Twilight reappeared, slightly disoriented. She was rather put-off by all of this sudden jumping around, but it was all that could be done, at the moment. If she had opposed Celestia any further, the princess might have snapped. But what to do now? Celestia's demands were impossible. If Celestia couldn't prevent Seren from arriving, what chance did she stand? Twilight stopped that train of thought for a moment. No, that wasn't right. Celestia might be capable of many great things, but Twilight had to stop thinking herself as inferior. The last two weeks had made her see that Celestia was just as prone to mistakes as the rest of them, and the consequences were more severe.
How was she supposed to stop Seren, though? The sheer force of his perpetual destruction spell was enough to make her pause. And while he might be able to be defeated, his actions had already caused irreparable damage. It wasn't just a matter of disabling him, Twilight had to clean up his mess. The only way to do that was to stop him from coming, or else Celestia would end it all, and then where would she be? Well, dead, for one thing, along with the rest of the world. Twilight threw her head to clear her mane out of her face; wherever she was, it was exceptionally windy. She'd get her bearings in a moment; until she'd figured out this awful conundrum, she was going to stay right where she was. She had a time limit, but running blindly had only proven itself to be detrimental in the past.
Where was she? Oh, that was right. She'd been considering Celestia's ultimatum. It made her sick, to see her mentor so lost, to see all those years and experience thrown away for a silly feud that dragged everybody else into it. She felt angry, that was the core of it. Angry that Celestia had turned from her reason, that Seren was a problem at all, and especially angry that she was the one who was expected to deal with it. She was tired of being commanded, of being sneered upon, of being told she wasn't good enough. She was tired of being the leader, of making the hard decisions, of being the fulcrum on which the fate of the world balanced. She was tired of work without reward, pain without pleasure, and struggle without success. She was tired of being a nobody. She was tired of being Lustrous.
She shook her head in confusion. No, wait, that wasn't right. “Stay out of my train of thought, Lustrous,” Twilight muttered aloud. She waited a moment. There wasn't a response. “I mean it. I'm trying to figure out some big problems here, and it's already confusing enough.”
Twillight started. Just after she'd finally grown used to having another pony in her mind, she found herself alone. She shot question after question around her mind, but nothing answered except her subconscious, which brought unrestrained memories that weren't hers, and yet, felt so familiar. Her heart began to palpitate. It had happened so slowly, she hadn't even noticed it was happening. Lustrous had been fully absorbed into her mind. She was now neither Twilight nor the forgotten mare of the dark world. She was something new, some strange and yet perfect union. As she turned her mind's eye inwards, she saw all the scars of a life she'd never lived, counteracted by the virgin soul untainted she knew. Recalling a memory of her friends brought equal measure joy and sorrow, memories of every moment of laughter in one world and the tears hidden from the public in the other. A darkness began to consume her mind as she fell deeper into the void that hungered for light, and had finally found it. At last, she turned to their shared memories. She saw herself meeting Lustrous for the first time, through her reflection's eyes. She was Lustrous now, drawing the blade across Twilight's cheek, introducing pain and blood to the untouched creature of light. She felt Lustrous' subconscious reluctance, and that bitter feeling that is sometimes mistaken for pleasure at the moment, but in retrospect, was nothing but a poisonous cut of shame. She felt Lustrous' frustration at Twilight's escape and yet, the pride she felt for her competence. And finally, she felt the fierce determination for victory that drove every one of Lustrous' actions, the agony of the emotion that screamed and tore at every attempt to calm it, and at the core, she found a surprising spark of light. Every dark act Lustrous had done was tied into an almost snuffed-out desire to help others. She expressed this primal love in the only way she knew how; causing others to become better. She hit, she yelled, she threatened, she fumed, all in the hope that those who she had convinced to fear her would one day respect themselves.
Twilight took it all, realizing she had slowed her breathing to the point of hibernation. She shook herself off, and returned her attention to the world around her. As she had vaguely noted when she'd arrived, it was windy. Only now did she see why. She was back at the Metaspectre's altar, atop his carefully groomed plateau. Thael himself was nowhere to be seen, neither were the orbs that formed his soul. From this height, Twilight could see all that she knew of Equestria. Around her lay the Everfree Forest, so comparatively calm and reasonable. Far in the distance, she saw Cloudsdale, oblivous to the danger it -and the rest of the world- was in. Canterlot was perched on the mountain spires, overlooking the world like a bird of prey. And in the center of it all was Ponyville, seemingly insignificant against the backdrop of an entire nation. Twilight turned around. The dark, glass-like crystals around the altar greeted her with her own questioning reflection. The crystals seemed to hum in response to her presence, as if awaiting her orders. Twilight's eyes widened. Perhaps Discord hadn't placed her here on accident. Or, even if he had, what did it matter? The opportunity was here. She was alone, with impossible tasks lying on her shoulders. She could follow orders, or she could take this unending ride by the reigns.
Twilight approached the altar, each of her hoofsteps landing like a drumbeat. In a fluid and almost trance-like motion, she retrieved the crown she and Lustrous had made. She placed it upon the flat surface, and gazed at it with renewed awe. For once, there wasn't any hesitation. She knew what she had to do.
Twilight walked around the altar, standing where Thael normally would. The view was much better from this side, she decided. The path that lead to the stairs disappeared into nothingness. With the crystals behind her, made her feel like she was in a particularly long carriage of some sort. She liked the thought. It felt like she was in control. For two weeks, control was exactly what she had been craving. She activated the crown, which in turn tapped into the system of the crystalline alchutine that gave the altar its power. Twilight felt her mind expand immediately, but unlike the Elements, which seemed to have a mind of their own, Twilight found nothing guiding her. She had access to nigh-unlimited power. She regarded the whole of Equestria before her. What were its troubles now? She giggled. How had the others not seen this? The Metaspectre had left his greatest asset alone, ready for anybody to claim it. Why, with this much power, she might even be able to stop him. Why should his plans or twisting words concern her now? She had his life's work. And that was all that she needed. Her heart paused mid-beat, a feeling she'd only experienced once before, as a foal with her hooves in the proverbial cookie jar. Somebody had just appeared, and she knew who. She turned and saw the master of the altar watching her closely.
It's a lot of power for one person to hold, isn't it? The ability to just snap your fingers -well, I suppose it'd more accurately be 'tap your hoof'- and have all your problems disappear. But what good does that do us? I apologize for toying with you, Miss Sparkle, but I thought it imperative to your progression.
Twilight didn't respond immediately. She looked the dark creature over. Thael cocked his head in reply, the fire from his eyes trailing lazily behind. Is something the matter?
“You're here to stop me, and I'm not certain I'll let you.”
Thael seemed taken aback. I... I don't understand. For once, I genuinely mean it. Not in the sarcastic, otherworldly 'I know but I'll pretend for the sake of conversation' way either. You mean to do me harm; but why? I'll let you use that power however you please. Leaving my altar unattended was not a mistake; it was an invitation. If you want to end my life, you may, but it certainly isn't necessary.
“You're not going to stop me?” Twilight allowed a small breath of relief, before catching herself. The Metaspectre claimed to be trustworthy, and so far, he had proven so. But she couldn't forget the possibility that he might betray her. So many others had, at this point. Why not one more? “But I didn't ask permission. And it'll drain your power.”
I have more power than I know to do with, Miss Sparkle. I can think of few things that would genuinely deplete all my stores, and even so, I know how to get more. Tell me, what would have been your first action had I not interrupted?
Twilight, though still unsure, decided to play along until Thael gave her a genuine reason to doubt him. “I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. My first thought was to reinforce the barrier between the two worlds, to keep Seren out a little longer. Buy myself more time. But I saw so many more possibilities than that. You've mentioned in passing that time travel's possible. I considered going to the past and stopping the alicorns from ever fighting in the first place. But there were options even greater. You're right; this power is immense, far more than I could have imagined being possible to control. Why fix the problems in this world, when I could create one of my own? Celestia's hoof holds the means of destruction, but I hold the means of creation. I could imbue myself with so much power that I would become literally immortal. Thael, I don't know if I could decide. Each option has its own difficulties, and any taken would have the additional cost of every other action I didn't take. Lost potential.”
And now you see why I allow worlds to grow naturally. Getting power is fun until you have it all. Then everything becomes meaningless.
“But I can't turn away such an opportunity just because of my sense of poetic justice.”
No, of course not.
“But then... If I win by default, all my struggles have been for nothing. Like you say, I tap a hoof, and everything's fixed. How is that any better than destroying the world?”
You would equate million's continued existence and potential for happiness with their death?
“It does sound pretty awful when you put it like that, doesn't it? I don't think I'm explaining it very well. It's just that this whole ordeal has really messed with my perception of life. Live, die, we're nothing but dust in the end anyways.”
Isn't that a little pessimistic?
Twilight turned to look at him sternly. “What about you? You've spent your whole life looking for a meaning in existence, and what have you found? Nothing. Nothing! You've had thousands upon thousands of years. You're wise and powerful, and what does that get you? You haven't found your purpose yet. You haven't found mine. How do you keep it up? I can't go through two weeks of pain without giving up on everything I've ever known.”
Thael moved to sit next to her, sighing psionically. What have I found? A lot, Miss Sparkle. And yes, you're right, nothing. I find life. I find void. I find opposites in an endless dance, an eternal war. And in them, I find truth. The greatest truths come in paradoxes. Life is both worthless and without price. Action ultimately meaningless, and yet, the only thing that matters. Love futile, and yet, so unspeakably meaningful. Have I found the Creator? The first God? The one who created the matter that became us? The Nothing that was before? The concept of Nothing? Itself? No. If such a being exists, it eludes me. And yet, I get the feeling that that is only further proof of its existence. In many ways, I could not revere a God I knew. Perhaps it's foolish of me. But I could only condemn the actions it took. Question its motives. Instead, I find myself praising the complexity of it all. Here I am, a creation, a lesser being, and I have the ability to come as far as I've come. To go where I am. To eternally progress, and yet, never quite reach the mark. Isn't that the point, Miss Sparkle? To progress as much as we're able, while we live? We're not to know the greatest questions, at least not yet . Is there an afterlife? Is there a true, greater purpose? Only the dead know. But to chase them down and ask ourselves is to remove ourselves from the game early. I'll admit, Twilight; I'm afraid there isn't anything. I delay my death in the hopes that I can prove myself wrong, because, like you, I don't want my work to be meaningless. I cannot find peace because I can only use logic to scrutinize the illogical. I have lost what faith I once might've had. I know too much and feel too little. And yet, hope remains. That strange, most tenacious of feelings. When it is gone from my soul, I'll know I am truly dead. Then will my tale end.
So what of you? His question was genuine, the now-small unicorn felt. What can you do in your situation? What would you do in mine?
Twilight traced her hooves over the altar, feeling that familiar buzz of sheer arcane strength. But she craved it no longer. “I will, and would, do the best I can with what has been given.”
The Metaspectre nodded, slowly at first, but quickly growing more vigorous. Yes. Yes! Good. A good creed to live by. Nobody can blame you for failing if you do just that. Not even yourself.
“I am the master of my destiny. Others may influence it, but it is of my choosing. Insignificant or not, it's mine, and I'll make the most of it.”
Thael did a short hop in place, his joy almost overwhelming. Absolutely beautiful! You've done it! Twilight, you've broken free of your last bonds.
Oh, nothing magical or anything like that. You've had a paradigm shift, one that many don't ever reach. I'm gleeful simply because of this, Twilight. Those who follow the path you've just taken become the forces for change in their worlds. You've been upgraded from a pawn to a queen, though their roles might feel the same at times. After all, even a queen is bound by rules. But as you eliminate the obstacles in your way, you'll have a little more breathing room. But let's focus on the task at hand. You have multiple factions facing against you. Your former mentor is forced to play a hand she never wanted revealed. You have a violent and powerful storm of fire marching its way to your gates. Your friends have fallen by the wayside as you've continued your mad dash towards success. Remember, however, the path remains open behind you; you may return to liberate them as well, if you care for them. But your time runs short; the worlds are about to merge, and whether or not that is better for equine kind in the long run, it will prove their downfall unless the situation changes. You have the power to fix this, Twilight, and you don't need the help of my throne to do so. But the choice is yours. What will you do?
“What can I do? I want to fix everything desperately, but I'm just one simple unicorn.”
May I remind you of something? You've been blessed with a wonderful mind. If everybody else is being short-sighted and, frankly, stupid, use the advantage you do have over them. Use your good brain.
Twilight considered it for a moment. “I think I have an idea, now.” She grinned after a moment more. “Yeah, that should work.”
Good. I hope it goes well. Thael turned to look at the countryside. It really is a beautiful place, isn't it? So peaceful.
“It won't stay that way for long.”
No, I don't think it will. But that doesn't mean it can't return to this. Thael looked back at Twilight. I won't keep you any longer. When I see you again, it'll be over, one way or another. Goodbye, Twilight Sparkle.
Twilight nodded. “Goodbye, Thael Godsrin.” She began to step away, but then stopped suddenly. “I know I'm in a rush, but it's been nagging me since we first met, and there hasn't been a good time. I'd been intending to ask; does your name mean anything?”
How do you mean?
“A pony's name carries the parent's hopes for the future. They dig deep into the bond that's formed at birth, and catch a glimpse of the child's potential. I was just wondering if your people did anything like that.”
We name ourselves, actually. After we've grown enough to see ourselves as we actually are. Thael Godsrin means Counselor of the Eternals. Thael's eyes smiled. I do hope my counsels have been helpful.
Twilight nodded. “I'll see you when this is finished.”
She retrieved her crown without another word, then stepped to the edge of the plateau. She felt gravity's gentle pull coaxing her over the edge. With an absolute calm, she gave into its embrace, and fell into the forest below, a serene smile on her face. The birds in the surrounding area took startled flight. Thael chuckled to himself as he felt Twilight's life-flame go out.
I knew she was clever.
He turned to the altar and took control of the reigns once more. The crystals buzzed and the whole construct shook. With a sudden clap, the whole of the altar and its carefully groomed plateau were whisked from reality, leaving nothing but an unassuming clearing and the peaceful, unmoving, broken body of the purple mare. In a moment, even that was gone, as the physical matter disintegrated and returned to the earth. Twilight Sparkle had died, with none to mourn her passing.