Chapter 46: Relief
Twilight's mind began working overtime. Flare had called herself merciful. The Study of Alicorns had mentioned that Celestia was the Alicorn of Mercy. Pinkamina had as well, during her interrogation.
Any of the history books that had a picture of Celestia depicted her with the same pink hair. How had Twilight not thought of it before? Celestia and Luna must have ascended at some point. And, with their knack for magic, it made sense that they would have started out as unicorns. So who was this pony, who made Twilight so sure she was looking at a refracted form of her teacher? Was she an alternate path Celestia, like Lustrous Revolt was to Twilight? Or was this another, different oddity of the Forgotten Realm?
Flare looked between the bewildered resurrected ponies. “I beg your pardon, have I offended you in some manner?”
“No, it's just that... You look like somebody we know. Somebody dear to us.”
“Well, there are certainly worse people to be compared to.” She smiled, her eyes closed in sincerity. “I'm sorry that your awakening wasn't more gradual.”
“Pardon me, miss,” Applejack began. “What exactly happened? We all blanked out at the edge of the field.”
“Ah, yes. One of the guards came and told me of your predicament. I realized their foolishness in sending you away, and was preparing a patrol to go rescue you. When the changelings attacked, those plans were called off, for obvious reasons. Had you not made it to the edge of the field, I'm afraid I might not have been able to rescue you. That was quite the impressive feat, miss...?”
“A beautiful name. You really care about your friends, don't you?”
Twilight smiled. “I wouldn't be here without them. Speaking of which, where's Spike? The little dragon we sent in ahead of us?”
“He's off helping prepare a meal for us later. He wanted to do what he could to help you while you were out, and I managed to convince him that would be the best way to do so. I'm certain he'll be upset that he wasn't here when you woke up, and I apologize for that.”
“No, it's alright. He's a tough guy, but sometimes he needs a break from all of this doom-and-gloom speech. Excuse me, I just had a thought. If you brought us into your fortress, didn't you break quarantine?”
“Yes, but could I abandon somebody in need? I was willing to take the risk, and my followers realize they should have as well. A bit of unpleasantness on our part is worth preventing somebody else's greater pain. I do think proper precautions were taken, and with any luck, nobody will contract the changeling's virus.”
Rainbow threw off the covers, not really feeling like lying about. She sat up, stretching her neck. “So where's the changeling army now?”
“Outside our gates, trying to siege us. But as our spell is specifically made to keep them out, they're having a hard time making progress.”
Rarity, after checking her hair was reasonably tidy, asked what was on everyone’s mind. “Are we safe here?”
“As long as you are within the walls, I promise no harm will come to you.”
The door opened, and in stepped an elegant and poised zebra. Her mane was longer than most ponies’, draping around her neck softly, the blacks and whites blending to create the whole spectrum of monochrome. She nodded greetings to the six ponies before stepping to a table, where she deposited the contents of her pack. There were herbal ingredients, some Twilight had never seen before, a book, and a small grindstone.
“Good to see you, Salie.”
“Indeed, a good day to you, miss Flare. I trust the visitors have been well under your care?”
“Quite well, but I’ve done all I can do. I’ll leave the rest to you.”
She stopped speaking suddenly. “I beg your forgiveness. I haven’t even asked what your course of action is, being so caught up in my own concerns.”
“We have an appointment in Windark that we have to keep.”
“Windark? It’s been largely abandoned for about a year and a half now. How soon do you need to get there?”
“As soon as possible, within two days at the very latest.”
“Oh dear, this is grave news. We could almost certainly outlast the changelings, but you don’t have time, it seems. With an army surrounding us, it will be a challenge to get you out safely. Although, Salie, I believe you have the answer to solution?”
The zebra, Salie, quickly mixed a few ingredients and mashed them into a pulp. She placed the resulting mush into a small ceramic box, handing it over to Twilight. “The changeling’s curse has no easy cure, but foresight can make your good health sure. Should you wish to leave this place, rub the poultice I have made onto your face. The smell, while foul, disguises your team. The average soldier will not know you, but watch out for their queen.”
She retrieved another concoction she had apparently made before entering the room. “This is in case your disguise becomes unmasked. Should you get attacked, apply it fast. It will repel them and you will get past.”
Twilight took the offered medicines. “Thank you very much. You remind me of a good friend of mine. She’s another zebra who’s good with herbal medicines.”
“Ah, you speak of Zecora, my reflection. Of my other half, I could ask no greater perfection.”
Twilight raised a brow. “You’re a dark reflection and you’re reconciled with your light reflection?”
“Both of us knew something was amiss. When we found each other, it filled the abyss.”
“You’ll find Salie is not alone in this. A good number of our members are actually dark reflections who have found the light.”
Twilight jumped on the chance to learn more about this benevolent pony, Flare. “So, what are you then? Another dark reflection?”
“Well, it’s funny you should ask that question. It’s one I’ve been wondering all of my life. I feel everything the others in this world do, all the pain and anger and despair. But those are not my default emotions. I care less for myself and more for others, so instead I feel sorrow, pity, and hope. I do not think I am like most ponies here, no. I seem to be a sort of mix between dark and light.”
“So, you don’t know? You don't have a light reflection?” Twilight was disappointed.
“No, I think I might, but I can’t imagine for the life of me why I would be a special case. The more determined of this world can find leaks into Reality that usually only allow a peek at what we’re missing. Rather than wallow in self-pity, I became determined that I would lead all the poor souls here into a better world. But one day as I was viewing Equestria, I suddenly lost control over the viewport. I hadn’t done anything wrong; it simply wanted to go in a different direction. It finally came to rest on a royal blue pony. The moment I saw her, I knew she would be important in my life, though I couldn’t tell you why. What intrigued me the most was that she seemed discontent despite living in the land of beauty.”
Twilight gulped. If this was going where she thought it was… “What was her name?”
“She was reclusive, so it took me a while to find out. The pony was named Eclipse. Her merit mark was— pardon me; her cutie mark was a set of measuring scales.”
Twilight took a deep breath, wondering what it all could mean. “Interesting. Is she aware of your existence?”
“Last I knew, no, she didn't. Though I haven't had time to check up on her in quite some time.”
Flare turned to the door, indicating that the friends should follow. They jumped out of their beds, finding their saddlebags at the end of them, and followed Flare out of the door. Salie nodded to each of them as they left.
Flare spoke as she walked through the long, tannish-stone hallways, brightly lit by many torches. “I’ve often wondered if I was not meant for your world. I feel like I would empathize with the residents there so much better than the single-minded ponies here who, in general, are the vocal majority. I have found temporary solace in taking care of the others that are hopeful for the future, but talking to you has only reignited my longing. Perhaps Eclipse and I were a mistake in the system. Mercy trapped in the Forgotten Realm and Justice in Equestria, where neither belongs.”
They ascended a short flight of stairs, and found themselves on the ramparts. Peering over, they saw the changeling masses milling about aimlessly over the fields, with Chrysalis near the back. The changeling queen caught Twilight’s eye, and despite the distance, Twilight wanted to melt under the sheer annoyance focused in her glare.
“Oh,” Twilight exclaimed. “What happened to the other ponies I brought to your doors? Our reflections?”
“We gave them their own room and a servant should they need anything. While you are obviously new to the concepts of this world, they’re so used to them they’re desensitized, I’m afraid. I thought you might need support in your first moments returning to life.”
“Well, thank you, I sincerely mean it.”
“It’s no trouble at all.”
They sat viewing the scene quietly for a while. It was an odd mix of high tensions and complete calm. Every now and then a changeling would approach the nigh-invisible barrier, only to back up in either fear or disgust, Twilight couldn’t decide. One particularly brave one made it five feet into the barrier before he was shot back like a rubber band.
“Why don’t they just turn away, if they know that you can outlast them?”
“You have a fair point. On most days they would, but they seem particularly determined. The only logical conclusions are that they are particularly interested in you, your friends, or your reflections, for some reason.”
Twilight turned to Flare, staring her down seriously. “Why not turn us over to them, then? It'd save you a lot of trouble.”
“Twilight!” exclaimed Applejack. “Really? Why would you even suggest such a thing?”
Flare held up a hoof in peace. “No, no, she's got a valid point. But once again, I cannot stand to see another suffer if I could have prevented it.”
“What of the changelings? Won't they suffer if they can't feed on somebody?” Her friends were staring at her incredulously, but Twilight had to be sure of Flare's intentions.
“They will, and I will admit even their suffering pains me, but their happiness comes at the price of the happiness of others. It is not a fair trade, and furthermore, they have chosen to support their lives through fear-mongering and deception, rather than making any effort to work for the better good.”
Twilight continued searching Flare's eyes for any hint of deception, but she was telling the truth. Twilight pulled back slowly. “Alright, I trust you. I just find it hard to believe that somebody so kindhearted could live in this world.”
“It's difficult, let there be no mistake. But I make do with what I have been given.” She turned, looking over the fields for a few moments longer. “You know, Chrysalis was once a normal pony like you, or me. She was always a bit cruel, of course, but it was in self-defense. She grew up in hard circumstances, like most in this world. A long time ago, however, she struck a deal with the Savior.”
Twilight had been nodding her head, having already know much of this information, but the last part caught her off-guard. “The Savior?”
“A creature of smoke and white flame, incomparable trickery and charisma, but simultaneously, he's fair.”
“You mean, the Metaspectre?”
“Some call him that. Most think he's a myth, but his influence in this world are undeniable.”
“The Savior, though? Where I'm from, he's called the Devil.”
“Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. To a world of darkness, a creature of neither light nor dark is by comparison, light. For he acts not to harm others, but for his own purposes, and prudent silence is a virtue here.”
“What was the exact nature of Chrysalis' agreement?”
“Well, she essentially asked for nothing more than the power to stand up to those that opposed her. The price was, well, she had to sacrifice her chance at the afterlife. She lost her humanity.”
“Is that why she acts so vile?”
“That's part of it. Even before the deal was made, she was a particularly nasty dark reflection. Do you know where Alicorns come from?”
“Yeah, the person has to be so focused on an idea that they become the avatar of the concept.”
“Ah, so you've read A study of Alicorns too? Well, yes, you're right. When she ascended, she became consumed with the idea of bettering herself. She became the avatar of selfishness. A corrupted Alicorn, which, judging by the minions granted to her by the Savior, was a fairly common occurrence.”
“Wait, hold on. I've been lead to believe that you can't ascend unless you are a merged personality.”
“You're right, actually. But you can split after you've merged. You still have the memories of your other half, which are no easier to ignore than your own. At least, that's what I've heard. Chrysalis is technically a neutral personality.”
“What of her light reflection? What happened to her?”
“She's somewhere in the light realm. I believe her name was Cadence.”
Twilight drew back in disbelief. “Haha, what? You're joking, right?”
“No, why would I be?”
“I... she's my old babysitter.”
Flare looked impressed. “Well, that is an odd coincidence. How is she?”
“Well, she's an Alicorn too... though she doesn't seem at all selfish. She's selfless, actually.”
“I suppose I should clarify. It seems, since their ascension happened so shortly after merging, they were still technically separate beings that happened to be sharing the same body. Had they waited some time, the ascension would have unified them, but in this case, it pushed them further apart. Chrysalis became Selfishness, and Cadence became Selflessness, or alternatively, Love. How I wish I could meet her. Cadence, that is. I think she'd have some idea on how to run this place for the better.”
“Gee, Twilight, it seems like you just can't escape your past.” Pinkie nudged her with an elbow. “Your brother's pretty lucky, marrying the Alicorn of Love. And with you destined to ascend, it's only a matter of time before the set's complete, and your brother has a pair his own.”
“A pair of?”
“Wings, of course.”
Flare stepped forward excitedly. “Wait, you're planning on ascending?”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Not necessarily planning on it, but I've been told by an ancient race of monsters that I'm destined to be their mother, or something. That, and the Metaspectre has taken an interest in me.”
Flare nodded, mulling it over. “Well, those the Metaspectre pays attention to are usually key players in world-changing events. If you were to ascend, what concept would you represent?”
Twilight shrugged. “I don't know. That's part of the reason why the idea seems a bit silly to me. I mean, friendship, maybe, but that inherently requires more than just an individual. Perhaps magic, but I still have a lot to learn, and I'm nothing compared to the princesses. I'm not sure. But, backpedaling here for a moment, why didn't Cadence ever mention this world, if she came here to ascend? I assume she did, anyways, because the Metaspectre certainly hadn't been around for a while.”
“You're aware of the memory field around Reality. Cadence remembers nothing for the same reasons you had never seen blood, nor experienced pain. She ascended and then returned to your world, none the wiser. Chrysalis was gone for a while, and I can only assume she was jealous of Cadence's happiness, and tried to secure it for herself.”
“Well, she tried to marry my brother.”
“Hah, she stooped that low? I'm sorry for laughing at your troubles.”
Twilight rested her chin on the ramparts. “No, it's fine. It is pretty funny in retrospect. She was getting jealous of her own happiness in a way, wasn't she? So, how did Chrysalis get back to this world?”
“She probably found some reflective surface when the barriers were weak. It'd be easier for her than most, certainly, as a neutral personality isn't bound by the same rules as the typical light and dark reflections. I suppose she wasn't wholly neutral, which would explain why she doesn't phase in and out of Reality quite as easily. She grew up dark, was touched by the light, and then split. So she's likely a fourth light, three fourths dark.”
Pinkie nodded. “That would make sense. I mean, I can just phase between the worlds whenever I please, so if Chrysalis is having troubles, she's not in my situation.”
“Oh, you're a merged personality?”
“It'd explain why there was only one of you, then. I took a guess as to which room you would want to wake up in. You were with this group, so I'm glad I got it right.”
The talking died down, each of them happy to breathe fresh air with no ever-hanging threat of danger over their heads. After about ten minutes, however, Twilight began to feel the creeping deadline prick at her conscience. “Well, what's our course of action?”
“Salie gave you those poultices, should you wish to try to sneak your way out of here. We make no pretenses of keeping you from leaving, though it will be at your own risk.”
Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but one of the guards called out, interrupting her. “Someone's approaching the castle!”
Flare's countenance changed, making her seem like any of the other war-hardened denizens of the Forgotten Realm. “Another changeling?”
“As far as we can tell, no!”
The group rushed over to the side. Still a good two hundred feet away from the barrier strode a confident yet solemn figure. The changelings parted back in fear. She was just a simple unicorn, but something about her emanated power and force.
“Is that... Eclipse?”
Chrysalis saw the movement in her minions and stepped to intercept Eclipse. Twilight cast a quick amplifying spell so they could hear what she said. “You there! Who are you? What are you doing?”
Eclipse ignored her and continued walking.
Chrysalis growled. “Don't you know who's speaking? Answer me, or I'll get my changelings to strike!”
The changelings nearest to Chrysalis shook their heads vigorously.
Chrysalis hissed, and placed herself directly in Eclipse's path. Finally, Eclipse stopped.
“Well?” asked Chrysalis.
Eclipse looked down at her hooves, spying something on the ground. She levitated the small, dark shard. “My name is Eclipse, and I'm taking what's mine.”
Eclipse looked up with fury. Despite the size difference, it was quite obvious which of the two was currently more dangerous. “You heard me fully well. Step aside or be punished for the obstruction of Justice.”
Chrysalis laughed, missing the dangerous look in Eclipse's eyes. “You're brave, I'll give you that. But I don't think you know who you're dealing with.”
“No, you're the one who's unawares.” The shard glowed brightly, the light condensing into a single beam of pure energy. The light, no thicker than a pin, ran straight through Chrysalis' body. With a look of shock, she fell to her knees, then exploded into a cloud of gore, dying the surrounding snow and air crimson. The light continued until it hit the anti-changeling barrier, which became visible upon contact. A pony-sized hole appeared, but none of the changelings dared move.
Eclipse began walking forward once again at the leisurely but determined pace.
The guards looked at each other in disbelief.
“Miss Flare, what do we do?”
“Let her come. I've been meaning to meet her.” She turned to Twilight, with a sly smile. “Apparently I was wrong about her being naïve about this world.”