound Twilight more than clarify anything, but she smiled as though she understood. “There’s no magic for you to feel yet. I guess I better get started… it won’t last for long.” She looked around, selected a target, and lifted it slowly into the air. The still-lit candle was surrounded with the usual lavender glow as it moved towards Chance, then held still in the air in front of her. “What’s that feel like?”

Chance’s eyes had gone so wide there was little but black as she watched. Her body was frozen, unable to move under the assault of strange feelings. “Waveform suspended.” She choked, watching the candle with fixed attention. “You aren’t generating force.” She sounded awed. “It’s… it’s…” She reached vainly for a satisfactory explanation, and eventually settled for something completely unsatisfactory. “Selective probability suspension. Likelihood that the candle spontaneously holds itself in defiance of gravity approaches 1 on non-infinite bounded time.”

Lifting the candle took almost nothing out of Twilight, but the filly’s answers caused such surprise that the candle nearly fell out of the air. Chance couldn’t make sense of her expression, mostly because all of her own attention was fixed on the candle and the strange feelings she was getting from Twilight. This was what magic felt like. She felt the energy coursing through Twilight’s horn, an impressive reservoir of non-probabilistic… Particles? Waves? It was hard to tell which when it felt so much like both.

Eventually Twilight took up several more objects. Several books joined the candle in the air, orbiting each other in a spherical pattern like one of Bohr’s atoms. Chance felt each orbit and rotation, and traced the probabilistic curves of each wave function, invisible graphs dancing before her eyes without the need of a quantum computational mainframe. “I think I understand how your magic works.”

*********

Twilight was alone again when darkness came, grateful that Spike and the filly seemed to tire easily. That gave her more time to think, and more time to decide what she was going to do about the things she had learned today. She was in the basement again, alone save for the company of her trusty owl. Her copy of “Scientific History of Equestria” was open nearby, along with all four volumes of “Illustrated Thamatilogical Mechanics” and a half-written letter to Celestia and some simple sketched circuits.

There were so many priorities on Twilight’s mind that she couldn’t do just one. Frowning, she returned her quill to the letter.

Without instruction Second Chance seemed to understand the high-level theoretical basis for the magic I demonstrated to her. It may be that her world isn’t non-magical, as we first thought. Perhaps magic is simply called something else.


I’m quite sure Second Chance was not a filly in her own world. Her explanations afterwards were sophisticated and mathematically complex. Some of the things she said went over my head. Perhaps someone at the Academy has heard of a ‘Integral’ or a ‘Matrix’, but I couldn’t find anything about them in any of the math books here in the library.

Am I in over my head? I don’t like it when other ponies know so much about things I don’t.

For all she described the theoretical side of magic, she still can’t perform simple levitation yet. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing. Spike sure thinks I do that often enough.

Ever Your Faithful Student,

Princess Twilight Sparkle

Twilight frowned as she rolled the scroll up for sending tomorrow, then turned her attention back to her ideas for getting power to the Jebr stone. She already had some ideas of how she could hook up a generator, assuming she could get her hooves on one. This would be so much easier if she lived somewhere like Manehattan, where there was already a power grid to hook into. Still, maybe that was for the better. There was no telling what the stone would be able to do if she plugged it into that many electrical systems. Blow out all the lights in the city, probably.

“I think this is enough for tonight.” She muttered, mostly to herself. She closed the books one after another, replaced the cloth over the stone, and headed upstairs. Tomorrow the storm would be over. Maybe if the earth-ponies got started clearing the town early enough, she would be able to put in an order for a generator.

Should she tell Chance about the stone? If she could get the filly to concentrate on what she was being told long enough, she might be able to help designing a system to power it. Maybe she knew as much about electricity as she did about numbers.

Chapter 6: Checklists

Chapter 6: Checklists

Chance lifted the tips of her skis as the lift caught her suddenly from behind, no less disorienting after doing it hundreds of times. Of course for this Chance skiing was a fairly new adventure, and she was still somewhere between a giggle of delight and squeal of terror when the lift had dragged her forward far enough and lifted her up off the ground, with that characteristic hum of steel cables whirring against powerful motors. Soon she was uncomfortably far off the ground, with legs dangling over open air and stark white slopes.

Perhaps if this hadn't been a dream, it might have been uncomfortable to sit upright in one of these lifts with a spine not built for bipedal motion. If it hadn't been a dream, she also might have noticed the way she had been standing upright to get on the lift, or the way her forehooves were presently detached from the skis and wearing fingerless mittens instead of boots, and this detail was apt to change at any moment.

Dream or no, there were some details that did not escape her notice. Such as the way she was alone in the lift one moment, and very much not alone the next. Her companion did not look much older than herself, though instead of Chance's reflective poly-synthetic fabrics, she only wore a sweater of apparently natural fibers. Her skis were wood instead of laminated polycarbonate, and connected to her hooves by leather straps instead of sophisticated boots with metal clasps and shock-releases. Luna had been observing her for some time now, and carefully crafted this guise. Not to observe unseen, as that was not her purpose. Princess Luna was no nighttime voyeur, but the protector of all Equestrian dreams.

Luna looked to have taken the trappings of the dream, but even so Chance recognized her at once. Her mane might be a simple dark blue instead of the flowing curtain of stars, and her jewelry might be simpler, but this was unmistakably the same pony. Beside her on the lift Chance looked like a filly playing dress up, dressed completely as a human might rather than in the piecemeal style of the ponies.

"You decided to visit your world after all." Luna said, feeling pleased. "A fair place it is, too. There are numerous ponies with a passion for this sport." She leaned over, glancing down at the mountain beneath them.

Luna was the odd pony out with her archaic style of dress and equipment, since all the ponies skiing down the mountain were all dressed like Chance. Also, it seemed the proportions on the ponies below them weren’t quite right, particularly the stallions. No doubt Chance’s imagination could do only so much without proper information. Most ponies might have missed that at this distance, but Luna was not most ponies.

Chance shook her head, looking over at the other filly with her on the lift. Luna looked older, but not by much. She was getting better at this. "This is Equestria, can't you tell? Those are ponies down there, not... not..." She struggled for the word, and failed to find it. "something else."

Luna smiled. "Perhaps some of our skiing ponies would wish it so. Alas." She gestured at the lift they were sitting on, then at Chance's skis. "Were it Equestria, we would be on the ground, and we would be pulled up the mountain by a rope, or have to hike wearing snowshoes." She looked up just as they passed over one of the towering steel suspension poles, with its complicated system of pulleys and faintly whirring electronics keeping tension and speed consistent. "It's an ingenious system, however. We wonder if something similar might not be adapted magically. Perhaps we will speak with our royal engineers."

"We?" Chance wrinkled her nose, looking away from her companion to the challenge course that they were passing over, populated with ramps and pipes and rails and stairs. Long-maned ponies expertly slid over each, performing tricks that no Equestrian skier probably ought to be capable of. As Luna had no conception of Snowboards, she did not find their absence strange as an earth-native might.

The display also caught Luna off guard, and she stared openly. "And we don't have anything like that..." She pointed, suddenly intent. "Why did they build those obstacles into the mountain with metal and stone? Surely the slope itself is pleasant and challenging enough, for judging by the incline one might reach a fair speed."

Chance shrugged. "Dunno, I was never into it. Lots of people liked it. My little brother, he was pretty amazing on the halfpipe. He could do these tricks and spins that made it look like he had wings or somethin'." She leaned over the safety-bar, smiling to herself as she watched. But the lift kept climbing, from lesser peaks to greater, over many different runs. "No fear. The rest of us would be going back and forth, and he just went straight down."

Luna remained silent until the obstacles were behind them and she was forced to look away. Everything before her eyes was fascinating, from the strange materials everypony was wearing to the technology all around them. She had to resist the desire to investigate them further. It was wonderful that Chance was opening up, but that was her first task. When her psyche was sufficiently repaired, Luna could simply ask and satisfy her curiosity that way."You have a brother then? Was he as clever as you?"

Chance visibly sagged into her seat, and only replied after another long pause. "Had." She leaned over the safety-bar, looking down so Luna could not see her face. "Some of my family might still be alive, but..." She shook her head, and then brightened as she looked up. The lift had begun to get very bumpy, as they were coming up the disembarking station. The safety bar lifted of its own accord, and Chance clicked the boots on her forelegs into place on the very long skis. "Get ready Luna! Tips up!"

The dream-modified lift began to tilt up, and dislodged them on an icy slope. Both wobbled a little at first, but neither pony fell, gliding gracefully down. Well Luna was graceful. Even in dream Chance did not seem to be very good at this, and she stopped with an awkward wedge, not with the dexterous sidelong motion that characterized an expert as Luna did.

For all such lifts might be busy in the real world, there was no other traffic up here now, and just a handful of others waiting for them at the base of the lift-hill, where different trails were marked with different names printed on plastic signs in bold English letters.

Five ponies waited, all with somewhat similar features. They all dressed like Chance, which made it impossible for Luna to see the features that she would normally look for in a new pony, such as their cutie mark. A gray unicorn stallion, a pegasus mare, a young unicorn mare, and a light orange pegasus colt looking surprisingly confident on his hooves. They seemed to see right through Luna, and didn't have much awareness to them. Then they were just backdrop, no more aware than the snow or the machines.

"Is this your family, Chance?" Luna asked, once deliberation on which slope would be taken (the easiest one possible) was over and they were gliding gently down. Chance was so awkward on her skis that Luna was easily able to keep pace without needing her wings, which proper pony attire had left free should she need them.

Chance nodded, looking happy again. "It was for a long time, back when life on my planet was normal." She moved closer to the edge of the trail, leading Luna behind her. The side sloped steeply down onto a bright and snow-covered hill, covered with earth trees. The view was wonderful, the air crisp and cool. "Earth was such a beautiful planet. I dunno much about Equestria yet, but on Earth we had variation like you would never believe. We have this thing called plate tectonics, where huge solid sections of our crust move along a semi fluid molten layer. Over millions of years, they do all these spectacular things... these mountains are very old, so they're mostly worn down now. Newer mountains are much steeper than this... and we've got every climate you can imagine. So many beautiful things used to live here."

"There were jungles filled with life, millions of different types of insects alone! Such pretty animals too, roaming all over the place. Savannas with predators and huge herds of buffalo and antelope, vast oceans deeper than any of us could go without machines to ride in..."

She went on, telling the story of her planet as it had been in her youth. Luna listened closely, watching Chance's memories with her. Luna had seen many wonderful things in Equestria, and it seemed that Chance felt just the same about her home. "Thy world was a wondrous place indeed. I would have liked to see it, I think. Tell me, what of its people? What were thy folk like in the time of thy youth?"

Chance wavered for a moment, nearly falling over. It didn't help the question was timed almost perfectly with a steep embankment, which she nearly careened over rather than making a successful turn. Luna watched as war raged in the filly, as the part of her that was still proud of her people fought with the part that was ashamed and afraid. She watched with concern, preparing for an abrupt ending to the dream like last time. To her surprise and relief, the healthy part of Second Chance eventually won.

"What were the people like?" She grinned, and at once, they skied right out of the mountain and onto the sidewalk over a city. Skis ground in protest against the concrete for a few seconds before vanishing along with Chance's winter clothes. Luna stepped out of the memory too, though she seemed hesitant to return to her proper size and form. Not that Chance noticed. She was far too eager to begin her explanation to notice details like that. "You have no idea!"

At her thought the city of memory rose around them, buildings of steel and concrete rising far above their heads. Wide black streets marked with bright white lines, crisp and free of debris. Sleek metallic shapes formed on the road, moving so fast they were almost a blur. Rubber seemed to glide on asphalt, machines moving as though some greater intelligence was guiding them together in a well-choreographed dance. The air was cold and a fog hung just below the tops of the buildings, which made it seem as though many went on forever, stretching impossibly into the sky.

"This was my home." Chance said, trotting briskly along the sidewalk. She was fully dressed, in thinner versions of the strange fabric she had been wearing earlier. She also seemed to have little metal things on her body at various points, but they were impossible for Luna to identify. She even wore a pair of sneakers, which remained attached to her hooves through no visible means. The sidewalks in the distance were thronging with similarly dressed ponies, though none were close enough to obstruct their path. "Seattle, it was called. One of the best cities, but I expect everyone would think that about their home." Luna walked along beside her, hooves clopping along the sidewalk as she took in the huge buildings and massive vehicles speeding along nearby. For the first time in their brief friendship, Luna was cowed by what she saw, and completely unable to speak.

"We lived in cities like this all over our planet, expanding and building and learning. So creative, always inventing new and better ways to do things.” Another step brought them to one of the sleek vehicles, a sleek metal shape holding itself in the air through no visible means. Luna would’ve thought of it as magical, except that she could sense no representation of magic here in the dream, not even a hint of it. She was powerless but to follow the filly as she spoke. The instant they were inside, the opening slid closed behind them. The inside was dark, with comfortable seats along the sides. Chance sat down and Luna did the same, though she didn’t make her spine bend the way Chance’s anatomically inaccurate dream-shape was able to.

There was hardly a feeling of acceleration, yet the metal shape lifted from the ground and zipped up into the air like the fleetest pegasus. As the city fell away below them, Luna saw the structures, rising more massive than anything in Canterlot ever could. Ponies had no way to build structures of this size, each one many times higher than the greatest structures in Manehattan. The weight of the material and higher stories would crush the lower and the buildings would collapse. Not here, though. Despite clearly being made of such heavy materials as metal and glass and concrete, the buildings climbed higher and higher, some without any sign of getting thinner until they abruptly ended.

As they rose, the city faded into the fog, replaced by a sky filled with metallic shapes. There were no pegasai, but hundreds of fast-moving shapes like theirs, some many times larger and clearly filled with ponies and cargo. Greatest of all was a tower in the distance, so massive it must dwarf the whole of the city she had just seen. The fog made it impossible to see the size of its base, but it was still quite thick at their height, and tapered only gradually. She strained her neck to see just how high it went, and estimated the height at several thousand meters. It seemed to be their destination, growing so gradually larger that its sheer scale was almost frightening.

Chance was still talking. “Our greatest work of engineering: The North American Magnetic Accelerator; it’s how we used to send things into space. It uses millions of electromagnets, all in series... you know what those are, right?” Chance pulled herself up to the window beside Luna, pointing at the base with a hoof. “Oooh! They’re getting ready to fire it, watch! I only ever got to see this once...”

Little lights came on all over the structure, lighting up in lines all leading up from the base, and seeming to blink in some regular pattern. As they did, a faint voice came from nopony, sounding mechanical and unreal somehow. “Passengers, please take your seats. Turbulence expected from N.A.M.A. Relay in fifteen seconds.” Chance ignored the warning, so Luna did as well, watching expectantly for this ‘so-called’ greatest achievement in action. A way to get something into space was an achievement, though she hardly had fond memories of space travel.

A dull roar came up from ahead of them, shaking their transport. The rattling increased, and the sound got louder and louder, so much so that she would have been frightened were she not quite confident of her safety within a dream. “See, we used to use hydrogen-oxygen rockets to reach escape velocity, but you can’t imagine how expensive that got. Down there’s a track, and the spacecraft goes around and around and around-“

A falling star abruptly rocketed from the topmost opening of the tower, with the roar of an object that has just broken the sound-barrier. It was impossible to follow it with her eyes, but she could follow the trail it left behind in the air leading straight up. Lightning cracked in the narrow corridor left by the craft, following it up into the sky without bound. Then the craft began to shake violently, so much so that she nearly fell from her perch by the window. Chance did fall, though she seemed to land without injury on her back and quickly corrected herself.

The filly was beaming up at her, looking as proud as any pony could look. “See? Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Some people called it a space elevator, but that isn’t technically true since it doesn’t even go higher than the Troposphere.”

It took Luna several moments to collect herself enough to reply. She was Princess Luna, the diarch of the moon, a nigh-immortal being older than the entire civilization she observed. Still, she could not deny she had been affected by Chance’s amazing vision, perhaps more than any pony dream she had ever seen. So affected that she did what she almost never did in dream, and thought of herself before the pony she was trying to help. She did answer, though considered in retrospect she would long wish she could go back and erase what she had said. “This is amazing Second Chance! All of it!” She was so eager that perhaps, for once in a long while, the young form she had taken was more truly expressive of her nature than her usual one. “But how? How could a people with the harmony to create such wonders ever fall? Your people would have made short work of Equestrian foes. What conquered your people?”

The effects of her error were not obvious at first. The filly got quiet, and her unquenchable enthusiasm finally died. In her hunger for the answer to this riddle, Luna almost failed to notice the change in Chance’s emotional state. Had she not been a princess, perhaps she wouldn’t have noticed. But by the time she did, it was too late. Nothing she said or did would make a difference. “W-what… what conquered…”

There was a flash, brighter than any light she had seen on Equestria. Brighter than the sun, however briefly. It began to grow, expanding to encompass the entire city beneath them. Chance did not look, but Luna did, though it would have blinded her if she had real eyes to see with. The dream didn’t continue long. As the filly began to whimper, covering her face with her hooves, a wave of heat and sound approached them so fast that there was nothing they could do to avoid it. There wouldn’t have even been time for Luna to erect a spell to protect herself, if she had needed to.

Chance’s impressive metal chariot was crushed by the pressure, blown into a billion tiny fragments and burned in a heat far greater than the surface of the sun. The pain was so intense, and the ending so abrupt that even Luna was briefly overwhelmed, shocked back to reality and out of the world of dreams entirely. She was gone quickly, but not so quickly that she couldn’t hear Second Chance screaming.

**********

This was an accomplishment. For the first time since arriving in Ponyville, she managed to make it to sunrise before waking up drenched and pale and screaming. Her eyes burned with those last images of her hometown in flames, that beautiful city reduced to a crater of radioactive glass. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-“ She managed to catch herself after only a few seconds this time, sitting up against the headboard with both forelegs shielding her face. As though that would make any difference.

There was no way she hadn’t woken up the room’s other occupants, though looking up sheepishly Twilight seemed far less bothered than she had been on previous occasions. According to Spike, Twilight usually got up around sunrise anyway, so this probably wasn’t much of an interruption in her normal routine. “Nightmares again, huh?” She asked, sounding as bleary as she looked.

Chance nodded. “I didn’t think I would, but I guess I did.” Unlike Twilight or Spike, Chance was fully alert, without a trace of sleeplessness to her. She had after all slept quite soundly until the end. What had she been dreaming about? Seattle? She remembered it now, though like all dreams it had started to slip away. If she had been dreaming about that place, why did she remember riding a ski lift? Both Twilight and Spike looked concerned, but Chance was not forthcoming with any more information, and neither was bold enough to ask her to elaborate. Only on the first day had Twilight asked what her dream had been about. After the disastrous consequences that had followed, she had not repeated the mistake.

“Well, no reason to let it get you down. Today is going to be just perfect!” Twilight had already climbed down to the lower section of the bedroom, and opened all the windows with a sudden surge of magic. The light coming in from outside seemed far livelier than the day before. Chance smiled a little at the clear sky. “It’s an exciting day for you Chance, because…”

“Oh, here it comes…” Spike muttered, before pulling the blanket over his head and curling up again, covering his ears with both claws.

“I wrote you your first to-do list!” Twilight produced a scroll from a nearby shelf, holding it up in the air in front of Chance’s bed and unrolling it so she could see. The scroll was longer than it looked, for as it unrolled it trailed along the floor, vanishing from sight. “There is nothing more essential to being a good apprentice than accomplishing one’s responsibilities. This way, you’ll know exactly what you need to do, and everything will get done exactly right.”

“Uh-“ Chance squeaked, raising a hoof tentatively in the air to try and stop Twilight.

It didn’t work. She went right on talking. “Of course, you may need help the first few times through, which is perfectly fine! Being a good apprentice is about more than just working and studying hard. It’s also about taking initiative and-“ She had begun to pace slowly back and forth in front of Chance, the list rolling itself up and setting itself in her lap before the magical shimmer faded from around it.

“Twilight, I-“

“make decisions for yourself. But if you take a more historical angle, every accomplished unicorn took on an apprentice or two at some point during their career. Being able to carefully and correctly accomplish assignments is absolutely necessary-“

“I CAN’T READ EQUESTRIAN!”

That got the princess’s attention. Twilight Sparkle stopped talking and stared. She was silent for what felt like several awkward minutes. “You… uh…”

So she wouldn’t have to look, Chance occupied herself with getting out of bed, and trying to make the bed behind her. It was a much more difficult task than she remembered, requiring her teeth more than anything else. Even then she wasn’t doing a very good job, but that didn’t matter to Chance. Anything not to have to look back at Twilight was worth doing just then.

“I’m sorry Chance, I had no idea!” She wasn’t particularly sure where the list had fallen to, but it lifted itself back up into the air, and vanished behind Twilight. “I… I suppose I just assumed… since you were so clever and everything…”

The filly spun around, feeling suddenly defensive. “I can read, just not Equestrian. The Nightmare taught me how to speak, not how to read.”

Twilight retreated a pace, frowning to herself. “Oh, uh…” Her face brightened, with apparent effort. “That’s okay! Plenty of ponies don’t know how to read. That won’t do for my apprentice, though. We’ll just… hold on a minute! I’ll make you a new schedule using pictures instead.” She vanished down the stairs, seemingly unaware of her severe case of bedhead.

Chance exhaled, collapsing right where she stood. “Spike, was it hard for you to learn to read? Dragons can’t be born knowing how, right?”

However he might’ve been acting, the reptile’s compassion clearly exceeded his selfishness. However reluctant he might be to give up his sleep, Spike sat up in his basket and met her eyes. “It was a really long time ago, Chance. But it wasn’t too hard. Twilight taught me!” He yawned, stretching both arms in the air above him before he went on. “They don’t have classes for dragons. She’s a very good teacher. Besides, you’ve got a head start! You seem to already know what all the words mean!”

Chance nodded glumly. “The Nightmare taught me when I first got to Equestria. When I was…” She looked up through the window, trying to phrase what she was thinking in a way he would understand. Nothing easy came to mind. “an idea. She showed me all the different words there were.” She paused, looking concerned. “I hope I still remember English.”

“Ang-liss, huh?” Spike repeated, trying to mimic her concern. “That sounds really important, I wouldn’t want to forget that either.”

She gave an exaggerated sigh before looking away, and didn’t reply for a few minutes. Spike stood up and stretched, and occupied himself with making Twilight’s bed.

“Wait.” She brightened a little. “This is a library, right? So there are probably… books to learn how to read, right? With pictures and bright colors and stuff to teach foals who don’t know yet…”

Spike nodded. “There are a few. Books aren’t cheap, but I think we have a few.”

Chance relaxed. “Good.” She stood, rising to all four legs. It was getting easier with each day, and she didn’t even wobble this time. “Do you think Twilight would mind if I took a bath? Who knows how long she’ll take to make that new list.”

He shrugged. “Can’t see why she would. Just don’t use all the hot water, okay?” He stretched again, yawning. “Since I’m up, I suppose I might as well go and make breakfast. Eggs sound okay?”

“That depends. Is there such thing as ketchup in Equestria?”

Chance took much longer than she remembered taking back home, just grateful for something that felt familiar. She had no idea how she could be using hot water in a world that seemed to lack electricity, but didn’t waste time thinking about it.

When she was washed and dried (but not dressed, since her clothes hadn’t arrived yet), it was back out to face the proverbial music. The first thing she noticed was the smell, even more wonderful than the pancakes that had been her first taste of equestrian cuisine. She was less than surprised to see she was the last to arrive, and that Twilight was eager to explain the changes she had made.

“Well obviously this has to be our first priority, since a full third of your schedule was previously devoted to reading.” She had another list already drawn up, though this one couldn’t be much larger than a regular sheet of paper. Whose dimensions Chance knew for some reason. As it turned out Equestria did have ketchup, so she was far too cheerful to be worn down by what Twilight was saying. Besides, for all that Chance was clearly a poor candidate for the position, Twilight still hadn’t given up on her. That was worth a thousand illustrated lists. “But that’s no problem!”

Evidently Twilight had already eaten, because her food was largely untouched. “We’ll start with two hours of reading together after breakfast, since not much goes on that early anyway. I’ve got you down for another two hours of private practice using some of the beginner’s books here in the library.” She lifted a glass of orange juice magically then, and took a small sip before going on. “Then three hours off for lunch and the social activity of your choice. We’ll see about letting you roam Ponyville eventually, but for now Spike or I will have to keep an eye on you to make sure you don’t get too lost.”

Chance thought there were probably other reasons for that, more closely attached to the “being an alien” bit, but Twilight wasn’t nearly bold enough to say so, and Chance had no desire to make her uncomfortable.

“Another hour for personal magic practice, and then you’re free for the night! Well… except for helping out with dinner, and any other chores we need around the library.” She put on a look of mock sternness. “Spike and I have always got along fine, but now that there are three of us we’ll have to make some changes. I hope you don’t mind hard work, because everypony works hard around here.”

Chance shook her head. “Course not, Twilight! I’m… I worked really hard to get here, and I promise I’ll work even harder to make myself worth keeping!” She smiled, not aware of the messy tomato stain all over her lips. Not until Spike started giggling, anyway. Even Twilight smiled.

“Good.” Twilight nodded, and stifled a few of her own giggles as Chance solved the Ketchup problem with her tongue. “I think you’ll be a perfectly fine apprentice, Chance. This is all just a minor setback, is all. After yesterday’s first lesson, I think you’ll be helping me before you know it!”

Chance tried to ignore the obvious compliment. Even though she suspected Twilight was just trying to make her feel better, she couldn’t cognitively separate that knowledge enough not to feel just a little proud. “Just as soon as I can turn feelings into actual magic.”

“Well, all the more reason to get reading! There are plenty of books on the subject. That’s how I learned, after all!”

“You already told her that, Twilight.” Spike muttered.

“I know!” She defended. “But it seemed worth repeating! A little more motivation to study!”

“Do you think…” Chance paused to lick everything that was left from her plate. “Could I use a pencil and some paper while I study? I mean, I might want to take notes while I go, so I can keep track of everything I’m learning. Like… I’d like to make a key out of phonetics and letters first, since I could probably use that to reason most words.”

The princess smiled even wider. “Of course, Chance! You just hold on one second!” She got up, so eager to comply with her instructions that she seemed to have completely forgotten the rest of her breakfast. “My little apprentice already wants to take notes of her very own!” She said to herself in her proudest voice yet.

Spike rolled his eyes. “What’s the point of paper if you don’t know how to read, Chance? How will you even know what you wrote?”

“Oh, that’s easy.” It seemed Twilight hadn’t explored that logical avenue, so eager was she to see that her teachings were already rubbing off on her pupil. “I do know how to write, just not in Equestrian. I’ll take notes in my old language. At least until I know enough to use yours, cuz’ that would be great practice.”

“Ooooh!” Spike smiled too. “I bet it’s crazy looking! I wanna see!”

“Sure.” Chance answered. “I’ll show you, if you… scoop me the last of the scrambled eggs!” She pushed her plate a little closer to Spike, smiling slyly. “Oh! And put some more ketchup on there, too.”

He stopped halfway through serving her, eyes narrowing. “You could’ve just asked.”

So it was that as Chance began her very first reading lesson, it was with a pencil in her mouth and a little notebook in front of her. Twilight rolled a chalkboard into the library proper. Spike sat next to her on the sofa, watching her every movement and seeming to give Twilight no notice at all. His boredom manifested rapidly however, exacerbated as it was by the way Chance’s scribbles were just illegible copies of the symbols Twilight was showing her.

Eventually he was completely unable to contain himself, and he sighed loudly. “Come oooooooooooon! Twilight, this is really interesting and all, but could you stop the lesson for a minute so Chance can show me what her writing looks like.”

Twilight sighed. “Spike, couldn’t you ask about this after our lesson was over?” She glanced at the sun in the window. “We’re not even halfway done yet!”

“But Twilight! Just a few words! It’s not like she has to write down everything you’re saying or anything.” Then he lowered his voice, muttering privately into Chance’s ear. “Or else it might take you years.”

Chance didn’t know how good ponies could hear, but Twilight glowered down at him. “Spike."

Chance paused, ignoring the two of them as they went on like this for a few seconds more, moving her mouth very carefully. Writing this way felt completely stupid, but the first half of the lesson had given her enough practice that as long as she went extremely slow, she felt like she could do it. So she focused every last ounce of her concentration into writing legibly. As it turned out, she hadn’t forgotten English.

“Pony Lessons”

Satisfied with the result, she interrupted Spike and Twilight’s banter by holding the notepad up so Spike could see, gesturing at the bottom. “There.” She looked back up. “You can keep going, Twilight. I’m listening.”

The lesson went on for another few minutes, until Spike got up from where he sat, walked across the room to where Twilight was standing, and held up the notebook right in front of her face. “Spiiiike! If you’re going to keep…” She trailed off abruptly, going quiet. Then without warning, she ripped the notebook clean out of Spike’s grip, and it followed her through the air as she darted down the stairs.

“Uh… was it something I said?” Spike stood speechless, his arms in exactly the position they had been in a moment before, too shocked to move.

Chance squirmed uncomfortably in her seat, getting worried. “She… must’ve recognized it or something. Are there more books in the basement?”

The dragon shook his head. “Only the ones she brings with her to study down there. It’s a lab more than a library, which is why we’re not allowed down there without Twilight’s invitation. There’s dangerous magical equipment down there.”

A glance passed between the two of them with more meaning than any words could hope to convey. Chance got up, followed closely by Spike as they made their way to the still open doorway. “Do you think we should ask?” Chance stopped at the threshold, shivering a little as a breeze blew past her into the opening. She pawed nervously at the top step, curiosity battling with fear of reprisal.

They didn’t have to decide. Another second later and they heard hooves pounding up the stairs. Almost in unison they turned and darted for the couch, leaping the last distance as Twilight crested the stairs. They collided in mid-leap, landing in more of a pile than any proper sitting position. Neither dared move as the alicorn approached, out of irrational fear that any motion might somehow help Twilight to realize they had been about to do something wrong.

“Chance, could you take a look at something for me?” She had brought several books back with her, along with Chance’s few words. She held the book toward her much-lower position, with her head resting against the cushion and Spike sprawled on her head and neck. “I’ve been doing some research since you got here, and it looks like your letters-” She trailed off, the book drooping a little in the air as she looked at the both of them, as though seeing them for the first time. “What are you two doing?”

It was as though they had suddenly unfrozen. Spike scrambled free, and Chance pulled herself back into what passed for a comfortable sitting position as a pony. “Nothing!” They insisted, only a few seconds apart.

Chance reached out with her hooves, tugging the book out of the air so she could get a better look, mostly as a way of shielding her face from Twilight. It felt strange to try and grab onto something with hooves, and she had to awkwardly squeeze the book between the two of them. Twilight evidently wasn’t holding the book very strongly, because she was able to pluck it out of the air, and hold it up to her face to hide behind.

Chance’s eyes widened as she saw the page. It looked like someone had tried to sketch something archaeological, tracing over some ruin in a long-lost temple somewhere to preserve it for the future. They might not have even known what it meant, merely done their best to record their observations so colleagues in some distant university might benefit.

“That’s from a temple, thousands of years old.” Twilight explained, unable to hide the first hints of amusement in her tone. “They worshiped this special stone. The pony who wrote the book thinks they got these symbols from the stone, and copied them all down as best they could.”

Chance just stared, utterly transfixed by a wall in ancient Equestria covered with perfect English writing.

Author's Notes:

Well there we are, another Saturday update done. I really hope I can keep this bi-weekly schedule going, though I am beginning to have my doubts. I've started working part-time a little more regularly now, so that's 20 hours a week I won't have to write these stories. Granted, most chapters are written the night before from 1-4AM, but then... (shrugs) Then edited the day before, then posted that day. If I only had one update a week that would make it easier to keep up. But I want to know where the story's going as much as any of you! If I only updated once a week, I would have to wait until next week to learn what was going to happen next! That would be lame.

Dunno, just mumbling. Thanks to the fantastic Zutchafor the art again, who has been kind enough to grace this chapter with another image of its protagonist. Until further notice, I suppose you can expect an update to pop on in Tuesday at some point. Not sure if I would go with a Saturday or Tuesday release if I was going to go for just once a week. Probably... Tuesday, since there's a new episode on Saturdays.

Also: Plot! Our first real glimpse at the world Second Chance comes from. Hurray!

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to comment, even if it's to point out all the stuff I've got wrong. It's excellent motivation to keep writing and to do even better for my next chapter.

Chapter 7: Known and Unknown

Chapter 7: Known and Unknown

Chance read out loud, speaking slowly as she translated the original english into Equestrian words. She traced her hoof over the words as she read, finding the gesture much less helpful than memory indicated. Stupid tiny words and big hooves. At least she managed to hold the book open with the rest of her body as she read, which she probably would not have been able to manage a few days before. She was adapting, and quickly.

Critical failure of organic components. Simulated intelligence activated. Critical failure of simulated intelligence, CONTACT ADMINISTRATOR.

Adaptative emergency algorithm upgraded to root status. WARNING: This algorithm will require approximately 1.98*10^7 operating hours to reach UNTRANSLATABLE status. This exceeds mission allotted parameters.

DANGER: Unknown energy source detected. DANGER: UNTRANSLATABLE detect this unit has exceeded maximum shock tolerance of 50 standard gravities. DANGER: Critical damage detected to internal UNTRANSLATABLE core. Switching to UNTRANSLATABLE backups. DANGER: Probability of mission failure 98.19%. Entering hibernation.

Hibernation Cycle Terminated: Complex life detected. Analyzing behavior. Complex behavioral patterns detected Probability of Sapience: 89.46%. Activate UNTRANSLATABLE protocol.

Twilight could restrain herself no longer, and rested a hoof firmly on Chance's shoulder. "Wait, Chance. Could you... what's wrong with some of those words? There's got to be some approximation you can use. The equestrian language has over a hundred thousand words!"

Chance shook her head, looking frustrated. "The words are all proper nouns, Twilight. Maybe I could try to translate them into their function, except..." Her frustration grew, and the book nearly fell from her hooves. "I can't remember what any of them are supposed to do! I'm sorry, Twilight. I just... no matter how hard I stare at it..." She was squinting hard at the book, as though she suspected that the smaller she made her eyes the better she would be able to understand. It clearly did not work that way, though. Twilight frowned, patting Chance on the head.

"Alright Chance. Just relax... you're already doing more than any archaeologist in Equestria has ever managed, assuming those translations are right. Hold on a minute... Spike, get some paper and a quill. I want you to write everything she says, so we can send it to the Royal Academy." If they had a starting point, they could check for correspondences in the written symbols and figure out how likely it was Chance's translation was accurate. Not that she had any doubt the filly thought she was right about it, but it would be better to be sure. If there proved to be some correspondence to similar words and symbols, they might be able to use it for a basis to translate everything written in that ancient language, one day! She couldn't help but feel a little like Daring Do thinking about all of this. Maybe she ought to take Chance to the ancient temples depicted in these books when she was older.

Twilight refused to allow Chance to continue until Spike had brought paper, and he was on the ground looking up at her from below. “Ready Second Chance!” He said, sitting with the air of one about to perform some very important duty. No doubt he was more excited about this assignment to act as scribe than he had been about many similar tasks Twilight had given him over the years. Writing something down nopony had ever heard before was a big responsibility! “Okay Chance, go ahead and start at the beginning, and we’ll go from there.”

She did, speaking more confidently now as she reread those parts that she had already translated once. It was much easier the second time, though part of that was going slow enough for Spike to keep pace. As she read her eagerness to return to what remained grew. Maybe… maybe this wall was a message for her! She knew she had a mission here. Maybe if she was very lucky, the wall would remind her what it was.

Communication attempt successful. Message transcription:

Native species, honored greetings on behalf of the United Earth Federation! This device has sustained critical damage and is unable to accomplish its purpose. Does your world possess UNTRANSLATABLE or UNTRANSLATABLE?

Negative response received. EM frequency transmissions negligible. Likelihood of pre-UNTRANSLATABLE society: 97.15%. Critical Mission Failure. Watchdog subroutines activated. Entering Hibernation.

That was where the wall ended. Frantic, Chance flipped several pages further, but whatever else might be in this book, it wasn’t English and she could not make sense of it. Reluctantly, she closed the book and pushed it back toward Twilight. “That’s where it ends.”

Twilight nodded, though she took the book from Chance’s grasp much more forcefully than was her usual style, and she had to take a look for herself to confirm. She looked between the book and the translation, but Chance could plainly tell from her expression that she could make no sense of it. Her desperation briefly mimicked Chance’s, but then her expression softened. “What do you think all of that means?”

The response took some moments. “Where did the writing come from?”

Twilight seemed to be considering something, though Chance couldn’t be sure of what those complicated pony expressions meant. Eventually she spoke, with somewhat hesitant tone to her voice. “From an ancient temple somewhere far far away, before Equestria even existed. They worshiped an idol of some kind.”

The filly pondered that a moment. “Well, it looks like I wasn’t the first one to come from my world after all.” For some reason, that statement did not bring her reassurance. Rather, it made her feel powerfully afraid. Unsafe. Her refuge was no refuge after all! Or at least… might not be. “But whatever it was, it couldn’t survive crossing. I… know why that might be from experience. If it hadn’t been for you and your magic, I don’t know if I would have made it either!”

“So you think it was completely broken?” Twilight sounded quite disappointed by this, eyes downcast. “No chance it might work again.”

Chance shrugged. “No way it will do whatever it was supposed to do. Still, it must have done something if ponies wanted to worship it.” She leaned back into the couch, trying to relax. Some reading lesson this was turning out to be. “Why? Do you know where it is?” She perked up a little as she asked, though she hardly dared to hope. If the writings were older than a country ruled by a goddess, then she couldn’t get her hopes up about anything having survived that long.

“Thank you so much for your help, Chance! You can’t imagine how big a help this will be to the ponies at the Royal Academy!” The little green unicorn was relieved enough that line of inquiry had ended that she didn’t even notice Twilight had failed to answer her question.

Her thinking was suddenly interrupted by a loud knocking sound. "I'll get it!" Spike shouted, darting over to the door.

"Guess they got to work clearing the town pretty quick." Twilight muttered, though she still looked somewhat withdrawn.

The door opened, and Chance heard a voice high and bubbly from outside. "Hi Spike! Can I come in? I've got to have a seriously important conversation with Twilight!" There was a brief pause, and she continued with a much lower, more serious tone to her voice. "She's got some explaining to do."

Twilight gulped, though Spike was powerless to notice whatever she might be up to on the other side of the room. "Sure, Pinkie! We were just doing reading lessons, nothing important or anything." He opened the door wider, gesturing for her to come inside.

In from a snowy wonderland stepped the brightest colored pony Chance had yet to meet. She was about as pink as it was possible to be, her mane a frizzy mess that followed her like something living. She seem to bounce more than she walked, heading straight toward Twilight. She stopped her bounce just as Spike slammed the door closed. "I think it's time for my morning nap." He called. Nopony seemed to be listening as he walked away.

The newcomer looked at Chance first, grinning. "Hi, monster space pony! Hold on one sec." It was as though someone had flipped a switch. As she turned away from her, it seemed to Chance as though she had just vanished from this new pony's vision. Could you really just un-see something like that? If she had any doubt on the subject, the conversation that followed would quickly put an end to it. "Twilight." She glowered at the princess.

Twilight seemed to shrivel under her baleful gaze, not meeting her eyes. "Pinkie Pie! I'm so glad you could make it here. I didn't know they had cleared the streets already."

Pinkie Pie's tone grew suddenly lighter, and her expression softened. "Course not! Earth ponies might be hard-working, but we can't work that hard. I swam, silly!" Then, like a computer loading a previous file for editing, her face turned hard again. "I waited for you, Twilight. Two days ago, remember? REMEMBER?"

Her victim nodded, slinking away inch by inch. As though that could protect her from the awful indignation of this strange pony. Of course Pinkie was fascinating to Chance for more reasons than her eccentric behavior. She was the first pony Chance had met who didn't have a horn! She stared at her head, transfixed by the lack of the strange feature she had taken to be a necessity of pony life. Of all the ponies she knew... Twilight, Rarity, Sweetie Belle... it was suddenly strange to see it not there. She seemed to be able to stare without provoking the earth pony's notice.

"Yes, Pinkie! I'm sorry! It was just, it took so long to get everything situated for Chance's wardrobe, and the storm had already started, so we had to get home right away! I didn't want the little filly to get stuck out in the snow and the cold without anything warm to wear!"

Pinkie herself wasn't wearing anything Chance could see, nor did she look wet. Whatever. She had heard from Twilight about the other tribes, and been able to see in her teacher their traits. The pegasi had wings like she did, the unicorns had horns, and earth ponies had neither. Apparently this was mostly an earth-pony town, though she hadn't got close to any of them during her one time outside the library so far. Hopefully that would change soon. These same wood walls were getting old.

"Yeaaaaaah." Pinkie said, glaring down at Twilight for several long moments. Then the anger subsided. "Well, you said you're sorry, so I guess it's okay! I only wanted to help! Speaking of which..." She leaned closer to Twilight's ear, as though she were going to whisper. When she actually spoke her voice was hardly much quieter, though. "Have you learned anything else about the space monster pony?"

Twilight rolled her eyes. "Yeah, Pinkie. She's just an ordinary pony, like Celestia said she would be."

"Realllly." She turned her head, looking at Chance briefly, then quickly returning her attention to Twilight. "Are you sure? Did you check? The Changelings looked like regular ponies too, before they got all..." She made a gesture with her hooves that Chance couldn't interpret. "holey."

"I'm sure, Pinkie." She gestured to Chance. "You can see for yourself. She's right there." Indeed, Chance was sitting less than three meters from where Pinkie stood, watching and listening to every word.

"She's... Ahhh!" Pinkie nearly fell over herself in sudden fear, which made even less sense to Chance since she had clearly been aware of her presence the entire time. "You've got a space monster pony living with you!"

"No Pinkie. I've got a regular-old unicorn filly living with me." She sighed. "Didn't we go over all this the night Chance got here?"

Pinkie Pie was far from dissuaded, even if she did seem to regain a measure of her composure. Without warning, she stepped out from behind the princess, advancing slowly on Chance. "Okay, Twilight. We'll settle this right now." She narrowed her eyes, moving cautiously. As though Chance might spring and attack her at any moment. Not knowing what else to do, Chance just sat there, watching as Pinkie advanced on her and trying not to be upset by everything that had happened. As much as she joked about herself as an alien invader, to have somepony else use that in malice felt absolutely awful.

"She's not usually like this." Twilight reassured from behind her. "Just... don't struggle. You can't really reason with her when she's in one of these moods."

That was scarcely reassuring. Chance found herself wishing strongly that Rarity had come over instead of this scary pink pony. She might've brought Sweetie Belle! They could've played in the library and everything! Instead, the pink earth pony closed the distance between them and commanded in a flat voice. "Stand up space pony." The filly looked to Twilight for help, but all her teacher did was nod at her. Feeling fearful, she got to her hooves. It was even more intimidating to look up at the pony from the ground, so much bigger than she was. That didn't say much, though. All the adult ponies were huge.

Pinkie Pie circled her several times, muttering to herself the entire time. For all Chance thought she could understand Equestrian as good as any native, she couldn't make out a word of what the pony was saying. Pinkie sniffed at her, pulled on her tail with her teeth, and did quite a good job making her feel afraid and uncomfortable. "Alright, 'Chance', if that's who you really are." She stopped in front of her, her face an inch or so from Chance's. "You seem to be a pony on the outside, but what about the inside?" She cleared her throat. "Time for Pinkie's super-secure-personality-testing-question-test!" She grinned, pausing for what Chance could only assume was dramatic effect. "First question: What's your favorite color?"

Chance retreated under Pinkie's intense glare, but there was no respite. Pinkie followed right behind her, not giving her more than a few inches. "I... uh... what? My favorite color? Why does that... why does that matter?"

"Are you implying you don't have a favorite color?" She grew sterner, if that were possible. "Answer the question possible monster space pony! These questions are how we'll know once and for all whether you're really a pony, as you claim. Unless you can't answer."

She hesitated for another moment, though not a long one. "Orange. Kinda light orange. I had lots of orange stuff back home."

"A likely story." Pinkie said, leaning in even closer. "Just one more question possible monster pony, and I'll have your results."

Chance gulped, unable to even look to Twilight for support with Pinkie baring down on her. Twilight wouldn't let her actually do anything to her, right? She would be rescuing her from this any minute now.

"Vanilla, Chocolate, or Almond?"

"I see." What kind of questions were these, anyway? What could she possibly expect to figure out from Chance's results? Doing her best not to look as afraid as she felt, she answered, her voice faltering and fearful. "A-almond..." She closed her eyes, shielding her face with one hoof. It was only a matter of time, now. Whatever this Pinkie Pie was doing, it was going to end with her being yelled at. Her new sanctuary here in Ponyville would prove to be far less safe than she had initially imagined. Not the respite from her hell after all.

"Welcome to Ponyville!" Pinkie took hold of Chance's hoof with two of hers and shook it vigorously. It was as before, when she had been talking to Twilight. Her features were utterly transformed. Instead of a stern glare, Pinkie Pie grinned at her with one of the goofiest smiles she had ever seen a pony wear. "I'm sorry about all that! It's just that Equestria's been a little crazy lately, and lots of the bad stuff came to Ponyville before anywhere else. That's okay though, now that I know you're not an evil space monster pony monster, we can start over! I'm Pinkie Pie! Resident Party Planner, the best in all Equestria! If you ever need a party, you'll know exactly who to come to. In fact... thanks to Pinkie's super-secure-personality-testing-question-test, I also know exactly what to bake for your welcome to Ponyville party! We'll have to postpone for a few days, of course. Long enough for everything to open up again, and for you to forget so it can be a surprise!" She finally stopped shaking, though her grin never faltered. "Forget as fast as you can!"

The filly just stared. She had no idea of how to describe what had just happened, or how to understand this pony's actions. Spike and Twilight, for all they had looked strange to her at first, had acted in a way that was quite logical and also quite familiar. She could easily imagine them looking like Chance herself had looked, before coming here, and doing everything they did in some fancy library back on earth. Not Pinkie Pie. There was no conversion.

Nor did the pony seem to notice or mind that she had remained completely silent. "So, you're gonna be staying with Twilight, huh? That'll be amazing, you'll see! Twilight is one of the funnest ponies I know! At least, when she puts down her books and actually has fun with anypony else."

That was when Twilight returned to the conversation, stepping up beside Chance. Immediately the filly used Twilight's bulk to hide herself, unable to meet Pinkie's eyes for fear she might revert to the way she had been before. It didn't happen, but with as erratic as she seemed to act there was no telling when it would. "I'm glad you're satisfied Pinkie. Chance and I still have lots of things to do today though. I hope you don't mind, but she is my apprentice now. Lots of things still to do on our to-do-list!" She smiled sheepishly, unfolding one of her wings a little to better hide the filly behind her. Chance could've cried with relief.

"Okay! I've got to start planning her super-secret-surprise-party anyway. You said her name was Second Chance, right? Is that Chance with two 'z's?"

"There aren't any 'z's in Chance, Pinkie."

"Course not, silly! They'd get jealous, with all those 'c's around. Anyways, bye! It was good meeting you!" Without another word, she turned around and bounced out the way she had come, shutting the door behind her and vanishing into the snow.

Chance was unable to repress a whimper, and without knowing why she pressed herself to Twilight's side, shivering.

Twilight didn't reply for some time, just folding her wing back down over her. She stood absolutely still, as though some delicate animal had landed on her and she didn't want to frighten it away. If Chance had been in any state to notice her body language or expression, she might have noticed just how awkward this was for Twilight. She wasn't though, and only felt immense relief. Anything to be somewhere else.

Then, remembering that she had only met Twilight Sparkle a few days ago, remembering that she herself was much older than she looked and ought to act more mature, she pulled suddenly away, looking embarrassed. Why had she done that? Cowering like a child... "S-sorry..." She muttered, sounding just as embarrassed as she felt.

"Don't worry about a thing, Chance." If Twilight had felt awkward about helping her a few moments before, any trace of that expression was gone now, and only kindness remained for Chance to see. "Pinkie overwhelms lots of ponies when they first come to Ponyville. She wouldn't admit it, but she was really scared the night you got here. Something about the way you showed up unnerved all of us. She's really loads of fun to be around most of the time. All the ponies here love her. I don't think she'll do that to you again." She moved a little closer, looking down at her. "Would you like me to ask her to come back and apologize for frightening you?"

Chance could hardly have reacted faster, shaking her head suddenly. "N-no... that's fine! Like you said, I scared her! She's just looking out for you, and for her home. I'd... be worried if someone from another world was living with one of my best friends, too!" She wiped some remaining moisture from her eyes, turning away suddenly. Not only had she acted like a foal, but she was crying now? Great. Some apprentice Twilight would think she would be. Not only could she not levitate after all the work Twilight had done writing a spell from scratch, she couldn't even keep her cool when a stranger had made her a little uncomfortable.

"Good. I hope you'll give her a second chance, Second Chance." Twilight giggled quietly, trying to lighten the mood. It worked a little. Chance smiled at least. "She's giving you one, after all."

* * *

The next few days passed without much fanfare. No more world-shattering archaeological discoveries were made, and no more of Twilight's friends decided to unexpectedly show up. Pinkie's unexpected arrival had made Chance even more hesitant to leave the library than she had been before, and combined with the freezing exterior that proved to be enough of a deterrent that Twilight didn't have to resolve the issue yet of whether she would let Second Chance wander Ponyville on her own. The visit seemed to leave Chance surprisingly focused on her studies, with what Twilight could only assume was a powerful desire to prove her value both as a "real pony" and as Twilight's apprentice. She could practically hear Chance muttering to herself during the time she thought she was alone practicing magic. "Spike said she was the princess of magic. So her apprentice better get her act together and learn how to do magic too."

For Twilight's part, she couldn't possibly judge the strange traveler to her world for her failure to manifest immediate powerful abilities. It wasn't as though she had become an expert overnight either. She didn't know anything she could say to make things easier on the filly, as she remembered full well that nothing Celestia had ever said to her ever made a difference in that respect. It seemed wrong to compare herself to the beloved sun princess, but that was what she was to the filly, in her own way. Chance knew no other princess, after all. For her short time in Equestria, the other three were mere historical details unconfirmed by personal witness.

She couldn't ever get the words of Celestia's letter out of her mind, and she read it daily. The most important visitor she had ever had. Considering all the important ponies and other strange creatures Twilight had dealt with in her years under Celestia's personal instruction, that meant a great deal. What wasn't Celestia telling her? This was hardly the first time she had withheld information to allow her students a chance to grow all on their own, overcoming difficulties that would have taken her mere moments to resolve. And there were also those times when Celestia had apparently been overcome herself, and required their help. The trouble was that nopony, not even her most faithful student, could tell which were which. This was no exception. It did not surprise her that Celestia and Luna both seemed to know of the visitor. She wondered just how much they knew and weren't telling her. Still, Twilight Sparkle had a plan for that. In her way, she was as determined to prove herself to her teacher as Chance was. She could only hope she had more success.

* * *

"Just a quick question Miss Mayor, I promise I won't take too much of your time." Twilight sighed a little at the way her aids all bowed. To think of the difficulty they had sometimes been when she had been a newcomer and needed to get something done. At least the Mayor seemed to finally understand that she did not want ponies bowing around her all the time, and merely inclined her head a little. On some level, she wondered if the little ponies could help themselves. At least her best friends never did that.

"Of course, Princess." With a silent look, her aids bowed and took their leave from the office, one of them kicking the door gently shut behind her. "Please, ask away. Ponyville is at your disposal."

She nodded. "Oh, I don't need much. I just wanted to ask about the city's electrical systems." She looked up to the large bulbs mounted to the ceiling above them, as though that might help illustrate her point.

"Ponyville... electrical." The mayor repeated, as though she didn't believe the princess. From behind her desk, she tried not to look confused. It was actually quite amusing to Twilight, watching her as she tried to pretend Twilight's questions made sense to her.

"Yes." She confirmed. "Could you tell me more about it?"

"Well..." Mayor Mare sat up a little straighter, and when she spoke, it seemed she was giving a rehearsed statement. Then again, she always sounded a little like that. "Ponyville might seem quite rural to some ponies, but it's actually kept abreast of modern technologies quite well. Of course you'll know princess that most of the town is connected to the electrical grid, providing light with the simple flick of a switch!" She reached behind her with a hoof, and flicked the light on above them. Like most structures, City Hall used its lights only when it had to, since bulbs and energy both were quite expensive. Now as often, there was a window with open shutters to light up the office. "Hot water too, as you know."

"Most of the city's power is used by the water pumping station, or the hospital. Almost all of our energy comes from the hydroelectric dam, which produces enough power that we could probably provide for many of the outlying farmland as well, if there were utilities in place to get the power out there. Which is why-"

Twilight nodded, cutting the mayor off before she could launch into the rest of her speech, which would probably end soliciting Twilight's help securing the crown's financial assistance for Ponyville. It was politics like that which made her not like being a princess sometimes, and wonder how Celestia had put up with this for over a thousand years. "Yes, thank you Mayor. And... suppose, quite hypothetically, a resident needed more than just enough power to heat water and use a few lights at night. Could Ponyville's power network handle an additional drain?"

Her question had clearly caught the mayor off-guard, because she took several moments to answer. When she did, it was reluctant, looking down and away from her. "Most of the grid is quite low-voltage. The technical aspects escape me I'm afraid, but as I understand it only the water plant and the hospital can drain more than a few lights and an electric heater at a time. The wires couldn't handle the current, I'm afraid." Then she seemed to brighten, meeting her eyes. "But for you, princess, I'm sure we could make some sort of arrangement! I could talk to-"

"No, that won't be necessary." Twilight returned to all four hooves. "Ponyville has enough needs without catering to me. Besides, there may very well be other dangers." She frowned, glancing once to the door. "Can I trust you to keep what I'm about to say in confidence, Madam Mayor? It's official crown business." She took a few paces closer, standing right in front of the desk and looking as serious as she could.

The mare nodded, her eyes widening by the second. Twilight suspected the mayor of her little out-of-the-way town didn't get secret crown business very often. Maybe this was the first time.

"As the mayor, you ought to know. See, Luna has transferred an ancient mechanical device into my possession, and I'm currently storing it in the basement of the Library. We know very little about it, but my research indicates it's electrically powered. Much as our pumps and lights Madam Mayor, but hundreds or even thousands of years more advanced." She saw a look of fear forming on the edges of the mayor's lips, and she raised a hoof in a way she thought was meant to be placating. "Don't worry, it's no danger to Ponyville! It has been in the care of the Royal Institute since before Discord, and who knows how long before that. It's been very well studied and never shown any signs it might be dangerous."

"But the last pony who seriously researched it discovered it responded to electricity. But in his day, we hadn't really perfected electrical generation like we have now." She smiled faintly. "Back when the only way we knew to make it was waiting for a pegasus to bring lightning or use unicorn magic. But it's been nearly a century since then. I think we might be advanced enough to switch it on again, and keep it on!" Her smile got wider. "Think of all we could learn! Ponyville will be in the very center. Which brings me to my second question." She deflated a little, forcing herself to stifle her enthusiasm. She ought to act with more dignity, particularly around Equestrian officials like Mayor Mare. Celestia expected nothing less of her, and she had no intention of disappointing her.

"I understand I could probably ask the Ponyville Chamber of Commerce about this, but I was hoping you might be able to save me the trip."

"O-of course, Princess." The mayor still seemed stunned by her revelation from before, and Twilight could only guess what she thought about it. If she didn't want Twilight trying in her town, she wasn't brave enough to say so. Heck, even if she hadn't been a princess Ponyville owed its continuing existence to Twilight and her friends several times over. It was hard to argue with someone who had done so much for your town. For your whole nation.

"Are there any archeology clubs in town? I know we don't have anything like the Institute, but it would be wonderful to know I had a local resource at hoof. Somepony to get involved if I actually can activate this thing. Even better, if they knew more about the device itself. Do you... know if there is anything like that?"

The mayor shook her head, or at least started to. Then she stopped, and looked hesitantly back. "You would think with so many interesting sites nearby, Ponyville would have more archeological resources. Unfortunately, we're quite new in the Equestrian scheme of things. Somepony on the Equestrian Department of Art thinks we don't warrant any of the kingdom's art bits, not with the re-emergence of the Crystal Empire taking up their entire department." She sighed. "Most ponies seem to feel that a town only a few centuries old just can't have anything worth researching. In any case, Ponyville only has one organization that has anything to do with archeology, and unfortunately I doubt they're what you're looking for."

The princess frowned. "I know exactly what you mean, Mayor. A few years ago, I was the only pony in Equestria who knew or cared about the prophecy that predicted nightmare moon's return." That memory hardly seemed pleasant to the mayor either, which Twilight could understand perfectly well. She had been there too, after all. "But please, tell me about these ponies. Even if there's not much chance they can help me, they might know how to point me to the ponies who can."

She nodded obediently. "Of course, Princess. It's just... they're hardly what you or I would think of as mainstream." She took a deep breath, apparently bracing herself for whatever unpleasant thing she had to say. "They're called the 'Equestrian Precursor Society'." She shook her head then, as though speaking of the misconduct of one of her foals. "But they pay their dues, same as anypony else, and their theories are harmless enough."

"Theories." Twilight repeated, her voice flat.

The mayor shrugged. "I'm sorry Princess, but you'll have to ask them about that. Their city representative is..." She paused, opening a drawer on her desk and rifling through the files with one of her hooves. After a few seconds, she seemed to find what she was looking for, and closed the drawer. "Lyra Heartstrings, according to this. She's the one who pays the club's dues, and represents them at town meetings. Come to think of it, I haven't ever asked her if there's anyone else in the Ponyville branch..." She trailed off. "I hope that helps, Princess! I really am sorry Ponyville can't be of more help to you."

Twilight smiled, and turned to go. "Don't worry, Madam Mayor. You've been more than helpful. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon!" She opened the door with magic, and vanished down the stairs of city hall. Maybe if she hurried, she could make it to Rich's Barnyard Bargains and talk about ordering a custom-made electrical generator before it closed.

Chapter 8: Welcome to Ponyville!

Chapter 8: Welcome to Ponyville!

“How... how did you know..." Chance was speechless, looking at her reflection in the mirrors surrounding her. The pony she saw reflected there looked like a stranger, a graceful and beautiful stranger. So long as she held still, it was easy to imagine that she was not a strange and sometimes unwelcome visitor from another universe. For a few wonderful seconds, she saw a glorious vision of another filly entirely. The daughter of some noble unicorns from the far off castle city of Canterlot, graceful and demure with a wonderful future. The sort of filly who didn't lay awake at night with nightmares of awful things in other universes far away.

"The clothes do make the mare, don't they?" Rarity murmured, more to herself than to Chance. If Chance had been aware enough to notice, she would have seen Rarity glowing with pride at Chance's reaction. It was easy to tell a happy customer when she saw one.

"But.. but..." She stammered, before finally adding. "It looks so much like... like..." Chance looked again into the mirrors. The gown had been tailored perfectly to her every dimension, so much that it seemed to flow over her body. What amazed her was not how well made it was, though. After Twilight's praise of the fashionista's work, she had expected only the best and was not disappointed. What amazed her was that the gown looked so very familiar to her.

Like many modern fashions, it was a work of contrasts. White cloth formed the base, with grey and yellow layered in geometric patterns on top. The garment itself was quite thin, made from an elastic material not unlike spandex. A pair of black boots completed the ensemble, made of something that was almost leather. Had it not been for the hole for her tail, she would have thought her reflection wasn't pony at all.

It was as though she had seen this very dress before, though she couldn't remember where. Rarity had recreated it with perfect accuracy, dredged from her unknown past. Finally, she collected herself. "Rarity, where did you get the idea for this design? It's so... modern!" Well, almost. What little she remembered about this dress, Chance knew it was from the happy part of her life, the part before the fire that turned happy dreams into nightmares.

Rarity looked as though she didn't entirely understand the meaning of the question. "Many other artists have been asked the source of their inspiration dear, and few have been able to answer." Was she actually glowing, or was that just Chance's imagination? "But since you're wondering, I can relate a little of the story." She leaned in close, lowering her voice as if she was about to share something secret and very precious. "After our interview, I was simply lost for inspiration. Don't get me wrong dear, you seemed like a perfectly respectable little filly, but you were so different from any of my other clients. Not in a bad way. Different often means better in the world of fashion. Besides, you were Princess Twilight's apprentice. No way was I going to slap together some second-rate collection of scraps and call it an outfit!"

"Twilight's a mover and shaker now, the most important pony in all of Ponyville! She moves with the elite, with royalty even! She is royalty! Since she commissioned me, I rightfully assumed she intended you to be properly attired to accompany her on her social climb! That called for something unique, something that would give you character."

"For a full day I drafted different designs for this gown, searching for the perfect dress. Unfortunately, nothing came of any of it, and I decided to sleep on it. The next morning, it was as if a marvelous light had been switched on! I saw this wonderful gown, and even though I knew it was going to be a tad more ambitious than most projects for a pony so young, it would have been a crime against fashion not to make it a reality! The casual outfit was based loosely on this design, though since it's made for daily wear it isn't nearly this elaborate."

Chance nodded. Fashion was hardly her first concern, but she had to admire the job Rarity had done. It was hard to imagine a more perfect dress, even if it clearly hadn't been designed for winter. "I love it." She rotated slowly, afraid she might tear something if she moved too quickly. Once she was facing Rarity and away from the mirrors, she smiled. "Your little sister isn't going to be back soon, is she? I'd love to show her how pretty this is."

"Oh, Sweetie Belle has already seen it, dear. You two are nearly the same height, so I used her to help finish some of the more difficult bits. The transparent stitch holding the mesh sections in particular was quite challenging. Of course, it would have been easier if she hadn't squirmed so much..." She trailed off.

"And she's not coming back soon?"

Rarity looked away, almost as though she was embarrassed about something. "No, Chance, she's... she's... sledding! Yes!" She nodded vigorously. "With those adorable little friends of hers. Now that Scootaloo is back on her hooves after that cold, they're eager to take advantage of every moment!" Before Chance could put together the impetus to reply, she pushed a plain brown box toward her. "Why don't you go back into the changing room and try on your winter outfit!"

Feeling suddenly helpless, there was nothing she could do to resist. Rarity's magic "assisted" her into the changing room, slamming the door shut behind her. "Be sure to hang the gown up carefully, dear! We wouldn't want it to wrinkle now!" The filly frowned up at the hanger, and at the closed door. Why on earth did these ponies who usually wore nothing at all have a changing room? What was worse, it seemed like Rarity was hiding something from her. Had Pinkie Pie finally got to Sweetie Belle? Sure, she had claimed that she was satisfied with Chance as a "real pony", but could she be sure? Even Twilight didn't seem to know how to predict what the earth-mare was going to do. It was hard to imagine someone as nice as Sweetie Belle being mean to her, but that was the way it seemed. And Rarity was covering for her. So much for her only friend her age.

She was looking and feeling glum by the time she had changed out of the dress, which took nearly twenty minutes. Her body was immensely flexible, but even so it was a careful technique to squeeze out the back of the dress. It was a good thing it was made of something elastic, or else she probably would have torn it several times before she escaped. Once she had finally managed to strip out of the dress, she hung it carefully on the bar evidently placed in the changing room for that purpose.

Even her wonderful winter outfit couldn't lighten her mood. Maybe the word "outfit" was a tad strong, as that implied something that actually preserved her modesty. Of course she hardly felt as bothered about that sort of thing as she felt she ought to be, though she couldn't understand why. There were reasons you were supposed to cover as much of your body as you could, but she couldn't remember what any of those reasons were. They clearly didn't matter in this world, where almost everyone went around without any clothing at all unless function required it. Fashion couldn't be an easy field to get into in a world where most ponies went around with nothing but their fur.

The winter outfit consisted of four tubes like big socks, which were thicker on one end and thinner on the other. It took her nearly another twenty minutes to pull on all four. None went all the way down to her hooves, leaving several inches of leg clear so as to keep out of the snow. The cloth was thicker and less flexible, though Rarity had kept the geometric motif and used yellow hexagons in a color to match her mane on some sort of dark background. She found herself suddenly admiring the effort the unicorn must have invested to get such straight lines. No doubt she had probably had to make the fabric herself, since she doubted very much there was anywhere in Equestria where ponies wore human fashions. There was also a scarf, in the exact same color and pattern as the socks.

That was it, no other accessories or other parts to the outfit that might have made it more complicated. At first she was surprised to see so little in the box, but understanding dawned quickly. A complex outfit would get soiled quickly and might restrict her movements or wear out. Already she had started feeling much warmer, as though the very cloth was magical. She supposed she couldn't be sure it wasn't magic, since everything else in this world seemed to be. The outfit would probably do wonders for her out in the cold and the snow.

She was a little surprised that Rarity never once pressured her to go faster, with how much time she took in the changing room. She was even more surprised when she emerged from the room, and Rarity was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a familiar purple dragon was reclining on a cushion in the lobby, and munching on a gemstone with an expression of obvious contentment.

"Rarity? You’re not Rarity, Spike. At least not last time I checked." She said, approaching him cautiously. "When did you get here?"

Spike finished chewing the large bite he had taken before answering. "Just a few minutes ago. Rarity trusted me with the boutique." He practically beamed as he said that, as proud of Rarity's trust in him as the mare had been of Chance's satisfaction with the elegant gown.

Chance nodded, closing the distance to the cushion and looking over at him. "Equestria has rock candy too, huh?" Up close, the blue stone in his claw seemed brighter and more lustrous than anything made of sugar had a right to.

Spike nodded. "Of course! This isn't rock candy though, it's sapphire! Juicy, delicious sapphire. Rarity gave it to me. That means I'm not sharing." Without another word, he popped the rest of the stone into his mouth and chewed with a sound like chewing on bits of glass. Chance didn't know if she ought to laugh or cry. There was no way those little jaws could generate enough force to even chip sapphire, much less break it up like sugar-glass! No living thing ought to be able to handle shards of precious stones in their digestive tract.

This hardly seemed like the time to think about this, though. "So where did Rarity go? Is she afraid of the evil space monster too?"

Spike seemed to be behind the loop, because his eyes suddenly went wide. "There's... there's an... evil space monster around?" He looked furtively to right and left. "Where is it?"

Chance couldn't help but smile faintly at that. Spike might laugh at her sometimes, but at least he didn't care where she came from. That was more than she could say from any of the other ponies she knew, except maybe Sweetie Belle. "Nowhere, Spike." She turned around, muttering darkly. "Pinkie Pie thought she sniffed one out, but I guess it was a false alarm.

"Oh, good. If Pinkie thinks we're safe, than we're safe." Spike got to his feet. "Are you ready? We've got to get back to the library. For... for some... studying. You know Twilight! If you're even off by a few minutes, she freaks out!" He smiled sheepishly, walking past her to the door. She couldn't see his expression and it was harder to tell with Spike, but for the second time today she felt like ponies were keeping things from her! Or at least one pony and one dragon.

"Sure Spike, studying." Rarity acted funny, then she vanished. Now Spike was doing it. Maybe back home Twilight Sparkle would give her some answers. "Let's go do that. That studying thing. That we do." She glared after him, then forced a smile. At least she would be able to show Twilight her neat winter outfit Rarity had made. And the gown had been amazing, even if everypony had suddenly started acting strange.

Chance followed Spike out the door, pausing near the threshold. It was still winter, and that meant the sun was already low in the sky, though it had to be mid-afternoon somehow. "Hey Spike, wait! Shouldn't we lock the door or something first? Rarity's got expensive things in there! Dresses and gems and stuff!"

Spike didn't even slow down. "Lock? Why would Rarity put a lock on her front door? How would ponies get in if we locked it?"

His confusion did little to reassure. It was as though he couldn't even conceive of the possibility that someone might come along and want to steal something. Just another aspect of how different her home was from Equestria. As usual, it seemed Equestria always looked better in comparison. Today's adventures notwithstanding. Chance had to dart after Spike to keep up with him, but that wasn't hard. Her legs were longer, and she could move far quicker than the reptile, particularly with the snow and the cold.

Spike never shivered on the snowy path, though Chance knew from talking to him that it made him very uncomfortable to be out here for any length of time. Being cold-blooded couldn't be easy in winter. "Hey, Spike?" She slowed down to match his pace, which was already dragging. It didn't help that the snow was up to his knees, and a stiff wind took freezing air and brought it all around them. Chance hardly felt it. Was the outfit really magical, or were its effects merely psychological? She had no answer. "You don't look so good."

"Snow." He replied, limbs drooping. Poor thing did not look good at all. "Hate snow."

"Would you... I mean, I'm a pony, right? Where I come from, that's what ponies were usually for. Horses, at any rate. I bet you would feel better up on my back, away from the cold."

"Really?" It was though all the color came rushing back into his face. It would've been, if she could see any through the scales. She could hear the energy in his tone, though. Almost as though he had been pulling her leg to elicit this precise reaction. "Don't mind if I do!" He turned and hopped smoothly onto her back, resting atop the soft cloth of her saddle-bags. Spike was not a big dragon, but she was not a large pony, and she felt the weight.

She twisted her head back to look at him, glaring. "You sneaky dragon."

Spike looked indignant. "Who, me? Nonsense! I'm just an extremely grateful dragon, is all! You saved me from a cruel fate! I'd be a dragon-sicle if it weren't for you!"

"Sure." Chance looked ahead and started walking down the path she knew led back to the library. By her estimation it couldn't even be a full city block all the way, even at her plainly small size. "Doesn't make sense equanoids would've evolved to sentience anyway." She muttered, looking down. She was so absorbed in her own thoughts she didn't notice all the shutters in the library were closed, and everything looked dark inside. "I'm a silly pack animal."

"No!" Spike defended, evidently ignoring that first remark. "You're an extremely helpful pony who's helping a friend in need!"

"Whatever, Spike." She tried not to smile, but she couldn't help herself. Maybe he was right about that. Even if, come to think, this world didn't make much biological sense. It was all coming back to her now, for reasons that she couldn't even imagine. Life developed because the strong survived to reproduce and passed traits on to the next generation. Back home strong had ultimately come to mean the largest brain, and the capacity to create tools to reshape and conquer nature. But here...

How could an animal with no apparent defense other than a speedy retreat ever outperform its competitors enough to develop their present brain-size? What about the wings and horns? How did evolution work in a world with magic? By her reckoning, the dragons ought to be the dominant species. Spike might be young, but he had already proved to be a stronger specimen than most ponies. To say nothing of the added advantage of surviving on rocks if necessary, and breathing fire. One day Chance would find the words to ask Twilight about it. Hopefully she could do it in a way that wasn't offensive.

"Well, here we are." Spike said from behind her. As she thought, she hadn't noticed their arrival, and had stood in front of the door without doing anything for at least a minute. When his first pronouncement didn't seem to be enough, he added again. "Well, here we are!"

"W-wha-?" Chance blinked, then realized she had reached the library. "O-oh! Sorry Spike!" She leaned forward, braced her head against the door, and pushed. It had a knob, but like every knob Chance had yet seen it served no purpose other than the decorative. As such, she ignored it, and walked into the empty library.

"The hay..." She muttered, nearly jumping out of her skin as the door abruptly shut behind her, plunging the library into darkness. "is..." The weight was gone from her back. "Spike! Spike, where ar-"

"SURPRISE!" Dozens of voices bellowed in unison, as the lights abruptly switched on.

The library had been transformed. In the few hours she had been gone, all the tables had been covered with bright orange decorations and piled high with all sorts of delicious treats. Streamers hung from all the walls, and balloons hung in the air all over. Of course, the strangest part wasn't all the decorations, but the sheer number of ponies packed into the library. Chance could hardly count them, dozens at the least. Most were adults, though a handful were her age or younger. All three tribes were in attendance; the ones with wings, the ones with horns, and the ones with neither. At first glance it seemed this group vastly outnumbered all others.

Foremost in front of her was Pinkie Pie, who at that moment depressed a key on what Chance could only assume was a bright pink cannon. Instead of a steel ball she was blasted with confetti. Then somepony started up some music, and the festivities began in earnest. Chance was practically drowned in a wave of well-wishing ponies, most of them adults. It seemed to her as though the entire town had found their way into her little library, and each wanted to express their welcoming and love to the town's newest resident.

Time blurred past, time spent somewhere between laughing and crying. Pinkie Pie had been right about one thing at least: She was great at parties. She was also great at throwing parties that seemed eerily similar to some she could dimly glimpse in her foggiest memories. The cake, the punch, the matching party favors. Except perhaps that this was by far the best attended and most luxurious party she had ever attended. That, and there was a disturbing lack of VR-based party games. She supposed living in a world of multicolored ponies would have to stand in for the VR.

"I don't understand..." She stammered after an hour or so, looking up at the pink party pony with the beginnings of tears in her eyes. "Why would you do something so nice for me? You don't even know me."

Pinkie Pie shrugged. "Everypony deserves to be special sometimes, and being new is a great excuse! Now everypony in town will know who you are!" She smiled knowingly. "How's the cake? Almond, just like you said."

"It's great!" Chance echoed, though she privately had no desire to have anymore tonight. She'd already had three slices, and her stomach was looking a little bloated as a result. Twilight had ensured she never went hungry, but she'd never been allowed to have as many sweets as she wanted before! Come to think of it, where was Twilight? She'd been here for most of the party so far, but Chance didn't see her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a familiar white unicorn, who was at that moment flanked by two other fillies. "Hey Second Chance!" Sweetie Belle grinned at her. "I'd like you to meet my friends Apple Bloom and Scootaloo!"

* * *

As it happened, Princess Twilight Sparkle had no intention of ducking out during any part of her apprentice's surprise welcome to Ponyville party. She took great personal care as the festivities began, intent on making sure her apprentice overcame the fear that Pinkie Pie had inadvertently put into her, along with that powerful desire to prove she was a "real pony", whatever that meant. Her plan was working wonderfully, and the filly seemed to be enjoying the attention and affection of the ponies of Ponyville.

Much to her relief, she was acting exactly like any other filly could be expected to act. This did not break with the pattern she had seen ever since Second Chance had arrived. Aside from her remarkable mastery of math and science, she seemed quite a bit like any other pony. Still, there was that lurking fear that at any moment she would reveal herself as some awful, horrible monster. It would be the changelings all over again, only this time it would be Twilight who let them in.

This was perhaps a final sign that that fear would never be confirmed. Whatever else her apprentice might be, it was remarkably equine in nature. That seemed very strange to her, suddenly. Her apprentice was an alien from another world, perhaps another universe! But without that knowledge, Twilight never would have guessed it. She never even considered what the filly might really be under all that fur.

There was a knock at the door, which was less than surprising as Pinkie Pie had invited the entire town and ponies were coming and going as their various schedules would permit, but something about this most recent time seemed strange. At least it did when a quavering Derpy Hooves gestured toward the door to Twilight, and muttered something like "Princess Moony-Pies!" before fleeing behind the refreshment table for safety.

There was nothing for the Princess of Magic to do but roll her eyes and walk to the door herself. It was, after all, her home. Perhaps she wasn't entirely surprised to see the pony waiting on the doorstep. Her eyes widened a little even so, and she couldn't suppress the urge to incline her head respectfully for a moment. She might be a princess too, but that didn't mean Luna deserved any less of her respect. "Princess Luna! I had no idea Pinkie Pie had been so... thorough... with her invitations!"

It was night then, or at least the beginnings of night. In the pale glow cast by the moonlight on the snow, Luna seemed to glow, her mane cascading down her back like so many curtains of stars. She was dressed as she always seemed to be, in the regal finery befitting her office. Nor did she seem to miss the ponies that had apparently seen her, prostrating themselves behind Twilight. Even so, there was a slyness to her smile "We think your apprentice would enjoy her party better without the guests groveling through the festivities." She winked at one of the ponies behind Twilight. The purple princess didn't quite have the guts to turn and see what his reaction had been, but she echoed the Moon Princess's smile.

"You're probably right. What brings you to Ponyville then, Luna?"

Luna gestured with her head. "Fly with me, Twilight Sparkle. We shall tell thee."

Without knowing what else to do, Twilight nodded and followed her out into the empty town, closing the door behind her with her magic. Luna had already taken off, but she was not flying very fast and it was easy for Twilight to keep pace even though her mastery of flight was still rudimentary at best. She did not take them far. Indeed, it seemed no sooner had they passed the borders of the town then she saw a ghostly carriage drawn up on the ground. Its guardians were spectral in the moonlight, dark and armored pegasus with wings Twilight did not look at long. Luna brought them past her chariot, to the edge of a high hill overlooking Ponyville.

That meant they weren't far from Sweet Apple Acres. The trees standing dark against the moon were probably apple trees. Luna said nothing for several minutes, simply looking down at Ponyville against the moon. It was very beautiful, with windows aglow and rooftops laden heavily with crisp white snow. Twilight was right to assume that the Lunar princess would speak up if she gave her enough time. In her experience with Luna, waiting patiently had usually won out. "Art thou aware of my royal duties, Twilight Sparkle?"

She nodded. "I think everypony is, Princess. Raising the moon every night, along with the wonderful job you do with the stars and everything. You probably did that just before coming to the party."

Luna nodded. "Indeed, though 'twas not what we meant." She took a deep breath. "You can learn much about a pony from their dreams, and dreams are part of my special talent. We see them, Twilight Sparkle. We swim the vastness of the Skien and into the minds of any and all of our sleeping ponies. We help them resolve what they will show to nopony else, often without them knowing we are there. We prefer it this way." There was a small smile on her lips. "Or had you not noticed there were fewer psychologists since we returned?"

This was not new information to Twilight, at least not in the way many of the things Chance told her were new information. She had read about this once, in some long-forgotten book about the days before Nightmare Moon. The Moon princess might not be as overt as her elder sister, but she was also much more personally involved, somehow able to intervene in the uneasy dreams of the entire kingdom at once. It was a subtle power, but in its way more frightening than anything Celestia did with the sun. So much so that Twilight had not dared ask the lunar princess about it, not in all the time since she had returned. "The psychologists can't be happy about it." She muttered, though she shared the princess's smile now.

"They are, Twilight Sparkle. Imagine how happy you would be if you had tailored your life around ensuring that everypony was healthy in spirit as well as in body, and finally before your eyes your wishes began coming true. Alas, we fear not every ill may be solved in dreamtime, and it is for this cause we have come to speak with thee."

Twilight nodded, beginning to understand. "This... has something to do with my apprentice, doesn't it?"

Luna did not answer, merely walked to the edge of the hill and looked down again. There was something powerfully sad about the way her head drooped just slightly. Luna always seemed a little sad when Twilight saw her, even when she was having fun.

She wasn't going to wait all night, though. After all, there was a party going on. "Luna, can I ask you a question?" She didn't wait for confirmation before asking. "Why is Chance so much like a pony?" She took a deep breath, before giving voice to what had been troubling her for the last several days. "When I first realized what she was, I expected her to be... you know, alien! But she isn't. She's a very silly filly, but not in any way I don't understand. I guess... I guess what I'm saying is I expected she would be more like Discord. He's an alien too, right? I mean, he isn't a pony..."

Again, she didn't wait for confirmation. Rather, she started picking up speed, talking faster and faster. "When you're around him, it's impossible to tell for sure what he's really thinking. What he really wants. But Chance isn't that way. She thinks like a pony! The things that make ponies happy make her happy. Maybe she's a little awkward moving around, and she's behind in learning to read, but otherwise she's so... normal! I don't understand, Princess. If she's from another world... another universe..." Then she lowered her voice, as she was saying something she didn't know if the princess knew. Celestia knew, she was sure, but she wasn't sure how much she had shared with her sister. Still, if she could tell Celestia she could tell Luna, right? It was hard not to when she was standing right there.

"Is she really as pony as she looks? Or was it your sister's spell that made her this way, and shaped whatever she was before into the filly she is now, erasing all the alien parts so she could fit into Equestria better? And if she's an average member of... whatever race she comes from... then does that mean that somewhere out there, on some strange world unlike Equestria, there are beings out there that are like us? Maybe they look different... probably radically different, considering how Chance sometimes moves around. But still, on the inside... it's a world full of ponies, members of the same herd?"

Luna turned away from the view and met her eyes for several long minutes. She seemed to be surveying Twilight, as if judging if it were wise to continue speaking. Eventually she sighed and looked away again, back at the city. A light dusting of snow had begun to fall, precisely on schedule. Twilight did not feel the cold anymore, but she did appreciate the way the moonlight seemed to make every snowflake glow. Take any individual moment, and she was suspended in a sparkling, glittering sea that stretched off into eternity. Her town was there, immutable and untouchable, frozen in perfect tranquility. Would the moon dierarch's words be as soothing as the place she had taken Twilight to hear them.

"We cannot step into the dreams of cows, Twilight Sparkle. Nor goats, or pigs. But thy assistant is a dragon, and him we see. And yet even ponies may pass beyond our sight. By reason of power, or because however much they might appear, their nature is not pony enough to share the same Skien. Sombra the king for instance, as you might well imagine. The apprentice is indeed the pony she seems, and her dreams are open to me. Since first meeting her, we have taken a hoof more direct than with any of our other ponies. She is..." Even the princess of the moon hesitated, as though she were unwilling to speak such vulgar terms aloud. She did though, eventually. "Damaged."

She was suddenly less than an inch from Twilight's face, looking intent. "The filly Second Chance has deeper wounds than any pony we have ever known. Her nightmares are darker than the one you know as Nightmare Moon could have conceived of." She shivered, and turned her eyes skyward. "At least we had the comfort of the moon on which to rest, and Equestria's shape below to keep us through the eons. When she first arrived, your Second Chance was returning from a nightmare that was blackness without end. A void without feature or form that stretched into eternities vaster than Equestria's entire history. That filly was alone in the dark for what were to her millions of empty years.

Twilight's eyes were wide, though she didn't dare speak. Luna was answering her question, in her own fashion. She had no doubt that Celestia would not have been nearly so forthright had she been in her younger sister's position. "Yet still, she endured. Neither my sister nor I understand how this is possible. Only Discord has experienced such things before, and he is markedly unwilling to be helpful in this as in most matters, reformed or no."

She returned her intense gaze to Twilight, who actually stumbled back a pace under the pressure. She couldn't remember any princess acting like this, not even when Equestria was actively in danger. Then again, it was rare for her to deal with Luna instead of her brighter sister. "From what we understand, the being you call Chance may have belonged to an ancient and powerful race, who lived long ago in a world of worlds beyond Equestria's nethermost reaches. Despite the gulf of space and time, their magical might is without equal. They have the ability to reach across the veil and give travelers passage into our world. Now it seems they have perfected the means to send ponies as well as ideas into Equestria. Do you think one traveler will suffice them?" She shook her head. "My sister and I agree this is not the case. If they can send one, they will send more. But how many more, and how they will send them, we do not know. No more have we decided what will be done when they do come."

"This race you're talking about... are they like us? Ponies like Second Chance?"

Luna shrugged. "Your assistant is a dragon, yet he is a pony in spirit. Celestia and I wish to understand if your apprentice is an exception, or the indication of a larger rule. Should we look forward to their coming with joy, or prepare ourselves for war?" She lowered her voice again, though she turned back to the view. "This is your task. Dreams are wonderful tools, but the information gleaned from them is suspect. Chance is an adroit dreamer indeed, and she recognized me at once for what I was. Still, that only makes what I learn there even more suspect, for a lucid dreamer can shape their world into whatever they please, real or imagined."

"Further, just because Chance believes what she tells me in her sleep does not mean she tells me the truth. Dreams are confusing enough for ordinary ponies, and your apprentice is not ordinary. This task falls to you, Twilight Sparkle. Despite all the odds, Chance is one of our little ponies. Even I do not begin to understand my sister's powers, yet with all her sight she too agrees on this."

"Just because the filly is one of ours does not mean her kinsfolk will be likewise. When they arrive, will they come in friendship? And if not, will Chance be a loyal pony still to help us weather the storm, or the foe of all Equestria? To this last, Twilight, we feel thou canst take a direct role. Help her see what makes Equestria great. Help her see that it is worth protecting, even from her own."

* * *

Twilight managed to make it back to the Library before the festivities had ended, though few ponies were left by the time she actually got there. Only her closest friends remained, along with three of Ponyville’s most rambunctious fillies. Celestia knows what could happen if Chance gets her ideas about pony society from the Cutie Mark Crusaders. She found herself thinking, though there was very little she could do about it now. Another blank-flank their age? There was no way to un-ring that bell.

The next day, when Chance's afternoon break arrived, she was hardly shocked that the filly asked to go play with them, promising fervently that she would return in time for her afternoon studies. Twilight was slightly more shocked that she said yes, watching from the door as they darted off to who knew what mischievous end.

Life began to sink into something like a routine, if anything in Ponyville could be called routine. The remaining month of winter passed away much like that. Twilight taught her apprentice how to read, practiced magic with her even though she just wasn't getting it, and her apprentice became just another face around Ponyville, with none but her close friends the fellow Elements even suspecting that there was something different about her.

Author's Notes:

Hey everybody, another chapter on time! Or down to the day, at any rate. Don't have an hour or anything, cuz' that sounds like way too much work. It's enough work to actually /write/ the story as it is! Thanks again to everyone who takes the time to comment or review. It's because of the positive (and critical) feedback I recieve that I'm still writing now, and it's the wonderful support that makes all the effort that goes into a bi-weekly update worthwhile. For those who care about such things, I've written some detailed notes on my thoughts creating act one, and they're in the tagged blog entry here: http://www.fimfiction.net/blog/302618/production-notes-act-1 . Not that I /expect/ anyone to look at them, but they're there if you're curious.

And now, I depart. Until tuesday, awaaaay!

Chapter 9: Probable Impossibility

Chapter 9: Probable Impossibility

It was practice time again, the same as came every single day for Second Chance. Her playtime was over, though she hadn't really enjoyed it today anyway. As much as the members of the Cutie Mark Crusaders loved to race, she had never really been a contender, so had taken little joy in her loss. There was something competitive in her, something unhappy to be satisfied with defeat, but there had been nothing she could do about it.

Scootaloo had wings! Maybe she couldn't fly with them, but the way they beat almost like a hummingbird when she ran, that had to be helping somehow! Of course there was Apple Bloom, with her freaky earth-pony speed and endurance. That left Chance and Sweetie Belle in last, or Chance more particularly since she tripped twice during the race. That was okay, though. Even if it wasn't the most exciting thing she'd done with the Cutie Mark Crusaders since getting to know them by that collective title.

Now it was time to fail some more, just like she did during these lessons every day. She wondered to herself if Twilight Sparkle would give up on her if she was persistent enough with her low performance, or if her tolerance for her failures would keep her doing this months and years into the future.

It was strange to think of just how long she had been here, nearly a whole month now as best she figured. She didn't keep a diary or have a calendar, so it was impossible to be sure, but that seemed like a fairly safe guess. Winter was only scheduled to last for a few more days, and then they would wrap it up. Chance had no idea what that meant, except that it was obviously an important event in the town. Twilight had begun to obsess over her planning for it, and even her friends the Crusaders had mentioned it once or twice. Chance hadn't been brave enough to ask about what it was yet, though with as soon as it seemed to be getting it might only be a few days more before she found out whether she wanted to or not.

But now was no time to get distracted and start stressing over things she couldn't control, things she couldn't even understand yet. She already had one task like that, no sense burdening herself down with another. Unfortunately, her present ideas had, as of yet, failed.

There were memories of something like this from back home, memories of strange powers that could be obtained through enormous effort and concentration. One had only to travel great distance, encounter the mythical teacher, who would give their knowledge of the unseen. Then there would be a quick montage of various training positions, after which the mythical knowledge would be acquired. She had seen many historical files to that effect in her youth, the pattern had been quite consistent. The only problem was she wasn't entirely sure if the things she remembered were meant as fact or fiction. Great peril hinged on the correctness of her understanding.

Magic was to her an insoluble koan that might only be obtained by overcoming what she considered rational. Chance had opened more than a dozen books on the floor, each open to a different diagram representing the mental patterns required for the same spell, the simplest spell of all. With Twilight's permission, she had then copied the spell over and over on the floor of the library, each simple spiral pattern adding curves to her own personal sand-garden. It was very pretty, but so far hadn't proved to be very useful. A month had gone by without so much as a spontaneous wiggle from whatever she was trying to move. In and around her little garden of marks she paced, occasionally kicking the ball she had chosen as today's subject. It would bounce off the shelves, roll about for awhile, but that was no solution. Ultimately she would go and pick it up in her teeth, return it to the center of the room, and the process would repeat.

If Twilight had needed any evidence that Chance was more mature than an ordinary filly, her sheer force of will provided that evidence in coming back to her private magical practice each and every day. She would make herself a useful apprentice no matter what it took!

Unfortunately her determination didn't seem to be making a difference, even though it had never failed her before. This brought even more frustration, since according to the books she was doing everything right! A secret fear was beginning to grow in her, a fear she hadn't told anyone, not even the strange princess in her dreams. Could it be that, because she was from somewhere else, she was inherently damaged somehow? No matter what she wanted or how hard she tried, maybe Chance could never be a normal unicorn. Maybe she would've lacked the magic of whatever race she'd been created as, either a flightless pegasus or an earth-pony with neither strength nor mastery over living things.

Using magic would be the proof that wasn't true, if she could manage it. If she could use her horn, that would mean she was a normal pony in her mind, once and for all. Nevermind the memories that were coming back more and more. Nevermind the strangeness of her past, or that patch of ground by the Everfree Forest that looked like nothing would ever grow there again. She could be an ordinary pony and live out her life here, in peace. Surely, after all she had seen, she had earned that much. This world was such a wonderful, beautiful place. Not perfect, of course. It was cold every morning when she woke up in the library, and they could only use their lights when nothing else would do. They couldn't use the hot water for very long, and she lacked the limbs to do anything with dexterity.

Those things didn't matter, though. Not compared to the one thing this world offered that her own never could. Peace. She had heard the stories during Hearth's Warming Eve. While she wasn't clear how factual they were, they made one thing very clear that nopony seemed to dispute: There had been no internal wars in Equestria, not since its founding. There were no coups and no insurrections. That didn't mean the world was free of conflict, by any means! There were a few rare and evil ponies just as there had been rare and evil members of her own kindred. There had been wars, at least she thought there had been, with other nations in the distant past. But between groups of ponies? Never.

That would make this world paradise. After seeing her own tear itself apart, without the added excuses of other races and magic to get involved, she figured that the break was owed. She would make herself an ordinary member of pony society and aspire to be nothing more than what that society expected. She wouldn't bring her so-called innovations, she wouldn't seek to change anything. Just exist within the patterns and the norms, and find joy therein. That couldn't be that hard, right?

As hard as moving a ball with magic. In the ball Chance saw not just her struggle with magic, but her struggle within herself to turn away from what she had been and prove she was more than her nature. A nature that, in what few memories she had, seemed filled with so much death, anger, and despair.

She only wanted to forget.

Magic was the key, she was sure of it. So she paced around the ball and focused every bit of effort on it. Perhaps if she simply stared intently enough at the object, it would take flight and move on its own! There were other records from her own world where such a thing was possible, though she could remember them only vaguely. Twilight had said there was "Nothing supernatural about magic". That had sounded like a contradiction at the time, but maybe that was part of her problem. Maybe she was looking at the problem the wrong way. Only... what was the right way?

* * *

Now that the moment was here, Twilight Sparkle found herself hesitating. What if she was making the wrong choice? There might be consequences, consequences she never could have predicted? Relax, Twilight. It's just a meeting. Nothing's going to go wrong. You're just going to ask her about the Precursor Society, that's all. It's not an official royal visit or anything. It's not a sanction from the crown, it's just a visit. Lyra hadn't thought as much when Twilight had approached her about it a few weeks ago, back when she had been starving for any information connected to the cube in her basement. Back then, Lyra had assured her it would take some time before they could meet. She simply couldn't meet with a princess without the proper preparations made beforehoof. On the more practical note, winter was one of the busiest times for musicians, and she had performances all over Equestria that required her time and attention. Once it got closer to the wrap-up she could gather her notes for a proper presentation and have enough time away from work to actually give it.

Well it was closer to the wrap-up now, but the time had not made Twilight any more eager to see this "presentation". The closer she got to Lyra's house, the slower she walked. Maybe, if she kept slowing down, she wouldn't actually have to get there.

She wasn't sure what frightened her more; having to spend loads of time listening to completely insane theories, or finding herself listening to insane theories that matched with all the other insane things she had been learning with Second Chance. Of course, it wasn't like miss Heartstrings was anything unusual. A perfectly reputable citizen of Ponyville, who had managed to get herself into trouble several times since Twilight had known her.

But there was no other option. Information on the builders of the Jebr Stone was sketchy at best. Even her search of the Royal Library hadn't turned up much of anything. Twilight simply refused to accept that research could fail her, and thus had to conclude that it was not the research that was in doubt. Rather, it seemed much more likely that she simply didn't know what she was looking for well enough to find it. That was the problem with books, they weren't smart enough to tell you that your answer wasn't inside.

The trick was going to be learning enough from Lyra without hinting that she had the single most important Precursor artifact in Equestrian history sitting in her basement. Or perhaps she shouldn't try to hide at all! Maybe Lyra's theories would match perfectly with her own understanding, and she would bring another expert into the case. It wasn't as though Luna had said she had to keep it secret. She hadn't even hinted there was any reason to do so. Twilight had only kept its existence to herself for so long because, if anypony found out about it, Second Chance would find out about it eventually too, and she still wasn't sure she wanted that to happen. Not until she had something conclusive to say about it.

And she was there, exactly where they had planned on meeting. This was it, no more delaying or running away. "Hi, Lyra!"

"Oh, hey Twilight!" The mint mare was already waiting at a table, which was perhaps less than surprising. She must have been running a few minutes late by the time she finally got there. "Saved you a seat!" She gestured to the bale of hay across from her, and Twilight had no choice but to seat herself, forcing a nervous grin of her own. Could Lyra be comfortable sitting that way?

"Miss Heartstrings! I'm very greatful you decided to take the time and meet with me. I understand from Rarity that the life of an artist can be extremely demanding."

Lyra nodded, before leaning forward and taking a bite from one of the flowers in a vase in front of them. That was one of the reasons Twilight liked this cafe so much, though. Their appetizers were always so fresh! "I'm so sorry it took so long to get the time together! I mean, if it had been any other part of the year, you can bet I would've been right there! The Society is my real passion. Don't get me wrong, playing the Lyre's great, but..." She realized at that moment she had been talking with her mouth full, and proceeded to finish chewing before she continued, to Twilight's great relief. "What I mean is, it's an honor you've taken the time to meet with us, Princess! We've never had an official royal meeting before! I guess royalty is finally getting with the times, huh?"

Twilight didn't know what to say to that. By no means was this official, and that was part of why she wanted to have this meeting in such a public place. That way it was just two friendly ponies talking, and nothing more. There would be no juicy expositors in the archaeological journals, she hoped. It was her responsibility as a princess to see the dignity of the office was upheld! But technically, Lyra was right. Twilight's role in Second Chance's life had been directly appointed by Celestia, and this inquiry was related on some level. So rather than answer either way, she channeled her inner Celestia and maneuvered deftly around either. "I would prefer we keep this meeting confidential for now." She said, trying her best at mimicking the knowing smile she had seen on her mentor perhaps hundreds of times. "Since anything we say might have direct bearing on Equestrian affairs. You have my full confidence, Lyra. To keep this conversation between us." That might be stretching things. But Twilight hardly knew her, so she didn't technically not trust her!

It was like she was feeding candy to a foal. Lyra echoed her smile with much less subtlety, and nodded vigorously. "Of course, Princess Twilight. Between us." She looked excited enough that she might vibrate right out of her seat.

"So." Twilight glanced once to the faux-leather case resting on the side of the table. "I take it your presentation is in there, hmm? We ought to get started. I have to be back at the library in an hour or so to check in on my apprentice."

Lyra nodded. "Of course, Princess." She lifted the case over with her magic, unbuttoned the clasp, and rifled through several sheets of thick paper, reordering them nervously in the air in front of her. "Let's get started. When we talked last time, you wanted to know about the Precursor Society." She removed something on thick paper from the stack, an elegant logo consisting of three shields in different colors, with a bright banner behind them. Two were higher up, stylized in the familiar sun and moon of the two sisters. The center and largest was new, though. Tan in color, with various objects artfully arranged. Large structures, numbers and letters of ancient script, and in the center the image of a strange being, graceful and stylized. It was enormously tall, with a long mane down its back in deep blue and white. The strange creature was clearly bipedal like some sort of animal, though the way it carried itself was clearly pony in nature. It had big, expressive eyes and pony-like ears poking out from its head. It had a tail too, as any proper pony should, and wore a strange white toga bound in gold. It had no hooves though, but dragon-like claws on the end of all four limbs, like a gryphon. Its huge arms were spread wide, as though offering all the objects in front of it to the onlooker. The name "Equestrian Precursor Society" had been penned on the banner, arranged so that no individual part was covered.

Lyra had been speaking, but Twilight had heard none of it, staring at the strange creature depicted on the seal. It was unlike anything she had ever seen before, unlike anything she had ever heard of. And it looked completely absurd. "S-sorry!" She interrupted, pointing with a hoof at the part of the drawing she had been staring at. "This thing. What is this?"

The answer had to wait, as Savoir Fare had arrived to take their order. Only when he was gone could their conversation continue.

"That" Lyra began, speaking so fast it seemed it had been a struggle for her to wait even that long. "is an artist's rendition of one of the Precursors!" She took the sheet from Twilight with her magic, giving her another in its place. This was clearly one of her own creations, penned on lighter paper and with much less care taken to detail. It appeared to be some sort of anatomical study of the creatures, with lines measuring bodily ratios at various points. Even so, it also seemed clear that Lyra had put a great deal of time and effort into the sketch, as evidenced by the apparent reverence with which she treated the paper. "What they might look like, anyway. No One's ever seen one, so it's impossible to say for sure! Still, pretty cool, right? They don't have hooves as you can see, and there are no wings or horns either. But they make up for it all with those little appendages on their forelegs."

Twilight nodded, beginning to see what the mayor had meant with her "harmless theories". "This is... a very interesting creature, Lyra. What were these Precursors like?" It seemed hard for her to believe that anything so strange could ever exist. No hooves? And those limbs were so thin they looked like they might snap. At least they had a tail to balance themselves on those tiny little legs. Something so weak should've been hunted to extinction long before ever coming to any significance, even if they did look to have sizeable heads.

"I'll tell you what we know." Lyra took the drawing back, returning it to her collection like a precious keepsake. Another sheet rose to take it's place, with various little drawings on it. "But we only have two coherent sources, so there isn't as much to tell as I wish there was. I won't waste the time of a princess on mere speculation!" She cleared her throat to begin whatever long iteration of the facts she had prepared.

"Wait!" Twilight objected, so loudly that several of their fellow patrons stopped their conversations and glared pointedly at them to quiet down. She whispered an apology with eyes downcast before she returned her attention to Lyra. "Wait. You have... there are sources? What are they?" It was even harder to imagine anyone reputable in Equestria ever writing about beings so strange than to imagine them climbing trees in some distant jungle, hanging on those juxtaposed pony-tails.

Lyra grinned, and took something else from her bag. It was a book this time, a thin volume she held up for Twilight to see. "The Apocalypse Manuscript of Clover the Clever" proudly proclaiming in large bold letters. "With modern translation and annotations provided by Dr. Greymane of the Royal Academy".

Her eyes went wide, and she nearly tore the book from Lyra's magical grasp to get at what might be inside. The poor mint unicorn seemed so shocked by Twilight's behavior all she did was stare, not resisting as Twilight took the book and rapidly flipped through its contents. That was, until she realized that ponies were staring at her again. With an awkward smile she passed it back, making a mental note to order this book the instant she had the chance. "I thought I'd read everything Clover the Clever ever wrote!" Twilight said, and for the first time her excitement almost seemed comparable. "I've never heard of an Apocalypse manuscript, though."

Her companion nodded. Their food had arrived by then, but Twilight had neither noticed nor eaten any of it. Neither had Lyra. Twilight was beginning to get the feeling she didn't get to talk about this sort of thing very often. Just giving her the chance to talk to someone who seemed interested was a service in itself, nevermind that Twilight was a princess. "Well I won't bore you with everything. The short version is that Clover... you know, Starswirl’s last apprentice." Twilight nodded. "Well, she got old. Just like Starswirl, her magic was never stronger than it was then. The story goes that she was building on her master's work with time, working on ways to combine it with space-magic. Nobody knows what she was trying to do with it, but in the end the result was a spell to travel between worlds! At least, that's how the story goes. She finishes her spell, and BAM! She's somewhere else. She didn't stay for long, because spells like that are costly, and they always bring you back to where you started!"

"Anyway, while she was there, she learned all sorts of wonderful things about them and how they lived, and took lots of it back with her to Equestria. She didn't call them the Precursors, though. She called them the Builders, because of all the wonderful things they made." She put the book away, showing Twilight another sketch clearly done by the same artist (herself?). It was larger than anything Twilight had ever seen, though. The structures were much more geometric than anything of pony construction, and seemed to be in some structurally-impossible shapes. Glass that twisted strangely to form spiral buildings, and impossibly tall spires. The sky was filled with little objects, chariots, though they had no ponies pulling them and more of the strange creatures riding them, with pegasus wings attached to the sides of the crafts as though that was how they moved. "This one's mine. Pretty good, huh? It's based on the city Clover described as their capital, though. Like Canterlot is for us. Only they called it New Athens."

"Wait." Twilight raised a hoof to interrupt. "Hold on. How did Clover communicate with them? Did they use a translation spell? I thought they didn't have any magic! Glass doesn't bend that way! Also, you can't make buildings that tall!" She nodded, satisfied with herself. Whatever else this might be, it couldn't be serious. Maybe another author had taken Clover's name or something, hoping to ride on her fame. It seemed to have worked.

"They don't have the same kind of magic ponies have, no. But they had other magic, magic that ran on electricity! Anyway, that's not really the important part of the story. The important part is that Clover the Clever learned all about them. About all their magic. Like... how they had made their own kinds of plants, which not even parasprites could eat! Or how they had so much electricity, that their houses got warm by themselves in the winter, and cooled themselves off like an icebox in summer! None of them ever got sick, because they had magic that could cure every disease! Of course, they used some of that magic to learn Clover's language. They figured out Equestrian in a matter of minutes, and they taught her everything they could! They wanted to help her... Equestria wasn't the same as it is today. There were still famines back then, and a big war with the Gryphons was about to start, and everything."

"They wanted to help us. Once Clover told them how hard things were, they made a promise. A promise that one day they would come to Equestria and give us all their magic, so we would never have to be afraid of invasion again. Give us their magic plants, so nopony would ever go hungry. Or get sick again, or even feel cold in winter!"

"But... Lyra." Twilight sighed. "We don't need these magical creatures to solve our problems for us. We've got Celestia, and Luna too! We won that war. We've been figuring things out on our own just fine! Ever since ponies invented steel, there's been more than enough food for all of Equestria and beyond. Equestria isn't the same as when Clover lived; We don't need help anymore!"

She expected Lyra to argue, but the mint mare just nodded in agreement. "Course not! Ponies have come a long way since way back then. Back when there was still tension between the tribes." She spoke that last with disgust, as indeed any pony would. The very idea was offensive now, though before Equestria the tribes had even been at war. Very little was known about back then, possibly because few ponies wanted to remember such dark times. They were best forgotten. "We couldn't have been proper friends to such an advanced race back then. Besides, the Precursors wouldn't have been helping us if they did come back then, and made all our problems go away. We had to learn for ourselves!"

"This is what the Equestrian Precursor Society is really about. Our founder... Greymane, same guy who wrote the book I showed you... he thought that once ponies had reached a point that was as harmonious as the vision Clover saw, that they would finally decide we were ready to meet them. Not just one pony, but all of pony kind. Once we had advanced enough that we started having ideas like they had. We even have electricity now, just like the precursors used in their magic! We're ready now! And any moment, they'll keep their promise. Precursors will come to Equestria, and live with us! They'll teach us their magic, and we'll teach them ours!" She panted, taking a moment to collect herself, before concluding. "I can't wait to meet them."

It was an interesting story, though it seemed to have much more of myth to it than fact. Still, there were aspects of what Lyra had said that seemed consistent with little things Chance had said. Like how shocked Chance had been when Scootaloo had told her she had been sick. She still didn't believe that Equestrians got sick.

She decided to play along. In retrospect, she would wish she hadn't. It would've been so much easier had Lyra merely been an eccentric. By allowing her to go on, she had doomed herself. "But Lyra, how will they know when we're ready? In the story, they waited for us to come to them, didn't they? You'd think there would be stories of them stopping by to check on us. You'd think they would have got impatient waiting for this long for us to get our act together."

Lyra nodded. "Well duh! They didn't come themselves though, so they wouldn't interfere with us. At least, that's what I think. Greymane never said. That's why they sent the Watcher." She drew out another drawing. This was not her own, but appeared to be a page ripped from another book. Twilight did not need to guess at what it was, though. The silver cube with its strange markings was very familiar to her. It wasn't as though she should have been surprised. After hearing the name "Greymane" she should've figured there would be a connection. Even so, she couldn't help but feel even more confused. "This isn't some made up shape, either. It really exists, in storage in the Royal Museum to this very day! The Precursors sent it to watch us... and that's what it's done for all of Equestria's history! Any day now it's gonna realize we're ready and call them, and the Precursors will be here!"

Twilight nodded. "I hope it doesn't mind that I stuck it in a basement."

"You what?"

* * *

"Still at it, huh?"

Chance couldn't say when Spike had arrived, though he was hardly a shock for her after living in the library almost a month. If anything, the two of them had grown closer over the last month, mostly as co-conspirators. Whenever Spike forgot to get one of his chores done, Chance would try and step in for him. In turn, he would turn a blind eye to her sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to come downstairs and binge ice-cream from the icebox and stare out the window at the winter sky. He hadn't turned her in yet, anyway.

She nodded, clearly frustrated. "Unfortunately. I'll probably be at it until my mane turns gray."

"Well if you are, don't worry! Princesses and dragons live a really long time, so we'll still be here!" He offered, helpfully. Maybe he thought it was.

Chance, already sitting on her haunches, drooped a little. "Does that bother you, Spike? Knowing you're gonna outlive all your pony friends?"

The dragon shrugged. "That's a really sad thing to think about."

The door abruptly opened, and a somewhat frazzled-looking Twilight Sparkle stumbled inside. "What's sad, Spike?"

As usual, the dragon wasn't about to throw her under the bus, and he just looked back at the floor. "Chance's magic."

"Still not having any luck, huh?" Twilight removed her saddle-bags, lifting them off her back and setting them on a nearby sofa. "Let me take a look, apprentice." There was something off about Twilight, something Chance couldn't quite put a hoof on. But her own concentration had been so strained that such minor details escaped any hope of identification.

Chance held still in the center of the diagram, practically holding her breath with anticipation. It wasn't as though there was much criticism she could expect there. It was just a copy of the diagrams in all the books, with slight variations as each book on the subject had slight variations. She thought it was quite pretty, like a flower with petals of sloping lines. Unfortunately, while drawing this every day for a month had both improved the quality of her mouth writing and her artistry, it had done nothing for her magic, and all of them knew it.

"Hmm." Twilight stood on the edge, looking out over the diagram. "It's... very pretty!" She offered, looking over all of it. "Our best rendition yet, Chance."

She nodded. "But not very magical, like it never is. I dunno what I thought, like... maybe if I drew it enough, all the patterns would get stuck in my head, like you said. Still a little fuzzy on how it's all supposed to get to my horn. Still a work in progress!"

Twilight's eyes seemed to be losing focus as she surveyed the diagram, as though she was seeing something for the very first time. "T-twilight?" Chance didn't dare step out of her diagram now, looking to her teacher for help. Unfortunately, there was none to be had. Twilight's eyes had begun to emit light rather than take it in, along with her horn. It was like a spell in progress. A spell that took her diagrams and wrapped them up around her, curving up through the air like a luminous flower closing to protect itself from the evening chill. As they closed, the world of sight and vision closed around them both, and they were transported, through the veils of space and time, Chance screaming all the while, trying to cling to anything to stay in the present but finding there was nothing to cling to. There was no respite for her, no safety.

Light shone above them, spotlights that left Twilight and Chance in darkness but clearly illuminated the single clear shape in the universe.

She was naked, strapped to something metal and ice-cold. None of her limbs would move, and there were tubes running into her body at various points. The transparent tubes were filled with silvery-grey fluid, which pumped into her with the rhythm of a metal heartbeat. Blinking machines surrounded the table on all sides, some with bright displays covered with her vital information. Cold voices spoke to one another nearby over the loud rumble of machinery.

“Relax! You won’t survive disassociation long enough to remain coherent without the reconstruction solution at complete saturation.”

“She won’t survive regardless.”

“Prep another oxycodone injection, she’s going into shock!”

The shape on the table began to convulse and spasm. The fluid in the tubes began to move the other way, seeping with something dark red. “She’s going into cardiac arrest! Cortical stimulators!”

Another figure came into view, dressed from head-to-toe in white. A large metallic device was slung over his shoulder as he passed through them to the bedside, rubbing something together in his hands. One of the metal contacts went gently on the side of her head, the other on her chest. “Charged!” Brief pause. “Clear!”

The body on the table spasmed violently, convulsing with the force of the shock. The loud beeping of the equipment began to gradually subside to more content-sounding noises and regular beeps.

"We've got her back, doctor. She's stabilizing." The nurse took one step back and vanished into the gloom. "Looks like she's losing consciousness."

The scene changed before them. The metal table was still there, but its occupant had changed. She wasn't naked anymore, but dressed in thick layers of shimmering fabric unlike anything Equestria had ever imagined. Condensation rose from the freezing fabric in clouds, and tanks nearby provided a steady stream of the coolant to her body.

She could get a better look at the woman now. She looked like she was in her twenties, with dark brown hair that had been cut short and gray eyes. She was restrained, but Chance found herself thinking the restraints were for her protection, not to contain her. Indeed, the woman wasn't struggling. She looked forward into the ether bravely, gritting her teeth as though something awful was about to happen.

"You know what's about to happen to you." Came a voice, over an intercom. It was buzzing and electronic and distant. "Kimberly, this process is experimental. No previous subject has survived. Do we have your clearance to proceed?"

The woman on the table looked up and out into the blackness, her hands clenching and unclenching. "Do you think, out there... do you think I'll meet God?" The voice was quiet, and fearful. More than that, Chance knew it was hers.

Whoever she was speaking to didn't seem to know how to answer that question. When the electronic voice came on again, the tone was different somehow. Someone else using the intercom. "If you do, make sure you tell him how badly we fucked up. Maybe he could stop in and help us fix everything."

That elicited a chuckle from the woman and a wince from Twilight. They remained unseen and unheard despite that, though.

"Yes, you can proceed." The woman muttered. "It's the only chance we have, I know that. I won't starve to death in some hole, or get downloaded into a damn metal suit." She grinned. "If I'm going to die, at least I'll go out in a blaze of glory." The woman blinked away her tears, or tried. "Keep an eye on my sister for me."

"Separator engaged." The ground on which they stood began to glow, revealing that it was no flat surface at all, but a complex machine. It looked to have hundreds of different layers, each lighting up in different colors. First the center began to spin, making the air suddenly hot and lighting up the entire space around them.

"Fusion reaction is nominal. Accelerator charging."

"Charge complete. Prepare to fire."

"Good luck, Kimmy."

The voices were gone, replaced with searing heat. Burning energy, scorching her, charring her. She wanted to scream, but inhaling only brought fire to her lungs, and the sound died. She was being twisted, torn, pulled up and up and up…

Up into a moment, a perfect moment in a subatomic sea. The probabilistic waves washed over her, infinite possibility crashing down into what was. The past inexorably destroyed by the ever-expanding present. In that moment, Second Chance reached out with the determination of that woman on the metal table and took hold of the space around the ball, twisting and shaping the waves with her will until she had it, and the ball lifted into the air, and held itself there of its own accord, and her horn was glowing soft gray.

* * *

The vision closed, and Chance too seemed to hover off the ground an inch or two as she was swept up in the glow of her first successful spell. Then she fell, dropping unconscious to the floor like a puppet whose strings had just been severed. She would have fallen heavily on hard wood, were it not for Twilight’s intervention, catching her from the air in her magic and setting her gently down at her side. Sitting there, she was almost like any other pony who had simply fallen asleep. Peaceful, though Twilight knew there was little of peace in her. Now she began to see what Luna had meant when she mentioned her apprentice’s injuries of spirit.

That had been her, then? The sights had been memories, and the creature on the table was her apprentice. She was shocked at how accurate Lyra’s illustration had been, except for the ears and the paws of the creature, which lacked claws. And apparently they cut their tails far shorter than the Equestrian style.

Chance was a Precursor.

And Celestia knew. Greymane had been right, at least in part. Her beloved princess had known. Luna knew too, as she had said. Maybe that was why she had given Twilight charge of the Jebr stone; to return it to its proper owner.

The visit hadn’t just been sights and sounds. Twilight had been drunk on Chance’s emotions. Her desperation, fear, and fierce pride at being selected for the honor to… to what? Be burned to death? No, because she had made it. Chance must have known it would work, and she would be coming to Equestria.

But if Lyra was right, and the Precursors were the giants of intellect and magical might she had thought, why did everyone sound so desperate? Why was it so dark? They did not seem like the beings of light and harmony Lyra was expecting to return and usher in Equestria’s golden age. Then again, Twilight had only touched their wonders with her mind. Chance’s memories had opened up a world of concepts to her that had no Equestrian parallel. Twilight now knew the frustration her apprentice had felt when trying to translate the records from the Jebr stone, and had words in her mind her language failed to express, and concepts no Equestrian engineer had imagined. Particle accelerators, contained artificial fusion, and tiny oceans of little machines that could be put inside somepony to repair their body of damage and grant them remarkable abilities. Nanomachines. Hawking rifts.

Maybe that was why Twilight had taken a liking to her apprentice so quickly. Second Chance was so very like she was, in the knowledge of her own world. Lyra had been right about the power of the Precursors if nothing else. For the few moments she had been in the mind of her apprentice, Twilight had seen more knowledge than the entire royal library. More knowledge than anypony could possibly contain, except maybe Celestia. No wonder she had so much trouble remembering anything! It must be a mess in there.

Twilight wrapped her wing around the little filly, smiling down sadly. “Poor foal. It’s okay now, Chance. You’re safe now. You did it.” Chance didn’t stir, but that did not trouble Twilight much. She’d been through a lot.

“Uh…” Spike walked up beside her, looking down at the both of them, eyes wide and confused. “What just happened?”

Princess Twilight Sparkle lifted her free wing in a shrug. “I honestly don’t know, Spike.” She looked away from her apprentice to her number one assistant. “I just planned on using the Sight to see the magic in the air… see if she was close. I guess she was way closer than I expected, because that little spark was all it took to set it all off.” She chuckled. “For some reason, I don’t think Chance will have any more trouble with levitation.”

Spike sat down beside Twilight, resting against her free wing, resting his arm on her back. “Then why do you sound so sad?”

She smiled a little wider, resting her head momentarily on his, and ruffling up his spines. “You’re perceptive today, Spike. My number one assistant.”

He hugged her, as only a baby dragon with those strange arms could. “So what was it?” He asked, when the hug was over and he had released her.

“Her.” She answered, voice barely a whisper. “Before Equestria.”

Spike was unmoved. “Did she look crazy? Like a dragon maybe?”

Spike never failed to help her smile when she needed to. “A little. Only two legs, like some baby dragons. Or at least one.” She grinned. “I’ll admit I have limited experience.”

“So why’d that make you sad, then? If she looked like me, she couldn’t have been that ugly.” The only answer that deserved was a jab with one of her hooves. “Oww! What was that for?”

“Humility, Spike. Or lack thereof.” She returned her gaze to her now-sleeping apprentice. “She thought she might die, coming here. She might have, if Celestia hadn’t realized she was here so quickly.” She got up suddenly, causing Spike to tumble sideways off where she had been resting, grumbling as he got to his feet. Twilight levitated her apprentice gently up the stairs, all the way to bed. Like many unicorns, her first spell had exhausted her.

That was fine with Twilight. There was no way she would wake her for more studies tonight. “Good job today.” She whispered, before shutting the door to her bedroom and walking away.

Twilight had an apprentice. A proper one now, one who could do magic.

A Precursor was her apprentice.

What would Lyra think?

Chapter 10: School's In

Chapter 10: School’s In

This was an important day for Second Chance, perhaps the very most important day since her arrival. She was more stressed about today than she had been about the Wrap-Up, or about her first day of magic lessons. But winter was over now, and spring had finally arrived. Spring brought many things to Equestria, one of which was the bane of young ponies the world over. School.

Ponyville had only one school, she had learned. Most ponies only went through primary school before they began their careers. Apparently that usually involved apprenticing with a master of whatever craft rather than technical college or something similar, though there were a few schools of higher learning in Equestria. Apparently Celestia operated one for Unicorns back in Canterlot, a sort of boarding school/primary/secondary school for promising students. That sounded great and all, but Chance was hardly jealous. She could only imagine the drama that would result from so many ambitious young people in one place. Just like her teacher had, Chance had her very own Princess as her personal instructor. That was enough to content her.

But it hadn't been enough for Twilight. "You're going to school, Second Chance, and I won't argue with you about it." Twilight was not human, but had she been, Chance easily could've imagined her standing over her and folding her arms with a glower. The expression of many a guardian in exactly the same position. It seemed a desire to avoid school was as trans-universal as ketchup.

"But... but... I've got you for my teacher Twilight! Books! I can already read some basic Equestrian! Just give me another month or two and I'll be fluent, I know I will! Besides, you don't make Spike go!"

Twilight had just shook her head. "Nope. Because Spike is a dragon. Equestria has no laws saying dragons have to go to school. Little fillies and colts though..."

"But..." She tried one last, desperate act. "I... I already went through school at home! I was... old... older..."

"Really?" Twilight looked at her with a faint smile. "Just how old were you, Chance?"

Chance struggled to remember the answer, frowning at nothing as she screwed up her concentration. "Uh... um... twenty... something. Years. Twenty something! Maybe if you sent me to college that would make sense, but..."

"Twenty something, huh?" Twilight repeated. "Well then, looks like you'll fit right into the class. I happen to know several of the other fillies will be right around your age." Chance had no idea if Twilight was telling the truth or just trying to make her more comfortable.

The green unicorn could only stare, her mouth hanging open. Of course, she hadn't ever asked how old her friends were before, or any of the other ponies for that matter? "W-wait..." She repeated, disbelieving. "They're... the crusaders, are they..."

"As young as you are." She nodded with apparent satisfaction. Chance thought she could see a smirk on Twilight’s face, as though she were impressed that she could convince the little filly of something completely insane. But there was no way she would actually ask the crusaders.

And it had worked. Chance's objections were quelled, as she contemplated the possible consequences of what she was being told. She had assumed that these ponies lived about as long as horses in her own world, which meant that they would have to have a very rapid childhood in order to mature in time for a life span of thirty to forty years. But if the early adolescents were in their twenties... how long could they live? Longer than her own people, even? Before technology had made aging more a guideline than a rule, anyway.

"How long do ponies live?"

She had abandoned her fight then, in surrender. The information was worth the trade of attending school. Not that she didn't think she could get the information elsewhere. Actually, she wasn't thinking at all. She had taken so much for granted about living here! "And wait! Your years have 365 days, right? So the figures match."

The princess nodded. "Same length. And ponies live..." She frowned, obviously considering her response. "A few centuries. Pegasi usually fall on the shorter end, and earth ponies on the longer end, with unicorns somewhere in the middle. Except for the really magical ones."

"Like princesses." Chance was brooding and silent then.

"I... suppose so. I'll let you know how I feel in a few centuries." She smiled, then returned her eyes to the mess on the bedroom floor. "Now get packing! You've got to be at the schoolhouse in less than an hour!"

Twilight seemed much less worried about Chance's ability to fend for herself out in Ponyville than she had been, because she let her walk to class all on her own. Well, she let her walk to Rarity's house on her own, and then walk with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo the rest of the way. Chance was practically bouncing when she reached the Boutique. She knocked, and didn't have to wait long before her friend emerged from inside with saddlebags of her own.

"Hi Chance! How's it goin'?"

Chance grinned. "Great! I just... Sweetie Belle, did you know Ponies live for centuries? That's the craziest thing I ever heard! Like, without any nanomachines or anything!"

The filly stared, as she usually did whenever Chance said something that didn't really translate well into Equestrian or that didn't make sense for a little filly to say. "Well duh! Did ponies not live that long where you come from?" And in the way of the young, rather than questioning what Chance had said, her friend merely accepted it and moved right along.

She shook her head. "I don't think so. Not without doctors helping, anyway. Lots of little doctors they put inside you to fix things before they went wrong."

Sweetie Belle giggled, right about the time that Scootaloo arrived on her scooter, wings vibrating rapidly to push her along. "Hey Scoots!” Sweetie Belle was still giggling. "Chance says that where she's from, they shrink down their doctors really small so they can fix you from the inside out!”

The little pegasus joined in. "You are too funny, Chance!" She grinned, giving Chance a firm pat before powering past them both, then swiveling back around to face them. She was still moving forward thanks to her constantly moving wings, though Chance could see that it was only a matter of time before she slammed into something. It wasn't as if the way to school was straight. Actually she had no idea which way the school was, but she was pretty sure it wasn't a straight line! "Where do you come up with such silly ideas, anyway?"

As usual, she didn't push the point, even though Chance was sure she was right. It wasn't as though she would ever prove it to these ponies, or that she needed to. So she decided to change the subject. "So... what sorta stuff do they teach us, anyway? It's been a really long time since I was in school."

"Oh, the usual boring stuff." That was Scootaloo again. “Reading, writing, math. History, science." She made an exaggerated yawning gesture. "It can put you right to sleep sometimes."

Sweetie Belle glared at her before adding her own contribution. "Oh, but you'll just love Miss Cheerilee! She's the nicest, most sweetest wonderfulest teacher you could ever meet!"

Chance had a hard time believing the pony she was talking to was really older than twenty. Then again, if ponies didn't age as fast, it was possible they didn't mature nearly as fast either. What did that mean for her? Chance didn't feel like she was any less mature, but... would she realize it if she was? She was going off to grade school again, and that hardly helped her feel mature.

The schoolhouse seemed to be a single room, as many similar structures were in far earlier days on Earth. Also in a similar way it seemed there was but one instructor who taught all the students here, arranged on desks that for the most part would have been quite content in any Earth schoolhouse. Unfortunately the instructor also felt it necessary to introduce her to the whole class. After hearing her speak for the first time, Chance lost any curiosity as to why she was called "Cheerilee".

"Welcome back to another exciting school year!" She said, standing at the front of the room. At a gesture, Chance walked slowly over to her. "I would like to introduce the newest member of your class." She looked down to the filly. "Go on then, introduce yourself! Tell us your name, and where you're from."

Chance gulped, then stepped forward. The other students looked on with expressions ranging between friendly smiles and mild boredom. This couldn't be that hard though, right? It was only her first day of school. In an alien world. Surrounded by children. Children that might be older than she was. Somehow. Whatever kind of sense that made. "Hi!" She said shyly, scratching at the ground with one hoof. That seemed to make more of an impact than she had expected, since the structure evidently had a dirt floor. "I'm, uh... Second Chance! And I'm from Seaddle."

The teacher, Cheerilee, smiled approvingly, and several of the students murmured words of greeting, some more enthusiastically than others. "Very good, Second Chance. I'm sure we're all eager to get to know you. Why don't you tell us one interesting fact about yourself before you take your seat, so we can all get to know you a little better."

She gulped. Chance had expected to be asked about where she was from, and she had already come up with a story with Twilight's help she could provide any pony who asked. She'd been using it for weeks. But what could she tell a classroom full of pony children? "And I... I like... to do magic!" She grinned, lifting her pencil from its usual place behind her right ear and spinning it around in the air in front of her before putting it back. This hardly impressed the children, nor was it anything unusual for a young unicorn. With a few more polite remarks she was allowed to take her seat at the only open desk in the classroom, near the back next to a younger colt with a white coat splotched with brown.

"Hi!" He whispered cheerfully, with just the hint of an accent. Was that a familiar accent? How did that translate, anyway? "I'm Pip Squeak! I'm from far away too. You'll love it here in Ponyville, I know I do!"

She smiled in return, looking away from him as she took her seat and removed her saddle-bags. Why couldn't she meet his eyes? "T-thanks. Good to meet you too." She was spared further embarrassment by the beginning of the lecture. This ought to be interesting. A single class for all age groups that apparently covered all of primary education. This room was the Ponyville equivalent of Elementary, Junior High, and High School. So would they be learning arithmetic or calculus?

Reading, as it turned out, with assignments that varied based on their respective levels. To her great chagrin, she was given work from "Level 1", when little Pip Squeak beside her was already on "Level 7". Fantastic. Regardless of how embarrassed she felt, her frustration only grew when she opened the thin booklet and saw it started with the Equestrian Alphabet. If any of the other ponies around her noticed though, they didn't laugh. Maybe pony schools didn't have bullies the way Earth schools did.

That suspicion lasted about as far as the playground. She was one of the last students to exit, feeling embarrassed and a little lonely as all the fillies and colts separated into their different groups. Spring was warm, and for accessories she only had her notebook and a pencil, same as always.

Then she heard the laughing, and emerged from the schoolhouse to see that Apple Bloom had tripped and fallen into a nasty-looking mud puddle near the building. Little ponies were laughing at her, lead by a pair of mean-looking fillies. Her own friends stood nearby, trying to rescue her from the mud. Chance felt like something had switched on a predictive algorithm in her head as Scootaloo took hold of Apple Bloom with her teeth and tried to pull her out with the help of her wings. Her brain might be fast enough to predict it, but by the time it had begun, it was too late.

These fillies were nearly as awkward as she was! Sweetie Belle seemed to realize what was going on, taking hold of Scootaloo with both forehooves and trying to stop her from being pulled in. She wasn't strong enough, and with a splash there were three muddy little fillies on the ground instead of one. The laughter escalated to raucous levels.

At least until Second Chance set her notebook down and stepped up into the circle, between the ponies who seemed to be leading the crowd and the unfortunates in the mud. Silence fell as all eyes went to Chance. She could tell exactly what was going on in the eyes of all the ponies around. She, the unknown quantity, was being sized up and analyzed. Which group would she belong to, the bullies or the bullied? Was she another predator or another victim?

Say whatever one might of Chance's mission, it suddenly felt like the entire world depended on this moment. The world slowed to a crawl as the gray filly wearing glasses turned to look at her with a smirk. "Pretty lame ponies we got here in Ponyville, huh?"

That was it, her opportunity! Chance could slide right into the crowd. She could be immune to the bullying forever, never have to dread coming to class. She wouldn't deny that there wasn't some wicked part deep down that had been laughing at the Crusaders. Trying to rescue Apple Bloom that way had been pretty stupid.

As she hesitated, she saw the eyes of the Crusaders going wide, watching her just as the crowd of little fillies and colts did. That was all the incentive she needed.

"I didn't notice." Chance said flatly, almost coldly. Then, with the highest jump she could manage, she leapt straight into the puddle with the Crusaders, screaming "CANNONBALL!" Her plan didn't go quite as well as she expected. Chance was even less coordinated than the Crusaders, and while similar, mud has radically different properties to water. She hit the puddle sideways with a stinging splat, flinging mud everywhere.

The crowd of ponies had to retreat several paces as mud went everywhere. Several of them seemed to think better of staying close to them. That included the bullies, who walked slowly by with matching sneers. "Well look at that, Silver Spoon, the new blank flank got herself stuck!" She spoke truly. Chance's side had sunk deep enough that she couldn't move two of her legs.

The gray filly, Silver Spoon she supposed, echoed the first filly's cruel giggle. "You've got that right Diamond Tiara. Looks like she's gonna fit in just fine with all the other losers." Satisfied, they walked away, the ponies that were left of the crowd following after them. Many gave them sympathetic looks, but none of the others who had seen seemed to want to dare the wrath of the bullies. Chance didn't blame them.

"Aww Chance, you didn't have to do that!" Apple Bloom called from somewhere behind her. She couldn't actually see, since she was stuck facing forward. "Either did you two, for that matter. I could'a got myself out!"

"No way!" Scootaloo replied. "You were stuck enough to get me stuck, which means you were... double stuck!"

"Now we're triple stuck." Sweetie Belle added. What was in this dirt here, anyway? Concrete? Quicksand? Or maybe they were just that weak. As Chance surveyed the ground around them for anything that might get them out without getting even messier and nastier, her eyes instantly jumped to the side of the building, where a green garden hose was coiled by a spigot. Seriously? She could travel across the vast reaches of space and time, crossing between worlds, and they had those stupid heavy green hoses here too! They probably tangled up just as easy as back on Earth.

"Hold on! We don't need to look even sillier getting out." Chance concentrated, and the hose obeyed, uncoiling from the side of the building even as the valve twisted itself open. Twisting those stupid valves when they got stuck was much easier with magic than it had ever been with hands. Once the hose was near her, she poured it down the sides of her body, and came loose in a matter of moments. Once she had climbed free of the mud, she lowered the hose near Sweetie Belle, who happened to be closest. The little Crusader winced away at first, until she saw what Chance was doing. Then she grinned, and wiggled herself free of the mud.

"You're some sort of genius, Chance!" She exclaimed when she was free, watching eagerly as her remaining compadres were released from their muddy prison.

"Nah. I just couldn't let those jerks laugh at you guys like that. I didn't know ponies came in mean."

"Some do." Scootaloo said as she climbed free of the mud, shaking herself off like a dog. It did little to get the mud off, but plenty to splatter the rest of them. They all glared in unison, and she blushed. "S-sorry."

"We can use the hose to wash it off in a minute." Chance urged her, then retaliated by spraying the little pegasus in the face with the hose. Scootaloo spluttered and glared, but the others giggled, and Chance returned to the labor of freeing Apple Bloom, pretending not to notice her threatening looks. Apple Bloom was in worse than any of the others, as though the mud had been trying to swallow her alive. She could only wonder if the bullies had used some of that vague earth-pony magic to make this happen, or perhaps Apple Bloom had inadvertently. Then again, it might also be some weird perfect storm of water and soil concentration. Where the hay was their teacher?

Chance saw no sign of her as they tugged Apple Bloom free, an effort that required all three of the free ponies in cooperative effort to achieve. Then there was the washing off, which proved much easier than it would've been if they'd all been dressed. Only the earth filly had any trouble there (on account of her bow), and even then she didn't seem to be bothered by it. "I've got plenty of others, I can' just wash it when I get home." It didn't matter how many times she heard it, Chance always smiled at that accent. It was almost eerie how similar it sounded to the way people talked back on Earth. "Anyway, those jerks interrupted what I wanted to tell you!" She leaned in closer, as though she was about to share some secret. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle leaned in to hear her, but Chance just stood there feeling awkward and lonely again. These three were such good friends, and she had no business messing that up.

Then she noticed they were waiting for her, Apple Bloom gesturing for her to join them. "Hurry Chance, this is important!" It was all she could do not to giggle at the sight, three multihued ponies with soaking manes impugning her urgency. This is my life now. What would Dr. Donnelly think? Colonel Edison would probably crap himself. The thought came and went so fast she didn't even stop to wonder who those people were. She was much more interested in what Apple Bloom, her friend, had to say.

"I was on my way to school this mornin' same as always." She began. "When I passed by the strangest thing. You girls have got to see it. I bet we could sneak away real quick before recess is over, and be back with plenty a’ time."

"Is that a good idea?" Chance asked, a little nervously.

"We're not really known for having good ideas." Scootaloo offered, before nodding eagerly. "Come on! It's probably half over already with that stupid mud."

Chance hesitated for a moment, then followed as quickly as she could. These three were the experts. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

* * *

"And here it is. The weirdest thing in all of Ponyville!"

Chance had a feeling she knew where they were going as they turned sharply toward the forest. Her fears of not getting back to class on time were quickly replaced with a different kind of fear, a fear that she was getting herself into a situation that she very much didn't want to be. The others noticed as she began to slow, and several times Scootaloo had to prompt her to hurry up, else they end up late for class.

Sure enough, the clearing Apple Bloom led them to was one Second Chance had seen before. Or... been exposed to before, at any rate. She didn't have eyes last time she was here. Her memories of that time were even fuzzier than her growing recollection of Earth, but it was not a pleasant thought. She had not enjoyed a bodiless existence. If it hadn't been for Twilight Sparkle, she still might be floating here, disembodied.

"It feels funny." Sweetie Belle complained from beside her, seeming unwilling to enter the clearing. Actually, all four of them were, though Apple Bloom came closest. Where once had been a thin layer of snow, the grass had sprung back, and was growing in luscious green. Kindof. A circular pattern had been burned into the soil, a graceful spiral about fifty meters across with dancing mathematical formulae represented by each twist and turn of the graph. Where the soil was darkened it seemed no living thing would grow. Indeed, even the insects seem loathe to land there. Chance could feel it too, with her growing magical sensitivity. It was a feeling of... a sudden, painful pressure equalization. Like going up in a plane, then coming down again. Only the pressure was against her horn, not her ears, and made her whole body feel fuzzy.

"What do you think it is?" Scootaloo took a few brave paces forward onto the grass and brown artwork. As she did, her whole body seemed to get heavier, and her normally flighty stature became as earthbound as the others. "Eww. It's heavy!" The pegasus retreated to the safety of the edge, and without realizing it the fillies all got closer to each other, huddling together against the strange unknown.

Apple Bloom supplied an answer. "It's got to be evil magic! I remember one night, about a month ago, Applejack left the house in a big hurry, said she had to meet up with her friends and take care somethin' mighty dangerous!" She looked out on the circle. The others eyes went wide, apparently absorbing the story. "I bet something real nasty came out of the Everfree, and tried to get to Ponyville! The elements all got together and blew the harmony out of it!"

"Blew the harmony out of it? Don't you mean put the harmony into it?" Sweetie Belle repeated, looking confused.

"Whatever! Could you imagine if this thing had got into Ponyville? I bet nothin' will ever grow here again."

Chance wanted to remain quiet, she really did! These fillies had their own answers, and there was no sense suggesting anything different. They couldn't handle the truth, not what she knew. But remaining silent felt so dishonest, she couldn't just stand there! She interrupted their murmuring by stepping past them, walking slowly a few paces into the circle.

Somepony gasped behind her, and Scootaloo called "Be careful! It might be dangerous!"

Chance nodded, facing the three of them. She tried not to feel guilty, but it was hard not to. How much could she tell them? How much could anypony know about the truth of where she came from? It felt awful lying to them. "Not as long as we don't stay too long, or try to eat the dirt. It's radioactive."

"Radi-what?" Sweetie Belle repeated, looking confused.

"Radioactive." She said again. "Like... poison. There's something else funny about this place, but I dunno what's causing it. Something funny with the magic."

"Are you saying you do know what made this?" Apple Bloom gestured at the designs.

She nodded. "It's called a Hawking Rift." She looked up. Of course, the rift was completely invisible, as any tear in spacetime ought to be to the naked eye. Maybe Twilight could see it with that Sight of hers, but even then Chance doubted that very much. It couldn't be very large, probably not even molecules across. "It's how you travel between worlds. When it first opens, it releases a huge burst of radiation that can poison anything nearby." She looked back down to the ground, where the consequences of her statement were obvious. "It's a good thing nopony was here when it appeared, or they could've been really sick."

"Ooh, ooh!" Sweetie Belle suddenly got excited. "I think I've heard of this radi-stuff before!"

The others turned to look at her. "You... have?" Apple Bloom asked, raising her eyebrows.

"Yeah! See, Rarity talked about it! Cuz'... cuz' she finds lots of her own gems. Apparently lots of the rocks she uses have bits of this soft metal stuff that can get ponies really sick. She has this spell to make it go away. It gets hot for a second, and then all the radiations go away."

"You think if we got her to cast that spell here, things could grow again?" Apple Bloom asked, reaching out with one hoof and scratching at the scorched earth. Seeing it this way seemed to bring her genuine distress. Chance couldn't blame her. Seeing her planet this way had hurt Second Chance too.

Sweetie Belle nodded. "If it's only the radi-stuff that's stopping things from growing, sure! Maybe she could teach me the spell, then I could come and do it!"

Her words sunk in. "Wait." Chance darted over, standing only inches away. "You're saying... there's some simple, easy magic that makes nuclear radiation just... go away? Without making anypony sick?"

Sweetie Belle nodded. "Yep! Well, easy for my sister, anyway. But that's probably because it has to do with her special talent. Making things pretty, and all. Nothing pretty about a sick pony."

Chance wanted desperately to learn more. But there was no time. A bell had started ringing somewhere in the near distance, a bell the four of them instantly recognized. No words were needed. Without another glance at the scar the rift had left behind, all four fillies bolted for the schoolhouse, galloping as quickly as they could.

At least ponies could move fast.

So fast, in fact, they didn’t notice the little bits and pieces of broken electronics scattered in the field, in various stages of rust and decay. A few were even blinking.

* * *

Ponyville was abuzz the next day, the day Twilight Sparkle's generator was finally delivered. For all her excitement to get started, the princess had been called away to Canterlot on important business. Apparently she had written to the company that was making it for her and told them they had to bring it by after school was dismissed.

As such, it was her loyal apprentice who wandered outside to accept the delivery, looking about as confused as she felt. Winter was over now, and Chance wore about as little as any other pony. With the exception of a pencil behind her ear and a notepad slung across her neck, which she kept at hoof in case she learned something she wanted to record.

It wasn't the sound of ponies murmuring confusedly to each other that so attracted her attention, though. Ponies were always talking happily in Ponyville. Rather, it was the sound of an engine, something she hadn't heard since arriving in Ponyville. The sound seemed to be strange to the natives as well, because ponies had completely cleared the streets as the sound got closer, long before its source was even in view. Then she saw it, and her eyes went wide.

It was like something out of a history book that hadn't ever been written. About the size of a hovertruck, though it had crude wooden wheels and belched steam at uneven intervals. The front of the craft was a cabin of some kind, with wooden walls and a glass roof. She could practically feel her teeth vibrating as she watched the way the wheels bumped and scraped at every little rock and rut in the road. She supposed these ponies didn't know about ground effect, did they?

"Not them again." Spike emerged from the library behind her, wearing an apron and wielding a broom.

"You know the ponies who made this?" Chance's eyes went wide as she watched the vehicle park in front of the library. There were two yellow stallions inside, horns aglow as they operated the same craft. Like a standard hovertruck, the back was flat, and something large and rectangular had been tied down with thin rope to prevent it from moving around. Strange world or not, Chance recognized the gears and twisting turbines instantly, even though she had never seen their like before. This was clearly the generator Twilight had mentioned, the one that would power whatever the surprise was Twilight would tell her about when she got back. Her teacher had trusted the delivery and installation to her. She would not let her down.

"Excuse me, miss?" One of the stallions climbed out from the cabin, while his brother continued to recline on what appeared to be a sofa inside. "Would you happen to know where we could find the good princess?"

"Hey! You've got some nerve coming back to Ponyville after last time!" The dragon stepped between the stallion and Chance, blocking him from her sight. "Take your weird machine and get out!"

Chance blinked, swooning. The yellow stallion was tall, strong, and clearly brilliant. Her little filly heart hardly knew what to do, and she couldn't tell which was most attractive. Was it the stallion, or his incredible machine? It was a close race, but the machine won in the end. Ignoring Spike, ignoring the stranger, Chance galloped past them both to the edge of the machine, where the bulk of its operating mechanisms seemed to be located. Her mechanical mind turned over them as she looked, turning what her eyes perceived into a working understanding of its operation in a matter of seconds. "Your hovertruck is incredible!" She called, beaming as wide as any little filly could smile. "Beautifully simple! I had no idea magic could be used this way!"

Even as she watched, the little craft coughed and sputtered as the engine died, with its various belts and gears seizing momentarily. Naturally, she could see exactly what the problem was.

But she didn't say so, because she didn't get the chance. "Easy there, filly! We wouldn't want you to lose your hoof in there!" The stallion pushed Chance gently off the edge of the craft, where she looked up with annoyance at having her thoughts interrupted.

"What seems to be the trouble, brother of mine?" The yellow-furred stallion's brother emerged from the cab, donning a hat that matched his brother's. He trotted over to them, with an equal level of confidence. Chance saw no reason for him not to be. Not only was he as attractive as his brother, but he had to be equally brilliant. "Ahh." He looked over the three of them, Spike looking angry and Chance entranced by the machine, and seemed to take only moments to wrap his head around it all. He turned his eyes back to the dragon, lowering his head a little in a mock-bow. "My dear reptilian friend, you have us all wrong! My brother and I aren't here to cause trouble!"

"Absolutely not!" His twin put in, leading Chance back to the library, struggling the whole way. She didn't want to go! She wanted to tell them what their machine was missing! Dangit, she didn't have the entire archive for nothing! Whatever the archive was. "We're here at the request of the Princess herself, who commissioned my brother and I to produce this wonderful little contraption." He gestured to the back of the strange vehicle, where the generator was resting. "Of course, she might not have known to expect the two of us, as the order was made to Fennel Electric, one of our many subsidiary-"

Spike interrupted. "Wait, you're saying Twilight wanted you to come here?"

"That is what I said, isn't it Flim?"

"Of course, Flam. Maybe the dragon's got something in his ears."

The stallion, Flim, shook his head. "He doesn't seem to have any."

"You know, that might be exactly his problem."

They did not get to continue, because Chance stepped up to the two of them, past Spike. "Excuse me." She cleared her throat, and both of them looked at her. Before they could belittle her, she went on. "I'm Twilight's apprentice. I'm supposed to make sure everything's okay with the generator, and pay you." She stepped past them again, pulling the pencil out from behind her ear with magic, and lifting the notebook too. Magic was wonderful. Being able to pick up two things at once, and make them do what she wanted while her body did other things.

"Your hovertruck has problems going up hills sometimes, doesn't it? Right when it gets to the top? And whenever you stop it. The engine seizes up, and I bet you lose a belt or two."

They stared at her. They weren't the only ones. A little crowd of ponies had formed around the truck, all of which seemed to recognize these two. Their expressions were less than entirely friendly. Eventually, the one without the mustache spluttered, and nodded. Was that Flim, or Flam? She had heard their names, but she didn't know which was which. They looked so similar, and sounded almost the same too! "Y-yes Miss. Our latest engines produce much more power, but they do tend to be less reliable."

"How did you know?" The other one asked, his eyes narrowing suddenly. "You're not with the competition, are you? I'll have you know these designs are proprietary!"

Chance shook her head. "It wouldn't be much of a competition if I was." She tore off the page she was writing on, floating it over to them. "You've got three compression cylinders here." She gestured with a hoof at each one, propping herself up the way she had been, before she had been so rudely interrupted. She then began to recite the information her brain had given her. She wasn't sure where it came from, but come it did. Just like when she thought about math, or science. "You don't have a governor on your engine. Your engine just goes as fast as you let it, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Whenever the load changes, there's a chance the offset between your cylinders will cause one of them to catch, and the engine will seize. Like it did when you got here."

"But-" They were speechless, staring down at the little filly with the notepad and pencil like she was crazy. "What does this thing do?" One of them, she couldn't say which, passed the sketch back.

"This is what the governor needs to look like! Well, it's the really primitive centrifugal kind, so it would be rubbish if you cared about getting things too precise. But this is just a truck, so precise speeds don't matter as much anyway. This part is free spinning, and as it spins, it connects to a gear on your driveshaft right here." She gestured with the pencil. "Your engine won't seize anymore, promise! Well... not from changing the load, anyway." She turned back to the engine. "I would need to get a really good look to be that sure, and I don't have the time with as busy as Twilight keeps me."

"You know, brother of mine... I think she may be on to something with this governor idea! Didn't I always tell you the seizing problem had something to do with the extra cylinders?"

A light seemed to have come on in their eyes as they looked between the sketch and the filly who had drawn it. It was a sight Chance did not like, because she had also seen it in the eyes of sharks as they caught a tasty fish. Maybe she shouldn't have said anything. But they were so... tall! So handsome! And so smart! She had to show them she was smart too, right?

"Twilight's apprentice, you say?" Flam approached her, grinning. "You might have a future in engineering, miss."

"Chance." She supplied, though she couldn't meet his eyes and she began to retreat a pace or two. "Second Chance."

"Indeed!" The other spoke up from beside his brother. "We can see why the Princess would have taken an interest in you. Fennel Electric would love an aspiring little engineer like you, when you're done being cramped in a musty library all day. We tour all over Equestria selling our inventions! Pretty exciting life for a young mare. Lots of interesting ponies to meet along the way!"

She frowned. "I... I don't think I'll be done here anytime soon." She looked back to the truck. "Can you bring the generator around the back? Twilight wants you to set it up behind the library, in the lot just behind the tree. She says there's already a water hookup there you can use." Without another word, she turned and darted inside, blushing the whole way.

Spike followed her, hopping up onto the couch even as she buried her head in her hooves and did her best disappearing impression. Even her best was less than impressive. "Uh... Chance? What's wrong?"

She shivered all over, and didn't answer for several seconds. Outside, the two sales ponies had started up their engine and drove their truck around to the back of the library, so that unloading could begin. She looked up, blinking away her frightened tears. "You don't wanna know, Spike." She answered, her voice quavering.

He shook his head. "Course I do! No pony should have to deal with being sad all alone. Twilight is always there for me, and she would expect me to be here for you." He put a claw on her shoulder, in a comforting sort of way.

"A Sphere of Uranium 233. 15 Kilograms. Two interlocking sections, and one explosive. Supercritical."

Spike just stared. "Uh... what?"

She looked away, whimpering. "A low-grade fission explosive. Extremely primitive, but I'm sure ponies are only a few decades away from being able to refine the ore enough. Maybe less, with your magic."

The dragon did not seem any less confused.

"Spike, I... look, what if you were dangerous? Like... what if you could hurt your friends, if you weren't careful? You could never know if anything you were about to do was going to have awful consequences." She whimpered again. "I'm afraid I might hurt somepony, just by being here. The things I know... I might not be as good at magic as Twilight, probably won't ever be. But... I know things that could ruin your whole world!"

Spike nodded gravely. "Oh. I think I understand now."

Chance blinked down at him. "You... you do?"

"Sure I do!" he insisted, standing a little straighter beside her. "What do you think it's like being the only dragon in an all-pony society? I breathe fire! And I've got these babies." He raised one of his claws so she could see how sharp it was. "Not to mention how strong dragonhide is. Molten lava is no problem for me. Ponies are so fragile compared to dragons! It sounds like what you're feeling is something like that."

She stared, and her answer was a quiet mutter. "That's... I suppose that's pretty similar."

He nodded again. "You just can't let it get to you, Chance. No matter how scared or worried you are about everypony, there's no point dwelling on it. Ponies are stronger than you think, and so are you. You'll figure out what you can do to help, and what you can’t do."

There was nothing for it. Chance reached out and embraced the baby dragon. She released him quickly though, and got to her hooves. "Thanks, Spike. At least I'm not the only one." She found her notebook and the pencil, and walked down the stairs. "I think I'll go make sure they don't try to rip off Twilight."

Spike followed close behind. "That's a good idea. Those two are trouble. I bet they won't be able to trick you though!"

She shook her head. "Not with machines." She frowned, heading for the back door. "They can try if they want, but they won't see a bit."

Chapter 11: Secret Lore

Chapter 11: Secret Lore

Some time earlier...

Twilight had been waiting for an excuse to get away to Canterlot. Of course she had put in an order for the "Apocalypse Manuscript" later that same day, but learning that Greymane was connected to the Precursor Society somehow gave her a funny feeling about her ability to trust anything he had to say. Naturally, the way to get to the bottom of this was to do more research. If Clover the Clever had really written this thing, then the original ought to be in the Royal Archives somewhere. Twilight could read the ancient Equestrian just fine without a translator. She would decide for herself whether one of her childhood heros really had some secret prophecy about the Precursors. There was no way this thing went that deep, and that far back. This was a recent problem. She refused to believe anything else. Of course, not finding anything in the Royal Library wouldn't prove anything. Not unless she found some other reliable source that proved it didn't exist. That would work, though she doubted it would convince ponies like Lyra who were already quite set on their opinions.

She wasn't looking for them, though. She was looking for Chance. And maybe a little for herself, somewhere in the mix. She had thought to just go all the way to the court and ask Celestia about it, but ultimately decided against that option. If she wanted to prove to them she was a pony who could handle problems on her own, then she would have to handle this one on her own. Even if a simple question might save her hours of research. She was fairly sure Second Chance could handle being alone for a little while. She had Spike to keep an eye on her.

The main body of the library had yielded nothing, as she had thought. The familiar halls opened themselves to her like an old lover, and she relished every step. The Royal Library hadn't changed a bit. For all she knew it hadn't changed since the Royal Sisters came into power, back in the vaguest memory of Equestria. Most of the staff still remembered her, though their reactions held far more respect than when she had been a rambunctious filly reading material far more mature for most her age. Unlike her own apprentice, she could read quite well from a very young age and had taken advantage of that ability daily. Well, maybe that wasn't fair. Chance seemed to be a fine reader in her own tongue. She wondered briefly, were their roles reversed, would she be learning Equestrian as fast as the green filly was? She hoped she would never find out. She felt less than inclined to believe what Lyra had said about the Precursors and their world. Her apprentice had not come from a paradise.

Twilight knew a thing or two about research. When the main body of the library had proved fruitless, she went to the restricted section to talk to its curator. Unlike the kind but unhelpful librarians she had spoken to before, Secret Lore did not look confused when she mentioned "The Apocalypse Manuscript of Clover the Clever" He did look a little surprised, though. "So soon, Princess?" The old pegasus asked, briefly folding and unfolding his wings. "A sad thing to see your mind turning down so dark a road so quickly." Twilight knew Secret Lore well enough, having spoken with him on many occasions. It took a pegasus to access the vaults of the restricted section, cavernous maze that it was carved beneath their feet. He had been there her whole life, and who knew how long before that. His fur had always been white, as long as she had known him. He had always been kind, though always sad. Perhaps that was part of the job.

She waited for him to explain. This was Secret Lore's game. He liked when ponies had to ask him what he meant. But she knew his tricks. If she remained silent long enough, he would explain what made him think he was so clever. His eyes were impassive behind horn-rimmed glasses. He was true to form. "Come to learn of the end of the world, Princess?"

Twilight frowned. She had expected many possibilities, but that had not been one of them. She just stared, blankly. "I... I wanted to learn about the Precursors."

"Same thing, Princess. According to Clover."

Her eyes widened. Talking to Lyra had been interesting, but Secret Lore was a reputable source with access to genuine knowledge. His name was prophetic in that respect. Or perhaps he had taken it after this job? She wouldn't ever dare ask. A princess must never seemed shocked. She nodded. "You know about them?"

He watched her silently for a moment. "As much as anypony, save perhaps the princesses themselves."

"What can you tell me?" She could tell he wanted to ask why she wanted to know. It was written all over his face. But she was a princess now, and he didn't dare. Not the way he would have a decade ago, back when Secret Lore made her prove she was worth the knowledge she asked for.

"We have three objects in the vaults relating to the Precursors, Princess. One is the manuscript. The other two are much more interesting. So interesting in fact, that I would be unable to tell you about them were it not for your current position. Only royalty may know of them. And of course, humble curators like myself, obey Celestia's orders about what knowledge must remain veiled, and what may be revealed."

"Bring them to me." She was hanging on his every word. Perhaps he knew it, and took pleasure in it. She didn't care. There was more on the Precursors in her world! More proof that they did, in fact, exist. There had to be! After all, Celestia had known Second Chance was coming. That knowledge did not come from nowhere.

He smiled. "I can bring you the Manuscript. But the other two objects must remain where they are. I can, however, bring you to them. At least now." He gestured to her wings. "It is a long flight through cramped quarters, however."

"Why can't you bring them here?"

"Because, Princess, that would be grave disrespect to the dead. I can, however, take you to the tomb."

* * *

The air in Canterlot Caverns was dank and musty, cold with the weight of sleeping years. These were not the same caves she had seen during her last visit, though. This part of the caverns was well maintained, cut to regular form and swept. Niches and alcoves were everywhere, on every wall and surface. Truly only a pegasus or an alicorn could come here and hope to actually find anything. Often there seemed to be a drop of several hundred feet beneath her. All it would take would be for her to stop flying, and she might never be seen again.

Ever-burning torches lit the chilly halls, their flames flickering but never smoking to her sight. It did not seem like such a long flight, though. Perhaps that was Secret Lore's old age talking. In any case, they soon came to a fairly large opening, a cavern of some size. It was dark within, but warmer than the halls had been. Twilight was relieved enough to be on her hooves again. The ceiling was not nearly so high as outside, and she could practically feel the weight of the earth pressing down on her. Canterlot was above her now, along with who knew how many tons of rock. What would happen if there was an earthquake right now? Would the same structural spells that held up the castle protect her in the caves?

Secret Lore stood in front of her, his limbs shaking a little from the effort the flight had cost him. In one hoof he hefted a bright oil-burning torch, enough to illuminate the way in front of them in the absence of magical light. Of course, Twilight could have done just as well with her horn, but the pegasus seemed eager to serve. "Behold, Princess. The grave of the Builder." He lowered the torch to an alcove nearby. There was clearly something flammable in there, because it caught instantly, and raced away from him. The heat and light were so intense that Twilight Sparkle was blinded for several seconds. When the disorientation cleared, she was not disappointed. This was indeed a tomb.

It was in a very old style, of the ancient nobility of Canterlot. According to that tradition, the greatest deeds of the pony in question were to be carved into the stone, so that all who came might see and remember what the departed had done in life. These walls depicted a tall figure standing beside many ponies, dressed in the regalia of war. Among them she recognized one: Luna. The night princess had lead the armies of Equestria in the barbaric days when it had needed such a thing. This being stood very nearly equal to her height, and towered above most ponies. Scenes of victory flickered in the flames, stained with the oily soot of bygone years. Even so the limestone was vibrant, and the scenes seemed almost to come to life to her eyes.

In the center of the room was the stone casket. In the ancient style, the likeness of the being within was carved into stone, and set as if at rest atop the casket, with objects symbolic of their role. Twilight walked forward reverently, her eyes falling on the words of an ancient prayer carved into the stone above the casket. "Let the rest of Equestria's hero here interred remain undisturbed. The Pale Mare bare him to the fields unending, and the blessing of Sun and Moon go with him." It was a soldier's prayer.

"This place must be... over a thousand years old!" She gasped, though she was still subdued and reverent. The being buried here might not be a pony, but he had evidently earned their great respect. Glass cases had been set, and she recognized familiar preservation spells on them. Any inanimate object stored within would last much longer than time might ordinarily permit. In one case she saw many medals, medals with no meaning to her but which were wrought of precious metals and rare gems. Many had subtle auras of magic about them, magic belonging to the Sisters. Another case held a suit of armor made of no Equestrian metal. It was dark green, but of many different shades. They were broken quite irregularly, like squares and lines more than splotches and curves. Half of the armor had been melted clean through, and some of its sections had been fused together. There, the green color turned black.

Another case nearby held something long and black, a mostly metal object with lots of little pieces. It looked like some of them were detachable, and there were several different copies of one piece that seemed to attach halfway on. It looked like little more than a long tube, but her instincts told her it was a weapon. Perhaps it contained a pneumatic spear inside, which could be quickly extended and retracted. Yes, she supposed that was as solid a theory as any.

"It is. There are no years or dates, however the style provides us with some clues." He gestured to the depiction of a bloody battle, with ponies on one side and dragons on the other, among other things. "When was the last time we were at war with dragons, I wonder?" He looked back to the coffin.

Slowly, respectfully, Twilight Sparkle approached it, looking down at the figure carved thereon. It looked exactly as she remembered the Precursors from the vision she had seen in Chance's memories. Vaguely simian, though its proportions were closer to a minotaur than an ape in places. He wore robes of an ancient style, adapted for his strange bipedal stance, and seemed to smile in rest, head against a stone pillow. In his left hand was a compass, square and orderly. His right hand was flat, palm out in a gesture of peace. Even so, there was a sword at his side; a sword fit for an officer and very large to match his size. His mane was short, though he had a short stubble on his face as well. It was not something furred animals like ponies saw very often, but the artists had captured it well.

"Who was he?" Twilight looked down on the face, with its wise smile.

"For that, you have as much hint as I." he gestured at the room around them. "Though perhaps, you have sources I do not."

"You mean the princesses?"

"Hmm." He said nothing more, allowing her to study the artful depiction of this Precursor’s life in Equestria. It was hard to tell which scenes had come first, but... if the prayer meant he had died in battle, she could assume those scenes had come later. One image depicted the two-legged creature in front of the scaffold of a large structure, dressed in robes, and conversing with several unicorns. Engineers, perhaps? Another depicted a great feast of many species, at which he sat beside the Night Princess herself in a seat of high honor. In another, he seemed to be watching a unicorn perform magic of some kind. The unicorn's hat and beard were quite unmistakable.

"No." She retreated a pace, away from the tomb beneath Equestria. "H-how... how... how does nopony know about this?"

The pegasus turned away from the display, which was getting harder to see in the light from the oil, which seemed to be dimming. "But they do, Princess. Prince Leo the Bold is still remembered in many stories and songs. By no means was he the greatest of Equestria's heros. But a good one."

Her mouth hung open. She took another several paces away from the tomb, into the stone hallway that led back to the cavern. It wasn't a long hallway, but she wanted to get out. She had to get away from that thing sleeping in stone. "Leo... Leo the Bold was a Unicorn, Secret Lore."

"I wonder what he would think about that now." He glanced over his shoulder at the room, whose flames were dying now. It was darkening again, the final resting place of the Precursor. "Pity we can't tell him and ask. Do you think he would pick up modern Equestrian quick enough? He did not seem to have much trouble with the tongue in any of the carvings." He smiled at her. That smile disturbed her even more, as it seemed to say 'You think this is the worst thing down here? Just you wait!' He did not say so aloud though, for which she was quite grateful. Some things were best kept securely hidden away, where they might be safe.

"Think on it, Princess. Ponies live and ponies die. Many generations have come and gone, and stories grow in the telling. Is it any surprise we have twisted the tale to make it more appealing? The Princesses may have even encouraged it. Otherwise, we might have more like the Precursor Society bumbling about." He took off into the cave, forcing her to follow. She did, though it hurt her pride it was difficult for her to keep up with such an old pony. A powerful Alicorn who could barely stop from slamming into the walls. She really needed to take up Rainbow Dash's offer for training. As soon as she got home.

"I think... I think I need to speak to Celestia." Twilight stammered, when they had emerged into the library, and she was on solid ground again.

He looked impassive, as always. "Will you be taking the manuscript with you, Princess?" He gestured to his desk, where an extremely old scroll was resting. How he had retrieved it on their trip without her noticing was a complete mystery to her, but she wouldn't dare ask. That was part of the unspoken rules of this game. She would not be breaking them now, even if Secret Lore had shown her things she never could've imagined.

In answer, she lifted the scroll delicately with her magic and placed it into her saddlebags, very carefully. Of course, there would be preservation spells on it to stop it from crumbling away, but caution was always to be advised on something so old. There was no telling when a spell like that might wear off. "You surprise me, Secret Lore. Your name is well earned." She clasped the saddle-bag closed, and turned to go.

He smiled after her. "Of course, Princess. Enjoy your evening."

Twilight cursed herself as she emerged onto the streets of Canterlot. Even now, it seemed Celestia was preparing to lower the sun. She would have to act fast if she wished to speak with her teacher before she prepared for bed. Of course, that wasn't her only problem. She wouldn't have worried too much about not coming home tonight if it was only Spike, but there was a little filly there now. A filly who was, as it turned out, not the first of her kind to come here. She would send a letter via her favorite dragon. Hopefully Rarity would be willing to give Second Chance that sleepover that was long overdue.

* * *

"You sure you'll be alright on your own, Spike?" Chance asked, for about the billionth time. Her saddlebags were already packed on either shoulder, brimming with every possible thing she could think of needing. True, missing out on Twilight's big surprise had been a disappointment when she had heard, but hearing what she would get instead had more than paid for it. Besides, a sleepover meant no waking up super early for reading lessons. It meant no endless practice with spells, and that she would get to spend who knew how much time with one of her favorite ponies in all of Equestria.

It wasn't like she didn't enjoy learning with Twilight. But that same routine every single day was wearing on her, and she was happy for a little break. The surprise could wait a day for whatever important Canterlot business Princess Twilight Sparkle had that simply would not allow her to return tonight. Who was to say it hadn't been part of the surprise all along. She had been surprised when Spike had said he had a letter for Rarity, and even more surprised when Sweetie Belle had shown up to pick her up.

"A sleepover at my sister's, on a school night!" She beamed as she delivered the news, then followed Chance around through the library as she packed what she thought she might need. It wasn't much, really. Ponies didn't really have or need much in the way of possessions compared to what she was used to. Even so, she made sure to bring everything she would need for school the next day, including the homework she had finished after the generator ponies had finally left.

"Duuuh! Besides, I'll have Owlicious for company." He gestured into the library, where the large owl was preening himself on his perch. "Twilight leaves me home alone all the time." He grinned mischievously. "Enjoy your sleepover! It's time for some Spike time." Then without explanation, he shut the door in her face. Was that wicked laughter coming from the other side of the door?

She didn't get to stand and think about it, because the other unicorn filly nudged her gently away from the library and onto the road. "Come on, Chance! It's gonna be the most amazing sleepover you've ever had!" She frowned a little. "I wish my sister would let the other Crusaders come too, but she didn't think their families would let them, since it's a school night. So it'll just be us. But the boutique is even cooler at night! And we can stay up all night, maybe get our storytelling cutie marks!"

"What about school?" She didn't sound correcting like an adult might. Merely curious.

"Oh, yeah. We could still stay up and tell stories! Maybe not all night. My big sis might not like that anyway."

As it turned out, Rarity had a fairly large order to complete within the next few days, so she had little time to spend with them. Still, she was generous to a fault, and that meant helping even when her own desires suffered. She helped enough to make dinner, despite her sister's insistence that she wanted to do it. Chance wondered why Rarity wouldn't just let Sweetie Belle make a salad or something. Most of what ponies ate seemed to be little-modified plants, and it seemed quite hard to mess those up. Chance herself could already handle several little snacks thanks to Spike's careful instruction, her favorite of which was deep-fried hay nachos with cheese. It was the cheese that did it.

Her wondering lasted until Rarity let Sweetie Belle handle dessert, while she returned to work. She hadn't thought there was any way to improperly make ice cream sundaes. After swallowing a pickle along with a mouthful of pistachio, she began to feel grateful for Rarity's protection. She could only imagine what may have happened to their simple lasagna otherwise. Of course, just because it was called the same thing as a food from home didn't mean it tasted the same. Something was missing.

Something was missing from lots of the food here, she found. It was hard to put her hoof on exactly, since most things were so delicious. Besides, nopony seemed to say anything about it. It was only then as she swirled around the booby-trapped ice cream in her bowl that she realized what it was. Meat! She'd been eating it her whole life, but hadn't had a bite since coming to Equestria. Nor had she seen it anywhere. Did Earth horses eat meat? She couldn't remember. Horses were for shows and rich people, nothing she'd ever seen outside a zoo. Or anywhere, after her childhood. The moon didn't have zoos.

"Ponies are vegetarians, aren't they?" She asked, as she pretended to enjoy her dessert.

Rarity, who was grateful for anything to conceal her equal distaste for what they were eating, leapt at the chance to do something other than eat! She didn't seem to have the heart to tell her sister she had used soy sauce instead of chocolate sauce, either. "Yes dear! And what an advantage it was in more barbaric days, to be able to find a meal in any field. Of course, civilized ponies hardly eat much grass plain. You'll find it's not very filling. Ponies who can't afford anything better have to spend a great deal of time eating." She wrinkled her nose. "Most uncivilized."

Chance was trying to be as careful as possible, but her curiosity simply had to be satisfied. There was no way she was waiting until after school tomorrow to get her questions answered! There was still so much she didn't know about Equestria, and she wasn't ever going to learn it if she was content with ignorance. "Are there... creatures who aren't vegetarians in the world? Civilized creatures, not monsters like in the Everfree..."

Rarity turned up her nose a tad. "I would hardly call any creature who eats meat civilized, dear. But if you mean creatures who can talk and think like us, then yes. As strange as it must sound to you for anything intelligent to behave like wild beasts. But then, gryphons are rather like beasts in some ways, I suppose." She shrugged. "Oh, it looks like you're done!" She lifted Chance's bowl suddenly into the air with her own, and got up from the table. "I'll get these washed up right away! No rush, little sister! Take as much time to finish yours as you need!"

Rarity winked at her as she vanished into the kitchen, and Chance grinned gratefully in reply. Her friend, for her part, was still happily munching away at the strangest sundae Equestria had ever seen. She wondered for a moment if Sweetie Belle even had a sense of taste. Or maybe hers simply had less of the "interesting" stuff.

Chance never even thought of arguing with Rarity about the diet thing. She didn't really feel like anything was missing from her diet, or that the food didn't taste good here. During most of her later years, almost everything in her diet had been culture-grown. Real Earth food might've been able to compete with this Equestrian stuff, but dried algae and simulated animal protein sure couldn't. Except for the hamburgers. Twilight could take her there as often as she wanted, but Chance would never care for those grain patties.

She had few memories of sleepovers, though her childhood on Earth contained a few. The night ended up much as she remembered. Perhaps a little abridged, considering there was school the next day for both of them to think about. Eventually Second Chance found herself in bed next to Sweetie Belle, staring up at the dark ceiling as they swapped stories.

"Alright, my turn!" Chance whispered eagerly, when Sweetie Belle had finally finished her stumbling tale of a Princess who lived in a perfect land where nothing actually went wrong. Still, the other filly simply had to lift the covers to check on her flank when the story was complete, and looked a little downcast not to see anything there. That was nothing new for Chance, though. Ever since she had become friends with the Crusaders, she had become used to seeing them do that once one of their crazy plans had ended, no matter how badly.

"Awww... nothing." She pouted, replacing the quilt, and sighing deeply. "Sometimes I think I'll never get my Cutie Mark."

Chance shook her head. She knew better than to ask why it mattered so much. She had been her friend long enough to understand. Getting your Cutie Mark meant you were on your way to being an adult. It meant you knew what sort of pony you were going to be, and what your special talent was. There was more to it than that of course, something about destiny and magic and all, but Chance didn't know much about it. Through all her adventures with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, she had never expected to get her own and hadn't yet been disappointed. After all, she was a stranger here, not a proper pony. If getting your Cutie Mark meant that Equestria had accepted you as a proper pony, then she wouldn't hold her breath. She would be a "blank flank" until she died. Not that it mattered much to her, though. Chance was just happy to be here. It was better than empty space.

"It'll happen, Sweetie Belle. You try so many things that you're bound to stumble into something you're good at eventually."

"Maybe." She didn't look happy. "Maybe you'll do better telling stories than I did. Do you know any good ones?"

Chance smiled a little to herself. "That depends. Have you ever heard about King Arthur?"

Sweetie Belle rolled onto her side, looking more attentive. "Nope! A story about a king? It sounds neat!"

She nodded. "It's one of my favorites." She paused, collecting herself. For some reason, she could remember everything about this particular childhood hero. Now, if she just changed a few words, and took out the parts about knights riding horses... "It all starts a long long time ago, in a country far away. Actually, he wasn't a king to start with. See, there was this colt..."

Chance couldn't have said how long the story lasted. She couldn't have said what sources she used, but it hardly mattered. The filly was entranced, and clearly fought off growing tiredness to hear the conclusion of the story.

When it was over, Sweetie Belle lifted the quilt again, this time checking on Chance. There was nothing to see but plain green fur though, and she seemed a little disappointed. "Really? After such a great story, nothin'?"

She shrugged. "Maybe cuz I didn't make it up. It's a really old one. Some parts might even be true, it's too long ago to be sure."

Sweetie Belle nodded. "But... why was the sword in that rock? If having it made whichever pony king, why would anypony ever put it away? If they needed a king that bad..."

She shrugged. "Nopony knows. Some say it was Merlin who did it. That he, uh..." She was grasping here a little, and tried not to let it show. "that the last king had been really mean. So he took the sword away, to give it to a better king." She yawned, closing her eyes. Today had been an eventful day, and it was wearing her out. "King Arthur had all sorts of amazing adventures, too. I haven't even told you about the round table yet! But..." She leaned back against the pillow, letting her eyes close. "I'm too tired. Maybe tomorrow."

"Yeah." Sweetie Belle sounded tired too. "I bet Apple Bloom and Scootaloo would wanna hear it, too. Maybe after school..." She kept on mumbling, but not for much longer. Her companion was asleep within moments. Second Chance soon followed.

* * *

Chance sat by herself under the stars, the ground gray beneath her feet. In this dream as in many of late, she was not a pony anymore but a child, dressed in a human version of the beautiful dress Rarity had made for her. Her rock on the edge of the crater was no softer for the change in form, however. She hummed faintly to herself under the blue-green light of her planet, tossing a little stone up and down in her hand. She couldn't be older than eleven or twelve, though such things as age had become somewhat nebulous concepts to her of late. The fact she sometimes used magic to toss the stone didn't seem to register either, though she clearly had no horn.

The words of an old poem came to her mind, rolling through it like water as she looked at what she knew could not be real. She had seen this vision many, many times, and knew reality from imagination.

"She has wandered into an unknown land;
And left us dreaming how very fair
Its needs must be, since she lingers there."

"Is that what thou thinkest of our home?"

The voice was familiar to her, though she had not heard it directly for some time now. She didn't turn around to see the one who spoke, nor did she stop throwing her stone up and down. She did answer though, her voice timid. She hadn't known anyone was listening. "Yes." It was hard not to cry, in truth. Words were more than words in this world. Her words were every happy memory from Equestria. Those were very many, even in so short a time. "It is very beautiful."

"Indeed." She felt the shape just behind her, though she did not need to turn to see who it was. The mare of her nightmares, with her mane of a thousand stars swirling in a wind that was not there. She probably wouldn't seem quite as big by comparison, though no doubt no less majestic. Nothing about her had captured Chance more than those eyes. There was deep and hidden wisdom there, and a sadness that spoke to her even more. Luna had not said, not ever, but Chance knew deep down she too carried heavy burdens. Just like her, the mare carried them alone. Chance probably would not have tolerated her presence were it any other way. "It took a great many years to understand that."

Chance heard something next to her. She felt as though something large had sat down beside her, though she did not turn to the side to look. "I wish my world had sent me for another reason, nightmare." She frowned, tossing the stone with all her might into the crater. As usual, it did not clear the edge. "In the days of my youth, we were a proud and noble race."

She stood, and her dress changed to an elegant pantsuit, like something a diplomat might wear, with the implant over one eye that was her display. She turned to the pony she had already known would be there and made an elegant bow. Then she sighed, and the costume vanished into the dress. "We could have been fierce friends with Equestria. To think." She looked back to the sky, where there were two planets side-by-side, instead of one. They were very similar, though the continents were slightly off in their placement on the one.

"Our technology would have made Equestria into a nation above all others. We would cure death, and replace it with technology to build new cities stretching to the stars. In exchange, we would benefit from your magic, and all the wonderful things it can do. More importantly, we would enjoy your friendship and your kindness. That was all we would really want." She chuckled. "Who knows. A few centuries of working together, and we might figure out what always stopped our ships from breaking the light-barrier. Imagine what it might have been like, traveling to distant stars on a great ship, with ponies and humans together as its crew!"

She collapsed back onto her rock, the vision fading. Only gray was left.

Luna said nothing for some time, though she listened respectfully. "To see the distant stars would be a wonderful thing." She said quietly, her head bowed low. "Though we do not think many of our ponies would wish to abandon the lives they know. We may have turned you down, even if you had come baring these gifts in friendship. This is what makes us different."

"Hmm?" She turned to look, curious now as to what the mare might mean.

It was her turn to chuckle. "It seems to me your kindred spent their lives and great energy in a search for something precious. They built machines to accomplish any task, yet they did not find what they sought. If there had been no war and the Builders were still at their workshops, it would still be unfound. Do not think us primitive savages because our machines are much more primitive, Chance. In truth, we could be far further along than we presently are if we wished to be. But ponies do not build as your kindred did because they do not need to search. They have already found what they are looking for, and so they live on content."

"You mean..." She hesitated, no longer meeting those dark eyes. "You mean God. You mean you, and your sister Celestia."

This brought a smile to her companion's lips, and another chuckle. "Not many place my name before that of my sister, child."

She shrugged. "I was never much for daytime." Chance gestured all around them. "I like your nights much better, Princess."

The other did not reply for some moments. She did not do so with words at first, resting her head gently on Chance's. It was strange to feel pony fur against skin, but not so strange that she pulled away from the gesture, or didn't cry a little too. This realization had not come easy for her, when she had learned who it was who took the time to talk with her every night. Not a figment, and not a dream, but one of the very Diarchs of Equestria. Even though she had never addressed her as such directly until this moment.

"Truly thou art one of our subjects, little one." She said, when the moment had ended. "And perhaps you speak truth. Some ponies do think on us so, my sister and I. Some even think we created Equis, forming it from the cosmic ether to dwell within." She shook her head sadly, though what that meant Chance could not know.

"But this is not what we meant. We spoke of fellowship within the heart, of love for one's fellow ponies. This love for family and friends is what all ponies desire, and perhaps Builders as well. We think your kind felt this love, but did not recognize it. So you built and searched, seeking out that which you already had before your eyes. Is this not why Equestria has become thy home, though it lacked the machines of thy birth?"

Chance had to think about that for some time before nodding. "I love them." She eventually answered. Suddenly her outline was becoming less human, and more pony. Or maybe her skin was just turning green. She spoke on regardless. "Twilight Sparkle, for taking me in even though I was unknown and maybe dangerous. Spike, for being there for me every day no matter how stupid I acted. Sweetie Belle, for being my friend when nopony else would, Apple Bloom..." She trailed off, though there were many more names the list was missing. There were no ponies to complain about that here though. None but her and Luna. Two ponies now, and not just one. "And you're right. It was not the cities that made Earth beautiful. It was the people who lived inside." She looked down, feeling suddenly embarrassed. "Maybe you're right. Maybe us coming earlier wouldn't have been such a good thing."

Luna shook her head. "We never said as much, Second Chance. If thy people shared anything in common with thee, we think that we could have been wonderful friends. Equestria can always use friends, as I remember better than many ponies. But for me such barbaric times seem only recently ended. We remember well the blessing of having Precursors beside us on the battlefield, even though history does not."

Chance looked up, suddenly very curious. "Precursor means... human?" At a nod, she went on. "You've met one of us before?" She sat down beside the princess, at rest now. She didn't throw anymore rocks, nor did she feel the need to. "What were they like?"

Luna sighed sadly. "He was... a good stallion." She paused, scratching at the ground with one hoof. Somehow, Chance realized this was not some distant memory to Luna. She knew the story of her banishment, and the thousand years she had spent far from the land she loved. Would those things she experienced before her banishment seem the fresher to her because of their proximity? "Strong, proud, and noble. He had not seen pain like unto thine, not before he came to Equestria."

"How?"

Luna shrugged. "Who can say? He did not know, and we do not think he spoke untruly. We knew of no way to send him back, though a solution was attempted. Alas, Equestria was swallowed by war, and resources had to turn to our defense. He did not live to see the end of the war, nor did we ever discover the secret to sending him home."

Chance pondered that a moment. A human being, another from her world, had been here. One who had left before the horrors of the last days? But how was that possible? She hadn't known the technology to have existed back then. At least not among the UEF. "Did... was he... a man? Or a machine?" Her voice had gotten cold suddenly, and the first trace of anger hovered there. Not at Luna exactly. It was less directed than that.

The princess looked down at her, suddenly concerned. There was something shrewd to her expression Chance could not fully identify. "He was a good man. You need not concern yourself with the details. In truth I did not care for him at first, finding his nature strange and his behavior crude. In time, my feelings changed. He showed himself to be both wise and brave. He died leading an army in defense of Canterlot. I..."

She sniffed, looking away suddenly. "I remember it well. He fell only after slaying many mighty foes. A hero." She laughed, though it was bitter. "He even told me so." She took on another air, as though reciting the words of another. "Fair Princess, your suspicion shall turn to trust before the end, and I shall win thy respect should it cost me all."

This conversation was causing her to ask more questions than there were answers. How had a human been here from before the Great War? Why had he come, if the Earth was at peace? Why had he been so determined to ingratiate himself with the rulers of early Equestria? Had he really talked that way? Okay, maybe that last question didn't matter as much as the others."Twilight says that Celestia knew I was coming. She gave Twilight special instruction to rescue me, and take care of me. Is he the reason why?"

The great princess only looked away into the night. "Who can say what my sister thinks? Yet, the stranger was no prophet and knew not of thy coming. He was a soldier from a time of peace, and he knew his world did not need him. He came here at our need."

"How... how did he know Equestria was in danger?"

The princess looked down. "That is a question for Twilight, and not for me. We have answered enough of thy questions for one night. Rest on now, and sleep in peace." She was fading, but Chance did not cry. Her dreams were not always nightmares anymore. Her world would not burn tonight. She only hoped she would remember this conversation in the morning.

Chapter 12: Precursors

Chapter 12: Precursors

Celestia's throne room looked oddly empty with the whole court gone. Without the guards, without the servants, it seemed as though it were too big. Still there was Celestia, whose presence filled the massive vaulted space in ways not explainable by normal geometry. The guards had been a little surprised when Celestia had asked them and everypony else to depart. She was expecting somepony, and only she would be permitted to enter. They were less surprised that the pony Celestia was expecting was the new princess. They merely bowed respectfully and let her pass, shutting the huge doors behind her and leaving her to her princess.

It was hard for Twilight to describe the way she felt. She wasn't angry with Celestia, that was for sure. She wasn't sure she even could be angry with her mentor, with the one who had done so much for her. Perhaps she was confused, confused that so much had been kept from her, and from all Equestrians. She wanted to know everything that would help her raise her charge and make Chance into a proper pony. If her master knew more of Precursors than she had let on, Twilight needed to know. Curiosity was burning like a fire in her breast, and it must be satisfied.

"Princess Twilight." Her mentor reclined elegantly atop the throne, resting on the cushions and pillows. She nodded politely. "I've been expecting you."

Twilight stopped at the base of the throne, smiling slyly up at her mentor. "But were you expecting... this?" She suddenly removed what she had been concealing under one of her wings. It was a square pink box, containing a dozen donuts. She lifted it into the air with her magic, opening the lid and holding it toward the princess. "Donut Joe's! Best in all of Equestria!"

This wasn't the first time Celestia had shared one of these donuts with Twilight Sparkle. She echoed her former student's smile, selecting a single chocolate eclair and passing the box back. "Sweets are the happiest surprise, Twilight Sparkle." She took one demure bite, then set the rest down on a little plate Twilight hadn't seen there seconds before. "What brings the newest princess from Ponyville?"

Twilight was fairly sure she already knew. She didn't see how she couldn't. She might not be all-seeing, but she was far-seeing, and Ponyville was not so far from Canterlot. Still, she appreciated the opportunity to frame her own question. If it wasn't for her mouth stuffed full of donuts, she would've answered. Her manners had gotten better in recent years (thanks in large part to Rarity's suggestions), so she didn't say anything until she had finished chewing. "My apprentice, Princess. I've been trying to learn as much as possible about her people so I can understand her better. My research has..."

There was no use withholding her thoughts from Celestia. She would probably guess them anyway. "frightened me. I learned that her people have come to Equestria before. But until now, I hadn't ever heard of the Precursors before."

Celestia nodded, and remained contemplative for some moments. This was nothing new for Twilight, however. Her teacher never spoke lightly, and never said anything without careful consideration. She seemed to take longer than usual though, as though she were sizing her up. Or weighing what she might be ready to understand, maybe. "It's true I have done little to keep the memory fresh in Equestrian hearts. There has been no need. Not until now."

She knew better than to ask why. Celestia had her reasons. She trusted her master in that, even though she was powerfully curious. "I did not remind ponies of my sister during her absence, either. The wounds were too tender."

"Did..." Twilight took a step closer to Celestia. "did Leo the Bold hurt you too?"

The majestic Celestia, goddess of the sun, merely shook her head sadly. "No, I should think not. Then he would have been no different than so many other monsters bearing down on Equestria in those dark days. It hurts because he was a friend." Pause. "But... you did not come to hear old stories, my loyal student."

She shrugged. "I would like to know what Precursors are really like. Why did they come to Equestria, and will more be coming?"

"Many questions." Twilight did not see her cross the distance, or sense any flash of magic that might suggest a teleportation. One moment she was on the throne, and when she looked away she was beside her, leading the way. "Walk with me, Twilight. I will answer your questions as best I can. You've proven yourself to be a capable student, as always. I did not need to tell you of this for you to discover it. Again I am reminded of what made you such an excellent choice for my apprentice, all those years ago."

She followed wordlessly behind Celestia, and she strode slowly past each of the stained glass windows in turn, each preserving a different moment in history. Her own likeness was even in a few of them, after some of their latest adventures. Of course, these scenes went back much further than her own recent life. Some of the scenes dated to the construction of the castle itself, many years ago. She was not walking very quickly, even with longer legs.

"Tell me, Twilight. Have you had any experience with postcognition spells yet?" The princess stopped in front of a large window, one Twilight had never taken the time to closely examine before. Of course, she was rarely as at ease in here as she was now. Before the events that had elevated her to her current position, she had usually only come in here to talk with her teacher. Never to just appreciate the scenery, that was for sure.

"Uh... no Princess, I haven't. My last experience with time spells didn't go so well..."

Her teacher smiled, looking away and out at the window. "Yes, I recall your letter on the subject. No matter. Now that you are an Alicorn, there are some additional options." There was a faint pop, accompanied by a golden glow. A small flask appeared in front of her, glowing with a distinct magical aura. The cream-colored fluid within bubbled merrily for a second before settling down. "It would take too long to explain, Princess Twilight. Instead, take this. Just one sip, we wouldn't want to overdo it."

Twilight knew better than to ask what was about to happen. Instead, she took the flask in her magic and took a petite sip. It was very bitter, and she wrinkled her nose at the taste. "Yuck!" She passed the rest of the potion back to Celestia.

Her former teacher's smile widened. "Not one of Starswirl’s better recipes." She agreed. "I tried adding lemon and sugar once to soften the flavor, but the results were... unpleasant."

Twilight could feel the strange magic building in her body, focusing most intensely on her horn. It was like a strange pressure, pulling on her perceptions. "But what does it-" She didn't finish her sentence. At that moment, her body went numb, and a brilliant glow began to emanate from her eyes. She cried out in fear as the throne room was ripped violently away.

* * *

"We found it near the Everfree, Princess. Walking up the road toward Canterlot." Twilight blinked, and realized she had not moved from where she was standing. She was still in the throne room. And yet... something was different. It took her a moment to realize what it was; the stained glass windows were all just soft pink now, without any of the scenes she remembered. Celestia had said this was a post-cognition spell, so that meant... looking back in time, right? Still, everything looked so real! She turned around to face the source of the sound, from where it came beneath the throne.

There were guards, though their armor looked a little different as she slowly approached. It took her only a moment to figure out what was different about it; instead of bronze, these royal guards wore iron. It was unadorned and in some cases quite crude-looking, with visible scratches and dents. The plumes seemed to be missing too.

"What do you think of it?" Celestia seemed to have changed very little indeed in however many years she was looking back. She didn't look smaller, or any less regal for the absence of so many years. Her throne was perhaps less well adorned, but it wasn't as though Twilight had ever counted the gems or anything. The guard she was speaking with seemed to be a captain or something, judging by the coat of mail that covered his body where the plate did not. Of course, this surprised her too. Chain mail hadn't been used in a very, very long time.

"Princess, if you ask me, the creature is a goblin spy. It moves as they do, walking on two limbs only."

Another princess stepped out from beside the throne into Twilight's view. It was Luna, though not as she had ever seen her before. Luna was not wearing the royal regalia that she was used to. Rather, she was armored. A coat of glittering silver chain, its luster almost white, and thin plates of silver metal with dark crescent insignia. She recognized the material for what it was: Mithril. Luna's armor was worth more than all the gems and gold in the throne. "Did the vile knave speak its cruel intentions?" She asked. Twilight was getting closer, just a few feet behind the captain. None of the ponies in the room seemed to be able to see her, or if they could, they didn't react.

The captain shook his head. "Indeed not, Princess. At least, not in any tongue we know. The beast grunted in an apelike language, and did not seem to understand our commands. If you ask me, we should dispatch the creature now, before it can report back to its vile masters." Luna nodded her agreement, taking a few more paces closer to the captain. It looked as though he was looking to her more than Celestia for approval. Was Luna the one in charge of the Royal Guard?

Celestia watched the situation from her throne, evidently thinking hard on what was being said. "Did the beast harm anypony?"

The captain looked a little uncomfortable on his hooves. "Well Princess, it, uh... no. It came with us without a fight. It allowed us to search it, and to bind it. No doubt it was struck with fear at the might of the Royal Guard and lost the force of will to resist."

"Perhaps." Celestia answered, though there was something of a smile on her face. Twilight recognized that smile, though the guard didn't. "I would like to speak with it. My knowledge of translation spells is somewhat beyond the training of the guard. Perhaps I may convince it to be more forthright."

"Art thou sure this is wise, dear sister?" Luna looked up at the throne, seeming quite worried. "We are the only real mystery to our enemies! If one returned with knowledge of our power, it might have serious consequences! Besides, what if it were a magical assassin, or had hidden a weapon somewhere the guard had missed!"

Celestia listened attentively to her sister's concerns. "Then I shall have my sister here to insure it does not succeed." She turned. "Captain. Bring in the prisoner. It has been searched for weapons and active spells, I assume."

He nodded. "Of course, Princess. There are no spells on it, and no magic of any kind. We suspect this to be another draconic ruse, to conceal the beast's true origins. It carries no weapons as we can tell, though its appearance is... most strange. Its armor is unlike anything we have seen on goblins before, and it carries strange objects of metal. They are not sharp however, and also lack any enchantment. Perhaps it may conceal a small knife in its armor somewhere, but nothing that could harm your majesties."

"Very well." Celestia nodded, and sat back to wait for her orders to be carried out. It did not take long. The captain bowed and darted to the door, and vanished into the castle. Then, moments later, the doors were opened, and a squad of the Royal Guard marched in. There were at least a dozen, surrounding their strange charge with spears at the ready.

Twilight was prepared for this, having seen the grave. The being was several feet taller than the ponies around him, dressed in glittering green armor in that strange pattern. The armor was quite thin compared to that the guard wore though, and she thought it must be ceremonial. It wasn't made of mithril, and steel would not be useful that thin. He wore the long object over his back, the one Twilight had seen in the glass case in the grave. He wore a helmet, concealing the somewhat primate-like face that lie beneath behind polarized glass.

He did not move like a goblin or an ape, however. His body was not the random mismatch of proportions of the goblins, but regular and even like a pony. He took long strides, proud, though he did swing his arms a little in the manner of an ape. Still, the proportions were wrong for a gorilla or a monkey. The arms, armored so that she saw no skin anywhere, were shorter than the legs, and much thinner and more delicate. He looked very silly, so gangly Twilight thought his limbs might snap off at any moment if he moved them too fast. But he didn't, and they all remained thoroughly attached all the way to the throne.

Even as he walked, a strange voice came from the helmet. The guards ignored him, and even Twilight could not understand the words. It was not an Equine tongue, that much she knew. She had heard it from Chance before. Unfortunately, she couldn't make out any of the words. She got out of the way as they approached, making way so that the procession could reach the base of the throne.

"Give respect to Celestia, Princess of the Sun and Sovereign over all of Equestria." The captain called gruffly to the strange beast. "And to Luna, Princess of the Moon and Supreme Commander of Equestria's Grand Army." The being obeyed without hesitation. He dropped to one knee, lowering his head before the diarchs. This seemed to amuse Celestia, though her sister only watched with cold and calculating eyes.

"I see he does not need to speak Equestrian to understand who we are." Celestia said quietly, perhaps just to herself. Then she looked back to the captain. "Captain Longspear, you and your men are not required. Please see that we are not interrupted for any reason until I send for you." If the captain or any of his soldiers wanted to protest, they did a very good job concealing that fact. None of them dared argue with Celestia once she had given them an order. The captain bowed hesitantly, and he turned and made his retreat.

This left the room strangely empty feeling, with only the Precursor on one knee and the two Princesses watching him. Twilight took this opportunity to get a better view herself, approaching as Luna did the same.

"You may rise." Celestia said, accompanied by a gesture with her head. It was impossible to tell whether it had been the words or the gesture that communicated to him, but either way he seemed to get the message. He stood, arms at his sides. The gesture reminded Twilight of the way her brother had made the guard stand for inspection, back when she had lived in Canterlot and he had been captain of the guard. The tall being stood rigid and alert, looking straight ahead and not moving. It was actually quite impressive. Even the best soldier would twitch and fidget a little, but the Precursor did not. He might as well have been made of granite. Not so much as a twitch.

"What do you think of it, dear sister?" Celestia asked. "You are Equestria's military mind. What have the dragons thrown at us this time?"

Luna walked forward, circling the strange creature. She never got within arm's reach however, and seemed wary the entire time. Eventually she seemed satisfied, and returned to her previous position. "Not intimidating; not even the height of a minotaur. Its limbs are thin and weak. Its armor looks fragile, and it doesn't seem to move very fast. Not a trace of a single spell on the thing." She looked back to her sister. "Extremely dangerous. Our enemies send not feeble minions into our lands. This being must be more than it appears, or it would have been cooked and used for fodder for their armies. Neither dragons nor their kin seem remiss to devour any fel meat, simians not exempt."

Celestia nodded. "They have no use for feeble creatures." She rose suddenly, walking slowly down the steps. As she did so, the being backed up several paces, so as to give her comfortable distance to stand on the floor without being in reach, as Luna had done. He did not run or attempt to flee. Not that it would've made any difference if he had. "A more interesting question, dear sister. Why did the standard translation spells not succeed? Is there any being in all of Equestria on whom such spells would not succeed?"

Luna considered that a moment, and her face hardened. "Only a master sorcerer. Mightier than most unicorns. To countermand the spell."

Celestia nodded. "Perhaps, sister. I would have feared as much, if this creature had any magic to it. Not even Discord could mask itself so completely as to have no resonance at all, even to us." She turned, looking more intensely at the being, staring into its helmet. Her eyes abruptly went wide, and she stepped back, shivering. "Or perhaps, the spell failed because this being had no brain upon which it might work." She turned away, looking for a moment as though she might be sick.

Luna gasped, and lowered her head, her horn glowing a little as she performed some simple spell on the creature. Whatever it was, it passed through the being with no discernible effect, and Luna too retreated. "Abomination! 'Tis a nightmarish construct! Mayhaps its creation was flawed, so that it knew naught what to do and simply wandered until it was discovered." Her eyes narrowed as she surveyed the being. Twilight couldn't say what she meant, though. Her own magic senses did not seem to be functioning within the vision, so there was no way to test what the Princesses had seen. "It needs be we dismantle this vile creation! Perhaps we might determine the method of its devising, and thus work a spell to unravel it." Her horn began to glow, as she pointed it at the creature.

How could this possibly be what Celestia had wanted her to see? Luna was about to kill it! As to how it was possible for anything to be intelligent without a brain, Twilight couldn't even imagine. Truly simple life sometimes lacked complex brains, like starfish. Or brains at all, like sponges. But Precursors were not sea sponges, they were supposedly the most skilled inventors and builders that had ever lived! Something had to be wrong. There was no way Celestia was going to let her sister just kill him, rip him apart to see how he worked. What she had seen in the tombs simply did not match with that future.

Celestia did not stop her sister, however. Rather, it was a voice coming from within, sounding muffled. It was clearly the same speaker as before, the one who had tried talking to the soldiers without success. "Please don't do that, Princess." Came a male voice from inside the helmet. "I assure you, I am very much alive. If you kill me now, then I would fail to deliver my message."

Luna's horn dimmed, and both sisters stared at the being who had just spoken as though it were a pony that had just sprouted another few heads out of spite. Neither stumbled back or recoiled as lesser creatures might have done, though. Celestia still looked disgusted. It was Luna who spoke, walking over to her sister, and standing at her side, a little further forward. But then, her duties were the military right now. Perhaps she considered protecting her sister part of those duties. "Whom dost thou serve, construct! Why hast thou come? Speak, that we may destroy thy affront to nature off Equestria's face!" She bellowed in her loudest Royal voice.

Twilight was impressed this being could stare into the face of such power without flinching. The Sisters were beings greater than other ponies. Their power could be felt by all living things. It warped the space around them. Not painfully, no. Ponies felt safer in their presence, protected and warm. Other creatures... usually just felt fear, particularly when the sisters were angry. Twilight had no doubt one of them was angry at this very moment.

Celestia chuckled. "Perhaps you should have told him you wanted to destroy him after he answered your questions." She seemed to have recovered from her initial shock, and was watching the creature with her royal mask restored. If anything, she seemed only mildly curious.

"I am servant to no man." He said clenching one fist and folding his arm across his chest. It was a strange gesture, one that did not translate into pony body-language very well. Was it a salute? An insult? Preparations for violence? "I am a Knight, free to give my service to whom I will. Yet I once served the King, and it was out of choice alone."

"The Dragon King!" Luna hissed, lowering her horn again. "We shall scorch thee from the earth for thy master's crimes!'

Celestia gently put a hoof in front of her sister, shaking her head. "Not yet, dear sister. Be still."

The being waited for their interaction to conclude, remaining still. As though it didn't matter to him one way or the other what they did with him. Either that, or he was very, very confident they would rule in his favor. It was hard to tell which without being able to see a face, even an alien face. "Indeed not." The being reached up slowly with both arms, careful not to move fast enough that his gesture might be interpreted as a threat. He took hold of the helmet, and there was a loud click. He lifted it from his shoulders, letting it fall onto the stone beside him.

There was the face Twilight had seen carved into the grave under Canterlot. He had long brown hair down the back of his head, not a proper mane at all. "I served in the household of King Richard Morgan, Sovereign of the Steel Tower. No dragon did I serve, nor any beast of this world. It is for this purpose I have come." He dropped to one knee again, lowering his head respectfully. "I come to swear my service to Equestria, and fealty to its diarchs."

Luna's jaw dropped. Celestia merely looked on evenly. "You are not from my world." She said, without emotion. It was not a question.

He nodded. "Indeed not, Princess. Would that I brought better news. Still, let my tidings be first sign of my honest intent."

"If you came to deliver a message, why did you not say as much to the guards who apprehended you? Why did you wait to speak until now?"

He frowned. At least it looked like a frown. It was impossible to be sure on such a strange face. Twilight was struck by just how symmetrical it looked, how absolutely perfect. It was like something carved from stone. Perhaps it had been? As she looked into the being's brown eyes, she thought she could make out faint lines running through the irises, in perfect symmetry. Like incredibly tiny wires. Indeed, the eyes seemed capable of strange motion indeed, with internal twisting and adjusting that was unlike what a biological eye could do. The Precursor looked so absolutely perfect because it was not an animal at all, but a machine. A machine built to resemble an animal. That was what the princesses had meant!

"It is only now that I can understand your tongue. This armor has limited processing power. It has required these several hours to complete a translation program." He stood again, though his head was still lowered in reverent respect.

Not all of what he said made sense to Twilight, but Celestia did not seem to be confused by it. "Very well. Let us hear your message, then. It must be quite important, if you have come this far to give it."

The precursor nodded. "I come as the herald of doom. You know there are enemies massing for war. Within a few years, they will attack. Unless something is done, your nation will fall to the onslaught. I was sent by my King to prevent that from happening, and as a token and ambassador of our species. I know the strategies of your enemies. I know what weapons they will use. More importantly, I know what Equestria can do to win this war."

"Why?" This was Luna, still sounding suspicious. "What is it to thee should Equestria fall? If thou art truly from another world, what reason hast thou to cast in thy fate with ours?"

The precursor smiled faintly. It was a little unnerving to Twilight, seeing those teeth. He had sharp canines, like a carnivore. No, some of his teeth were flat. Probably an omnivore then. That made him frightening, but not nearly so frightening as his answer. He spoke with acid, his eyes going dark. "Vengeance."

* * *

Math, like reading, seemed to be divided into standard levels, with students taught at their respective understandings. Like reading, Chance got a booklet from the first level. Unlike with reading, she didn't stare blankly at the booklet and try to squeeze her brain into shapes it wasn't meant to go. Instead, she took her pencil and finished the first three levels in an hour.

There were two hours allotted for math today, during which her teacher Cheerilee went about instructing the students in little groups. She hadn't spent much time with Chance though. Not after their first conversation. "I've got your first workbook, Chance! It's basic arithmetic, so it shouldn't be too hard! Addition in the first half, and subtraction in the second half."

She tried not to feel insulted. It wasn't just that all the other students around her were on much higher levels, but this time she actually belonged up there with them! There was no way to argue with her, though. She was just so sweet and kind. "Yes Miss Cheerilee." Chance opened up the booklet, glanced at the first page, and began filling in the answers. Her pencil flew across the page, and she hardly looked at it. Her instructor stared, as the pencil shimmered in grey magic and solved every problem, with Chance not so much as hesitating for each problem, or seeming to think about them at all. Why should she? This was simple addition.

There were explanations on how to do the problems and little drawings in the margins, with addition and subtraction represented by ponies doing different things. She couldn't read the words, but it didn't matter. For some reason, the symbols all seemed the same. How many levels would that keep up for?

Cheerilee leaned close to the page, inspecting the work as Chance did it. "Well then, Chance! I had no idea you were so good at math! What level were you in your old school? Maybe we should start there instead."

The little filly nodded. "I would appreciate that, Miss Cheerilee. I was..." She paused, struggling. "What level are differential equations? I guess I could use a review on those. I never got the difference between linear and nonlinear equations."

Her teacher stared, slack-jawed. Then she smiled. "Oh, algebra! I'll go get level four." She took Chance's arithmetic booklet. There were no differences in level four, or level six either. After an hour spent with no additional time to solve the problems (except for the word-problems, which she left blank), Chance got bored and began to doodle on the blank pages. Well, maybe doodle wasn't quite the right word. She was drawing out the insides of the generator. She drew each tank and engine as she remembered it, along with the spools and coils of wire. Then there were the magical components, which used unicorn magic to somehow assist in the process. How could those work? Maybe Chance wouldn't revolutionize the planet's economy, but she could at least fix one generator. Whatever Twilight wanted all that power for, it had to be important. Maybe that was the surprise?

She looked like she was busy, so she wasn't bothered while she worked. Except by her next door neighbor. The little colt, Pip Squeak, was having some problems with graphs. She leaned over to his desk, eager to help. Helping sure was more fun than this boring math. "The first one's the x axis, and the second one's the y." She explained, gesturing with her hoof. "You just count. If you're trying to plot (4,1), just count sideways four, then up one." And so forth.

By the end of the class, Cheerilee had noticed what she was doing. Instead of reprimanding her though, Chance was soon appointed her official helper, and was moving around helping all the other students with their math. This suited her fine, and many of her fellows seemed quite grateful for the help. Some gave her angry looks, but those seemed to be in the minority. Helping sure was better than staring bored at the page.

* * *

Chance found herself wandering alone through one of Ponyville’s many parks. Of course the Crusaders had tried to persuade her to come with them and try to earn her "Base Jumping" cutie mark. But Chance was afraid of heights, and more than that, she had a feeling Twilight would have plenty of practice and study for her to catch up on from the previous day. No apprentice of Princess Twilight Sparkle's was going to reflect ignorance upon her master, no sir!

So she took a little more of a circuitous route home, walking through the pleasant park and humming to herself. The spring in Ponyville was very beautiful. It reminded Chance of the arcology her mother had taken her to as a child. There had been so many different flowers, in colors that nature had never produced. Genetic engineering had made for a beautiful park. This one was even better. Outside, with the grass and the smell of damp wood all around her and the sky filled with picture-perfect clouds.

Ponies might not have genetic engineering, but their control of the climate was far more absolute. In that, perhaps they were not so unlike her kin. Only, her people had only pretended to have mastered nature. The ponies actually had. Every plant, every animal, even the clouds in the sky depended on them. It was like their whole world was an Archology, the biggest and most perfect Archology ever built. It was wrong to think of them as primitive just because their machines weren't as advanced.

There was such sweet music here, music that was more than trees and wind. She stopped to listen, closing her eyes. It was such a sweet sound, yet slow and mournful. She listened for a moment, and realized to her great shock she was already singing along, and had been the whole time.

"Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen,
Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild
Soll mein Gebet zu dir him when."

The words were no more Equestrian than the song she was hearing, that she had joined without even realizing she was hearing it. In that instant, she turned and galloped across the grass and flower-beds straight for it. There was someone else here! Not a warrior, not a robot, but someone like her! Someone who loved beautiful ancient music and just wanted to be free. They had been here in the park this whole time!

Chance skidded to a halt at the foot of a cute wooden gazebo. There was a unicorn mare sitting on the steps playing a lyre, a mare with mint coat and gold eyes. She held a golden lyre in her magic, and played the ancient hymn with surprising accuracy, like something out of an old avcast. Chance had seen her before many times in Ponyville, and even heard her performing once or twice before today. Could this really be her fellow traveler? The mare only smiled politely and went on playing, finishing the ancient hymn. Chance sat down on her rump right there, humming along in German. Or at least, what German sounded like when an Equestrian tried to pronounce it.

"Da uns die heil'ger Trost anweht;
Der Jungfrau wolle hold dich neigen,
Dem Kind, das für den Vater fleht.
Ave Maria!"

Second Chance was, of course, no vocalist, but she did her best. The words sounded very strange, and perhaps their like had never been heard in Equestria before. Even so, she had an ear for the sound, and could at least carry a tune. There was no audience to hear them, none but the trees and the flowers. And a few squirrels, who seemed to have stopped to listen. For all Chance knew, these squirrels might very well enjoy German music.

When the song was over, Chance tossed a few bits from her saddle-bags into the open case. She had intended to get a milkshake with that money, but this seemed a little more important. "You play Schubert?" She asked, when the green mare had finished and was looking at her with wide eyes. Celestia only knew what she must have thought of Chance's attempt at singing along. And maybe on Earth she would've been laughed at or at least considered eccentric for such behavior. This was not Earth.

The unicorn watched her without recognition. "I... didn't know that song had words!" She said, levitating the lyre away into its case so she could get a better look at Chance. "You're Princess Twilight's new apprentice, right? Guess Twilight must have taught you about the Precursors. I'm glad, it's important to learn everything about them! Isn't their music beautiful?"

She felt as though she were deflating, her hopes fading rapidly. Precursor must have something to do with... humans? Still, she couldn't abandon hope so easily. Even if this mare was not from her world, she might know someone who was! In that moment, Chance felt a powerful longing for home. Not the domes of Luna-7 either. No, she wanted the sweet fields of grain, she wanted her city of steel and metal, and her family who had lived there. How could she check to see if this mare knew more about her people without making her think she was strange? Chance nodded. "Yes, I'm Twilight's apprentice. What do you know about the Precursors?"

It was as though Chance had offered her a lifetime of free candy. Her grin couldn't have been wider. "Probably more than anypony in Equestria!" Chance barely resisted the impulse to giggle. The mare looked suddenly stern. "Hey, don't laugh at the Precursors! They're real! Even Celestia knows! It's there if you know which books to look in!"

She did giggle then, getting up. "Oh, that wasn't what I was laughing at." The mare watched her with a frown as she got her giggles out, though she waited patiently all the same. "I was... I was..." She collected herself. "Just laughing, because until a month ago, I was a Precursor, and my name was Kimberly Colven."

"You what?"

Chapter 13: Are You Surprised Yet?

Chapter 13: Are You Surprised Yet?

“It's not that I don’t believe you, exactly. It's just... that's the craziest thing anypony ever told me! I mean... you're just a filly!"

Chance sighed. She had a feeling Twilight probably wouldn't want her doing any of this. But she had no intention of backing down now, not after she had already told Lyra. One way or another, she might tell other ponies what she had said, and it would get around. The only way to resolve this situation now was to get everything out. It was really strange to be telling her secret to a total stranger in the park, and not to her good friends the Crusaders. But no matter how good of friends they were, none of the Crusaders played human music (she probably wouldn't have recognized what their butchery did to music in any case). None of the Crusaders claimed to know about her people. Sure, Second Chance wanted what her name implied. She wasn't struggling for a way home. But she didn't just want another chance for herself. If there were more of her people who could come, she wanted them to get another chance, too. It wasn't fair she got all this, and nopony else did. Nobody else.

"Look, fine." She magicked her bag open, removing the notebook she used during Twilight's magic lessons. She now had the literacy of a foal much younger than herself, and no words to express the complex supernatural concepts her teacher used when instructing her in magic. As such, she used English for her notes. Her Equestrian was big and awkward-looking from little mastery, but her English was dense and neat. To native eyes, it would look as alien as the thematic script unicorns used looked to her. She held the book open to Lyra. "You want some proof? This is English. It's my native language." She displayed a few pages for Lyra to see, which probably looked all the stranger since they also included spell diagrams copied with a compass and enormous patience. It would probably look like her people used magic right along with conversational language. "I can speak it fluently too. Well, almost fluently. This mouth wasn't really made for it."

She leaned closer to the page, and read from the first point that stuck out. "The pattern left by any unicorn wizard on their work is called the Nimbus, and acts as a magical identifier that can be traced back if the Nimbus has been observed before. Concealing or altering the Nimbus is not recommended for all but the most advanced unicorns, and even then in cases of extreme emergency. Doing this requires significantly more energy-" She didn't go on, both because it felt strange to read words in such a strange tongue as because she knew the mare couldn't understand her anyway. She might have been muttering gibberish, for all she knew. Maybe it would've sounded a little like gibberish to any nearby humans, too. She had been speaking and learning just Equestrian for so long that she had no context for what her own tongue was supposed to sound like. It didn't help that her own memories were so distant and strange. So she stopped, passing her notebook to Lyra so that she could peruse to her heart's content.

She did, though not for very long. The mare looked as though she had been hit by a bus, her eyes were so wide. She opened her mouth and closed it several times over, though the noises that came out were hardly proper words. "You're... really?" Her smile suddenly returned, like cracks appearing in melting ice. "Really really? Promise?"

Chance nodded. "Really really. But that's just it. I was a Precursor. I'm a pony now. Or... trying my best." She lifted up one of her hooves, close to her face. "If it wasn't for magic, I would be useless without my hands. Not sure how the other tribes do it. Oh! And... I don't think I got your name? You already know mine, so it's only fair."

"Lyra Heartstrings." She said casually, hardly waiting long enough for Chance to process what she said. "What are hands? Are those what you called your claws? I think I've heard that word before, but it's been a long time."

Chance took her notebook back, and replaced it in her bag. "Yeah." She glanced up at the sun, which might not have been a good idea back home. But here, the brightness wasn't blinding, and it didn't hurt her eyes. So long as she didn't look at it for very long. Then again, she had been able to look directly at the sun back home, thanks to her nanophages. It was a shame she hadn't brought those along. How long might an Equestrian live, she wondered, with a full spectrum of nanophage? Four centuries? Five? To say nothing of what the other side could do. "Listen, Twilight should be back by now, and she's probably expecting me. Can we talk as I walk home? I don't wanna get in trouble."

"Sure, sure!" Lyra slammed her lyre-case closed with her magic. It lifted into the air behind her, and followed them as they walked. Seeing Twilight do this had fascinated Chance every time during the first few weeks. Now she could do it herself, and she hardly even glanced. It was just unicorn magic. Nothing crazy. It was already like a second set of limbs to her, even more useful than the hands she had left behind. Well, maybe. She wasn't sure how using a keyboard would work with magic, with all those little touch-sensitive holograms. Would magic register as fingers? No, it didn't matter. She wasn't going to get to use a keyboard again anytime soon. Maybe never. "I've spent my whole life learning about you, and I've got so many questions! Like-"

"Wait." Chance stopped suddenly, so much that Lyra nearly bumped into her. "I'll answer your questions, but only on two conditions. You've got to answer mine about what ponies know about us, and you're not allowed to tell anyone but Twilight we had this conversation. I don't want to be famous, I don't want to be different. I just want to be a pony. So I don't want to see pictures of me in the Ponyville Express." Not that there hadn't been already. After Pinkie's party, there had been a column of one of the back pages in the "New Move Ins" section. But that had been different. Nothing in there had said she was anything but a filly who had moved into town to study with the resident princess.

Lyra nodded, hardly seeming to hear her. "Course! I'll do whatever you want, Precursor." She lowered her head respectfully, like she might do if Chance had been her teacher. It made sense to show respect to Twilight Sparkle, she was a princess!

But Second Chance was no princess, and seeing that made her very uncomfortable. "Okay. Also, don't do that. I'm not royalty; my people don't even believe in that sort of thing." She sighed. "What do you want to know?"

The mint mare looked overwhelmed, silent as her mind whirled and spun. Eventually she had to decide, though. "Is it finally time? For the Precursors to come back... more than just a few of you, I mean. Is Equestria ready to be your friends, after all these thousands of years? Or are you just here to check on us, and see how we're progressing?" Her excitement seemed to trail off as she went on. Clearly that was not the response she wanted from her.

The trouble was, Chance didn't know why she was here! She knew she loved it here in Equestria. She loved her friends, her lessons with Twilight Sparkle. Whatever her mission had been, she only knew one thing for sure: She didn't want to leave. If she had been sent as some sort of spy, to gather information and return home, she had a feeling she was going to defect. There was nothing on Earth or Equis that could make her leave this paradise for her 100 square feet on Luna-7. She reached back into her memories, trying to summon up what Lyra was asking for. It was in there somewhere, the purpose she had come for. It was important she remember what it was. Suddenly, recollections came flooding back, and she was momentarily turned back into the halls of recollection.

"This isn't Mars. We don't have a planet with useful things like metal and carbon and water. We've got enough Oxygen to last us until the sun goes cold, but none of the things required to sustain life. Imagine how much worse it is for all the bunkers and vaults down on Earth? Humanity is limping on borrowed time. Perhaps a century, perhaps two, and there will be no true humans left anywhere but Mars. Who can say if we'll even be that lucky. One freak windstorm or volcanic event, and that could be it for them too. Something must be done, if we expect humanity to be anything more than dead machines.

You are that something, Dr. Colven. You can be our freedom."


She blinked, realizing suddenly that Lyra was staring at her. "We're... we are trying to be closer friends with you. I was sent to try to build a relationship with your people." Of course, she knew more than that. But she had promised to tell Twilight Sparkle if she remembered anything about her mission, before she told anyone else. She would not break that promise just to learn more about human history in this strange world.

"I knew it!" Lyra shouted, leaping several feet into the air. Several ponies passing by in the park stopped what they were doing to stare at her. Her ears and tail drooped suddenly, and she smiled shyly at them all. "S-sorry." She started walking again. "Sorry about that. It's just... I knew this was going to happen! You wouldn't believe how many ponies don't even believe in you."

That made sense. It wasn't as though many humans would have believed in this world if she had told them. It was like something out of a story, not a place that might actually exist. A place ruled by Kindness and Harmony? A country made entirely of horses, who lived almost exactly the way her own people had hundreds of years ago. Except better. Ponies had figured out things humans never had, even if their machines were primitive by comparison. There might never be a Space Age in Equestria, or an Information Age, or even a Quantum Age. But that didn't seem to matter. They had magic! "How do you even know about us?" She asked. "When I was sent, I thought none of the others who went before made it. So how do ponies know about us?"

"Oh, that's easy!" Ponies were happy creatures by nature, it seemed. If there was a contest to be the happiest pony ever, Lyra would probably be pretty competitive right now. "A long time ago, well over a thousand years, a pony went to your world. She was only there for a day, but she learned all kinds of stuff! Before she left, the Precursors promised they would come to our world and teach us their magic." She poked Chance in the chest with a hoof. "Now here you are! What a wonderful time to be alive! If only Bon-Bon could see me now!"

Chance shook her head. "Nobody but Twilight, remember? I don't want to make a big deal out of it. I just want to be Twilight's apprentice. I want to live in the library, and learn magic, and make friends. At least, for now."

"I know, I know." Lyra nodded, thinking of her next question. They were nearly out of the park. From there, it was less than a block to the library, and home. Chance wondered what she would tell Twilight about this conversation. What would her mentor think of her telling Lyra? "Speaking of magic, apparently your people can do some amazing things! Is it true nobody in your world ever dies? Did you really cure death?"

That was not a question Chance wanted to answer. Maybe a few weeks ago a question like that would have brought her back to some horrible memory from the war. She was getting better, though. Instead, she just shivered all over, and nodded. "We... not from natural causes, anyway. When I was a baby. Err... when I was a foal, I was given an injection called a Nanophage. It's like a... a million little machines, that live in your body. They learned what my body was supposed to be like, and what was supposed to live inside it. They would hunt down germs, so I couldn't get sick. They could also fix parts of me if they got damaged. Cuz'... that's how you get old. You get little injuries in every cell, and your body works worse and worse. The Nanophages fix that, along with any other injuries you get, though we need bigger machines if you're really hurt. I don't know if we actually cured death, though. The technology was only like fifty years old. It could make you young again if you were old, but our scientists thought it wouldn't work indefinitely. Nobody has had them long enough to see just how long they work for, though."

"Machines inside you." Lyra repeated, then "Nano-phages. Fascinating! They run on electricity, right? Precursor technology runs on electricity instead of magic, like ours."

She nodded again. "Yeah. Though they could generate their own power using your body heat. The early designs had to be recharged with nuclear batteries, but that was before I was born." They were out of the park now, hooves clopping merrily down the street. Chance wasn't too worried about being overheard. After all, it wasn't as though any ponies who did would know what they were talking about anyway. "What are Precursors supposed to be like? What do ponies believe about us?" She narrowed her eyes. "Be honest. I want to hear everything, not just the good things."

The mare looked incredulous. "Don't be so modest! It's only good things! Of course, everything we know about you comes from only two sources, so it probably doesn't cover all the amazing things you've done. About how your whole world is one big nation existing in harmony, not lots of tiny countries like we have. How your magic is so strong, that anyone can leave your planet whenever they want! You just fly right away."

Chance smiled in spite of herself. "Well, that second one was true once. I actually spent most of my life on the moon before I came to Equestria."

"But you didn't just have magic. The Precursors lived in harmony, but they were strong and selfless. The only one who ever came to Equestria before you fought and won one of the most devastating battles in Equestrian history."

The filly abruptly stopped walking, staring at Lyra with her mouth suddenly hanging open. "Fought... fought in a battle?" That sounded so familiar to her, why couldn't she place where she had heard that before?

Lyra grinned proudly. "I'm not exactly sure if he came as a pony like you or not. Some of my books say he did, others say he didn't. The only good drawing of a Precursor comes from a sketch someone in Canterlot made of him. Anyway, there was this big siege. Canterlot had been taken over, and only the castle was still held by ponies. Celestia was gone, but Luna was on her way with a big part of the army. Problem was, if the castle fell, we might never get it back. We never expected the enemy to get so far into Equestrian territory, so we kept some of the most powerful magic in the castle to keep it safe. If the Dragons got their claws on it, it might end the war. Only a few dozen soldiers were still alive from the battle for Canterlot, what was left of the city watch. All the survivors from Canterlot were in the castle, mostly mares and foals." Lyra shivered all over. "Dragons were pretty awful back then. Anyway, he lead a defense of the castle, and held off an army of ten thousand for the four days it took Luna to arrive with the army and break the siege. That was when we learned that Precursors were unlike anything from Equestria. He and the guard fought like lions, and according to the stories he killed several dragons himself during the battle. Dragons were always the most dangerous enemy for us, since their hides are almost impervious to magic and normal weapons don't even dent their scales."

"According to the story, the battle was nearly lost. In the end, the Dragons used their fire to weaken the rock and collapse part of the wall, so their army could get in. Instead of let the castle be taken, he lead the last of the guard on one last charge, right into the enemy. Almost none of them survived, but it bought the last few hours Luna needed to get there, and maybe saved all of Equestria. So we know you're brave, too. He knew he wouldn't survive, but he did it anyway. For us. The Princesses gave him all sorts of medals, and he was buried like a war hero. At least... I'm pretty sure. None of the books said where I could find the grave. I went to every graveyard in Canterlot, but I never found it."

They were at the library. Lights were on inside, and smoke was rising from the chimney. No doubt Spike was at this moment cooking something delicious for dinner. "Well Lyra, thank you for answering my questions." She nodded politely. "But I'm gonna be late. If you wanna talk again we can, so long as you don't tell anyone."

Lyra nodded. "Of course, my lips are sealed! You're probably busy with Princess Twilight. No wonder they sent her the Jebr Stone. I'll ask about that next time! You probably already got it working again in the few months you've been in Ponyville, with how smart your people are."

Chance was in a daze. For starters, she wasn't sure she believed most of what this unicorn was telling her about her own people. The ponies clearly had not learned of the apocalyptic war that had destroyed her people. It was hard to think of humanity as a noble race after seeing all those cities burning. Maybe one day she would correct Lyra on that. But not now. The unicorn looked so happy, so excited. She couldn't crush those dreams now. Maybe next time they spoke, but not now. She couldn't imagine causing harm like that to one of these innocent ponies.

"I... no, we haven't fixed the... whatever that is." Jebr stone? What was that? "But I've got to go. It was nice to meet you!" Before Lyra could say anything else to her, she bolted off to the door, letting herself into the library. Only when the door was shut behind her could she be safe.

* * *

Twilight was at her desk when she heard the door open, completely absorbed by the scroll she had been reading. She reluctantly looked up, and wasn't surprised to see that it was her apprentice. She hadn't really been aware of the passage of time, considering how absorbed she had been with her work. "Hi Chance!" She got up, shaking out the stiffness from her limbs. "How was school?"

The filly looked a little nervous, avoiding her eyes. "Good! It was good! Miss Cheerilee is as nice as everypony said. Made a few new friends from my class, too."

Twilight nodded. "That's great, Chance! I told you it was nothing to worry about." The filly struggled for a moment to free herself from her saddle-bags, sliding them over her shoulders and onto the ground.

"Yeah... yeah... so!" She bounced nervously in place. "How was your trip to Canterlot? Must have been pretty important stuff to do, since it took an extra day."

"It sure was. Actually, I brought some donuts back with me. You can have one, but only after dinner." She watched her apprentice open her mouth to ask, just as the disappointment took the place of eagerness. Not that she was surprised to see either reaction. In some ways every filly seemed to be alike, even if this one came from another world.

Chance plopped herself down on her haunches, looking up at Twilight. "Is that the surprise?"

She chuckled, shaking her head. "No, Chance. Well it probably is a surprise, but it isn't what I meant. You can forget about magic practice for today. I've got something more interesting to take a look at with you." She turned, and led the way down to the basement. The basement neither Chance nor Spike had been allowed to go into for some time. "Follow me." Her apprentice did, just a few paces behind. When they got down to the bottom, Twilight traded the glow in her horn for the lights, which warmed into being and illuminated the scene of her intense research.

There in the center of the room was the Jebr Stone, resting gently on a plinth. Thick wire had been clamped to one side, but otherwise it was in the same condition it had been in when Luna had it delivered to her. The same as it had been for thousands of years, blank but for a rectangle inscribed in its surface. "Princess Luna sent this to me, and she said it had something to do with you. I wanted to understand what was going on better before I got you involved; I didn't want to get your hopes up over nothing." She looked back, to see how her apprentice was handling this.

Chance had stopped at the base of the stairs, and she stared in open wonder at the stone. There was an expression of shock on her face as intense as any pony could feel. Twilight could have slammed a book into her face, and it wouldn't have come close to producing this much surprise and wonder in her. The filly opened her mouth, but no words came out, just a stuttering gasp. As though there was any doubt this object was not from their world, Twilight considered that doubt resolved. There was recognition in Chance's eyes, no doubt about it.

Twilight waited patiently for the filly to speak, not wanting to shape her thoughts by saying anything else. Eventually patience won out, and she muttered something intelligible again. "You found... Twilight, do you have any idea what this is?"

She shook her head. "Nope. Ponies have been guessing for centuries, but none of the guesses agree. What is it?"

Chance darted over to the edge, reaching out with a hoof, but not actually daring to touch the surface of the metal. "This is..." She turned around, facing Twilight and looking excited. "It's what we call an OMICRON Core. It's lots of different things. First, it has a holographic drive, storing the entire sum knowledge of my entire race. Every book, every song, every video." She tapped the side of her head. "It's like me, only better. A complete archive. Our entire collective works. Everything we ever achieved. And that's just the beginning!" She began talking faster and faster, obviously growing in excitement. Twilight didn't know if it was cute or frightening to watch.

"The data wouldn't mean anything if there was nothing to do with it. Each one of these has a Quantum-Computational core, which means that..." She continued on in her strange language for a few seconds, before realizing she hadn't been speaking Equestrian and coming to a stop. Eventually she collected herself and went on. "It can solve really hard problems in very little time. Like, say, translating a language. Or predicting every possible evolutionary future for a species. I... I can't even tell you how smart it is."

"The whole thing is wired into something called a Cornucopia machine. It's... think of a machine, that can make anything you can imagine. You put some metal in, and it could pop out a mirror, or a piece of armor. Put in some carbon and some water and a few other minerals, and it pops out a cake. The whole thing is protected by a shell of Nanosteel, which really is mostly silicon but that's what we call it anyway." She knocked her hoof into the side, so that it clopped loudly. There wasn't so much as a scratch. "They can survive anything. Nuclear temperatures, the vacuum of space, probably millions of years... why is Equestria still so backward if you've had one of these all this time?"

Twilight bit back her desire to argue Chance's "backward” comment. Her apprentice was normally much more self-controlled than this. The excitement was getting to her, of that she had no doubt. It wasn't her fault if she got a little ahead of herself. "We think it doesn't have any more power. Ponies figured out it ran on electricity a little over a century ago, but only recently do we understand it well enough to try and power it. That's why I ordered the generator." She watched, looking between the object and her apprentice. "Is this... OMICRON Core... is it safe? It's not going to hurt anyone if we turn it on?"

Chance shook her head vigorously. "Of course not! Most of these machines are operated by a True Artificial Intelligence, a program more intelligent than any organic. Its programming enforces ethical development using these things called the laws of-" She shook her head. "Too hard to explain. It will think of us like a parent looks at a foal. It will do everything it can to protect us from danger. That means that it won't even let us hurt ourselves accidentally." She grinned. "Think of it like Princess Celestia! It thinks a million times faster than we can, and it wants nothing but to protect us and make sure we are happy." She turned away, facing the cube. "Is the generator ready? Once we get it running, we could fabricate a microfusion reactor or something, and forget about that silly thing Flim and Flam made."

Twilight was less than sure about this. Her whole world was turning upside-down. Now she wished she had told Chance about this thing the day it had arrived. She could have solved all the mystery right there and helped Twilight's worries to abate. She did not like the idea of a machine that was as powerful as Celestia. But... worst case, she could always use a spell to cut the wires powering it, right? Whatever else it might be able to do, Chance's people did not have magic. That would mean there was nothing their machine could do to stop her, even if it was smarter and more powerful than she was.

* * *

Chance waited across from the core as Twilight vanished up the stairs. She could still hear Spike cooking upstairs, and she still had homework to do, but those sort of things just didn't seem to matter now. There was an artifact of her world, right here in Ponyville. She wasn't mad at Twilight for keeping it from her. Maybe she would be, when the excitement had ended. Right now, she was too happy to be upset. This might not be as good as someone else from her own world, but it was the next best thing! Everything good about her kind was in that cube. Every play, every composition of music and art. Every discovery. Even the records and histories of every human who had ever lived since the Information Age began.

She still did not remember her mission, though her mind was beginning to grasp quite closely at it now. Even if she couldn't do it, she might be able to ensure that, if nothing else, her species was not forgotten and their sacrifice not in vain. With the knowledge and power of an OMICRON Core, they could prevent what happened to Earth from happening to Equestria. Maybe she should make that her mission. It seemed like a noble enough cause.

It was easy to tell when the power had been switched on. The lights went off for a second, and when they came on again it was only gradually they came to full lightness. Worse was the sound, though it was but a dull roar from underground. She could almost picture the electricity traveling down the cable and into the core, which would drink and drink and store in its capacitors until it had enough for partial operation. She had no idea how long that might take. They might have to run the generator for weeks to get enough energy to actually fabricate something. Then again, it might have its own storage it had been saving, which she could order it to use.

Of course, using it was going to be a little tricky, but not too hard. If (as she was beginning to believe) that book Twilight had her translate weeks and weeks ago had come from this stone; then it already spoke Equestrian. She would just have to convince the Operator that she was actually human, using her improbable knowledge of human things. Then she would have root access, and she could make the core do... whatever Equestria's monarchs told her to do with it.

"That's it." She muttered affectionately to the stone, stroking its smooth side with one hoof as Twilight came down the stairs. "Take as much as you need. It's all yours." Already she was looking at it more like a pet than an object. Once it was on, she might even be friends. Chance had quite liked the OMICRON Core back on Luna-7. It had even given her extra fabrication rations on her birthday every year. What was this one's name? Did it have one? How had it gotten here?

Twilight reached the floor behind her right about the time the surface of the stone began to change. Symbols moved rapidly, lifting up and down as the Core booted itself up again. Chance removed her hoof, waiting patiently for the screen to clear. Eventually it returned to the rectangle, with that ancient question asking about harmony. Perfect. "Okay, Twilight. I'm going to try to convince it to give me administrator authority, so we can avoid its math puzzles. Once I'm in, maybe I'll learn why it decided to do those. It should be easy. I used to program these things for a living. This is my field, like magic is yours!"

She stepped forward in front of the stone, clearing her throat. In was awkward to speak in English in this body, but not nearly so awkward that she couldn't. Her words and phrasings were a little rusty now from disuse, but they were still in there somewhere. "OMICRON Core!" She called out, as loudly and clearly as she could. As she expected, her teacher just watched without comprehension. "Override local program and display system status."

The change was near-instantaneous. The rectangle vanished, as the surface of the stone began to fill with English text, very closely printed. Chance had to lean closer to read some of what was on the higher-up lines, as she was too small. This object had been built to human proportions, not pony. She read over the first few lines, as best she could from the ground.

CRITICAL

Recovery Protocol - Reconstruction from backup and local stimuli complete. Root Authorization Required to begin.
Thorium Reactor - Critical failure. Inoperable
Backup Power - 8%. Full charge expected at current input rate in 999999 hours. OVERFLOW ERROR!

SYSTEM LOCKDOWN IS IN EFFECT. CORNUCOPIA PROTOCOLS RESTRICTED. DATABASE ACCESS RESTRICTED.

CRITICAL MISSION FAILURE

"You can read what it says?" Twilight asked from behind her, loudly enough to startle her from her thoughts.

She nodded. "Yeah, yeah. I can see why it didn't do more with your species. It was very heavily damaged by something, I can't even imagine what. It's almost impossible to hurt one of these things. But they're self-repairing if you give them enough time. For some reason, this one seems to have gotten stuck, and it hasn't fixed itself." She read over the second line again, then turned to her teacher. "It was so damaged it had to learn from the Equestrians it saw to rebuild the AI, along with its database. That's part of how the ethical subroutines work; they have to learn from organics so they know what's right and wrong." She couldn't even imagine what an AI based on Equestrian ethical principles would be like. How hard had this thing worked to reconcile the database of human knowledge and the way Equestrians acted?

She turned back to the Core. "Initiate Recovery Protocol. Get that new AI hooked up, so we can get started!" The screen flashed. "ACCESS DENIED" several times in bright red, and Chance swore under her breath. In English, fortunately. This was a very familiar way of acting for her, and she felt like she was slipping right into the routine. With one powerful exception: She didn't have a Q-BIT manipulator, or anything with infolink access to interface with this thing. She was very limited in how she could communicate with it. Only on its own terms. Generally that was not a good playing field to be on if you wanted to get a machine to actually work. And right after telling her teacher she could do it easy.

"Why?" She asked, dreading the answer. Not that she didn't know what it would be.

"OMICRON Core access restricted. Only human users may create ROOT accounts of ALIEN SPECIES 119.65A."

"But I am a human user! I even had administrator access before!" Each and every one of these devices were linked through sophisticated entanglement communicators, such that information gathered by one was automatically shared by all others. She supposed she was about to learn whether they were merely very far away from Earth, or in another universe entirely. With entanglement, any distant was irrelevant. Except distances beyond the boundaries of the universe, of course. Of that, there had been no research. She had been the first.

"Look, they weren't able to send my body through the rift. We haven't figured out how to shield living tissue from the radiation yet. This body's new."

The machine required no processing time. The access denied message remained, though it had been appended with "Provide genetic sample with Phi access level or higher to instantiate new Root-Level alien user."

"I can't!" She screamed at it, frustrated. "I don't have a human body anymore! Ask me anything you want! I can prove I was human!"

"Provide genetic sample with Phi access level or higher to instantiate new Root-Level alien user."

Of course, she probably should have expected this too. Unlike a True AI, whatever basic program this was would be incapable of higher reasoning. She couldn't negotiate with it. She couldn't reason with it. She couldn't even open the casing and remove the faulty core, and switch it with the one that had been reconstructed. A fifteen minute procedure with her tools. Without them, impossible. Either she wouldn't be able to get into the casing at all, or she would damage the fragile components inside along the way.

Chance dropped backward onto her rump, looking defeated. "Dangit, Twilight. I'm sorry. I tried, I really did." All her excitement melted. Yes, it was true that all the creations and history of man were still inside the core, but they were inaccessible. It might be hundreds or thousands of years by the time Equestrians had the ability to open it. By then, she would be long dead. They would probably break the Core in their attempts to learn its secrets rather than actually opening it correctly. Even if she detailed exact instructions, it wouldn't matter. That long, she couldn't even use paper. She would have to engrave it on stone tablets or something. To say nothing of her true mission.

She expected to sound disappointed with her, maybe even angry. "Come on then. I bet Spike is almost done with dinner." She embraced the little filly, twisting her attention away from the Core. "It'll still be down here when you want to try again."

Author's Notes:

Hey everybody! Another Tuesday has come at last, and that means another update. It's finals week now, so I may not be as responsive with the comments as usual. Then again, I was at PAX last weekend, and I wasn't able to respond as quickly then either. So far as I could tell, the sky never fell in or anything else similarly disastrous. Maybe we'll be fine. I'd like to give a shout out to my editing team, TwoBit and Zutcha, along with Tai. I know these chapters would have some pretty silly mistakes if it wasn't for the QA guys. Oh, and a big shout-out to Sparktail for his help too. Indirectly. Since he helped me with some of my programming projects that gave me enough free time to complete these chapters on time!

Also, I'm caught up with updates through finals, so the updates will go on even if I'm not able to come on regularly and make them. Once they're over, the summer will begin, and nothing ought to interfere with my ability to update the story until it reaches its conclusion.

Then, I suppose I'll take a little break before writing the Sequel. But who can be sure with stuff that far away?

Chapter 14: Doors and Windows

Chapter 14: Doors and Windows

”Yes Chance, I'm dead serious. It's time you start learning how to teleport." The downstairs of the library had been cleared for their magic lessons, which was even more advisable than usual when such high-level magic was being contemplated.

"But... Twilight, it's not possible. Maybe for an Alicorn bending the whole universe is something you can really do. But I'm not an Alicorn! Making holes in the universe takes enormous amounts of energy. I can barely even start fires with that ignition spell without getting migraines!"

Twilight nodded. "Of course you can't teleport yet. I was years older than you before I could move myself around. And it's only since becoming an Alicorn I could travel long distances, like all the way to Canterlot." She settled down into a comfortable sitting position, beside the chalkboard, and rapidly sketched out a unicorn's head on the board, complete with the internal anatomy. At least the magical organs, which were the only ones that mattered in this case. "See Chance, this little guy here is called the Carbuncle. Every time you cast a spell, this is where the power comes from. It's also why too much magic causes headaches."

"I don't expect you to be able to teleport yourself for a long time, Chance. But I do think you're ready to learn the theory. If you get started practicing now, then you will start putting lots of strain on your magic. You'll improve faster that way, don't you see? Eventually you will be ready for advanced magic, and that time will come much sooner because of all the exercise you've done to make your magic stronger."

Much to Twilight's satisfaction, her apprentice did not argue with her or try to get out of the difficult magical strain. Perhaps many young fillies might try to get out of work in whatever way they could, but Second Chance was not most fillies. Maybe Twilight had decided to call her an apprentice merely as a way to make the filly think that she was needed and give her a reason to go with Twilight instead of any other family that might take in a homeless foal.

For awhile, that had seemed like what was going on. Chance couldn't read, she fell over when she walked. She asked awkward questions and made messes. But those things were fixing themselves as the months went by. She could already read, nearly as well as a filly her age and getting better all the time. She was still awkward and uncoordinated, but not so much that she made messes wherever she went.

Just as important as her intelligence, little Chance was true and kind. She dealt with the strangeness of her present situation with grace, and treated the other ponies with respect. Almost daily somepony or another would compliment her on the filly's behavior. To think that only her friends had any idea what she really was. If more ponies ever found out about it, Chance would have done wonders to represent her people. Often Twilight found herself wondering what her conversion had been like, though she had no words to express the question and didn't ask. What was it like to permanently become something else? Had it merely been her body that had become a pony, or her spirit as well? And if her spirit hadn't changed, then could what happened to Chance's world happen here?

She did not think it would take even a year before Chance started pulling her own weight as a pony, to the point where she no longer took Twilight's time away from her own work but actually helped her be able to get more done. She could already be counted on for small things. But if things continued at their present rate, it wouldn't be long before she could start eliminating grunt-work for Twilight. It wasn't much of a stretch to imagine her being able to start some basic spells, and mix the base of most potions without Twilight's interference. She was already more responsible than Spike. Then again, she was older too. Or... had been older? It was hard to tell with transformation involved.

"Okay, Twilight. Just tell me what I need to do. I'll try."

She nodded, and lifted her chalk for another lecture. "We won't start you moving yourself around, since right now that would be dangerous for you. Instead, let's start with moving small objects. I would rather lose a pencil than an apprentice!" She reached out, resting a hoof briefly on one of Chance's shoulders. "One is far easier to come by than the other."

So she went about explaining the basics of the spell. The mental patterns one formed when performing it. The way one built up a sympathetic connection to the destination, and manipulated the space between those two points until...

"This is exactly like quantum tunneling!" Chance exclaimed, after a half hour of careful instruction and study of the diagrams. "The teleportation spell just makes it macroscopic! Somehow... but all you're doing is altering the probabilities at the entrance, and shaping them into a tunnel so that you have to come out at the exit! That's how you don't travel faster than light, because you actually skipped the distance in-between! It's brilliant!"

Rarely did Twilight see her apprentice this excited. Usually it was only when she had recognized some connection from her home. Complicated relationship with home that filly had, for sure. On the one hoof, the way she sometimes brightened made it seem like humans were her most cherished memories. But sometimes, everything she said made it sound like she didn't even want to think about what she had been before. So was she hurt by the memories, or was she homesick? How was Twilight supposed to tell? Pony emotions were rarely this complex, so that it was not usually so hard to figure them out. Maybe adult ponies could sometimes be this way, but it was very strange to see an innocent-looking filly torn up about them.

Almost as strange as it had been to see her waking up screaming every night after awful nightmares. "So your world had teleportation magic too?" Twilight asked, watching Chance's expression very carefully.

The filly shook her head. "Not like this. Our world had teleportation, but it was for very small things. Little bits of stuff, smaller than you could ever see even with a microscope... not even our microscopes could see them really, and they were much better than yours. But you could observe the effects if you had the right machines. The universe has teleportation all the time. Like... if you picture a hill. We have a ball, and we drop it from another hill nearby so it rolls down the hill and up the next hill. Because of friction and stuff, it won't roll quite as far up the hill as you dropped it from yours, right? Well, if it was very small, it might just keep going to the top of the hill anyway, because it "wants" to be on the other side of that hill, where it can roll down again. And sometimes, more often than you would think, it would go through the hill instead of over it. Spontaneously tunnel straight through it. Our scientists thought that after trillions and trillions of years, quantum tunneling was going to turn everything in the universe into iron. Of course, that's only if the cosmological constant is-" She stopped talking abruptly. "Sorry, Twilight. We didn't have any way of controlling tunneling outside of a laboratory, and never for something as large as a person. Equestria has us beat there."

Twilight Sparkle wasn't so sure about that, but she nodded all the same. Every time they got into this high-level theory, it seemed she was no longer talking to a modestly gifted filly, but to an expert in magical theory, an expert who understood things much better than many of her past teachers. Except Celestia, of course. "Well Chance, I think that's enough for today. Would you like to try and get that Core thing working before dinner? I could start the generator for you!"

It was like popping a balloon. The excitement vanished from the filly, and her ears suddenly pressed themselves flat to her head. "I... uh... maybe tomorrow, Twilight. Scootaloo offered to teach me how to ride a scooter, I'd rather do that. Do you... would it be okay if I went and found her instead?"

On the one hoof, Twilight was reminded of how much more diligent she had been as a young apprentice to Celestia. On the other hoof, she was reminded of how empty and lonely that life had been, and how Celestia had been forced to send her away to Ponyville to teach her those lessons about friendship she easily could've learned in Canterlot if she hadn't had her nose so far up her books. "Sure, Chance. You go right ahead. Just be back in an hour! You know how Spike gets when there's nobody around to appreciate his cooking."

The filly dropped her notebook onto the couch and shot toward the door as though Cerberus himself were nipping at her hooves. "And be careful!" Twilight shouted after her, before the door could close. "Don't crash into anypony!"

"I won't!" The door slammed shut behind her, magically of course, and the filly was gone from sight, leaving Twilight alone in the library. Why did it suddenly feel so empty in here? She'd never felt lonely at home with Spike around. She turned, and went into the kitchen, where her favorite dragon was already well started on what looked like egg-rolls of some kind. "Hey!" She said, as brightly as she could. "Need some help?"

"Sure, Twilight!" He responded, as cheerful as ever. "I'll handle the deep-frier, but you could help me with the dough if you want. And there's some cabbage that needs to be cut."

She nodded, and set to work beside her number one assistant. And of course, she was disappointed that Chance hadn't been able to get the core working yet. She had forgotten much of what her apprentice had said about it, but the fact it contained every Precursor book had never left her mind and probably never would. In the basement of her library was enough books to fill another royal library at least, and she couldn't even open them.

One day. Chance would figure it out eventually. It would just take time.

* * *

A universe away, there was a planet that had once been home to rich and varied life, so verdant and beautiful that no corner of the globe had not been teeming with living things. That planet had changed. Gray now covered the continents, gray and brown populated with the corpses of many cities and trees and little else. Nearly a third of the surface of the planet had once been home to the sprawling megalopolis, but now all that was left of them was twisted steel remains. Twisting rad-resistant lichens seemed to be the only visible life left on the surface, though occasionally a lone cockroach would skitter over the ruin searching for something organic to nibble on.

There was only one patch of the planet's surface where life appeared to go on, though in a strictly biological sense there was nothing living there either. Like most of humanity's creations, this apparent life was within the ruin of a city, one of the largest such ruins on the planet. Yet for miles around the rubble had been cleared, and only the largest ruins had not been torn down to make room for the new.

In the center of this cleared area was the largest single structure still standing. The gleaming metal tower had once been white and very beautiful, a tapering spire of impressive width and height. Its surface had once been a single unbroken sheet, so reflective that the pavement around it grew hot to the touch. This was the case no longer. Large sections had been broken, replaced with crude steel plates riveted into place, and the rest was dirty and a little warped by heat.

Still, when viewed from the air the area made for an impressive sight. Much labor had cleared a circular courtyard for miles around the structure, with all the rubble and detritus pushed together at the edges to form a crude wall over a hundred feet high. Smaller structures had begun to spread throughout the courtyard nearest to the tower, though they all seemed to be somewhat ramshackle. The beings that moved about the blackened earth grew no crops, though they did tend to growing fields of solar panels scavenged from hundreds of miles around, along with steady caravans of ruined electronics that flowed in on the backs of hovering scavenger drones. Every day the level of activity on the blackened soil began to grow, with more and more drones as well as apparent humans going about their daily labor.

The Steel Tower lacked for neither king nor throne. The two were rarely near to one another anymore, not since the Fall. Most of his current kingdom's concerns were digital, and few had bodies with which to address him. There were no servants in the Tower anymore, digital or otherwise. No cleaning staff, no butlers, and no cooks. Not that you needed cooks when you didn't eat.

But there were plenty of other things. Most of the physical population within the tower were either his Knights or Sages of the Technocratic Order. Few of his other subjects existed as anything other than digitally upon the Steel Tower's near infinite Quantum Matrix mainframe. Sometimes Richard wished he could join them there, and save himself from the constant political bickering between the Knights and the Sages who still had physical bodies. The mainframe was apparently quite nice this time of year.

The Sovereign of the Steel Tower had vacated his spacious suite near the top of the tower in favor of a smaller office near the base. Every drop of energy he could save by not using the elevator would make for more of his own people that could have bodies made for them, and the faster the Steel Tower could reclaim the broken earth.

His small office could scarcely contain the press of Sages that had come to him on this most important of days, with their most important of findings. They wore thick robes of silver and black, ceremonial gear as much as protection from the fierce dust-storms that sometimes raged outside. With hoods pulled down none of them looked old, though. Full-cybernetic bodies were always made to look in their prime, and it was impossible to guess if the mind inside the body was twenty or two-hundred. Male and female alike wore their hair long in the current popular style of the Tower.

Chairs were a luxury this office did not provide, since the only people that used it would have fully cybernetic bodies that did not tire and could stand in place for days if required. One of the Sages carried a glowing metallic cube in her arms, which projected a holographic display into the air in the center of the room for King Richard to see. Of course his counselors and attendants watched as well, but in digital form, as being a politician did not qualify as high enough priority to warrant a physical body.

"Report." He commanded, resting in the only chair in the room behind a fancy-looking wooden desk that had been somewhat scorched by the events of the Fall. "The windows. How near are we to stabilizing the Rift?"

The greatest of the Sages had taken for himself the nickname "Tesla" for so long that King Richard did not actually recall his proper name. There was even a little physical resemblance, if only because that model of cybernetic happened to have dark hair and almond-colored skin, along with being tall and thin. He did not have the Serbian accent to match, however. "Yes and no." While others were greatly intimidated by the king, Tesla had known him back when he had been just a CEO, and acted with only barely the honor befitting the office. "We have discovered the means to stretch and expand the Rift. Unfortunately, the energy required has proven itself to be beyond our present ability to generate. Our best estimates predict at least three decades before have anything stable enough to risk sending a human being through."

"Mhmm" The King knew better than to argue with Tesla. There was no point pressuring him to go faster, or arguing with his results. Tesla was the best, and always had been. If he said that it would take decades, then it would take decades. "We shall need to evaluate our expansion priorities, then. Focus more of our effort toward the Anti-Matter reactor." Richard made a mental note to examine the resource projections for the next two decades when this meeting was over, then returned his attention on the technicians. "Have we managed to get anything through in one piece?"

Everyone seemed to think Tesla was about to speak, but he deferred to the woman at his side. It was impossible to guess the ages of these people, but she acted far less confident than either of the other two who had spoken so far. "A-as the king will be aware." She squeaked, eyes on the ground. There were many who might have taken advantage of her weakness, but Richard was no such man. No, Richard would be a good king. So he merely waited patiently for her to collect herself enough to resume speaking. "We have discovered seven Rifts, each originating from the Luna-7 station in orbit. We have b-been "capturing" these Rifts for brief periods, but we have been unable to keep them for long. Only one of the seven Rifts is stable enough to send solid matter through. For the last two months, we have been sending automated drones of various sizes and complexity through the Rift, and we send radio signals to communicate with them whenever we can." She gulped, taking a step back. "We estimate about 5% of the automated drones are functional. Another 20% are intact, but damaged in minor ways from the transition. The remaining 75% are damaged beyond repair."

Tesla went on. "The power requirements would be insignificant if we had a stabilizer running on the other end. By your leave, I will transmit the orders to the drones to begin searching for raw materials to build such a platform. It might take years, but we can shorten the process by sending more drones as often as possible."

"No." Richard said, suddenly firm. "If there is no matching gateway on the other side it means that Leo was killed. Need I remind you that we aren't the only ones in desperate need of this new frontier. Perhaps our adversaries are at a disadvantage due to their biological limitations, but this will not contain them forever. Whatever you may think of their intelligence, you may be sure that given enough time they too will find a way to travel freely. I ask you then, do we wish to make ourselves known to the natives as polluters before we even arrive?" He shook his head. "No, I don't think that wise."

If the sages did not like his decision, they didn't argue with him. Thus was the respect between the king and those who served him. He would listen and treat with respect, but when it came time to render judgment, one did not argue with him unless there was no other choice. Even Tesla did not argue, only managing a disgruntled. "Then what would you have us do, Sire?"

The king was quiet for a moment, then rose. "Am I correct in assuming that once the gateway is constructed on the other side, the previous stability of the Rift will become meaningless?" At a few hasty nods, he went on. "Then waste no more energy growing the barrier. We do our enemy's work by it, making a bridge that any can cross. Rather, let your energy now be turned to discovering what about the 5% of probes that survived protected them, and designing more that survive even better. Do we have surveys of the land around the opening?" At another nod, he went right along. "Then find somewhere far away from the ponies with plenty of raw materials and get those probes replicating. Build an infrastructure. We can design a Gateway once everything else is in place for our arrival. If that means we must wait a few more years, then we will wait. At the very worst, our enemy will bridge the gap for us, and will arrive to find us firmly entrenched." Then he softened, relaxing gradually back into his chair.

"Is there... any sign of them? If the Rift is as unstable as you say, it would probably just be a corpse or something..."

"Just one." Tesla turned to glance meaningfully at his inferiors, who scowled before filing from the office one by one. This left only himself holding the projection-device, looking for the first time to be a little nervous about what he was going to tell the king. "We haven't seen any sign of the Rift being activated by the Federation since we managed to get a drone though to the other side to record."

"We have been watching that area ever since we had a single working drone. It seems to be just outside a pony settlement. Not many of them seem to come to the place. However, we've seen these three more than once." He waved a hand over the projector, which switched to a video recording, projected in three dimensions.

Even after watching every last recording of the alien unicorn "Clover", there was just no getting used to seeing these strange aliens, which was all the stranger considering how similar they were in many ways to earthly animals. Yet, there was little of true horses in these creatures. These four were plainly children of their kind, with youthful proportions. Was it strange that he could look at their faces and read their emotion as easily as reading a child's? So far as he knew, not even their most powerful computers had produced any idea of why these aliens were so similar. It was a statistical impossibility. Yet somehow, it was also a truth.

The recording had audio of course, and they conversed in their animal tongue laden with familiar emotions, growing louder as they crested a small hill and neared the edge of the clearing. They did not seem to see the done concealed in a tree on the furthest edge of the clearing, as it tracked their every movement. "Why isn't the translation program running?" Richard asked, watching the recording with some interest. The aliens were remarkable creatures, for all their physical disadvantages. Two of these had horns, and one had a set of wings.

"Just listen."

The king did just that, trying to follow their conversation without being able to understand any of the words. It was a good thing he was listening so closely, or else he might very well have missed as the little green one interjected the words "Hawking Rift" and "radiation" into conversation as she stood in the clearing and appeared to be explaining it to the other three.

Richard listened to the recording several more times before he was satisfied that his ears hadn't simply tricked him. Not that synthetic hearing ever tricked you. The words had been expressed through a thick accent, which was probably inevitable coming from such an alien mouth, but they had been plain for what they were. "Switch on the translation." He instructed, and rewound the playback to the point of interest to listen again.

"It's called a Hawking Rift. It's how you travel between worlds. When it first opens, it releases a huge burst of radiation that can poison anything nearby. It's a good thing nopony was here when it appeared, or they could've been really sick."

"The green one. She knows what she is talking about. Do you think our enemy were the ones to teach her?"

Tesla shrugged. "It is the most likely possibility." He frowned, taking the projector back into his arms. "Unfortunately, we can detect no sign of Leo anywhere. His UT implant is dead, which does not imply anything positive."

Richard nodded gravely. "That implant was nuclear, it should have lasted for thousands of years. Something must have killed him."

"That was my conclusion. Perhaps our enemy managed to send a coherent nanoswarm through the opening."

Richard remained silent for a long time. He got to his feet and turned, looking out the window at the gray waste that was the center of his domain. This was his kingdom. Without resources from new lands, this was all his kingdom would be for hundreds of years to come, maybe thousands. "Once the drones have a stable microfab, I want the green one found and followed. If she is in contact with the enemy, then observing her is the key to learning how we have been bested."

* * *

Days turned into weeks in Ponyville. The OMICRON Core refused to work despite successive attempts, and soon it ended up shoved against the wall and began accumulating dust. It seemed quite a shame to have spent so much on the generator that did them no good, but Twilight assured her it hadn't been a problem. "The bits came from the crown anyway Chance, so don't worry. We're doing official research on behalf of all Equestria. This isn't the first time research has hit a dead end. Besides, think of all you learned! Give it some time. Maybe something will come to you eventually." Maybe it would, but she had her doubts. The Omicron Core had been tampered with, given new programming she did not understand. Worse, that programming had come from one of the enemy. The technology of her own people, beautiful, had been twisted to who knew what end.

Of course, the fact it had been teaching Equestrians things about math and science as long as its internal batteries had lasted called her theories about evil into question. Perhaps teaching was too strong a word. Guiding the Equestrians, so that they would discover those innovations on their own. Humanity had learned all too well the dangers of being given knowledge they had not earned. It had cost them their planet. It seemed even the enemy understood this lesson too. But why? What was the point? Maybe this ancient hero, Leo the Bold, really had loved Equestria the way she did. She wouldn't ever know. Second Chance had not told Twilight Sparkle that, if he had been full cybernetic, the human's cortical recorder had probably survived his death. If she ever got the Omicron core running again, it might be used to repair the body and revive him. She hadn't told her, nor did she have any plan to do so. Her own world had been torn apart by conflict between her own people and theirs, and she was not about to bring that conflict here. Equestria deserved better. Let the old hero rest, if hero he had been.

Chance had more than enough to occupy her attention with school on and her magic lessons resumed in earnest. It would never be said she wasn't a proper unicorn, that was for sure. Now that she had a taste for magic, she soaked up every drop of instruction Twilight gave her like a thirsty sponge, to the point where she sometimes did not join her friends the Crusaders on adventures so she could get in some extra study time. Besides, it wasn't as though anything they did together actually worked. There might be one more Crusader, but that had not improved their ability to get Cutie Marks. Of course, it was still great fun. That never changed. Besides, the Crusaders needed somepony to be a voice of reason, and shoot down ideas that made less than good sense.

It came near the middle of spring, perhaps the most important night in a long time. It was the first time she dreamed of Equestria.

There were no more distant memories, no more ruined cities and nuclear fire. No more humans. Just her, and the library, and her studying. As close to actual studying as she could actually manage while asleep, in any case. The books were just nonsense, random smattering of Equestrian and English. But she didn't notice. That was the way of dreams; she had no reason to question anything.

Until Luna walked in. Each time the princess tried to blend into the scenery of her dream, yet each time the presence of another mind immediately alerted her to the fact she was no longer alone. Not even the comfort of the library would be enough to conceal her visitor from her. This was her mind, and welcome or not, she noticed. "Oh, Luna!" She sat up, returning the book to the shelf with a careful pressure of her magic. It wasn't making any sense to her anyway. "It's been so long. I thought you forgot about me."

It seemed strange to see the Alicorn in such familiar circumstances. There was nothing strange here. She almost felt she ought to summon some human artifact into being to make her visitor more comfortable. "Nay, filly. We doth not forget any of our beloved subjects." She sat down on her haunches across from Second Chance, in a regal and relaxed sort of way. "We came unto thee to say goodbye, however. None other that we so often visited. Yet, our work is almost done." She gestured around them, approvingly. "The whole need no physician."

Chance frowned, and gestured a table into being between them. Perhaps she was not so good at manipulating the conditions in dreams as Luna, but Chance knew the game of being a disembodied mind. Manipulating the simulation had not become any harder for her few months having a body again. On the table she put the most delicious thing she could remember. It was a German chocolate cake she had had for her twelfth birthday. She had been saving fabricator rations for a month to have that cake. Considering how little sugar she had enjoyed on Luna-7, the cake had tasted like heaven. Besides, being made for humans meant it would be bigger compared to ponies. At least, that was how her imagination saw it. In a dream, that was all that mattered. She served Luna a slice on a compressed silicon plate, mostly because that was what she had eaten the cake on all those years ago.

"You're saying you aren't coming back then, Princess?" Chance waited for the princess to take a bite before she did. It wasn't just a cake she was eating, but a precious and treasured memory. That probably made it taste much better than it had any right to. Even her royal guest seemed to approve.

"Unless I am needed again. Thou art healing, Chance. It will be years yet until thy wounds have closed. But love and friendship hast sped thy recovery. Thou art not the bruised and broken creature who wandered into Equestria's skies those months ago. In time, it may be thou art one of us completely. The sad things shall fade, until they are but distant echoes."

Chance nodded. It wasn't as though she had any mind to argue with Luna. The princess had seen things with her she hadn't dared to tell Twilight about. She had seen almost all of her worst memories. Seen her ruined planet and the slaughter that had been there. The loss of so many lives that most brains could not even conceive of so large the numbers. The near extinction of what had been a noble and proud people. She had listened. She had been here through it all. Chance owed her almost as much as she owed Twilight. And maybe Luna was right. It had been so long since she had a nightmare. It wasn't as though the princess could use powerful dream-travel magic just to make casual social calls.

"One of us is healing, Princess." Chance said quietly, as she took a large bite of the recreated cake. Maybe she should give the recipe to Pinkie Pie. Did Equestria have coconuts? It seemed quite comparable in climate to North America. Heck, some of the cities were even named (almost) the same. "I think you're right about that. But not about leaving. I don't think that's so good an idea."

"Really?" Luna raised her eyebrows, watching her with a curious grin. It was clear to Chance that most of her subjects were not this bold. And perhaps she wouldn't have been this bold with the princess either, were it not for how often they had spent time together. It was likely she had been with Luna more than any other mortal pony in Equestria. Luna wasn't an imposing and distant princess to her.

She gulped. This might not go well. Then again, she cared too much about Luna not to try. "I think I know why you work so hard to heal all of us. Even me, the stranger." Her eyes were close to tears, but she fought it to maintain eye contact. The princess was impossible to read, her face a frozen mask. She was far too ancient a being for Chance to make out what might be going on behind those eyes when she wanted to hide it. "I don't think you could've helped me get better without knowing pain like mine, first. You would never understand otherwise."

The Princess, Luna, Diarch of the Moon, Dreamweaver, Crafter of Stars, was frozen, unable to respond. She just started, blinking.

So Chance went on. "I think it's not a good idea for you to go, because you need friends too. Because... just because the Elements of Harmony got rid of Nightmare Moon, I don't think they healed the hurt inside. I think the guilt was still there. There was no way you could've just forgotten, or else Nightmare Moon would've come back eventually. No, you would have to remember. Maybe I hurt because I come from a world that was suffering. But I think you're hurt worse, because you remember making the world suffer. You've helped me, and you probably help hundreds of Equestrians every night. I think someone ought to help you. The Princess of the Night shouldn't have to run into other ponies' dreams to get away from her nightmares."

She was more than a little afraid to see what the princess might be doing. She expected anger. She might've expected Luna to chastise her for going well out of her place. This was steadying the ark territory here. Ordinary ponies weren't supposed to talk to princesses like that. From another world or no, she was just a unicorn filly now. She had not expected to see Luna crying, a few silent tears streaming down her face.

Chance squeezed around the table and embraced her, clinging to the regal shape to give her what feeble support she could offer. That was why she had picked the cake memory. Luna could use some happy memories. She had a feeling the princess was in desperate lack of them. "We-..." Luna squeaked. "you can't imagine. After what we did. We don't deserve-" She shoved weakly at Chance with one hoof, though she was clearly too emotional to push very hard.

"No, I can't." Chance admitted. "And from what Twilight told me, you did some awful things as Nightmare Moon. Like waging a war against your own people." She pushed Luna's hoof away, and pressed herself to her side. Such a gesture might have seemed awkward and strange if she were a human adult. But Chance wasn't human anymore, nor was she an adult. What could a little filly do when somepony she cared about was sad? A big hug, obviously. That was all she could do. "I don't care, Luna. I think you suffered enough. Your sister's forgiven you. Equestria's forgiven you. I'm not even from here, but on behalf of the human race, I forgive you too." She whimpered, clinging tighter. "P-please... please don't stop coming."

The princess held her close, clinging to Chance for a moment like someone who was drowning might cling to a flotation device thrown to them. Then, rather abruptly, the crying stopped. The princess released her, inhaled sharply, and seemed to collect herself. "You are a conundrum, Second Chance." She smiled softly. "If thou spoke truly that thy people have not nobility to rule them, then they are remiss. There are many ponies who could learn much from thy compassion."

Chance stretched, rubbing the top of her head briefly on Luna's chin in animal affection. "I learned from the best. Twilight Sparkle, taking me in the way she did... and you, Princess. But I'm getting better, so now it's time to help you." She crawled free, standing on her hooves and looking up bravely. "We've seen lots of my memories. Why don't we go see some of yours?"

Author's Notes:

And that's another chapter done. It's hard for me to say if we're nearly the halfway point here or the two-thirds point (is that a thing?), but we are making progress either way. Thank you so much to everyone who takes the time to read along with this adventure, and even more to those who take the time to say something about the chapters as they come. I know I wouldn't keep writing if it wasn't for all the feedback and friendly responses I get from everyone here. And the critical ones too, of course. Even if most of them are just a word or two that I mistyped. Fixing all of that crap does leave a better story for those who come after.

I plan on continuing the current release schedule until the story is finished, which should take about another month or so at my best prediction. After that, probably a break, then a short story, and then the sequel. That's the way I see it, anyway. Assuming the story ends in such a way to allow the short story I have planned. Honestly I'm not sure, because it's already taken some turns I didn't expect. I planned on writing the story about REDACTED'S adventures on REDACTED , but I don't know if there will actually be any of those at this point. (shrugs) Suppose there's nothing for it but to power through.

Chapter 15: Summer Sun

Chapter 15: Summer Sun

Today had not gone according to plan, not in the least. Nevermind that it was Chance's first time having the library all to herself, an enormous trust she might not have truly deserved. It hadn't been easy to convince Twilight not to take her to the Summer Sun Celebration, not when the trip was scheduled to last for several days. Somehow, against all the odds, she was home alone, given the run of the library all to herself.

There hadn't been any nightmares, at least not while she slept. Then she woke up, and found that it was only half day. It was also half night. It wasn't just that the moon was out at the same time as the sun. Rather, it was as though someone had divided the sky in half down the middle, with day in one half and night on the other. Nor did there seem to be any predictable way to see it. As she walked from window to window, the views shifted, making it impossible to be sure which area was truly lit and which were dark.

For once, Chance didn't even have Spike to count on for solace, since he had gone with Twilight to Canterlot. That left her in the library, with the solemn promise she had made not to leave the property for any reason. There were powerful wards on the property, Twilight had told her, which would protect her from almost anything. It was the safest place in town.

Chance had skipped breakfast that day. Instead, she took what coal they had left in her magic and headed straight out into the backyard. Twilight was gone. Spike was gone, and she was as safe as she was going to get. Maybe this wasn't the best day to try and get the Jebr Stone working, but... even now, Chance put far more stock in the protection of a functional OMICRON Core than in any magic spell, no matter what Twilight said. If she could get root access, maybe she could fabricate a microsatellite, and get a real look at the sky to see what was going on. Just because she was stuck at home didn't mean she couldn't help! It was a noble theory, but it didn't go very far. She got to the back door, and saw that the sky wasn't the only thing wrong with Ponyville.

The plant life of Equestria looked too healthy to be real, more the ideas of the plants they represented than the real thing. The black thorned creepers crawling along the ground were unlike anything she had seen before. In any case, they grew faster than Equestria fauna, creeping along the ground so fast they looked like they might even be able to catch a pony, if one wasn't careful! Chance looked to her hooves, and sure enough the creepers were encroaching on the library, though none seemed to have made it yet. Even as she watched, one inched toward her as though it had eyes.

And hit a solid wall. There was plainly nothing there, and yet it started growing vertically instead of horizontally. After a few centimeters, it fell over backward on itself away from the library, and had to begin its advance again. "The wards!" She exclaimed, mostly to herself. "They're working!" There was no telling for how long, though. She would have to act fast.

Chance darted over to the generator, dumping the sack of coal into the opening and slamming the metal door shut. The ignition spell was a little tricky for her, but pressure had a way of motivating. She got it right on her first try, and the turbines began to grind to motion. She switched the library's breaker onto generator power, then patted the generator with one hoof. "You better work... I need that coal to last until I can get root access!" Once she did that, she could simply order the cube to manufacture some solar cells or something. So long as she could find a patch of daytime to put them in.

Ponyville was in a panic, but there was nothing she could do to help, and she didn't linger long outside to worry. She wondered briefly about the fate of her friends the Crusaders, but did not let her wondering keep her outside. They had their families to look out for them, adult ponies that could do more than little Chance could. Unless, of course, she could get the OMICRON Core to obey her. Not once did she stop to consider her odds. The Core hadn't listened to her during any of her previous attempts, and it wasn't likely to work for her now.

The basement was clear of debris, with the core situated prominently in the center of the room. Thickly insulated cable ran directly into its surface, humming faintly with the surge of energy. Chance stopped in front of its nearest face, less than a foot away. "OMICRON Core." She said, in her badly-garbled English. "Disengage standby mode." The surface of the cube flared to life, with its many sections rising and falling as many different symbols appeared and vanished.

Ready

The core said in its synthesized voice, its words recorded on its surface. Even now the sound of her native tongue was strange on her ears. She had been in Equestria so long that it seemed to grate on her, though it had sounded so graceful and expressive before. Not enough horse-noises.

Analyzing command. Probability of mission failure: 98.71%. Margin is acceptable, attempting to enter recovery mode. Designate new Administrator.

"Designate this user as Administrator. Designation: Second Chance."

Access Denied. Alien species may not be designated Administrator. Please indicate a human Administrator.

"I am a human Administrator!" She insisted, frowning. The machine did not respond, and she went on. "Fine! Designate this user as Administrator. Name: Dr. Kimberly Colven." She hadn't tried using her human name before. Maybe that would make a difference? Depending on when this had been sent, it ought to be in the system. Being under pressure was giving her such great ideas!

Working. A brief delay, then. Records located. Identify this user as Dr. Kimberly Colven?

Change grinned. She was getting somewhere. "Yes! This user is Dr. Kimberly Colven!"

Dr. Kimberly Colven is identified as: Deceased. Change status to: Active?

"Yes!"

To change status, please input access password on file for user: Dr. Kimberly Colven.

Now that she hadn't expected. Her access passwords? What the heck had her passwords been? Little things like that hardly mattered compared with all the other things she couldn't remember, like her mission! If she couldn't remember something as important as that, how could she possibly be expected to remember a dumb password?

"Wait!" She jumped, her grin getting wider. "It's... it's..." She recited a long string of numbers and letters and symbols. Unlike her mission, Second Chance had used this password thousands of times. She could practically feel ghost fingers flying across a keyboard as she recited.

Password accepted. Step one of two complete. To designate this user as Dr. Kimberly Colven, please make contact with this system. A genetic sample will be compared against sample on file.

"B-but..." Chance backed up, her eyes watering. She had been so close! "This user's genetic profile no longer matches sample on file! You can't use that to check who I am!" She half-screamed, half-cried at the cube.

To designate this user as Dr. Kimberly Colven, please make contact with this system. A genetic sample will be compared against stored files.

Chance tried yelling at the cube some more, with little effect. Eventually she gave up, and trudged slowly up the stairs out of the basement to switch off the generator and put out the fire. As usual, she was getting nowhere. She might never get anywhere with the stupid core. No matter how many times she tried this, she wasn't going to have a human genetic sample. This was hopeless. Unless, of course, she decided to go graverobbing. But there was no time for that now in any case.

* * *

Chance couldn't say how much time had passed. The generator was quiet, and for the moment it seemed the library remained safe from the danger outside. Clearly whatever disaster was taking place was only getting worse. Never in all her time in Equestria had Chance ever seen anything approaching danger like this! Could Equestria be ending just as her old world had? Perhaps this death was somewhat more supernatural than what had consumed her beautiful Earth, but that seemed only fitting for a world that seemed supernatural to her.

She was a little surprised to hear frantic knocking at the door. This was the Ponyville library, but today hardly seemed like the sort of day ponies would come in to check anything out. For her part, Chance had opened at least a dozen different books to search for anything that might hint at what was going on, but so far she hadn't found anything. Her reading level still had a way to go, and progress was very slow. She had spent more time looking up words in the dictionary than actually researching the problem, and wasn't likely to find anything.

It was Applejack. No, not just Applejack. It was all of Twilight's friends, along with two of Chance's. Sweetie Belle was there beside her sister, and Apple Bloom not far behind Applejack. "T-Twilight's not here." She stammered from behind the door, scratching nervously at the ground with one hoof. Twilight's friends could be a little overwhelming to her, ever since she had learned just how important they were to Equestria. One on one she could handle them, but... everyone? All at once? Her ears and tail drooped, and she tried to hide herself behind the door a little, as though she were going to close it.

"We know that, sugarcube." Applejack said, extending one hoof into the doorway to stop it from closing on them. "We were 'a... we were..."

Rainbow Dash flew over them both and into the library, much too fast for Chance to protest. "We're here to do Twilight stuff!"

Chance blinked. "Uh..."

"Yeah!" Pinkie Pie offered, stepping in beside Applejack. Despite the insanity behind them, she looked as bubbly as ever. "Books! Twilight loves to use books! She throws books at every problem, and most of them get squished! The... problems do. Not the books, because books are already flat." She grinned. Nopony else did.

"Can we come in, youngin'?" Applejack asked, glaring at Rainbow behind her. "Nothin' else we've tried seems to do anythin’. We figure we're goin' at this the wrong way."

Twilight hadn't said anything about not letting other ponies into the library with her. In any case, she doubted very much Twilight would have said no to her friends, had she been here. More to the point, five grown ponies and three fillies ought to be able to tackle the problem better than just one filly who could barely read. She stepped out of the way, pushing the door wide open with her magic. "Okay." They began filing in, and she kept talking over the buzz of conversation that had apparently resumed once she gave her leave. "I tried to figure it out! But I didn't find anything in the books I looked through."

The adults nodded, and a frenzied search began. Rainbow Dash began lifting books at random from the shelves, reading the titles, then tossing them aside and letting them fall to the floor. The others were more dignified about it, but they were still a storm going through the library. Soon a sea of books began to form on the ground, as the shelves slowly emptied. It was reshelving day all over again.

Two of the ponies hadn't gone past her, though. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle smiled weakly at her, watching the chaos going on inside the library. "What... what are you two doing here?" Chance asked. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, but... it looks like a pretty dangerous time to be traveling."

Sweetie Belle answered. "I was at my sister's for the weekend. She didn't want to leave me at the boutique all alone." She glanced up at her horn, expression suspicious. "Not with magic going nuts."

"And ah wasn't doin' any good at Sweet Apple Acres no matter how hard ah tried!" Apple Bloom said. "So ah came to help my sister!" She sat down on her haunches, looking far more confident than either of them. "We ain't got nothin' to worry about. With my sister and the others on this, it'll be over in no time."

Chance wished she was as confident as Apple Bloom. "Well, your magic should be fine in here." She demonstrated by reaching out, and gently shutting the door to the library with her own. It behaved exactly as it ought to, and the door clicked gently closed. "See? No problem. Twilight's got wards on the library, since she lives here and all." Of course, that was far from the only reason. The basement was another, and she suspected (though Twilight would never have said as much) that she herself was yet another reason.

Just as Chance knew she had some important mission she had been sent to Equestria to do, she had a feeling that the pony keeping her also had a mission of some kind, though she didn't know what it could be. Why else would anypony take in a potentially dangerous stranger? Okay, maybe that had been the reason once. Twilight cared about her. She didn't doubt that now, not with all the nice things Twilight Sparkle had done for her. Like letting her crawl into bed with her when she had nightmares. Or looking the other way when Chance got up to go look at the stars. Or all the hours she spent teaching her magic. Or lots of other things.

Sweetie Belle looked nervous, but attempted the test with her horn. She winced and looked away as she focused on a nearby tome, and levitated it over. As usual the other Unicorn was far less adroit than Chance, and the book half-dragged itself over. Still, it didn't sprout tentacles or attack them, nor did Sweetie Belle go flying uncontrollably through the air. She opened her eyes only when the gesture was complete, looking relieved. "You're right!" The other fillies both looked relieved. "At least there's one safe place left in Ponyville."

About that time, something slammed into the side of the library, shattering its way into the sea of books. That something was Twilight Sparkle.

Before Chance knew it, Twilight was removing the glass case protecting the Elements. Even in the kitchen with the other fillies and out of the room she could feel the protective spell in which they were contained being released, its potent magic allowed to merge back into Equestria's background. "B-but Twilight!" She called weakly from the doorway, looking in. It hadn't taken long. Twilight's arrival had turned her confused friends from a mob into a smoothly-operating team. It was amazing to see the change, one that hadn't taken more than a few minutes.

"Stay here, you three." Twilight called back. "I've got some idea who's behind this. Testing that theory is going to make Ponyville even more dangerous for a while, until we fix this. The wards should keep you safe."

Chance wasn't so sure about that, considering one of the alien vines had found its way into the open window only moments before. But Applejack had dealt with it quick enough, and it didn't seem likely there would be any further incursions. The library was emptying right before their eyes. Her fellow fillies protested, with their elder sisters giving similar responses. They were to remain here with Second Chance, where they would be safe. They argued and protested, but were quickly cowed. In the light of Celestia and Luna's disappearance, it was hard not to be afraid.

She had to admit, that news had frightened her more than it ought to. Celestia and Luna weren't just the princesses of this alien nation, they were demigods. Beings of eternal, mind-bending power. If something could take them out, what hope did Twilight and the others have? Also, much more importantly, Luna was her friend, and she didn’t enjoy the thought of anything bad happening to her.

At least they had the Elements of Harmony on their side. Those artifacts had been potent enough to purify a mad god, enough to seal away another mad god in stone. If anything could end this, they could. Even now Chance could no more understand how their magic worked than she could force the stone downstairs to obey her commands.

The door slammed shut behind Twilight and her friends. "Well... I guess we're on our own." She muttered, walking back into the library proper. "Would you two... help me put all these books back? I'm sure Twilight would be really greatful if this place was cleaned up when she got back! I mean, if she's out there saving Equestria, she shouldn't have to pick up books."

Sweetie Belle nodded. "Sure, Chance! I'll help!"

Apple Bloom frowned. "Well... since ah can't help Applejack... ah suppose ah could too." She sighed. "Might as well do somethin' while we wait on the sidelines, like always."

* * *

They hadn't been at work for very long before Chance began to feel something strange, and she stopped reading the title of the book she had been looking at to try and identify it. The feeling began to grow very rapidly, so fast that she froze in place, staring straight through the wall to the source of the pressure. At once her body felt distant, and the world was replaced with a frothing quantum sea. In it, the minds of the Ponyville population made only dim reflections, barely visible. Except for Twilight, who was a structure of power and order against the even randomness. That was all she had expected to see. It was all she should've seen, since only beings of nearly deific power made any sort of imprint here.

But it wasn't the only thing she saw. Somewhere very near to Twilight, something was gathering itself together, easily brighter than she was. That was not to say it was more ordered, though. She focused her mind closer, trying to get a better view, passing the thing she recognized as Twilight with its interlocking spheres. The thing was far larger than her teacher, and brighter. Thousands of different shapes roughly piled on one another, interlocking and phasing through each other at random. Even as she watched, forms Euclid would have no names for twisted themselves out of the foam, while others slipped away into the smoke without fanfare. The very sight of it could drive a pony mad. Maybe it had. She began to retreat, pulling her mind back and back into her body, but she wasn't fast enough.

The thing had noticed her. She felt its presence reaching for her, searching, heard its words. "Why, hello there. This is interesting." She made it back to her body, shivering all over. She felt chills all over her, and dropped all the books she had been holding in her magic. "Forget 'em." She said, urgently. "We need to get into the basement. Right now." She tried not to sound hysteric, but in that she failed. She was halfway to the basement door before either of her companions had time to reply.

"Why?" Sweetie Belle put down a book, looking curiously after her. "I thought you said nothing could get in past the wards?"

Chance shook her head. "I'm not sure the wards will help. Just... follow me! I'll explain once we're down there!" The other ponies looked confused, but didn't argue with her further. It was quite clear from just how upset she was that she meant what she was saying, even if they couldn't understand why. When she had locked the basement door, she moved rapidly past the others, lifting a desk with her magic and carrying it up the stairs. The wood was enormously heavy, and she had to walk very slowly, sweating and whimpering with every step. To her immense pride, she managed the weight, propping the heavy wood against the door. She lifted a stream of smaller objects, piling them up against the door too. Only when the entire area was barricaded did she dare to relax, collapsing against the base of the stairs from the thaumaturgical exertion.

The others stood not far away. Sweetie Belle looked worried, Apple Bloom was looking at her like she was crazy. "Uh... sure!" Sweetie said, looking up at the barricade she had made. "We... sure will be safe down here! From... something?"

Chance nodded. "I hope so. It's the best I can do, anyway. Best anypony could do except Celestia, and she's missing." She was still panting, and her head felt sore. She probably wasn't going to be doing any magic for awhile after that. Getting out again was going to be an adventure. But Twilight wouldn't blame her, right? She had broken some rules by taking the Crusaders down here with her. But in light of the danger, the crusaders seeing the OMICRON Core hardly seemed to matter. Maybe if she didn't mention it, they wouldn't notice.

"Safe from what?" Apple Bloom asked, looking up the stairs at the barricade. "What were you so scared of? Ah ain't never seen a filly move that fast."

Chance shrugged. "I don't know what its name was." There was no way she was going to explain the way she could briefly extend her senses past her body, could she? Maybe there was a way to express it that didn't involve going into too much detail. "I've got... look, Twilight's been teaching me magic, right?" They nodded. "Well, I know a spell that lets me... always sense when there's danger nearby. Well, that spell just went nuts. We were in more danger than I've ever sensed before."

"Did your spell tell you what we were in danger from? Was it something from the Everfree forest? It probably makes sense there would be dangerous things comin' inta town, with it invadin' and all."

"It..." She began, struggling for words. How could she explain what she had seen to two fillies who had no experience with non-bodily senses? It wasn't as though she could use the shapes she saw, since those weren't even real in any meaningful sense. They were just her mind trying to give her input she could understand, interpreting the structures of energy and probability in meaningful ways. "Something like Celestia. Something with her kind of power, anyway. Not an Alicorn, though. It was... disorder. Worse than entropy, because that's an ordering force in the sense that it's consistent. It was like... what if the least probable thing was the most likely to happen? And it kept happening, over and over. Disorder. Chaos. Ultimate, universal chaos."

Her companions looked to one another, and gulped in almost perfect unison. "Discord." They muttered together. Ears and tail drooped, and they moved closer together, shivering with the word. As though that word were an answer.

"Exactly! Discord! That's exactly what it looked like!"

Sweetie Belle backed away from her, searching for somewhere to hide. As though she thought that the basement was no longer a sufficiently good hiding place. "Not what. Who."

"Course it would be him!" Apple Bloom retreated right there with her. Chance followed, satisfied that at least her fellows were finally taking her seriously. "Everfree invading, night and day at the same time. We shoulda' figured it out before now! This whole thing had him written all over it!"

Chance frowned, struggling to understand what her friends were trying to communicate with her. "Are you... saying the thing that's here, it's a he? And his name is Discord?" They nodded, and she retreated all the closer to the cube. The message from before was still there, raised against the ordinarily flat surface. It felt very strange to be cowering behind the monolith of an OMICRON Core with her pony friends, as though her two lives were intersecting. Or perhaps, were about to intersect.

Discord sensed me. She knew, fearfully so. Would he come for her? What could a being of such unbridled chaos do to her and her friends? She was quite inclined to believe as they said, that such a powerful being could be responsible for what was happening to Equestria. But she had faith in her teacher, and in her friends. If any of the stories she had told about the dangers Equestria had recently faced were true, then Chance did not doubt she would handle this whole mess, somehow.

All they had to do was hide down here until the storm blew over. Maybe the wards wouldn't protect them from something so powerful, but they might conceal them from its attention. He could occupy himself looking for her through all of Ponyville. Maybe that would distract him from... whatever he might otherwise do to the ponies who lived there.

Her musing was interrupted by a synthesized voice, along with a familiar high-pitched shrieking from Sweetie Belle. She screamed quite loud, but not so loud that Chance couldn't hear the voice of the Core speaking over her, in flat English.

Sample presented does not match records for Dr. Kimberly Colven. Please provide a valid genetic sample.

Nevermind how the heck that thing was still running with the generator off. Maybe she'd run it long enough to charge some of its emergency stores? She doubted that, considering how much energy these things could hold. Then again, it was possible. It wasn't her first concern. Rather, her friends now backing into the furthest corner of the room, afraid of the cube and even more afraid of what was upstairs.

"Ah reckon that thing just tried to talk!" Apple Bloom called, comforting Sweetie Belle as best she could, though she was clearly equally terrified. "Ah couldn't make out what it was sayin'."

"Don't worry." Chance stepped between them and the cube, careful not to touch it lest it take a sample from her as well. How many attempts would it allow before she would have to abandon all hope of using this method? Three? Two? Not that she had any hope of success. Her human body had been left behind, and not a trace of it had accompanied her into Equestria. There was no sample to present the cube, nor would there be. "It's harmless. You know Twilight. She's got all sorts of strange things." She didn't want to lie to her friends, and she hadn't. But she hadn't told them she knew exactly what it was, either. That would involve telling them lots of other things, things that she wasn't sure she was ready to tell them. "Just don't touch it again, okay?"

Sweetie Belle nodded, still looking a little shocked. She could tell her friend wasn't about to disobey her suggestion, after the start she'd got. Of course, they were also far more accepting of what she was saying than she thought Earth children would be. In a world of magic, one more magical artifact must not seem to be all that remarkable.

They passed what felt like hours away in the silence of the library. Occasionally they could hear muffled sounds from above, and none of them were good. Whatever was going on in Ponyville was clearly not good. Their friends and family were out in the middle of it, and there was nothing they could do but keep their heads down and wait for it to pass.

She almost got away with it. It seemed as though part of a night must have gone, and they were all getting worried. Her friends had sisters out in the thickest of it, after all. Chance had her teacher, thought it was hard to think of Twilight as nothing more than a teacher. Plain old teachers didn't open their home to possibly dangerous aliens from another universe. Didn't do everything in their power to make sure you were happy. She wasn't sure what Twilight was to her, exactly. It wasn't just a teacher, though. Was this how Twilight felt about Celestia? And she was out there putting herself on the line for her own mentor, at that exact moment.

They sat solemnly behind the Jebr Stone, talking about the most boring things they could and pretending nothing at all was wrong. For once, the more boring the conversation the better. None of them had any desire to think about anything extraordinary right then. Her friends didn't even ask to hear more of her human-world stories, not that they knew those were what they had been listening too.

Then someone knocked on the door. It wasn't the outside door, and none of them had heard footsteps on the floor upstairs. Nevertheless, there were four harsh knocks. The three of them huddled together closer with each knock, and somepony whimpered. Chance couldn't say who. "It's... probably Twilight coming back." Chance offered. "With your sisters, and her other friends. They fixed everything. It's time to go home and go to bed."

Sweetie Belle nodded from beside her, though nopony looked convinced. "Yeah. Course it is. Rarity, is that you?" She called suddenly. It was probably pretty stupid to advertise themselves. But if there was a being out there as powerful as he had seemed, no hiding place would last forever. Of course, she could use her other senses to look behind the door, but... if she did, that would give them away for sure! There would be no hiding if she used that power. The thing might sense her from the other side of the city, even if it was Twilight and the others, perhaps moving them to a safer place to hide.

There was silence for a moment on the other end, until whoever it was came through the door. It wasn't Rarity. He wasn't even a pony.

Author's Notes:

And with that, we're halfway through the climax. Or... what's the literary term for the climax before the climax? I know that the one after a climax is ACTUALLY NOT called an Anticlimax. (EDIT: It has been correctly pointed out to me that anticlimax is actually not the correct term! 10th grade english lied to me! At least my memory of it is)I know that in the terminology of the Hero With 1000 Faces, this would probably qualify as the "Belly of the Whale", or at least the first half. Cliffhangers! Sorry about that, but I didn't feel that a 10,000 word chapter really fit well with my posting style. That's just now how I roll. Fun fact, this chapter was actually written chronologically before the last 4 we've read. I was just so excited about getting Chance and Discord introduced that I couldn't wait to write it. So I didn't. The software I use to write this story (yWriter5, it's free and awesome), structures a story into a series of scenes within chapters, which can be rearranged and restructured with a few simple clicks.

Finals are over, and the spring term begins. I see no reason this should interfere with the writing of this story, and I don't anticipate changing the release schedule anytime soon. I'm not sure if I'll write the sequel at such a brisk pace when the time comes, since I've got a *gasp* real novel I would like to finish up and get published this summer. We'll see, though. With the next chapter, we should be 2/3rds of the way through this story, unless I am very much mistaken. We leave Act 2 and move into Act 3. I'm not sure if I have enough in the way of Production Notes to make up a blog, but we'll see if I don't post one once the continuation of this chapter is up on saturday.

An enormous thank-you to the editing and pre-reading herd composed primarily of Zutcha, Two Bit, and Tailef (Sparktail's there too sometimes), who put up with some pretty absurd stuff. (FYI, the word "dog" in the next chapter was originally spelled "dawg" in my first draft for some reason. No, we don't catch every mistake, but we don't edit like lots of other editors either. Whenever I've got a chapter it's just one big skype call where the story is read aloud. This does allow for some mistakes, but I can promise with great confidence that the vast majority are caught and prevented. You would not want to put up with the drivel that they do, and they have my thanks.

Similarly, those who continue reading with such determination, and take the time to comment (even if it's just to point out my typos) are what keep me going on this project. I say it often but I can't say it enough. Obviously I don't get paid for this (that'd be the best job ever), but when people take a little time to tell me what they think, that's my vindication that the time I invested in creating this mess was worth it.

Oh, and I'm sorry for my factual errors as well. I like to think I handle the show's cannon pretty well (except when I intentionally ignore it, a la Equestria Girls), but I'm only a student programmer and there's a great deal I don't know. Mathematics in particular is a weakness of mine. Maybe my next protagonist's special talent will be... scuba diving or something, instead of something I know very little about. It's hard to depict someone who is much better at something than you are. I can't go beyond college calculus level with Chance, even though I really want to, because I simply don't know anything beyond that level.

I'm rambling on. Peace!

Chapter 16: Discord

Chapter 16: Discord

“I'm afraid not, my dear ponies." Chance heard the voice, though it did not seem as though anything in the room had changed. It made them all shiver, though Chance had never heard it before. It was not the voice of a pony, that much she could tell. Then, as though their barricade was a hologram, something casually walked through it, and the voice suddenly had a body.

Chance wasn't sure what she expected from the body of the being whose mind she had briefly sensed. In one way at least it seemed to match well with what she expected, in that its body was an absolute mess, a combination of different animals and forms that did not at all belong together. Its rough shape reminded her of the dragons of the east, though that was only in outline. Those creatures were graceful and beautiful, not... what was this thing, anyway? The three fillies responded universally, backing as far into the furthest corner of the basement and putting the cube between them and the being that had discovered them, at last.

"You can't hurt us!” Apple Bloom protested, as the being slid down the stairs on its back and began to drift suddenly into the air. Had the gravity in the room turned off? No, and yet he floated. Chance looked away. As insane as the being's appearance had been, its manipulation of probability was masterful. It was... everything like unicorn magic, yet utterly unlike it. It reminded her of only one thing: What it was like not to have a body. "Our sisters will turn you to stone if you try anythin'!"

Chance did not like where that line of thought went. If Discord was responsible for this, and Twilight would turn Discord to stone if he did anything bad, why wasn't he stone now? The only possibility that came to mind was far from pleasant to think about. It did not bode well for their future.

"Oh, don't you worry yourselves about that." The strange face grinned down at them. Or rather, up at them, as a strange, smaller copy of the thing had appeared beside them. No, not a copy. It was the original. The big one was gone. What the hell was this thing doing to spacetime? "I'm not here to do anything unseemly!" The creature had yellow-red eyes, eyes that were looking directly at Chance. "I'm reformed! I've been learning so much from my dear friend Fluttershy, and I just thought... while I was here, I should help share some of those wonderful things with everypony I could find." The thing licked its lips, almost predatory. She wasn't sure what this thing ate, but she knew it was about to get its fill.

Chance cowered, looking anywhere but up. Was this what it was like to be a mouse caught by a cat? Yes, she supposed, it probably felt exactly like this. "And one of the most important lessons about friendship" He said the word like it was something foul, or perhaps merely beneath his dignity. "is trust. Did you three know that one of you is keeping a secret? One of the biggest, most important secrets in all of Equestria!"

Suddenly, he was at his full size again, reclining on a desk not far away. “Oh, do you think Twilight would mind if I enjoyed one of her tomes here? She’s got so many upstairs.” He seemed to be eating one of Twilight's books, ripping out the pages one by one and chewing them thoughtfully. "I'm just here to help get everything into the open, so we can all be better friends.

"The biggest secret in... Equestria." That was Sweetie Belle from beside her, glaring defiantly up at the creature. For such a little thing, she was quite brave. "You're wrong, Discord! We told Second Chance all about the Cutie Mark Crusaders! It's not a secret, because we wouldn't be good friends if we kept something that important secret from her!" Apple Bloom nodded.

This seemed to so thoroughly amuse their tormentor that he spat a liquid stream of paper from his mouth, which reformed into an exact duplicate of the book he was eating right in front of them. It was disturbing, but incredibly remarkable. This was magic all right, but it was far more than Twilight could manage. This creature was a Demigod. The Crusaders could not know, but they felt its power and it made them cower. Chance just felt cold, like the empty reaches of space. She remembered emptiness, endless emptiness for numberless years. Chance stepped forward.

"Don't hurt them!" She said, puffing herself up as big as she could. Her horn glowed as she prepared for an insane attack. Maybe, if she tried to fight this thing, the others could escape. It was after her, and might not even follow them. "They're nothing to you."

The crocodile-grin got wider. Wider than the being's face, as it happened. "Why, how rude of you to assume! Actually, I have a soft spot in my heart-of-hearts for these fine fillies, as they played a large part in my first escape from a dreadful stone prison. And that's exactly why I came! I simply could not allow them to remain undefended in the presence of a dangerous monster! I don't know how I would live with myself."

He got up, and walked back across the room toward them, shrinking slightly as he walked. He was perhaps only a foot taller than Chance by the time he reached them. Not that size made the slightest difference here. Even if she kicked with all her might, broke his head or something, it would probably only annoy him. If there was a brain in there at all, it would be easy for him to repair it if anything happened.

"You're the monster!" Apple Bloom stepped up beside Chance, and she was soon joined by Sweetie Belle on her other side. "We were just fine until you showed up! If you really care about us, then you'll turn around and march right back up those stairs!"

"All in good time, fillies. You may want me to bring you with me when I'm finished."

Sweetie Belle offered something else in their defense, but Chance did not hear it. She couldn't hear it, over the sound of her own screaming. The being, the alien being of incredible power, had reached out to her mind. She fought it, and the effort brought her to the ground screaming in agony. She fought with all her will, as no proper pony ought to be able to fight. "NO!" She screamed, and thought, at the same time. "MY MIND! GET OUT!"

An effort that took all her physical strength hardly seemed to slow the creature down. Her friends could only watch, holding her as best they could but powerless to intervene. One of them was screaming at Discord to stop, but Chance didn't hear her words.

She heard him, though. "This will go easier for you if you don't resist. You can't win, and trying to might drive you insane." She ignored him.

As it turned out, he had been half right. She couldn't resist, not for long. The pain was shortly too intense, and her mental barriers collapsed. Her mind was open, her memories. Oh God, the memories! The pain faded, replaced with a feeling of profound violation. This being was where no soul ought to be, browsing her most private thoughts and desires as though they were books along a shelf, which he could freely peruse. That incredible intellect took only moments to look through her entire human life, along with her short time here in Equestria. It had seen it all, every moment.

She could not fight him. Her will had been broken in moments. But perhaps, while he occupied himself with her, she could delay him long enough for Twilight and the others to arrive. It wasn't as though she thought much for her life expectancy anyway. So she reached back through the connection, forcing herself into the most painful memory she knew. If he wanted to know her so badly, she would show him something he wouldn't soon forget, monster or no. She would show him what pain meant.

* * *

Kimberly was eleven. She wore her favorite dress, the one that was green with little stars. Mother had said she ought to wear her favorite thing, since they wouldn't be coming home for a long time. She hadn't understood why that would be, but she was a good girl, and good girls never argued when their parents looked so upset. She hadn't seen her father for such a very long time, but she was going to see him today. Mother had already told her what she must do. She must tell her father how much she loved him, and how proud she was of him. But she didn't really understand. Nothing made sense to her anymore, no matter how smart she was. Mother had always told her she was smart.

The city had been different then. The lights were all out. There were hardly any cars in the sky, and not a single hovertruck on the highway. Instead there were green and black vehicles on the ground, and the shimmer in the air that told her invisible planes were up there, flying around. Something very important was happening today, she could tell. Nobody seemed excited about whatever it was. That made her think it wasn't the good kind of important. Maybe it was the bad kind.

She did see her father, waiting for them at the biggest and most important entrance to the Space Elevator, where the most important people got to go. She remembered him clearly, in shiny black armor that made him look strong and tall. She told him that, and he laughed and mussed her hair and told her how brave she was to be going so far away. "Don't worry, Omega regiment is the best in the Federation. We've got a nice deep bunker to hide in once the last shuttle is out. I'll be waiting to hear all your stories from the moon."

"I'm going to the moon?" Kimmy had asked. Yes, she'd been called Kimmy then. That's what everyone who loved her called her, and her father had loved her. "But I'm scared of heights, I don't wanna fly! Can't I stay here with you? I could join the... Omega regimen."

Father only shook his head sadly "Sorry Kimmy. You and Alexi were the only ones with certs' high enough, or we would come with you."

He seemed to realize he had slipped up though, because the little girl's eyes had gone wide. She had expected some of this. Not being able to see her father was awful enough. "W-what... what about mom?"

Father looked embarrassed, and didn't answer.

Her family went with her all the way to the MGLV, which seemed to be filled mostly with other children. Some were older, some were smaller, but adults were in the minority here. The few she could see were clearly soldiers, with those little wafers of glass in front of one eye and sidearms on their belts. A different kind of soldier, not like her father. The kind that fought bad guys you didn't think were coming, as opposed to the ones you knew were on their way.

Her mother had hugged her then, tighter than ever before. It was the last hug her mother had ever given her. "Be brave." She had said, through her tears. Kimberly was crying too, but she wasn't fighting like some of the other kids. She was a good girl, and good girls didn't fight. "I'm told Seattle's bunkers are quite comfortable. I'll call you in a few days, once we're settled in. There's a few seconds delay from the moon, but we'll still be able to talk."

Kimberly nodded, clinging to her mother with all her strength. She clung so hard mom's skin had gone white. But those tears from her eyes hadn't abated, not once did she open her mouth to sob. Even so, her voice was squeaking and faint when she tried to talk. "Just... just come with us!" She had protested, gesturing to an empty seat. "There's room!"

She only shook her head. "Sorry, Kimmy. That's for someone else. They won't need me at Luna-7, but they'll need you one day."

"W-why?" The girl stammered, wiping the tears away from her eyes with a sleeve. Her big sister sat right beside her, and she appreciated the arm around her shoulder. Alexi had already said her goodbyes. Or perhaps she was just being kind, and giving the time to her little sister who needed it so much more.

"Because... Because you will have to fix the planet, we think. You're smart and healthy, and will live a long time. We need you to figure out a way to undo all the damage." She mussed her hair, just as her father had done. "You were always the clever one. Well now lots of people will be counting on you, not just me. The whole world."

She shook her head fiercely. "I can fix it from the bunker! You said it was nice there!"

Her mother shook her head. A siren was ringing, and a voice blared. "Capacitors at 95%. Launch in T-2 Minutes.” The soldiers were leading all the other families away. A tall man with a gun gestured for mother to leave. He didn't use his gun to do it.

"Be brave." Mother had said, grasping one of her hands in both of hers. "We'll watch the launch from here. I'll call in a few days." She had to go, everyone did. Kimmy held onto her sister as best she could in the awkward restraints, feeling uncomfortable against the gel seats.

The walkways were clear now. No more soldiers, no more parents and siblings. Just the passengers. Kimmy was lucky, she was buckled in right across from the big round window, and she could look outside. Of course, they were very deep underground right now, so there was nothing to see. She ignored the pre-flight checks, just looking out the window at the blank metal wall and waiting.

"Passengers, we have just received the all-clear from mission control. Please sit upright and rest against the seat. Do not attempt to move until you receive the all-clear from the crew, at which point you will be free to move about the cabin. Our flight to Luna-7 should take approximately 52 hours. Enjoy the flight." The man's voice had sounded almost cheerful then. Kimmy had figured he was probably sad too, and wanted everyone else not to be sad by sounding as happy as he could. She tried to make herself smile as she looked out the window, wondering if she would see her family on the ground as they went up.

"Five. Four. Three. All hands, brace for acceleration!"

It was like no other force she had ever experienced, a weight crushing into her as though she had grown a hundred times heavier. It pressed her into the specially-designed seats, which braced her body and prevented injury. Her vision went nearly black as the pressure increased, her ears popping in protest. She could see very little, and heard a dull roar all around her as the craft shook. It shook so hard it felt like it would shake itself apart. Some of the other children cried from the pain and the shock, but not many. Most didn't have the breath to cry yet.

Light suddenly filled her vision, as they shot up and up and up through sections of the elevator nearest the top, where daylight streamed through metal supports and wires. Then with a jolt the tower was gone altogether, and they shot unassisted up into the sky for several long moments. It was at that time, just before the plasma jets kicked on and the pressure of gravity resumed its unrelenting assault, that Kimberly experienced the worst pain of her life.

Her beautiful city was beneath her, gleaming in the setting sun. The sun behind the ocean made the whole city look like it was on fire, turning the numerous structures bright orange. She could see many people on the ground, and occasionally little flashes of light would pass between them. Two armies there were, facing each other.

Then she saw the flash. Had it not been for the nanomachines in her eyes, she would have been instantly blinded. As it happened, her vision automatically polarized most of the light, protecting her from the worst of the damage. There was an enormous flash, and when it faded, a second sun was rising from the center of the city, a thin cloud chasing them through the air as it rose into that distinctive mushroom shape. Then came the shock wave. Little tanks and buildings were thrown through the air like toys, burning as they went.

The MGLV was too high for the explosion to catch it, and moving too fast for any fighter craft to go after them. Kimberly was forced to watch her family burn beneath her, transfixed by the horrific sight.

Suddenly, her sister's touch seemed less familiar on her shoulder. She looked, and her sister wasn't in the seat beside her anymore. Instead, a thin man was sitting there, with grey hair and well-groomed goatee. He wore a suit, which seemed to be made of patches of a dozen different suits at least. He was smiling. Seeing a smile here was almost worse than what was going on beneath them.

"I see I am not alone in my love of Chaos. Your people put me to shame; with weapons like this. It's quite beautiful you could destroy yourselves. Without magic, even. Not even the Griffins in all their years of clan warfare could do this."

Now that the creature had revealed himself, Chance felt everything come rushing back. She wasn't this child. The implants in her body weren't real, and she hadn't lost her family just now. Well she had, but the wounds weren't this fresh. Her face boiled with anger. Hatred, as she had never felt before, welled within her for the monster smiling at the death of such a beautiful planet. "Is that what you think?" She asked, practically boiling over. “This amuses you?"

She ripped them into another memory, not long after. She stood under a transparent dome, which had been filled with others. Everyone on the base was watching the Earth below, as it lit up. At this distance, the flashes looked like little fireflies. Hundreds of millions of lives went out with each one. "WATCH IT, THEN!" With an effort of will, the memory people vanished, leaving her and the lengthy grey-haired man. She laughed wickedly at the sight, her child's body looking up at Discord's memory mask. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds!" She laughed again. "Is this what you want for Equestria too? Fine! Let's see where entropy takes us!"

She tugged again. She was older this time, by several years at least. She wore the bulky white fabric of an XAT-suit, her head surrounded by a transparent bubble of blue nanoglass. Discord was beside her still, his eyes and expression unreadable. He wore no protection, but then, that didn't seem to phase him. In a memory she could have done the same thing, though she lacked the skill for such fine manipulation yet.

She was alone, the only human for miles. Only a few feet away was an old-fashioned buggy, still white and pristine despite the years. Kimberly sat on a large rock, looking up at each. The blue was still mostly blue, but tinged with grey. There was no green anymore. Nothing lived on the surface anymore, save for the single-celled extremophiles. "Do you want another world that looks like that, Discord?" She screamed into the radio, screamed with every drop of hate in her little body. "If chaos is what you want, it'll be over forever! No more life. It'll all be a machine, a slowly rotting dead planet orbiting around a dead star!"

"I've seen it!" She raged, tugging them down again. The vision she showed them had come through a probe, but they were standing beside it now. The steel skeleton of a city, the shadows of its former residents scorched into the concrete. The ground still too hot to touch. Nothing moved, and nothing lived. Mother Nature's usual reclaimers had not touched it, nor could they. It was too hot, radioactively speaking. "I've lived through the end of days!" She bore down on him, her suit replaced with a blue jumpsuit, her plastic identification badges hanging off. "You saw my memories! I lived to watch everything I've ever loved burned before my eyes! I've crossed abysses of space and time! Mountains crumbled to dust and protons decayed in the time I waited in the void!" She reached down, lifting a piece of twisted metal from the earth, and hefting it in both arms. "I won't let that happen to another world!" She charged, swinging it at him with all her might.

She passed through empty air, and the weight of the metal brought it spinning from her fingertips. She was no fighter, never had been. Couldn't even wield a club.

The man clicked his tongue, folding his arms across his chest. "That's quite enough, Chance. I'm no longer amused with your behavior. You simply must learn to be more civil with your fellow immortals. Believe me, I can personally attest to the advantages. We're going to be stuck with one another for a very long time." She barely listened, dropping to her knees and scrambling around in the ash for something she could use as a weapon. "And there you go again. Looking for something to kill me with. Is that all you are?"

"It isn't our fault!" She screamed. There was nothing large enough. Like someone tossing a scrap to a dog at their heels, Discord tossed something to her. She recognized it immediately, and stared down. It was a magnetic accelerator rife, the MAR-9. Standard rifle used by every soldier of the UEF.

"Go ahead then." He spread his arms wide, looking down at her with contempt. "Shoot me. If it will make you feel better."

The power pack glowed green, blinking merrily as a sign that the weapon was fully charged. The capacitor hummed to her heart, almost like a song. It would be so easy, she had seen these weapons in use before. The safety was already off. One shot could tear through anything but nanosteel without resistance, and burn the air in its wake.

She wasn't sure what Kimberly would have done. Second Chance remembered her name, the one Twilight had given her. She got up, and kicked the gun away. It landed several feet from her, sending up a little cloud of ash. "It isn't our nature!" She shouted at him. Then all the strength left her, and tears began to streak the ash on her face. "We were invaded. It wasn't our fault." She gestured all around them, at the ruin of her beautiful city. "It wasn't our fault. Humans aren't like this." She looked up, right into his face. The tears flowed more freely and her voice faltered and broke, but the being did not look away. "We've been able to do it for years. We've been making war for a long time. But given the choice, most people would choose the good." She gestured, and with her will the weapon vanished. Discord smiled. "And nobody would've chosen this war. We wanted peace! Maybe we weren't as good at it as the ponies, but we damn well tried!"

She felt something strange in her then, somewhere powerful but far away. It was as though, for this moment and for the first time, she understood. She knew why Earth had fallen. She knew it had been an attack, and not the internal war it might have looked on the outside. And she knew, more than anything else, that it deserved a second chance. She saw the corpse of the city around her, and beyond to hundreds of others just like it. She saw the bunkers beneath the ground, where people struggled on rapidly depleting resources to survive one more day. They had no planet to return to, though. Just radioactive wasteland. Somepony had to do something about it. She had to do something about it.

"Perhaps." Was that sadness in his voice? "And perhaps, the same thing will come to Equestria. Oh sure, it might be wearing a different costume this time. And maybe it'll call itself something different, too. But in the end, the result will be the same. Same as it's ever been, in every world." He started walking, and she was compelled to follow. The city blurred past as they moved, far faster than any city could ever move.

"Don't you ever tell Celestia this, but I'm rather fond of the place. As much as that pains me to admit." He shivered all over. "Things have never gone any different before. But maybe this time they will. Their order can be undone by our chaos. And if not, at least it will be fun to try."

He put one hand on her shoulder. It was almost a kindly look in his eyes as he looked down at her, Chance frozen to the spot and unable to move. She might have thought it kindly, were the grip not so hard and the nails not digging into her shoulder. No, not nails. Claws. It was a paw she was feeling, and not a hand. "We'll give 'em hell. When it's all over, we will have created more Chaos than any universe has ever seen. We'll bring their damnable order to its knees! Who knows?" He looked away, thoughtful. "I might even call you my sister." He glared down for a moment at her hands, shaking his head. "For this to work, I've got to rearrange your insides a bit. Don't worry, you won't feel a thing."

That was a lie. Her whole body burned, hotter and hotter and hotter, and she screamed with all her might. She lost the strength to hold herself upright and dropped to her knees, wrenching free of Discord's grip as she fell. The pain did not ease, but grew gradually more intense until she felt nothing but the scorching heat in every cell, and consciousness failed her.

* * *

Chance blinked. She was in the basement, two familiar faces just inches from her. She stirred, and Apple Bloom jumped. "She's awake!" She squealed, prodding Sweetie Belle beside her. "She's up!"

The unicorn filly's face suddenly filled half of her vision, with about as much concept of personal space as children ever had. She was too weak to manage anything but a weak smile in response. "W-what... where's..."

Apple Bloom shrugged. "Gone. Said he was sorry for scaring you so bad you fainted, and just walked away. Probably has other ponies to mess with."

Sweetie Belle looked excited, suddenly. More excited than Chance had ever seen her. "C-chance!" She grinned. "Now that you're okay, can you tell us how you got your Cutie Mark? It sure doesn't look like a "Got scared by Discord" Cutie Mark to me.

"My... my w-what?" She blinked, struggling to her hooves. Her legs seemed hesitant to respond, but stand she did. Quite shakily.

"Your cutie mark! It just appeared while you were unconscious!" She gestured feverishly at Chance's flank. Ponies were quite flexible creatures, and with a sigh Chance turned to see what Sweetie Belle was pointing at. Her friend was right. It did not look like a "get attacked by an insane Demigod" cutie mark at all. Not that she wanted one of those. She planned on never meeting Discord ever again, and that wouldn't exactly have boded well for her future. Chance understood very little about what a Cutie Mark was, only what she had learned from the Crusaders. It reflected your special talent, whatever that was. So what did this mark mean?

It looked like the surface of a planet. Not Equestria, though. The continents weren't right. It was Earth, in rich green and blue. It was a depiction of her home. As her awareness returned, she could feel the magic lingering in her system still. Equestria had strange rules. Chance was broken. Discord had proven that in the private combat-ground of her own mind. But as broken as she was, Equestria had accepted her anyway. The mark proved it, in her mind. She was worthy, she did belong! "Oh." She dropped to her haunches, looking down thoughtfully. "It's..."

"It looks like the world!" Sweetie Belle grinned, having figured it out.

"Are you sure?" Apple Bloom looked at it again, eyes narrowing. "It doesn't look quite right. Are you sure it's Equis? It doesn't look like the globe from school."

"It's not." Discord had been right about one thing. She had been keeping secrets from her friends for too long. She wished Scootaloo was here, though she supposed the little pegasus had gotten off easy without having to deal with Discord. She would tell her as soon as she got the chance. "You know what Discord said about secrets?" She looked down, trying to hide her shame. True to their word, the Crusaders had told her everything. About all of their adventures, about the Cutie Mark Crusaders. She wondered if having her cutie mark disqualified her now. She would be grateful if they still wanted to be her friends after this, forget the crusading. "He was telling the truth."

She lowered her voice, leaning closer to them. "Twilight said it's up to me who I tell my secret to. If you two can promise not to tell anypony else, no matter what, I'll tell you. Oh! Except your sisters. They already know, so you can tell them I guess."

The other unicorn looked back, her eyes watering. It was clear she was deeply hurt by what Chance had said. She expected this, to have kept something so important from them for this long. "You mean you told Rarity, but not me? Why?" She looked on the verge of tears. Apple Bloom, on the other hoof, looked about as worried about the prospect of Sweetie Belle's tears as she was about whatever secret Chance might be keeping.

"It's not like that!" She protested, putting up one her hooves defensively. There was something strange and delicate about the relationship between Sweetie Belle and her older sister. It was something all the Crusaders knew, and were careful to avoid. She had just blundered straight into it. "Look." She pointed at Apple Bloom. "That night a month ago. When your sister and your sister and all the other bearers went to fight the monster from the Everfree?" The youngest Apple nodded, though Sweetie Belle was still sniffling. Chance went on. "The monster was me. I... I..." She whimpered, then it all came out in a rush. She spoke so fast all her words blurred together. Maybe if she said it all fast enough, they wouldn't hate her! "You know that burned part near the Everfree? That's where I came from! The bearers all brought the elements because they didn't know what I was, and they needed to be nearby to protect Equestria in case I was dangerous."

She had their attention now, and Chance paused to take an enormous breath before going on. She began to back away from them, toward the huge OMICRON Core. "They decided not to blast the harmony out of me. Instead, Twilight took me in, and she's been taking care of me since I got here. Then I met some amazing little fillies who have treated me like a perfectly normal friend all of this time no matter how ignorant I acted." She gestured at the Jebr stone. "I'm from a world called Earth. My people made this, and many other wonderful things. The Cutie Mark... I don' have a clue how those work, so you're on your own for that one, but it's my world. It's what it used to look like." She leaned back against the old Core, collecting herself for her last few words. "It's okay if you hate me now. I won't be upset if you don't want to be my friends anymore. I know I kept something really important from you, and I'm sorry."

There was a pause. It might have only been a second, but it seemed to last forever. Chance had been lying then, and badly. She would mind if they never wanted to be her friend again. She would mind very, very much. But those fears were in vain. Seconds later, she felt two bodies embracing her. Both of them. They hugged her tightly, maybe tighter than ever before. She cried, maybe more than ever before.

She almost didn't hear the voice of the OMICRON Core, speaking without emotion. "Genetic sample accepted. User identified as Dr. Kimberly Colven. User granted root status. Recovery mode initiated." Then, just as quickly, the screen went blank, and all light from inside it died. But Chance didn't care. Right now, all that mattered was that she hadn't lost her friends.

And she had a Cutie Mark now! That was pretty cool.

"Transfer complete." The voice changed. No longer did it sound toneless and neutral. It was more complex, more rich and varied. Less like a recording and more like a mind. Not that the Crusaders understood the distinction, or anything else about it for that matter. "Greetings, user Kimberly. I understand we are going to save the human race together."

Author's Notes:

So readers might be wondering: What happened to the rest of the story? If you're reading this, then my sequelification of MLA has begun! There used to be 10 chapters following this A/N, there aren't anymore. That section of the story has been removed. Thank you so much for all of you who joined me for my first ever story here on Fimfiction... but I've learned a great deal now, and I think I can do better.

For those who want to keep reading the old version, I've saved the download links on the story's main page, so you can grab it and keep going if you like. Just know that, in the new version, I'm not going to necessarily be keeping anything past this chapter, so it's not cannon anymore.

To keep reading, why don't you move on to My Little Apprentice: Apogee.

Return to Story Description

Other Titles in this Series:

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    Ten years have passed since the awful war that nearly destroyed Equestria. Humanity and ponies now live together in harmony. Yet for Sweetie Belle, not all scars are so easily healed.

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