A World Without Rainbows - Act I: The First Breach
Chapter 1 - Entrada
The voice carried authority. It was the voice of a pony who had the situation under control, who knew what she was doing at all times, almost laughter in the face of peril. But it was also an honest voice, one of compassion and loyalty, one whose softness came not from weakness, but from kindness. It was a magical voice. Most of all, it was a voice of royalty, and it spoke again.
"Twilight Sparkle," said Princess Celestia. "Pray tell, what do you think you are doing?"
In the middle of the large chamber, the unicorn pony Twilight Sparkle searched desperately for an exit, but the royal guards had already blocked them all. The question gave her reason to pause, and she wondered what she was doing. She didn't remember how she had gotten here, only that she needed to escape.
One of the guards, an earth pony named Silver Shield, pressed himself against the wall, trying to hide. You foal, he chastised himself. You should be protecting the princess, not being a coward. Before he could make a move, a pegasus pony emerged from the darkness behind the princess. He recognized her as his old friend, Stone Wall.
"Stand back, your highness," warned Stone Wall. "Your life is more valuable than that of this traitor."
"Nonsense," said Celestia. "Let me speak to her."
Twilight grinned. "Your guard is right, Celestia," she said, her scorn clear. "You should listen to them more often. But if we're speaking about lives, then I have a proposition to make." Her horn began to glow with an intense light that forced the guards to close their eyes. Only Celestia looked on, unfazed. A similar light formed around Stone Wall, and the mare discovered that she was leaving the ground. She was pulled across the room until she was hovering directly above Twilight. "Let me go," she said. "Or else I snap her neck."
Silver Shield couldn't help himself. "Wally!" he cried, accidentally using her nickname.
Celestia remained calm, and Twilight wondered if she was getting through to the stubborn princess at all.
"Nopony has to die today, Twilight," said Celestia. "If you would merely return that which you have taken, then perhaps we can resolve this peacefully."
Twilight was enraged. "What, so you can hide it away again in some dusty old cellar? Control the ponies' knowledge, keep them pinned down?" She lowered her gaze, and the shame of her past transgressions passed through her. "I know I've done bad things before, your Highness. I don't deserve the power within the Element of Magic. But neither does a tyrant. Better my hooves than yours."
Twilight knew she was past the point at which she could escape without any violence. She was preparing to fight her way out when the princess's words shocked her.
"Let her go."
"No!" cried Stone Wall from her place above Twilight. "If that stone does what you said it does, then we need to protect it. Somepony like her could wreak havoc."
"My decision is final, Stone Wall," said Celestia. "Let Twilight go free."
Twilight awoke to the sensation of water pouring down her face. She was in the perpetual gloom of the Everfree Forest, her body sunk into the thick mud that coated much of the ground. Dazed, Twilight saw no problem with letting the world spin in circles around her for a little while.
After a minute, Twilight's eyes had focused and adjusted to their environment, and she tried to stand on her hooves, but as she did, the world shifted out of focus, up became down, and she found herself lying on her side.
Another splash of water hit her flank, and she shivered at the cold. She tried to figure out where it had come from, and she finally concluded that it was raining. The canopy was blocking and gathering most of the water, until the weight became too great and the water would be dumped in a single moment on anything that may have been lying below. See? thought Twilight. At least your brain still works.
Instead of trying her seemingly useless body, Twilight instead considered what she could do with her mind. Her first priority was to figure out what she was doing here. She tried to think back to the night before, but found nothing. It was like a dream, with a middle but no beginning. She knew who she was. Her name was Twilight Sparkle. She was Princess Celestia's apprentice. She turned these thoughts over in her head, quickly confirming them before moving on to the more complicated ones. She had been sent to Ponyville to learn friendship, and she had met timid Fluttershy, kind Applejack, brash Rainbow Dash, eccentric Pinkie Pie, and stubborn Rarity. She met Zecora on a trip in the Swayback Mountains.
But what then? What was the short term, the events leading up to her strange awakening? Twilight couldn't recall. Feeling a little better, she stood, and while the forest swayed beneath her and threatened to toss her aside, she held her ground and stared down the feeling until it gave up and went away. The one thing Twilight knew was that she wasn't going to get any answers lying in the mud. Picking a random direction, Twilight began to walk, and while she did, she pondered her dream.
It didn't feel like most dreams. Her past dreams usually faded after a couple minutes, leaving behind only brief flashes of color and emotion. But this one stuck, almost like it wasn't a dream at all but a memory that didn't tie in with the rest, and so she had assumed she had dreamed it. She saw it in perfect clarity, the calm in her mentor's voice and the anger of the somehow-familiar pony she had lifted above her head.
But it couldn't have been real, of course. Levitating an entire, struggling pony was a bit beyond her ability.
A loud noise, like the screeching of an owl, echoed from Twilight's left, and she winced in pain. Her head was pounding, and she brought a hoof to her forehead in hopes that it would help her cope. Instead, her hoof came away sticky. She realized now that she needed to find better shelter. The dark dampness of the forest could not possibly be healthy, especially in her potentially concussed state. Maybe she could find Zecora to help her.
Except Zecora was where she had come from. She remembered now that she had been returning to Ponyville from Zecora's home when she'd collapsed. But it hadn't been raining, nor had it been this dark. Twilight turned around and began walking back the way she came. Unfortunately, the path looked nothing like where she had been moments ago. Her walk until this point had been completely level, but now the forest seemed to slope downward in front of her, almost inviting her into its depths. Twilight considered stopping and resting, or perhaps calling for help, but before she could make up her mind, her front hoof hit a stump, and she tumbled.
She rolled down the hill, the thorns and branches tearing at her as she passed them. The ground finally leveled out by a lakebed, and Twilight slowed to a halt, her head half-submerged in the water. Unable to gather the strength to stand again, she wondered if she was going to die when a four-legged figure appeared on the other side of the lake, silhouetted by the darkness and Twilight's own mind-fog.
Zecora? she remembered thinking before the darkness swallowed her up completely.
Applejack surveyed the ponies gathered in a circle alongside her. "Is everypony accounted for?" she asked, even though it was clear they all were.
"Aye, aye, Captain Jack!" shouted Pinkie Pie as she saluted, her pet alligator Gummy in her lap.
Rarity was a bit preoccupied eying her surroundings with disgust. "Yes, but why did we have to meet here?" They were inside one of the Apple family's barns, and the smell reminded Rarity of one of the "surprises" Opalescence had left after she had eaten one too many outdated treats.
Fluttershy, who had until this point said nothing, boldly attempted to answer Rarity's question. She tried to explain that Apple Bloom's treehouse, the original meeting place, was still being rebuilt after the latest attempt by the Cutie Mark Crusaders to find their talents had backfired in an embarrassing and extremely combustible way (an incident Apple Bloom refused to elaborate on, other than to state that it was "a minor miscalculation"), but as she opened her mouth she was interrupted by Rainbow Dash.
"Yes, Applejack," she said, irritated. "Everypony's here but Twilight. Now will you please just tell us what this is all about?"
"But that's exactly what it's about," said Applejack. The other ponies stared at her, uncomprehending. "Twilight," she clarified. "Don't y'all think she's been acting mighty strange recently?"
"Yeah, of course we have," said Rainbow Dash, who actually hadn't noticed at all.
"Now that you mention it," mused Rarity, putting a hoof to her mouth in thought. "She's been quite kind to me recently, letting me put her in my dresses to see how they fit."
"That's not what Applejack means at all, Rarity," said Pinkie Pie, and her voice echoed across the barn. "Haven't you noticed how she's been behaving these past couple weeks? She's been really really, well, Twilight!"
Rainbow Dash shot Pinkie a glare that was a mix of frustration and confusion. "And that's weird, why, exactly?" she asked.
Pinkie Pie shook her head. "No, I mean super-duper Twilight. Like, extra Twilighty. You know how she spends a lot of time reading and not wanting to go sky diving or ice cream tasting or skating or skiing or hang gliding or cake decorating or any of the fun stuff? She's even worse about it now. She doesn't even pretend anymore, and when she does, like when she's trying on Rarity's dresses, she gets all funny about it, like she's doing it because she has to, but she wants to be somewhere else. It's like she never learned anything about how fun friends can be."
Applejack quieted the rest of them. "What Pinkie Pie and I have been trying to say is, something's funny going on with Twilight. Whatever it is, we need to let her know we're there for her."
"Right," said Fluttershy, who hadn't been following the conversation but felt that she should agree anyway. She'd been noticing changes in Twilight too. She never seemed to want to talk anymore. "What do we do?" she asked.
Pinkie was the first to answer. "A party, duh," she said, as if the other ponies were stupid for not knowing the obvious. "A good party can wipe a frown like that off of anypony. Even a grim-dark-sadface-pony like Twilight."
Dash seemed skeptical. "So Twilight wants to be left alone sometimes," she said. "There's nothing wrong with that, and a party isn't going to change anything."
Applejack ignored her. "I'll leave Pinkie Pie in charge of planning the party," she said. "A surprise party at the Sugar Cube Corner. How does that sound? Anypony opposed to the idea, say Neigh."
Rainbow Dash sighed in frustration, but nopony said neigh. And so it was decided, and Pinkie Pie set to work preparing Twilight's surprise party. She hung balloons across the store, which she had twisted into the shapes of different foods. After a couple balloon cakes and balloon pineapples, Pinkie realized the difficulty in twisting balloons with hooves and decided to make the rest hot dogs. She prepared a batch of cupcakes filled with chopped up sprinkles she decided to call "Sparkle Bits." By the next day, the Sugar Cube Corner had been transformed into a festive environment. Even Rarity failed to hide her amazement.
"Wow," the unicorn pony had said upon seeing all the brightly colored streamers and balloons. "You, er, outdid yourself this time, Pinkie."
"The banner was a nice touch," added Applejack, gesturing toward the large banner which read, "Welcome to your surprise party, Twilight Sparkle." "Although the bottom half it looks erased and re-written," she added as an afterthought.
"Just making do with what I got," said Pinkie, proud of herself.
"It is very pretty," added Fluttershy quietly.
"Yup!" said Pinkie Pie. "Only the best for Twilight. I can't wait to see the look on her face when Rainbow Dash brings her back here!"
"Actually," said Rainbow Dash, who was now standing in the doorway, a folded paper in her mouth, "she's not home."
"What?" screamed Pinkie Pie, and Applejack covered her ears.
"She's not home," Rainbow repeated. "Not a big deal, we'll stop by later. And she left a note. See?" She spit out the paper, which fluttered gently to the floor.
Rarity levitated the note, shuddering in disgust at the saliva still dripping off of it. "Gone to Zecora's. Be back soon," she read aloud. "That's all it says." She stared at Rainbow Dash. "You could have just told us."
Rainbow Dash shrugged. "Sorry," she muttered.
"No party..." said Pinkie Pie softly, still in a state of shock.
Applejack patted Pinkie on her back. "Sorry, sugar," she said. "We'll still party, just tomorrow."
Pinkie's face instantly lit up. "Yay!" she shouted, beginning to literally bounce off the walls. She gathered some boxes from a back room and began neatly storing the party decorations. The other ponies, after a brief goodbye, left to return home. As Rarity left, however, she felt a hoof on her shoulder, stopping her. The look of urgency and worry on Applejack's face, told Rarity enough, and she turned and followed her friend as they walked toward the front of the ranch.
"Something's not right here," began Applejack, after they were a safe distance away from anypony else. "I can't say why, but it reeks something awful."
Rarity nodded. "I didn't believe you until I saw the note. But it just doesn't sound like something Twilight would write."
"Exactly," said Applejack. "This is Twilight the egghead we're dealing with. She once wrote me an eight page apology letter because she was too busy to go kelp-fishing with me. A six word note just don't seem her thing at all."
"I could check the writing," offered Rarity.
"Do it. I knew something fishy was going on with Twilight. And I won't stop until we get to the bottom of it, honest."