After a few minutes of rest, Twilight finally stood up. Lustrous remained silent, looking down at the broken ice, only a few meters away. Twilight opened her saddlebag, and began rifling through it. “Aw, everything's soaked.” She dumped out the contents onto the ice. Some waterlogged food, the now-ruined photo of her friends, the Metaspectre's scrolls (which, thankfully, seemed to be waterproof), and...
“Oh, I forgot about this.” Twilight lifted the silver crown she and Lustrous had created earlier. She turned it over; it was still full of dormant energy. Quite a bit of it, in fact.
Lustrous looked up. “Are you thinking of ascending?”
Twilight shook her head. “No, not quite. I mean, I don't think we're ready for it quite yet, are we?”
Lustrous shrugged. I dunno. Maybe. I mean, we're at a crossroads, now. We might be able to find what we're meant for.” She paused. “Wait, I just had a thought, Twilight. I'm supposed to become Seren, right? The Alicorn of Vengeance? How can I now? I mean, you were the only one I felt the need to take vengeance against, but now I've let that go.”
Twilight began to laugh, allowing the cleansing feeling to wash over her. “I don't know. Who cares? The future's there for us to discover. Either we succeed or we don't, but we have to pretend that we do for our sanity's sake. Come on, let's go get dry. I don't want to catch something.”
As they trudged through the snow, Lustrous was rather quiet.
“Something on your mind?”
“What do I do now? I originally came to this world to put a stop to your plans, but now I see both the futility and the childishness of that path.”
“You could help me, you know.”
Lustrous smiled meekly. “If you'll have me.”
“Of course. Though, I have to ask, how did you get in here anyways? I had just killed you, and the barrier between the worlds is still strong enough that you shouldn't have been able to cross over.”
Lustrous mulled it over for a moment. “I've been wondering the same thing. I was brought to the natural plane while waiting to be reborn, like usual, when I suddenly felt myself being sucked out of the world. I woke up in your library, for whatever reason.”
“And this has never happened before?”
“If I was already in here, I wouldn't have had this grand plan to enter your world.”
“Fair point. So what do you think it is?”
“Well, Seren's plan is to destroy the Forgotten Realm so the atrocities leak out, right? An overbalance of darkness so what little light remains leaks out, yes?”
“Yeah, that's correct.”
“And they seem to be going in reverse? The most light concepts were coming out first. Pain and blood, for example, are far more innocent than death, which is still trapped.”
Both halves made the connection simultaneously, but Twilight finished the sentence. “You were the most light piece of darkness in the Forgotten Realm.”
Lustrous frowned. “But I'm evil! Well, kind of. Ruthless? Terribly cruel at least.”
“But you changed. Even if you were afraid to, even if you don't realize it, you adapt.”
Lustrous scoffed. “Well, I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to be bringing gift baskets and flowers to everybody.”
“Nobody expects you to. As long as you're moving in the right direction.”
“So, about this plan? What are you and the others doing?”
“Trying to slow Seren's progress.”
“And it's not looking too good, is it?”
“Of course not. Luna's helping him, Celestia's currently missing, the mirror was already heavily damaged, and blood and pain have already gotten through.”
“Well, if you're going to slow him, it seems obvious to me that you can't match him for direct strength. You're going to need to be smarter than him. What could make him turn away?”
Twilight considered. “Well, we both saw his memories. He seems to genuinely believe he's doing the right thing. He has a strong, if misguided, sense of morality.”
“Yes, there's that, but I had something else in mind. I suppose I should say someone.”
“Yes. He claims he's doing it for her. She's his goddess. He worships her.”
“So, get Luna to change her mind, and then---”
“---And then Seren should too.”
“Ah, but there's the problem of Celestia. Despite what we can convince Seren or Luna of, Seren and Celestia despise each other. They won't stand while the other does.”
“So one needs to fall.”
The silence that fell was heavy and almost tangible. “Is there really no second route?”
Lustrous shrugged. “Well, as we've seen, people can change. But they have to want to. You can't force them.” She hung her head. “I actually tried, when I was younger. I saw solutions to the world's problems, but nobody was willing to listen to me. Either because they were too entrenched in their ways or because I was a child. Perhaps both. My heart grew cold; I thought if I couldn't bring them to happiness, then I'd have to force them there. But that made me miserable too. I think I like your way better.”
They crested a hill and finally had sight on Ponyville. Everything looked much as it had when Twilight left, but something felt different.
“Something's changed,” Lustrous said simply.
The two stood atop the crest for a moment, scanning the city carefully.
“Most of the ponies are gone,” Twilight realized. There were still enough out and about that it wasn't alarming, though it was certainly concerning.
“Just about to say it myself. Gone where, though?”
“I would say inside, but this is the busiest time of day for the shops, usually. This isn't right.” Twilight began running down the hill, throwing up snow all the way. It wasn't very subtle, but she had to be sure the citizens of Equestria were safe. Lustrous followed close behind, trying to hide behind Twilight, unsuccessfully. Her efforts were unneeded, however. They arrived with not a single shout of concern, alarm, nor greeting.
“You've already been seen, right? And they thought you were me?”
“Yeah, I was seen. I wasn't intentionally trying to thwart you or anything, it's just that, well, my mind was on other things. Here I was, finally in the world of my dreams, no idea how I got there, my plan falling apart around me...”
“Alright, I get it. Well, that means the town already knows I'm back. If one of us goes out, then they shouldn't expect anything.”
“We could merge again,” Lustrous suggested.
“Oh. I suppose we could.” The thought hadn't crossed Twilight's mind at all, actually. Sure, she was beginning to like Lustrous a lot more now, but they had separated on such harsh terms that she had begun to consider her a separate entity. Which raised more interesting questions. Could Twilight ever fully integrate with Lustrous? What of her destiny as the Lord of Vengeance?
Such things didn't matter now. “Grab my hoof.” The two locked arms in an embrace of determination and cooperation. There was a small flash, and then only one purple unicorn remained.
Gemini stepped out into the street, catching the attention of mid-aged pony. “Excuse me? Ma'am?”
The citizen went wide eyed. She didn't say anything, just stared right into and seemingly past their merged body. “Let's see what you're thinking,” Lustrous whispered. Twilight almost began to protest, but in light of the current situation, she let Lustrous make the mental connection. What they heard was both a shock and a relief.
Temperament! She's back again! You told me they'd be gone for a while!
I know! Sorry! Uh, try to play it off. Stop making us look like she just killed your cat. Act casually.
Gemini stepped forward. “Pardon me, miss, but why's the town so scarce today?” As she spoke, Twilight gave the pony in front of her a good run-over. It certainly didn't look like Rarity, being blue-on-cream, but if she heard her thoughts coming from it, Rarity and Temperament had to be involved.
“Oh, uh, I hadn't noticed anything was amiss.” The false pony gave a hurried look around the street. “I suppose it is a bit empty, isn't it?”
“Give up the facade, Temperament,” Lustrous said.
“What are you talking about?” With a chuckle, the pony turned away. “I'm sorry, but I've got to get going.”
Shall we? Lustrous asked.
They dove towards the suspicious mare, tackling her into the snow.
“Augh!,” she cried out. “Don't be mad at me! I don't want to fight you.” Her eyes shuddered as Temperament took over. “But don't think I won't, because I know how to.” The pony's form and colors changed in a wavy shimmer, like the air above hot concrete.
The suspicious pony was replaced by a somewhat abashed Rarity. “Back so soon?”
“What do you mean, back so soon? Was I supposed to be gone longer?”
“Quite a bit longer, actually. We thought you were going to attack Lustrous Revolt and then go after Celestia or the mirror. Why come back to boring old Ponyville, am I right?” Rarity suddenly got shifty. “Did you kill her again?”
“Lustrous Revolt, of course.”
“No,” Lustrous began, “I'm right here, listening in. And, Temperament, I resent the implication that Twilight could overpower me.”
“Oh. Um. You two made up rather quickly. As far as Twilight overpowering you, well, she already has on two occasions. But you weren't fighting to your fullest, were you?”
“Indeed. Mind telling us what's happening here?”
“I'm only doing my part, Gemini. I don't mean you any harm.”
“Alright, I get that, but what are you doing?”
“Well,” Rarity began, idly drawing in the snow, “Temperament and I gained some nice powers from our merging too. You guys aren't the only ones who get to have fun.”
“And those powers are?”
“Illusion, of course. I thought it'd be obvious.” She paused for a moment before speaking again, seemingly switching to Temperament. “It's works rather well with our tendency to look out for the small details and our desire to wow others.”
“So, you were disguising the town from me? How did you even get here?”
“Oh, Pinkie told us all about shifting between the two worlds. We can do that, now that we're merged. You didn't forget, did you?” Rarity laughed. “I guess that would explain why you hurled yourself into Seren's beam.”
“The others are here, then?”
“Something to do with the citizens, I suppose?”
“Well, like I said, I discovered my powers, but I wasn't the only one. We had a bit of a disagreement, and Fluttershy and Shuddercry discovered theirs.”
“Mind control?! Doesn't seem very befitting of Fluttershy! What are you doing to our poor neighbors?!”
“Calm down, darling. We're not harming them. Quite the opposite in fact! Pinkie and Shuddercry have been going around town collecting the citizens.”
“Collecting? You best start explaining, or I'll rip the answers from you!” Twilight covered her mouth. “That was Lustrous. But I'm not too far from agreeing with her, Rarity. Lives are at stake.”
“But they aren't! That's the beauty of it all! You see, Flutterspry has been going around using her, uh, persuasiveness to pull people off to the side, and Pinkie jumps them, putting them into a pocket dimension. They're safe! The worlds will merge, the dark reflections will have time to acclimate to their surroundings, they'll calm down, and then we can introduce each half of the reflections to each other in a controlled manner. Far better than just dumping the two metaphorical pots and hoping you'll have a tasty soup.”
“Mind control, though? Really?”
“Well, it's not so much mind control as it is... an offer you can't refuse? Imagine Fluttershy's sweetness with Shuddercry's force of personality.”
Twilight cringed. “Oh. Alright. But isn't this in direct defiance of Seren's plan?”
“Yes and no. After us three popped over, we felt what I'm sure you must have. Peace. We still think that the merging needs to happen as quickly as possible, but we didn't want to ruin it for everyone.”
“And you think Seren will just allow you to change his plans?”
“How can't he? It makes perfect sense.”
“Have you met him? He's not really about being logical.”
“Oh. I guess you do have a point.” Rarity deflated. “Surely he'll see reason?”
“That remains to be seen. So how did you manage? You just cast an illusion across the entire city?”
“No, actually. I customized it for you specifically. It only works up to a certain distance, and after you left the city, you were free of the spell. It takes energy to sustain, you know, so I didn't have it up. Just my backup disguise that Temperament demanded.”
“A lot of good it did us, with you blabbing straight away. Didn't put up much of a fight, did you?”
“Well, I didn't want to antagonize my friend any more than I already have today, so be quiet, you! While we're on the subject, I'm sorry for turning against you, Twilight. But things have been so confusing.”
“It's alright, I forgive you. But seriously, we need to plan for Seren. I might be able to overlook mind control and kidnapping, but I fear that Seren's a raging bull right now. If manages to tear through that mirror into this world, I think it's more likely he'll just continue destroying everything than that he'll stop. He won't end this until Celestia's dead.”
“And she can't have her peace until he is, can she?”
“I don't think even then.”
“So what's the solution, Twilight?”
Lustrous cleared their shared throat. “If I may? Any good tactician knows that you need to strike an enemy at the heart of their strength if you really want to stop them. Seren's strength comes from his devotion to Luna, and his hatred for Celestia. If we can temper either one, the threat should be negated.”
“We either make him convinced that he no longer loves Luna, or else we make him love Celestia?” Temperament scoffed. “We don't have much of a chance, then.”
“It might be easier than you think. We can't hurt him directly, true, but perhaps Luna herself can be convinced of his folly. While she loves him for his devotion, she'll see that it's blinding him to what's truly important. If she withdraws her support, then Vengeance is no longer paired with Justice, and it looses all of its power. It's just an angry child having a tantrum. Dangerous because of blind rage, perhaps, but blind rage is far easier to subdue and redirect than cunning and venom is.”
Twilight interrupted. “You said you can jump between the two worlds?”
Rarity cocked her head. “Well, yes, but I'm not sure why you'd want to go back. It's too dangerous.”
“I need to speak with Luna, preferably before he gets here.”
“Couldn't you just send a telepathic message through the mirror?”
“Seren could pick up on it, since a message that could travel that far would have to be imprecise. Besides, this is the kind of thing best done face-to-face.”
Rarity bit her lip. “Well, okay. If you want to jump, you need to allow yourself to be pulled back into the Forgotten Realm. Focus on an anchor there. What about that world felt the most real to you?”
“Will I jump immediately?”
“Only if you will it.”
“Before I leave, I have to ask. Where are the others? You said Fluttershy and Pinkie are helping you?”
Another voice joined the conversation. “See, I told you she's too smart for that.”
With another shimmer, Fluttershy and Pinkie appeared next to Rarity.
“Illusion covers invisibility as well?”
“Sight is all part of the mind, my dear.”
Twilight frowned. “Trying to pull a fast one on me?”
Fluttershy nodded. “We can't have you ruining our work.”
Twilight threw out an arm, exasperated. “What happened to us working together?! I'm your friend, you know. We're working towards the same goal. We want what's best for the world. We've seen that you need both light and darkness, so we're trying to merge the two. If I happen to think that kidnapping people isn't the way to go, I'm going to say it, but I'm not going to hurt you.”
“What,” Fluttershy, or rather, Shuddercry asked. “Like Lustrous Revolt? I'm sure she has a thing or two to say about how vicious you can be when you don't get your way.”
“Hey now, we got over that.”
“But need I remind you it happened less than a few hours ago? That was today, Twilight. You're a cold-blooded killer, even if you happen to be in a particularly good mood today.”
“I'd never kill in Reality! Not now that death is permanent.”
“Careful there, if you are willing to do it under some circumstances, you'll slowly justify it to yourself until it's alright even here. It's the same thing as anything else. Don't eat in the living room, you know, except when there's a party... or when you're sick... or when you're too lazy... 'Why did I even have that rule in the first place?', you'll think. 'It's not like I spill anything in there.' Then one day, boom. You dropped the entire bowl of sauce in there.”
“I hardly equate taking lives with eating food.”
“That's precisely why I'm worried for you. This is coming from a war criminal, here. You miss the point because the example isn't a perfect comparison.”
“Twilight, what Shuddercry is trying to say,” Pinkamina began, interrupting, “Is that while we're working towards the same goals, we keep tripping over each other's hooves. If we want to succeed, we'll need to work together.”
“By hiding yourself from me, siding with Seren, and turning against Celestia?”
“It's not that we hate Celestia, it's just that... we've seen she isn't perfect.”
“And Seren is?”
“At least he's honest about his imperfections.”
Twilight shook her head. “Alright. Fine. Whatever. You can go about your business, but if I find that a single pony was unnecessarily harmed, you'll answer to me.”
“That's exactly what we're trying to avoid, Twilight. It's something you might want to consider.”
Twilight walked away without a word, afraid that if she spoke any more, she'd say something that she would regret. Why are they giving me such a hard time, but ignoring you? She asked Lustrous.
Well, they know me well enough. They don't exactly feel the need to convince me of something they know I agree upon.
Wait, you agree with Seren? Then why did you join me?
It's not so much that I agree with Seren as it is that I... Well, what do I say? I really want to live here in Reality. And I want my people, the dark reflections, to have a chance to stay here as well. I can't hate you that's what you're striving towards. But, then again, they're working towards it as well. Their methods might be suspect, but they claim that no harm is coming to the reality ponies. Where do you disagree with them?
It's not so much that I'm worried they're going to hurt someone, it's more... Well, I'm seeing an awful lot more of the dark reflections than I am of my old friends. I'm afraid the same thing might happen to the whole of Equestria.
We just have to remember that no matter what, it'll be better here than it was for them back in the Forgotten Realm. It's the way it was supposed to be; Celestia's the one who threw it out of whack. It might be comfortable. So is not working. But some hard things have to be done for the best. It'll allow both sides to grow, and besides, if a dark personality manages to overpower a light one, it's because the light one was weaker. Things will balance out.
I'm only afraid it will balance the wrong way, for my friends.
Well then, we best work towards a perfect merging, shouldn't we?
Twilight closed her eyes, focusing in on her memories of the Forgotten Realm. An anchor, Rarity had said. Twilight hadn't made any particularly good relationships there. Nor felt good on any particular day. Really, she hadn't liked much about it at all.
She didn't say that the anchor had to be happy. It just has to be the part of the Forgotten Realm that you remember the most. The forgotten-ness is what keeps the barrier strong. By remembering, you break the walls.
Twilight refocused. Not happy memories, then. It was a strange concept; happy moments were the only ones worth remembering. But there had been so much going against her, that, well, she couldn't help but remember all the bad. Her confusion when she first entered, her betrayal at Spectral Slash's hooves, her helplessness against and deep sorrow for Pinkamina's control over Pinkie, the shock of the discovery of blood, the insanity-inducing boredom and frustration of the prison camp, the consuming hunger... the list went on, of course. But there was one overarching theme, Twilight realized. The true core of the Forgotten Realm. Even the dark reflections experienced it, she had come to learn. It drove their every action, made them fight, made them cold-hearted. The hidden atrocity. It was fear.
She had felt nothing but fear during her time in that realm. Everything else was just a different facet of it. She naturally feared an end to her existence, so she feared death and pain and hunger and blood. She feared the future, and thus what the reflections were capable of. She feared the past and its implications on the present, and that's why she couldn't trust Celestia any longer. She feared Lustrous Revolt for her intellect and surprisingly accurate insight, and most importantly, she feared... herself. She was the only one truly in control of her own actions, and some of the things she had done worried her more than any great and twisted plan a God or Devil might have in store for her.
She heard it before she opened her eyes. Before her was a vast, disintegrating, surprisingly bright wasteland charged with arcane energy. The earth slowly crumbled and disappeared into the familiar mist of the Natural Plane on the horizon. But what was strangest was the silence. She turned around; the rest of the Forgotten Realm remained untouched, though in the distance a crowd of ponies, changelings, and griffons alike had joined together. They seemed to be looking at something behind her, but what could she have missed? She followed their gaze up into the sky.
The stars up above had begun collecting. Each pinpoint of light was moving to a central mass. The Fallen Sun was rising once more. But that wasn't all.
The moon was gone.