Chapter 1: Establishments
In the evening at the library in Ponyville, Twilight Sparkle stood outside her front door. The sun had already retired below the horizon, but it left enough fading light to make the streets and houses of Ponyville comfortably visible. She was watching the sky however, since earlier in the day she had been informed via mail by her mentor, Princess Celestia, that she would be charged with housing the new arrival and teaching him about Equestria. Princess Celestia had arranged for him to be brought to her this evening. The decision had Twilight nervous. She trusted the Princess' judgment but from what she had already seen she had a hard time keeping a positive outlook.
Twilight caught the shape of the Princess' chariot descending from the sky. As it approached it became clear the chariot wasn't carrying the Princess herself but only Twilight's expected arrival accompanied by the royal guard. The chariot gently glided down to make a landing outside the library, only a few feet away from Twilight as she drew a slow breath to ready herself. When the chariot came to a stop she took a step forward and prepared to greet the occupant.
His shape and features were cleanly visible in the dimming evening light and Twilight recognized him from when she had seen him yesterday, though he was wearing something different now. He wasn't a pony. Rather than having four legs divided between front and back, he walked only on two and had two arms instead. Each, legs and arms, had a set of five digits at the end, making him similar to several different types of creatures found around Equestria, but he wasn't one that she had ever seen or heard of before. He was wearing some kind of hoodless white robe with a distinct upper and lower half that looked like it was hastily thrown together out of table cloth. It was one piece but almost had the appearance of half a white cloak thrown over a white skirt. The crude robe covered most of his light skin, but his hands could be seen hanging out of the top half and his feet out of the lower half. His hair was medium brown, hanging down to just above his shoulders with a very slight natural curl. It stayed out of the front of his face because of a history of keeping it pulled back, leaving his light brown eyes visible.
The chariot guards stood stoically to either side as he stepped off and moved forward.
"Miss Twilight Sparkle?" he asked.
With only slight hesitation Twilight acknowledged, "Yes. So you must be James? It's nice to meet you."
James gave a quick bow of his head with a drained return of, "It's nice to meet you." It was a clean start that already helped set a more positive mood than the worse case scenarios Twilight had imagined, and she drew what confidence she could from that. She could tell by his tone that he had a sort of exhaustion in him so she invited him inside the library, giving a nod to the guards. Their task complete, they brought the chariot back into the sky to return to Canterlot.
Twilight opened the library's front door and proceeded inside. As he followed, James made to himself an observation regarding his fortune with scale. Princess Celestia, it seemed, was definitely larger than the average pony. All the others he had seen so far were similar in size to Twilight, whose eyes were at his chest level. If the average pony height was barely shorter than him then most structures and furnishing would be adequately sized for him as well. Or at the very least he wouldn't have to duck through every doorway. That was one less thing to worry about.
His thoughts moved on when he saw the inside of the library though. He had noticed that the building resembled a tree from the outside but he wasn't paying the town's appearance much mind on his ride over. The natural wood workings and earthy design of the library interior, besides being beautifully done, were a far take away from the stone, marble, and gold of Canterlot Castle. Either the library was, in fact, carved out of a tree or the builders of Ponyville had a very ornate nature of design that betrayed the simplistic description of the town that he had been given.
There was a short section of the far wall that recessed, beginning knee-high above the floor level, probably with the original intention to serve as a spot to place decor or shelving though now it was vacant. Next to it was a small square table with a single unlit candle. The table had a simple blue cloth covering, wrinkled slightly from having books left on it time and time again. There were no books now, as any that had been left there earlier were put away by Twilight's assistant before he retired early for the evening.
Twilight brought James over to the recess and asked him, "Would you like to sit down?"
James turned and lowered himself into the recess, resting his back against the wall. It was a good size to serve as a comfortable bench. "Thank you, Miss Sparkle," he said.
Although she appreciated the formality, she knew it would eventually start to grate on her. "You can just call me Twilight."
"Sure then. Twilight," he responded. Dropping the formality seemed to ease him a little as well.
Twilight was able to catch a better look at him in the library's lamp light and it seemed to her that he wasn't actually tired physically, but that the whole experience in general was wearing on his thoughts. She set herself down next to the table facing James and took a moment to pick her words. If she was to be the one responsible for him she wanted to start this right.
"So..." she began, leaving a momentary beat, "Princess Celestia has assigned me to be your caretaker and to teach you about Equestria. I apologize that I don't really have any space set up for you right now since this is still all kind of sudden, but I do have some pillows and blankets ready, at least."
"Oh," he replied, before immediately thanking her. But he was a bit a puzzled that her opening concern was sleeping arrangements. He asked her, "Is that all the Princess told you?"
"The Princess' letter said that you were stuck here in Equestria so she was assigning you to me so I could teach you about Equestria and our way of life. That was all it said really." Twilight was a little frustrated to admit it, but she did wish there were more details. It was that lack of knowledge that was making her nervous about this whole thing. All she had to go on was what she saw of him yesterday and that did not leave good impressions. Still, she completely trusted Princess Celestia and she told herself that would carry her through. "Perhaps," she started again after a pause, "you could tell me about yourself then?"
James dropped his gaze, turning his head slightly to the side. Princess Celestia had asked him to explain himself. With all he had told the Princess still fresh in his memory, he was trying to arrange it to be more coherent this time around in addition to maybe avoiding some of the trouble that came up the first time. But where precisely to begin?
"Now," Princess Celestia began as she turned to face James, "what are you doing here?"
They were in a large room in one of the towers of Canterlot Castle. The Princess was standing by closed glass doors to a balcony that overlooked the city. She had dismissed the guards awhile earlier since bringing him into Canterlot had proved no trouble and he seemed to present no immediate danger. He was unreserved and non-aggressive in answering the basic questions she asked on the flight to Canterlot, such as his name. At that she had decided that she wanted some time alone with him, to question him more directly before she would have to decide how best to handle him. She had him brought up to the tower for this purpose but had been giving him respite for a time so he could collect himself. Now she was ready to begin questioning.
He was sitting on a stool, rubbing a cloth the Princess had brought to him against any bruises, cuts, and burns he had gotten from his ordeal. It was soaked in a deep blue mixture that she had promised would help. It wasn't the kind of first-aid he was used to but, whatever it was, it certainly provided relief and seemed to promote swift healing. In order to apply the cloth James had removed the heavy armored jacket of his uniform and left it on the floor of the room.
Pressing the cloth against a bruise on his left side, he looked back at Princess Celestia with his mouth slightly open, but he wasn't saying anything. He took a moment to draw a deep breath. Everything was still coming at him so quickly. It wasn't much more than four hours ago that everything raced with life-or-death intensity and now he was still trying to process that he was looking at a talking unicorn with wings and flowing rainbow hair. The change was incredibly abrupt.
Finally he started, "We... didn't mean to come here. It shouldn't...," but he trailed off, wrestling with himself as to whether what he was going to say would make any sense to her.
Princess Celestia stepped closer. Removed from the initial chaos he came in, tending to his injuries, and lost in the situation that he now found himself in, the Princess thought it much easier to see him as simply a confused individual. She pulled some of the authority from her voice to try and emphasize her sympathy, but she was still intending to draw out answers. Her obligation to protect the ponies of Equestria was still what she was most worried about. "Can you start at the beginning?" she asked.
James thought to himself, "What beginning?" and let his eyes wander for a moment. When he had a better idea of where to start, he looked back at the Princess and asked, "Did you see that structure? The thing that we... that I came in?"
She knew was he was talking about. "No," she answered. "I didn't see it myself. Only what was left of it when I arrived."
"Alright. Okay," he nodded, reassuring himself that this would be the best place to begin. "Well, we called it the 'DT'. Dimensional Tower. I mean, the guys that actually built it had some real name for..." He shook his head quickly and focused himself. Stick to the relevant information. "It was the only thing of its kind ever built. Some decades of research, with more years of construction. It was for research into extra-dimensional... uh... stuff..." He couldn't really read if Princess Celestia was following him, but she was staring at him very intently and listening carefully.
He set the soaked cloth aside on a table next to him so he could use both his hands. "I didn't build it but, anyway, this is how one of the scientists who did build it explained what it was meant for to me once... what it was supposed to do." He held his hands up, fingers curved, demonstrating a shape in the air. "Dimensions, or maybe the word 'universes' might be better, are like islands in a giant ocean." Then he started waving his hands around the imaginary bubble he had made in the air. "Surrounded by water, without some kind of ship there is no access to other islands which might theoretically be out there." He caught what he just said; the word theoretically didn't actually apply any more. "Anyway," he continued, "the water in this case is some kind of... 'dimensional void', the scientist called it. Empty space where... universes or whatever don't exist. The DT was supposed to be the 'ship' for exploring that 'water'." He held an open palm over the imaginary bubble and "sailed" it out into the imaginary ocean. "It was a research effort to start investigating what they understood of that theory anyway. A structure with some massive energy output that, they said, could 'wade' out into the 'ocean' and return back to our 'island'. Our world. It was supposed to be for some kind of big test of the theory."
Princess Celestia was still only listening and watching, so after a moment he asked her, "Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"
She immediately replied, "Yes. Please, go on." Although she couldn't have known directly that this was the truth, she was already aware that his origins had to be something fairly extraordinary. After all, it's quite difficult to surprise somepony with something new if they have lived for over a thousand years. Never before in her history of ruling Equestria has anyone ever come along from another universe.
"Alright," James started again. With the key element in place, now was the time to explain the circumstances that had caused everything to transpire. "So, we... ah... my countrymen and I, were at war with-"
But the Princess' reaction to the word "war" was immediate. That was what she feared. There hadn't been a war, a real war, in Equestria for a very, very long time. Longer than her own age. Not a war in the way she knew he meant it. Armies moving against each other. Ponies killing other ponies they've never even met before all in the name of some supposed larger cause. From what had happened when James first arrived she almost knew that this would be the case, even if she had hoped not to hear it. And what seemed worst to her was the almost casual, accepted way he used the word.
She realized that he had picked up on her reaction since he immediately stopped speaking. Princess Celestia leaned in close to him and put the authority back in her voice, but she still tried as best she could to maintain and express her sympathy. Even if he accepted war she could not say he was a bringer of war. "Please listen to me," she said. She explained that Equestria does not have war. That war had long been forgotten. "As ruler of Equestria, I wish to never see war hurt my little ponies. I need you to understand that. To understand why I am taking your presence very seriously. Do you understand?"
There was a quiet silence before his response. "Yes." He supposed he understood. Nobody wants war but sometimes isn't it just inevitable? On the one hand that's how he felt but on the other he had a hard time imagining multicolored horses slaughtering each other on a battlefield, so he took her word for truth.
The Princess backed off. "Thank you. Please, continue your story."
James was hesitant to broach the subject of the war more directly, so he tried to eliminate some of the details and skip immediately to what seemed most relevant to Princess Celestia. "Alright. So... we were... in conflict. What the DT was built for wasn't important for the conflict itself, but the power output of the thing was still substantial, so that did make it important. In case-" but he realized he shouldn't go into all the "what if" fears that seemed critical at the time. "It was still important," he said. "That's why we were there. To hold onto it.
"But it got attacked," he continued. "They weren't trying to destroy the DT, they just wanted to take it. We tried to drive them back. Then..." He recalled a moment he remembered distinctly. "Somebody must have turned it on. I don't know who, or how, or why. But the DT just... lit up with energy. And it made this tremendous noise like... a growl increasingly harmonizing with itself over and over again. We looked outside and saw everything fade, replaced with... it's very hard to describe it..." He closed his eyes to see it again. "It was like an avalanche of storm clouds infinitely crashing against each other. It must have been the void. The ocean between the islands.
"Whoever was in the DT when it was turned on, like myself, was taken with it. Anybody outside would have been left behind in my world. I guess. We, the ones who were inside, organized ourselves as best we could to try and figure out what we could do and because there were still enemies-"
Princess Celestia's expression soured slightly, so he tried to rework his wording a little.
"... Because there was still fighting going on inside. One of the guys who was doing research at the DT was also there with us. He had refused to leave earlier even though we knew there was going to be a battle, so he stayed as a 'technical adviser' on the place, just in case. He was insistent we get to the control room. I think he said he could... 'turn the ship around' so to speak. We couldn't contact anybody who was supposed to be there, so we had to assume that e-... ah... that the people we were fighting had taken the control room.
"We never made it though. There was more fighting before we got there, and that's when somebody noticed something appearing outside again. We could see forests and mountains, but it wasn't where we had started. The technical adviser just started rambling. I mean, I tried to follow it as best I could."
He thought hard to bring the bulk of his interpretation to the surface. "He was saying that the DT couldn't move through local space, so if we appeared somewhere else it had to be somewhere in a different universe. But he said that it was unbelievable. A million to one chance." He raised his hands again to the imaginary bubble. "Going with the island metaphor, I guess it would be like sailing the ship out randomly into the massive unknown ocean and by sheer luck running aground on a different island. It shouldn't have happened. We didn't mean to come here."
James waited for a response from the Princess, still trying to gauge if she was understanding what he was saying. This time, after some silence, she acknowledged with an, "I understand." But again, she asked him to continue, waiting and listening patiently.
"Okay... so... while we were trying to figure it out, the DT started making a different noise. The energy moving through it hadn't died down either. And then it just started shaking, like a small earthquake. The adviser seemed pretty sure that the thing was going to come apart. I didn't catch what he thought was causing it. Maybe the ship just wasn't ready for its maiden voyage yet. It was serious though. I remember looking out one of the windows and seeing arcs of energy shoot out of the place. A few even whipped inwards, cutting holes in the walls and floors. That's probably what started collapsing the structure."
Shaking his head, James said, "I guess there's not much more from there." His own recollection of it was hazy. Everything had happened so fast it was hard to keep the chain of events straight in his head. "We tried to get out but there was so much chaos... and there was still fighting. At some point I got separated from my allies when one of the arcs tore through the hallway we were in and I got dropped a level or two. The only other person I found while trying to get out from there was one of... the people we were fighting. Before we could do anything, one of the walls gave way and the room started collapsing, but..." Only thinking about it now did he realize what had happened. "We got pulled out. One of those flying ponies must have grabbed us and dragged us out! I remember just being rapidly pulled through the air, avoiding all the sparking energy and being dropped in the grass a way off from the DT. When I looked back I saw the whole thing just fall in on itself. All the energy started folding in over it too. Like it was eating everything up. All that was left when the energy dissipated and the noise stopped were scattered fragments of the DT." It was an event that seemed to drag on for minutes as he was watching it, but he knew it probably didn't take more than a dozen seconds. He repeated exactly what was going through his mind as he witnessed it, "No one else made it out..."
He stopped with his story. "You know the rest from there. That's where you found me." But the Princess shook her head. There was one more important thing that had happened. And she was right, but James was omitting it after seeing her reaction to the idea of violence, hoping to avoid having to state it directly to her. Since she was quietly insisting for his complete account, he resigned to it.
"I killed the other soldier," he said. He immediately got defensive and tried to justify himself, "But he attacked me! I was just defending myself." The memory flashed through his mind. Still distracted from the sudden escape and witnessing the destruction of the DT, he had turned to look around and caught site of several unusual creatures not far off. Horses, but incredibly colored with stylized manes. Their form was strange too. Some even had wings and some had horns like a unicorn! He remembered especially the faces and the eyes. Different in a way from the horses he had always known. As if they were more expressive and emotive. More relatable.
That's when James noticed the enemy soldier a few feet from him. The soldier was clearly gathering his wits as well. Their eyes met and there was a vacant moment where neither was sure what to really do. But suddenly the other soldier made his decision. He drew a combat knife and rushed at James. In that moment, James reacted in the way he was trained to. Blocking the attack and disarming the other soldier, he then drove the knife back into the soldier's neck. "He lunged at me and I countered."
He remembered the ponies who had witnessed it were shocked and moved back. That was when Princess Celestia arrived in her chariot. Dismayed at what she found there, she had approached James, ready to invoke her power as necessary. But she gave him the chance to disarm and come with her. He wasn't responsive at first, which Princess Celestia wasn't sure if she should take as resistance to her offer but, in actuality, it was just him trying to comprehend what was going on. This horse was bigger than them all and it talked! He regained enough composure to accede to her command; he had no intention of fighting. He was only trying to make sense of everything that had just happened. After that, Princess Celestia had him brought on her chariot to ferry him to Canterlot Castle.
Princess Celestia wasn't moved by James' justifications of self-defense. She did acknowledge his finishing of his story as she had requested with a simple, "Thank you for your honesty." That was what she felt. She didn't believe he was concocting a ruse or trying to lay excuses out but that he had given her his best understanding of what had happened. And, though the idea was repugnant to her in conception, she felt that he did earnestly believe his own justifications even if he was pleading them in a defensive manner.
She asked him, "Are there going to be more of your kind who will cross into Equestria? Maybe to search for you?"
He shook his head no. He had already thought about the possibility earlier. At the mention of the idea again, he brought his right thumb and index finger to the bridge of his nose and rubbed, blinking his eyes. It was a preemptive measure, as it wasn't an appropriate time to tear up. After a second he elaborated, "The DT was the only one of its kind. They would have to build another one at great expense and even then it was only pure, dumb luck that the thing even came here to begin with. I don't think they could try and follow if they wanted to. How would they know which 'direction' the original went in?"
"So, how can you get back to your world?" Princess Celestia asked.
"I can't." He looked at the floor and held an open palm up. "But, oh well, right? I mean, I should probably be dead so be thankful for what you've got. Right?"
The Princess turned and walked over to the doors separating the room from the balcony, looking into the night sky with the lights of the city radiating up from below. Since he is now stuck in Equestria, she must decide what to do with him. There was a recognized danger in an individual who so willingly accepted killing in the right circumstances. There was, in him, the idea that it was okay to cross that line at certain times, even if they were extreme times. Someone who could, to themselves, justify those measures that no pony has ever believed even conceivable since antiquity. But she also recognized that he was an individual who had no real malice of his own. Violence was acceptable to him if justified, but he didn't seek to bring it about. Even though he accepted war, he was not a bringer of war. She needed time.
With her silence, James felt he saw the writing on the wall. Given her positions on violence it wasn't hard to imagine that she'd never take a risk. He was also drained from the entire experience so he didn't work up any resistance. "I suppose you're going to lock me in the dungeon, then."
It brought a small smile to the Princess, who was amused with his interpretation. She turned back to him saying, "I think that's enough for tonight. Let's get you something to eat and then I'll show you to a guest suite where you can stay for the night." She started towards the door of the room to head back into the castle.
Turning his head to follow her as she passed, he was genuinely surprised. It didn't sound like she was pulling his leg or just referring to a cell in a sarcastic manner. He reached down, grabbing the sleeve of his jacket on the floor when Princess Celestia turns back towards him.
"Please leave your armor here." Bizarre looking armor to be sure, but it was clear that was its purpose. "I don't want you keeping it, and you won't need it in Equestria. If you're going to be staying in Equestria, there are some things you'll need to leave behind."
He dropped the jacket and stood up. He could understand that, and he has been forced to leave everything else behind whether he wanted to or not so some clothes with no serious sentimental connection wasn't much more. But it did bring a concern to mind. "I'll need something else to wear, then."
Princess Celestia promised to take care of that. She would throw together something for him to change into before he turned in for the night. "Now please," she said, "Follow me." She took one more step before turning back slightly and saying, "Also, you should know that the castle doesn't even have a dungeon."