Act I: The First Breach
Chapter 2 - Discord
Twilight was wandering through the Swayback Mountains. Somewhere, some part of her knew that this was wrong, that it didn't make sense for her to be here. She knew she was still lost in the Everfree Forest. But these thoughts, if they were real, had no effect on her actions, as she continued her trot toward a stone building set within the mountains themselves.
Once inside, the path slanted downward, into the heart of the mountain, and soon it became too dark to see. At this, Twilight stamped her hooves on the ground in rhythm. Two clops, a pause, and then three clops.
The lights went on in Twilight Sparkle's laboratory. Machines were set against the wall, lights glowing and gears grinding as they worked. At the moment they were connected to an elliptical dish, processing data gathered from the stars. A large circle was etched on the floor with chalk inside a ring of rubber tubing. Star charts, complete with scribbles and marker-drawn arrows, filled another wall. The large hollow room in the middle of the mountain, most of which Twilight had carved herself, had a disorganized feel when viewed all at once. Even her assistant could never figure out where things were kept, but Twilight knew. She had her own system of organization, even if it wasn't obvious to anypony but her.
Twilight refused to let herself get distracted; she had work to do. "Scribe, take a note." she ordered. A quill lying on the table nearby rose of its own accord, dipped its end into a bottle of ink, and began writing the words Twilight dictated.
"Geloto the Twelfth, year nine hundred and ninety eight of the reign of Celestia," she began. "First, a thank you to Madam, for generously donating the required materials for our experiments. Work is coming along very nicely, although some more tests need to be done before I can say with complete accuracy that the conclusions I've drawn are the correct ones. Running out of time, of course, so we may have to take some risks and plow ahead with minimal preparations." She levitated the crystal orb out of her satchel and set it on the table. "The Element of Magic is in our possession. One thousand years ago, so the legend goes, Princess Celestia's ancestor used it to defeat Nightmare Moon and seal her inside the moon. What the legend does not say, however, is why. Not is sufficient detail, at least. Nightmare Moon, although that's probably not her true name, so let's call her Suki. Suki was jealous of the Princess. Why? Because the Princess had more power than her? What if Suki was political opposition, and enough of a threat to force the Princess to take action? We don't know, and I refuse to make any assumptions until we find out.
"The legends also said that a thousand years later, the stars would aid in her escape, and it's vital the Element be in responsible hooves when that happens. Somepony devoted to the truth. Somepony able to tell right from wrong. And somepony powerful enough to defeat Nightmare Moon, if it comes to that. Somepony like me."
She walked over to the star chart, eying it carefully. "Still, information is missing. The mention of the stars in the prophecy has significance, I can feel it. There's just a piece or two missing, waiting to be found. When Nightmare Moon returns, I need to be ready. Because that's the day." She paused, a smirk spreading across her face. "That's the day I become famous."
Twilight woke up lost and confused for the second time. She was no longer outside in the cold, but rather in a warm and cozy, if very cramped, room. In the middle of the room a fire burned, and Twilight, feeling a bit too hot on the side facing the fire twisted around, letting the fire reach her in different spots, until she was satisfied and a goofy grin appeared on her. You probably look like Winona right now, she thought, chastising herself. She repositioned herself so that she was sitting neatly, and she looked around.
The first thing she noticed was the room's shape. It wasn't rectangular, and its corners were curved, hinting that she was in something that was hollowed out. There were no furnishings of any sort, and the wall was a dirty brown. The room had one exit, a rounded hole in the wall leading to a slightly larger room ringed by various vegetables, pitchers of milk, and medical appliances, all coated with a fine layer of dirt. Twilight's heart skipped a beat when she realized that the syringes and scalpels she saw may not have been cleaned before their last use. Given the general disarray of the home, cleanliness was unlikely.
Light came in from the entrance, a tunnel that sloped upward until it opened up on what Twilight could only assume was the surface, but it was still too dark to make out what lay beyond that. Twilight assumed that this meant she was underground, that the cave had been carved into the earth. It reminded her a little of the cave in her dream.
With nothing else to do, Twilight reflected on the dream. The first dream had worried her, and she had briefly considered that maybe she was seeing things that hadn't happened yet. Was there magic that could do that? Twilight wondered. She didn't think so. It seemed too much in the realm of fantasy, like curses and hexes. Besides, the second dream had disproved that. The dream had a date. Geloto the Twelfth, 998. Two years ago. But that was impossible; Twilight had been studying at Cantorlot two years ago. There was no reason for her to carve out a new home in the Swayback Mountains. Maybe it was just a nightmare, she reasoned, brought about by a poorly timed baked bads incident. Any other alternative was ridiculous. Dreams don't have literal meaning, she reminded herself. Stuff like that is old mare's tales.
Besides, thought Twilight, there are more important things to deal with right now. She was in somepony else's home right now, somepony that had potentially saved her life. It only made sense that she should find this pony and thank him or her. But something about the closed space scared her, and Twilight realized that if she never found out who had saved her, it wouldn't trouble her in the least.
She lifted up a hoof. On one hoof, she didn't want to be a burden. On another, she thought, lifting up a second to represent her options, she really should at least say thanks. On a third hoof, anypony that lived in a hole in the ground couldn't be a pleasant pony. She lifted her fourth hoof and tumbled to the ground, thinking, on the last hoof, Zecora had taught her to have more trust in others. Shouldn't she at least give the stranger a chance?
Above her, Twilight heard a crash, followed by screaming. She scurried into the larger room and began climbing the slope to the door as quickly as she could. "Hello?" she called. "Are you all right?" As she emerged from the top, now covered in dirt, what she saw made her freeze: a squirrel riding atop a bright orange earth filly. Neither appeared to be enjoying the ride, as the filly was frantically trying to buck the squirrel off, a frenzied look in her eyes. The squirrel refused to let go, instead hissing into the filly's ear.
"Um, hello?" said Twilight nervously.
The filly only screamed in response, still trying to dislodge the animal in her fur.
Twilight sighed, and levitated the squirrel off. For about a second the squirrel's grip held, and it hung upside down, grasping onto whatever it could reach. But the force of Twilight's magic became too much, and the two newcomers were separated. The filly turned her head upward and shot the squirrel a raspberry, and the squirrel chattered back while throwing rude gestures.
"Well, that wasn't very nice of that thing," said the filly. "Don't you think so, miss?"
Twilight looked the filly over. Bright blue eyes filled almost her entire face, and a short-cut red mane dangled limply from her head. She was young, younger than Apple Bloom. And certainly too young to be wandering the Everfree Forest alone. Twilight tried to figure out which question to ask first.
The filly, bored of the silence, grabbed Twilight's hoof with her own and shook it vigorously. "Name's Pumpkin. Nice ta meetcha."
"Hello, Pumpkin," said Twilight, trying to be as friendly as possible. "What are you doing here alone?"
Pumpkin squinted at Twilight. "Explorin', duh. What else? But you should be careful, miss. Evil things lurk in these woods."
"Right," agreed Twilight. "So we should get you out of here as soon as possible."
Pumpkin shrugged off the suggestion. "Nah," she said. "You sound like my mum. I'm brave enough to handle myself. And don't worry. If anything does come after us, I'll protect you."
Twilight had to admire the filly's courage, and she wondered if Pumpkin had ever met Rainbow Dash. "There's more to it than courage, Pumpkin," she said. "Have you ever heard of the Ursa?"
Pumpkin looked up from a rock she had been sniffing with what Twilight decided was an unnecessary amount of interest. "Nope," she said. "But it doesn't sound that scary."
Twilight grinned and raised her forelegs above her head to resemble claws. "It's a giant monster that lives inside this very forest, bigger than Sugar Cube Corner. And it has enormous fangs that can rip a pony in half with a single bite. And they say if you wake it up by wandering too close to its den, it will keep chasing you forever until you leave the forest."
Pumpkin stared into Twilight's eyes, and for a moment Twilight believed her plan was working.
"Yawn," said Pumpkin at last.
"You aren't scared?" asked Twilight. She had considered using magic to make lights and noises in the background, but she worried that would be too effective for use on a young filly like Pumpkin. Now she was beginning to wish she had.
"Course not," said Pumpkin, laughing. "And course it's bigger than a sugar cube. Nopony would be scared of it otherwise."
"Fine," said Twilight, deciding to play along with Pumpkin's game. "I guess I'll accept your help. But stay close to me; I don't want to get lost."
"Then it's a good thing you have me," Pumpkin nearly shouted, "Cause I'm an adventurer, and we adventurers never get lost." She began to skip off into the darkness.
"Wait!" said Twilight, trying to keep up. Pumpkin stopped and turned, already getting bored with her new companion. "I mean," continued Twilight, "What were you doing when I found you? When you found me, I guess. How did you get here?"
"Well," said Pumpkin, "I was explorin', like I told ya. Only I didn't climb out of the ground like you did, and when I got too close to this hole, that squirrel started throwing a big ol' hissy fit. What happened to that thing, anyways?" She looked up to see that the squirrel, having accepted it fate to be free of gravity, was now performing acrobatic twists and turns in midair. Pumpkin looked at Twilight. "We gonna do something 'bout that?"
"Oh, right," said Twilight, embarrassed to have completely forgotten about the squirrel. But in that case, she reasoned, shouldn't the squirrel have fallen the moment she stopped thinking about it? Twilight shrugged and lowered the squirrel to eye level. "Are you going to stop bothering Pumpkin if I let you go?" she asked.
The squirrel chattered in response, and Twilight realized she didn't understand squirrel-talk. If only Fluttershy was here, she bemoaned. She removed the levitation, and the squirrel fell to the ground. It shouted something that sounded angry and then retreated into the hole Twilight had climbed out of.
Well," said Twilight. "Glad that's over with." As she raised her eyes, she looked out into the darkness on the other side of the cave. Two blue eyes stared back at her. "Pumpkin," she said quietly.
Pumpkin turned. "Yes?" she called with a volume that made Twilight flinch. "What is it?"
"Stand absolutely still," warned Twilight. "Don't make a sound."
"Why?" complained Pumpkin. "What's there?"
Twilight looked for the eyes again, but they were gone. "Nothing, I guess," she muttered. She could have sworn she saw something there, but whatever it was had vanished.
"What if it was Zecora?" Pumpkin asked.
Twilight stared at the filly. "What?"
"Lots of evil things in these woods, and Zecora's one of them. She's an enchantress who lures young fillies into the darkest parts of the woods and gobbles them up."
"I don't think so," said Twilight. "Who told you that?"
"My mum," said Pumpkin, offended. "And she's smart about stuff like that."
"I don't think that was Zecora," she said, hoping it was. Maybe then they were safe.
"Fine," said Pumpkin, grumpy. Then her face lit up. "Maybe it was a manaco."
"Pumpkin..." began Twilight. "And I think you mean a mantacore."
"Ooh, ooh, I got it this time!" shouted Pumpkin, excited. "It was a Twilight Sparkle!"
Twilight froze. "A what?" she asked. She must have just misheard the filly.
"Twilight Sparkle! She's an evil sorceress that lives up in the mountains. But sometimes she comes down to the forest to perform her magic rituals. And she doesn't eat fillies. She sucks out their souls with her magic." She looked at Twilight suspiciously. "What? You never heard of a Twilight Sparkle?"