Twilight came to, her head pounding. She was greeted by the familiar sight of her library. She sat up in confusion.
“I guess I hit my head harder than I thought.”
“Why's that, Twilight?”
Twilight looked over to Applejack, who had asked her the question. “The library was destroyed when we left.” She gestured around the room. “This can't be the Ponyville library.”
Rainbow Dash raised a questioning brow. “What are you talking about, Twi?”
“You know... The Metaspectre blew it up, it's what sent us on our quest in the first place?”
Applejack frowned slightly. “You said something about hittin' your head? Are you alright? You're not making any sense.”
“Yeah,” added Rainbow Dash. “What's 'met-a-spectre'? Did you see a ghost?”
Twilight paled visibly, her thoughts racing. There was no way the events of the last two weeks were a dream, was there?
Applejack let out a snort, then a few short giggles. “Alright, I can't keep a straight face any longer. You're home in Ponyville. The library's rebuilt, apparently. If you look around you'll see a few small changes.”
“Yeah, like, there aren't any of your personal items, though it looks like most of the books were restocked.” Rainbow gave the hollow tree an appraising glance.
Twilight let out a sigh of relief. Then she grimaced. “I was getting worried for a moment there,” she grumbled. “Don't play tricks on me.”
“Sorry, Twi. Me an' Rainbow got bored of guard duty, and we were trying to pass the time.”
“Just waitin' for you to wake back up. Flare and Eclipse have been lookin' around Ponyville, trying to gather information. We realized that any of us locals showin' back up would mean mass panic in the town. Well, I guess it'd be more along the lines of celebration and lots of questions, but either way, we want to make as little of an impact as possible.”
“Good plan. Thanks.” Twilight stood up, her head protesting. “How'd I get knocked out?”
“We're not sure. I mean, besides something hitting you in the head, but when we arrived, Thael was the only one standing there and you were already out cold. He left quickly, though he didn't seem to be in too much of a hurry, and he claimed that he wasn't the one who had hit you.”
Twilight rubbed the point of impact. “Unless there's something about him we don't know, I don't think he would have done it. He didn't even retaliate when we hit him with the Elements of Harmony, and I've done nothing to especially aggravate him recently. I'd be more willing to suspect Discord than him.”
“Don't rule him out, though. He's all about double-crossing ponies.”
The door opened, the small bell ringing its greetings. Flare and Eclipse stepped in, then hurriedly shut the door.
“What'd you find?” Twilight asked.
Flare looked up. “Ah, Twilight, you woke up, good. We have good and bad news. It seems Seren's influence hasn't spread too far just yet; so far, only blood and pain have been released. A few children seem to have been the first victims; the town's abuzz with rumors about it. So the good news is we still have time, but not much. The bad news is, apparently, you've already arrived.”
“What do you mean?”
Eclipse answered. “Lustrous Revolt somehow beat us here. The townsfolk are mistaking her for you, and they're wondering if the blood and your, or rather, her reappearance have anything to do with each other.”
“Well, if there's one thing the ponies of Ponyville like, it's gossip.”
“I recommend that we act as quickly as possible. It won't be long until Seren and the others enter this world, and it'd be a much more pleasant experience if we knew when that was to happen, and how to best handle it.”
Twilight began pacing. “Well, we know that Lustrous Revolt somehow got in here before she was even supposed to revive, and we also know that she and Celestia are likely up to something. We need to be aware of all the players. My guess is, unless there are more gateways between the two worlds than just the mirror, the Atrocities will have to go through it. If we can either repair the mirror or else redirect the incoming dangers, we might be able to buy ourselves some time.”
“And how much time are we looking at here?”
Twilight shrugged. “As long as possible. If we could hold them off for a month or so, that'd be wonderful. It'd give us time to warn the rest of the world of the oncoming changes.” She paused for a moment, looking down. “Though I will say, if there's one thing the Forgotten Realm has taught me, blind optimism is a quick path to destruction.”
Flare nodded. “It's best to act as if we have less than a day.”
“Less than an hour,” Rainbow Dash corrected. “No use talking! I'm going if you're not!” She began to run towards the door, but Twilight held her back.
“We still have the problem of the townsfolk. There's no point in running if we'll just be held back by everybody.”
Rainbow growled in frustration. “Well, if it were just me, I could go unseen easily. Spectral Slash knows all about stealth, but it's harder in groups. And in the daylight.” She threw open the front door. The street was clear, for the moment. “I'd just blaze acro---”
It took a moment for the rest of the sentence to reach the group, distorted due to the Doppler effect. “---ss the street--- wait, what?” Rainbow looked back, her brow knit in confusion.
Flare laughed, quite impressed. “I knew you were fast, but I never imagined just how much.”
Rainbow looked at her hooves, then prepared to run back. Twilight jumped back instinctively as Rainbow materialized instantaneously in front of her.
“Where'd you learn that trick?” asked Applejack.
Rainbow shrugged, eyes wide. “I have no idea. It just... happened.” She looked up to Twilight's balcony, once again traveling the distance in an instant.
As Rainbow began to abuse her new power with glee, Eclipse spoke up. “If I may make a hypothesis, I believe this power is the result of Spectral Slash and Rainbow Dash merging. The powers seem to be following the strongest trait of each of the pairings. Both Pinkie and Pinkamina, as I understand it, had a tendency to refuse to be held reality in the metaphorical sense, always seeing a way out of every situation. Applejack and Jackie are particularly stubborn, and intimidation could be an expression of that.”
“And Rainbow Dash can never sit still. She always has to be doing something, and she hates waiting.”
“Unless I'm sleeping, that's alright. But yeah, you have a point Twilight. Oh, by the way, what's your power? You and Lustrous have been merged long enough. I don't think you ever told us if you had one.”
“Oh, uh...” Twilight blushed. She had kept her mind-reading secret, for several reasons. Chiefly because there hadn't been a good moment, but she had the ulterior motive of wanting the power to be as useful as possible. If people knew you could be listening in on them, it certainly changed what they'd say, and she figured it would be the same for thoughts. “I uh... we have mind-reading.”
“Yeah. Sorry. I tried not to use it too much.”
“Geez, that's so creepy.”
“I'm sorry! I didn't decide what it would be. Don't worry, I can't use it now. I'm not merged with Lustrous.”
Eclipse raised a brow. “Are you sure? The ability might persist. Perhaps the merging only served to unlock the ability, not fuel it. Interesting that it would be mind reading. It does make sense; you're both very perceptive.”
Twilight took a moment to expand her mind. Sure enough, her friend's minds began to bleed into her own thoughts. Before she could hear much, Twilight backed out. “Yeah, it's working.”
“Keep in mind that Lustrous might discover the same thing. We'll need to guard ourselves, especially when we come face to face. But we were trying to move as quickly as possible?”
“Oh, yes. We need to move unseen.”
“Well,” Rainbow called out, continuing to bounce around the room, and thus making her voice hard to decipher, “I might be able to carry you one at a time using this. Or... wait! The abilities work when we're not merged, right?”
With a flash, the two pegasi separated. Spectral Slash swiped her goggles back, as they had stayed with Rainbow's body. “Happy to help where I can, Twilight. Where do you want to start searching? We need to neutralize Lustrous, and we need to halt the atrocities, we need to figure out what Celestia's doing, and we need to keep the populace unsuspecting and happy.”
“Oh, when you say it like that, it sounds easy.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Listen, do you think you can subdue Lustrous?”
“Alright, we'll send you to do that after we get out of town. Eclipse, Flare, could you get to the mirror and do whatever needs to be done?”
“We'll do what we can.”
“Jackie, split from Applejack and help Spectral Slash. Intimidation might come in handy. I can be pretty stubborn, but nobody beats an Apple at that game. Applejack, you'll come with Rainbow and me to speak with Celestia. Sound good?” The others nodded. “Then let's do this.”
Spectral Slash and Rainbow Dash surrounded the doorway, looking down the streets. Apparently, Rainbow had picked up on some of Slash's skills while they were together. “Alright, let's do this quickly.” Twilight felt herself be lifted for just a moment before she suddenly found herself on a rooftop down the street. She turned just in time to see all of the others appear next to her. Down the street the sound of the library's front door shutting could just barely be heard. Spectral Slash grinned. “Line-of-sight teleportation, eh? I could get used to this.” She turned to Flare and Eclipse. “We'll get you two started first, your mission's of the highest priority. Ready Rainbow?”
“Be back in a moment, Twilight.”
As she blinked, the others vanished. She could just barely make out two forms momentarily appear on the horizon, before disappearing in the direction of the Everfree forest. Applejack took the moment's respite to split from Jackie. “You don't think this splittin's going to ruin anything, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“No paradoxes or entropy going to kick us in the rear?”
“We don't exactly have a lot of other options.”
Jackie shook her mane, letting her hair fall loose. “She's right, Applejack. We've got to do the best with what we've been given. We'll deal with the consequences later.”
Twilight surveyed her town. It was awake, but sleepy. Ponies went around their daily shopping and business, completely unaware of what was going on above their heads, of the danger they were in. Twilight's lip quivered as she thought about the fact that she'd never know the quiet life again. No matter what happened here, even in the best of circumstances, things were going to change. Each day, when she got up, she'd have to live with the consequences of what she'd done to get to this point. Of the lives she'd hurt, and of those she couldn't heal. She'd come a long way, learned so much, but her experience came at the cost of innocence, and she wasn't sure it was a fair trade.
Jackie saw her, placing a comforting hoof around her shoulders. “Hey now, what's wrong?”
Twilight shook her head, trying to fight away her surge of emotions. “Nothing.”
Applejack sided up to her reflection. “Don't give us that. If we have to use our Intimidation, by golly we will.” The two chuckled, nudging each other.
Twilight sighed. “I just feel inadequate. You guys are great, supporting me like this, but what of the others? I've lost some friends because of my silliness. Things were so much clearer before we entered the Forgotten Realm. You were either in the right, or you were acting against the forces of good. And after today, we'll never be able to experience that clarity again.”
Jackie grit her teeth. “Hey now! Don't you berate yourself. Listen to me, no, to us!” she and Applejack moved forward in unison, grasping Twilight in a bear hug. “Twilight, you've got a good heart. No amount of pain or blood, Lustrous Revolt or Seren, Celestia or even your own doubts can change that!” Their voices blended together, sounding both like a crowd cheering and a single friend sharing a secret. “We all make mistakes. We all have the darkness within. But darkness need not control us, nor need it define us!” Jackie stepped away. “Twilight, I came with you not just because Applejack wanted to, but because I wanted to! If she's really the Element of Honesty, then I have to be honest with myself. If times get tough, then you need to get tough, and sometimes that hurts, both yourself and others. But you cannot ever let it change who you are. The others don't hate you. They don't love Seren. They just disagree on the execution of the plan. Remember all their reasons? They're doing what they think is best for everybody. Heck, even Seren is! But you look at me, right into my eyes, and you tell me that I don't deserve a chance to become a better person. You look at me and tell me that despite all of her flaws, Lustrous Revolt is a genuinely bad person! You look at me, and you tell me that you ain't her, and she ain't you. We've been lucky enough to have the chance to face our inner struggles as a pony would face her neighbor. Twilight, it's time you stopped making an enemy out of her, and you started making a friend!”
Twilight chuckled sheepishly. “I thought I told you to use your intimidation on her, not me.”
Jackie frowned. “Twilight, I'm serious.”
Twilight lowered her head. “Alright. I'll do it. I try to be nice.”
“It's not just being nice. You need to forgive her. You need to forgive yourself.”
Twilight looked away. Applejack ruffled her hair playfully. “Don't think I'm the only one who thinks this. Even if the others won't speak it, even if they don't recognize it, we all want happiness. Notice how I said 'I'. We're the Elements of Harmony, Twilight. If we want the world to survive these upcoming events, we need to lead the way by being harmonious. Not as reflections, but as merged equals. I'll stay split for the sake of this plan, but after this is over, Jackie and I will be one and the same. We need both light and dark, Twilight. It's like the sun and the moon; without one, either the fields would die or the tides would stop, and life as we know it would end.”
Twilight thought about it for a moment. “Applejack, Jackie, would you like to take my place to go see Celestia? I think I'd like to face Lustrous alone.”
They nodded slowly, grinning all the way. “I'd love to, Twilight.”
Rainbow Dash and Spectral Slash reappeared at that instant. “It looks like the mirror's doing pretty badly. It's a good thing they showed up when they did; it looks like Famine's been released.”
Twilight nodded. “Change of plans, by the way. Applejack and Jackie will be going in my place to meet with Celestia. Spectral Slash, would you mind joining Rainbow Dash?”
“Of course. Why the change? Are you sure you can handle Lustrous alone?”
“I've decided I don't want to fight her. I only want to talk.”
“Best of luck, then. Still want a lift? I saw her on the way back over. She's at a pond near Ponyville.”
“No, I know where it is, and I should be able to get there without alarming the general populace.”
“Alright then, see you when this is all over.” Spectral Slash gave a salute. “Twilight, thank you. Thank you for giving me a chance.”
The friends looked at each other for a moment, then Rainbow and Slash nodded. “It's time to get moving.” They lifted the two orange ponies and disappeared once more.
Twilight looked to the slowly falling sun. Soon, it would be twilight, the bridge between day and night. Would the sun set on a world of peace, or one of despair?
Or was there, perhaps, a bridge between the two?
Twilight jumped from the rooftop into the snow below. The snow chilled her to the bone, but she shivered with delight. She could feel. She was alive. There was a simple joy in it that she had missed before. The Forgotten Realm really was a terrible place, but she was glad for the perspective it gave her. She ran along the back alleys and around corners, managing to avoid the heaviest traffic. One or two ponies might have seen her, but they didn't stop her. At last, she crested the hill to Ponyville's pond.
She stopped immediately. Lustrous was out on the ice, looking away from Twilight. She didn't seem to be doing anything, just staring off into space. It was at that moment that Twilight realized that the Moon Pool had likely reflected this otherwise insignificant pond. It was used a swimming hole, not much more. Such an innocent and free place. To think it was reflected by a prison for a god. Twilight approached Lustrous cautiously. It could be a trick, she knew. The light unicorn stopped at the bank. “Lustrous!” she called.
Lustrous didn't turn, but her strained voice managed to float over to Twilight. “I thought you might come looking for me.”
“Listen, I'm not here to fight.”
“No, of course not.”
“I just want to talk.”
Finally, Lustrous turned. There were streams of tears matting her fur. “Well, come talk then,” she sniffled.
Twilight was taken aback. She put an edge of sympathy into her voice. “Are you alright?”
“I don't know. I don't know.” Lustrous shook her head, her frazzled mane hanging limp. “Everything used to be so clear, but now... Now I don't even know who I am.”
Twilight took a deep breath and stepped onto the ice, continuing forward when it didn't crack. It took a lot of concentration to not fall over, but she kept her eyes focused on Lustrous the entire time. “Lustrous, we've had our differences---”
“That's an understatement---”
“But I'm here to help you.”
Lustrous shook her head again. “Twilight, back in the Forgotten Realm, everything was so clear. You took what you wanted, when you wanted, as long as you were strong enough to do so. You didn't need permission, you didn't need sympathy, you only needed wit and strength. But since meeting you, I've realized you can't do everything by yourself, at least, not if you want it to be done as best as possible.”
“You need friends?”
“You need friends. But where to get them? A true friend is few and far between. I mean, the other reflections might count, but each of them has changed so much, I'm not sure they'd consider me even respectable any more. It's you, you Reality ponies and your accursed genuine love. I can't compete.”
“Then why try?”
Lustrous looked furious for a moment, then her face dropped again, as if she had lost all her energy. “I can't quit. I'm a fighter. I have to hold to the end.”
“But you're also a wonderfully brilliant pony, Lustrous. I know that. I am that. Isn't the smart thing to do to join the winning side?”
Lustrous began sobbing. “Twilight, I hate you. I hate you so much. But I need you. And I love you.”
Twilight was silent. What was there to say? After a few moments more of choking on her tears, Lustrous continued. “Twilight, I'm afraid. If I give up, I'll die.”
“Of course not! We wouldn't kill you. If you're willing to change, then we'll---”
“No, not like that! Twilight, I've died a hundred times. I'm not afraid of the pain that comes with it. And the release true death would give me might be welcomed. But no, Twilight. I don't mean that you, or Celestia, or any of the others will end my body's breath. You'll kill me where it counts; I'll no longer be Me.”
“I don't quite follow.”
“Twilight, think about it. Are you the pony you were when you entered the Forgotten Realm?”
Twilight took a moment to consider. “Of course not. I've learned too much to say that I am.”
“Neither am I. I've changed quite a bit, though I'm not sure you've noticed it. That's life. That's progression. We only move forward by changing ourselves. Sure, monuments and statues will live through the ages, but they are a memorial to times gone by, and they don't serve the present by any way except by being an example. We can't allow our minds to be monuments, refusing to change except by rusting as the world around us marches ahead. We have to change. This is why I'm afraid, Twilight.”
Lustrous began pacing on the ice, kicking up the thin layer of snow. “Twilight, our minds are a perfect microcosm of the world as a whole. Our personalities can be compared to the evolution of animals. It's survival of the fittest. If a personality adapted for war is faced with a time of peace, it must either evolve or perish. It cannot remain the same. But like an animal, our minds struggle to survive through any means necessary. This is why so many don't change even when faced with overwhelming evidence and logic. It's painful to change. A different kind of pain than any cut or hunger can give us. A more clear, more direct, and far more enveloping pain. The pain of refinement.”
Twilight looked at Lustrous with new eyes. Lustrous looked back, her tearful face reflecting her inner conflict. “Twilight, I... I'm afraid. Me, Lustrous Revolt, the unfeeling. I've finally lost. The future is too unknown. I pride myself on knowing everything, but the future escapes my sight. If I change, can I survive? Everything I know will be lost. It can't hold true in this new world.”
Twilight smiled softly, beginning to tear up herself. “Listen, I know the future's scary. Everybody who's ever lived has had to live through it, but you know what? The future is also hopeful. That's where the world can change, and us with it.”
Lustrous sniffed. “What am I, Twilight? I've caused nothing but pain to you and your friends since the moment you've arrived, when you were the ones who were able to save us.”
“You're alive. Everyone makes mistakes, but they make life worth living. It keeps things interesting.” Twilight began to walk towards Lustrous, who, for once, didn't run, nor attack.
“Twilight, can you forgive me?”
Twilight stopped. Despite everything she had been saying, she suddenly remembered every offense Lustrous had made. She had captured her friends, hurt each of them, confined them, starved them, chased them across the countryside, gotten them each killed... and yet, she then remembered each of her own offenses. All the harsh words she had spit out. All the pain she had cause Lustrous herself, the times she had killed her. Her own inability to give Lustrous the benefit of the doubt. Her lack of, well, friendship. Twilight opened her mouth to speak. “I for---”
The ice underneath her seemingly exploded underneath her, plunging her into the freezing and dark depths. Twilight's body immediately went into shock, her breath seizing up and her limbs locking. Sheer panic grasped her, and she began to sink like a stone. The ice had been stable, right? There was no way this had happened by chance. It was the dead of winter!
Twilight was struck with a sudden thought. Was this all a setup? Had Lustrous lured her out onto the ice to try to kill her? She'd seemed so genuine, but...
Twilight struggled, trying to swim upwards with her uncooperative limbs, but of course, she only sunk further down. She began to cry out, her lungs beginning to fill with the sharply cold water. This was it. This was the end. After everything she'd gone through, she would finally be killed by something as stupid and simple as drowning in a lake.
Suddenly, she felt herself being lifted up. In her haze, she wondered if she had finally managed to swim properly, but after a moment to check, no, her limbs were just as useless as they had been. She finally broke the surface, and she took a sputtering, hacking breath. She felt herself get thrown onto the ice, where she spewed out the painful water. She rested for a moment, just happy to be breathing again. She struggled up, her frozen body barely responding to her command. Lying beside her was Lustrous Revolt, as drenched as she was. She didn't say anything, instead only looking into Twilight's eyes, searching, pleading for an answer to her question.
Twilight almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation and the almost innocent look her reflection was giving her. “Yes, yes, I forgive you.”
Lustrous began shaking. It took Twilight a moment to realize it wasn't because of the cold.
“Thank you, Twilight. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
The two soaking, purple unicorns lay there, just happy to be alive. Twilight reached out a hoof, stroking Lustrous' mane. “I forgive you.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
A few hundred meters away, a familiar, shadowy creature nodded, pleased that his work was almost complete. A rift appeared, and within moments, he was gone, the faint smell of smoke the only indication that he had been there.