The reawakening was much like being pushed into a lake of cold water. Twilight gasped for breath, her body reminding her what she'd just done. She knew that she'd never get used to the feeling, and in many ways, she was glad that any future death would be her last. Her muscles slowly relaxed from their instinctive and literal death-grips, giving her control once more. A quick glance around confirmed she had returned to the Natural Plane, and it looked like things had changed a bit since she was last here. There was still mist and the endless expanse, but shapes came and went in eternal turmoil. She saw other ponies, some who walked through her. They weren't really there, but nor were they entirely phantasmal; she felt their movements through her, and hard their voices like whispers on the unseen wind. The barriers between the two worlds were failing, and with it, the Natural Plane would be gone.
Of all the places to land, the gateway between the worlds was one of the better ones, but Twilight was left a bit confused. Despite death not being part of Reality yet, she was a merged personality, which removed her immunity. She'd planned on the death-sensitive time-scrolls to activate. What went wrong? And more importantly, why was she still alive if they hadn't worked? She turned to her saddlebag and retrieved the scroll she'd been granted; the runes were still glowing with the same arcane energy, confirming that it hadn't been spent. While it was nice to still have her backup, Twilight had intended to return to the beginning of the two-week journey, to rewrite these past few weeks and avoid all the mistakes she'd made. The idea of paradox-free time travel had sounded too good to be true. Looked like that was the case. There had been so much she'd wanted to do! Befriend Lustrous earlier, confront Celestia about her problems, make an active attempt to understand and console Seren, keeping a tighter watch on her friends, and overall, giving herself another chance to make things right with nothing more in her favor than her brain. But she'd been stymied. Why?
She quickly decrypted the runes, impressed by their simplicity, and then saw a few more had been jotted at the end of spell. “Not necessary,” Twilight read aloud. That was it. Nothing more; the runes hadn't activated because there was 'no need,' or so they implied. She frowned, and flipped the page over, and was temporarily relieved to find another note, only two words long.
The purple unicorn looked up and stared into the shifting mists, seeing nothing. What.
She looked it over again, but unless somebody had done their homework, this was really her handwriting; the intentional flick upwards at the end of the cross of the 'k' was enough to prove that. But the implications were a bit too much to swallow. Had she written this note to herself? If so, how? In her furious lust for answers, she ripped a hole through the Natural Plane back to where she'd been, but the moment it began to open, she knew what'd happened. The altar was nowhere to be seen, and Thael's subtle yet overpowering aura couldn't be felt.
“That coward,” Twilight hissed. “No wonder he told me 'the next time we'd see each other, this would all be over.' He knew I'd jump him, demanding an answer.” She fumed silently for a few moments before she reconsidered and began laughing. “I would've done the same! Twilight and Lustrous, both after your head for some answers? A fate worse that Seren's vengeance!” She closed the rift, turning back to the rest of the natural plane, and what she had to work with. She watched the flow for a few moments before quickly learning that their images weren't particularly meant for her, and thus, unless she got lucky, not worth watching. Time to act instead of waiting for fate to get her moving.
With concentration, she was able to create the viewing ports she'd seen earlier, but the resulting picture wasn't clear. It felt like she was looking at two semi-transparent paintings, which flowed through each other with no real pattern. A few tests later, it became clear why; she was seeing simultaneous images of both Reality and the Forgotten Realm. Trying to view her library, for example, resulted in the expected tree-building, overlaid by the desolate wasteland that was once Moon Pool. It was certainly distracting, but Twilight felt fairly certain that she could keep the pictures separate.
She guided the image to Celestia, in the planet's core. She seemed to be talking to Discord, who was both free of his prison and holding Celestia's world-ending orb. At least he was doing his part to alleviate the situation.
Strangely, the alternate Forgotten image showed the same room, but instead of Celestia and Discord, there was Twilight herself. The image seemed to be a literal reflection; as she cocked her head, so did the image, and unlike the mirror that had lead to the Forgotten Realm, she didn't feel a mind on the other side.
Content with that, Twilight conjured Seren's image. Strangely enough, he had stopped. The destruction behind him had paused, though the white energy wall was still present. As she watched, Seren bent over the fallen body of a small pony. From the inconvenient angle, Twilight guessed it was a child. Seren seemed to whisper a few words into its unmoving ear, then stepped forward. The wall continued at the same pace, and soon, Twilight's view was obstructed by pure white. She moved the view back until she was able to see again, finding herself looking over his shoulder. He had cleared through a good portion of the countryside; the next significant landmark was the crater where Moon Pool had once been, and of course, the Moon Pool itself.
The alternate image was nothing more than the corresponding landscape in Reality, with Ponyville in the distance.
Having gleaned all she thought she would, Twilight began checking up on each of her friends. They were still hard at work or else traveling, shuttling the newly-formed, disoriented, and misplaced reflections into the decaying Natural Plane in the hopes that they could prevent the two halves of each pony from finding each other. It wasn't that they were unaware that they were fighting a losing battle; they had no other path to take. What could be done against the tide?
Twilight's stomach heaved, and a sudden wave of nausea overtook her. In her confusion, she lost control of the spell, causing her view of Pinkie to shudder and then dissipate. She reflexively opened her mind's eye by clearing her thoughts, willing the world around her to enter and bring her answers. She was overwhelmed by the flow of information. Hundreds of the dead touched her mind, foreign memories danced across before continuing on their way. Throughout all of this, however, one entity was constant; Plague was pressing against the arcane bonds that had been placed on it. If Twilight's body was anything to go by, it had only a few moments to go before it would be free. She felt absolutely terrible, like she had a cold, the flu, a stuffy nose, a toothache, a migraine, and heartburn all at once.
Before she could even fall to her knees, she felt Plague pass through into Reality. She took careful note of its movements, especially how complete the merging was; Plague was instantly distributed throughout the entirety of Reality. With a jolt, she realized what these thousands of images were being projected onto, or rather, from. These were thousands of shards of the mirror. Twilight willed herself to the frame's effigy in the Natural Plane, and sure enough, only a few pieces were attached to the edges. Twilight touched a hoof to one of the smaller shards, and despite the physical impossibility, she was able to put her entire forelimb through. She retrieved it whole -thankfully-, and focused on regaining vision. Eclipse and Flare had been sent to repair the mirror; what had happened?
The situation looked grim; the two unicorns were sitting in front of the mirror, the look on their face one of extreme concentration, but they were obviously in great pain; lacerations and boils covered their bodies, and there was a small pool of bile and ichor in front of Eclipse, where'd she'd sick. The parts of the Atrocities that left through the mirror seemed to be rebounding around the anti-magic walls, effectively turning the room into a greenhouse for the leaking darkness. Twilight looked on in horror as another wound tore itself open on Flare, who hardly flinched; she suspected they were only alive because Death hadn't returned just yet. Twilight had no time to waste. She opened a bridging rift and stepped through, immediately buffeted by the compounded Atrocities, just as she'd feared. Wounds began tearing themselves across her body, but she pressed onward, making her way to the center of the room.
“Eclipse! Flare! It's no use, the mirror's breaking anyways, let's get you out of here before we can't!”
“Twilight,” Eclipse breathed laboriously, “The moment we stop holding this back, Death will get through, and Seren will only be a moment behind. We can't. Finish the mission, and our efforts won't be wasted.”
“But nothing! Get back through that rift before it closes, we don't want you trapped here.”
“What about you?”
“We'll be fine. We have the scrolls the Metaspectre gave us, right? Once our bodies give way, we'll be launched into the past, and we can finally undo the damage we've caused.”
“Damage you've caused, what are you talking about? You've been nothing but selfless and helpful!”
“That's not true.” Flare grit her teeth. “Everything we've done- even my service at the abbey -has been for me. Or rather, each of us. I did it because I wanted to live in a better world. She did it because the world wasn't dark enough. But we're not talking about our lives.”
“Isn't it obvious?” Eclipse broke her concentration for just a moment, to look at Twilight. “We're Luna and Celestia, the rulers of Reality.”
Twilight opened her mouth in shock, only to regret it as an arcane laceration cut her tongue. She began to retreat as Eclipse finished her point.
“We're the rulers of Reality, and that means we make the laws. We'll undo this cruelty. I'll see Justice done.”
“And I, Mercy. None will have to feel our pain, Twilight. That fact makes all I take now-” A tear in her leg ripped itself open, causing her to gasp. “-worthwhile.”
“But the scrolls! The best they can do is-” Twilight was suddenly pushed back by a wall of force. Landing back in the Natural Plane, she realized it had come from both of the unicorns as a final act of defiance. “Is... place you in someone's mind. They...” she was speaking to only herself now, but she continued, afraid to allow silence to rule. “They can't be what convinced Celestia and Luna to go fight Discord, can they?”
But it had to be true. Flare, with her burning passion for Mercy, willing to go through any pains to help others avoid them, and Eclipse, willing to take the blame for anything as long as it meant that others were given their dues. There was no denying she deserved the title of Justice. But that meant the two of them were to directly influence the Princesses' ascension.
Then what of her own? What was Twilight in the grand scheme of things? She still didn't know what she'd become if she were to try ascending now, and yet, she saw the event looming on the horizon. Was another mind going to crash into hers, insert its will, and declare that she be the Alicorn of Being Permanently Out of the Loop, or something? She obviously couldn't go back, as she'd intended, so it certainly wouldn't be her.
She tore open another rift in her frustration. She had to check on Applejack and Jackie; they had been supposed to talk to Celestia, but obviously that hadn't gone well at all. Where were they?
With a flash, she reappeared in Ponyville, having had locked onto Applejack's distinct thoughts from the Natural Plane. “Only one person has the safety of their apple trees on their mind in the middle of the apocalypse,” Twilight grimaced.
Applejack and Jackie turned in a combination of worry and relief. “Twilight, what are you doing here?”
“More importantly, what are you? I don't mean to be rude, but your job was to calm Celestia. She literally threatened to destroy the world last I saw her. Didn't see you around.”
“Oh, you found her? We were dropped off at the castle by Spectral Slash and Rainbow Dash, as you know, and, well, weird things are happening there.”
“Weird? How so?”
A slender, black equine poked her head around the corner of the building the two orange ponies had been standing next to. “Hello again, Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight had to be restrained as she spewed profanities, mostly pulled from Lustrous' memory. “Chryalsis? If one more thing goes wrong, so help me, I'll go back and tell Celestia to end it all myself!”
“Calm down Twilight, she's with us.”
Twilight's fury died down as she saw her brother and his concerned wife. “What? Why are you guys here?”
“As Applejack said, some strange things are happening right now, and as her reflection's presence showed, your group knows more about it than ours.”
“And so you've teamed up with Chrysalis?”
“Crazy, I know. Never thought I'd be working with the 'good guys'.” Chrysalis rolled her eyes. “So, you just here to say questionable things about my ancestry, or do you have a plan to stop this?”
Twilight shook her head. “All I know is Celestia's at the end of her rope, and she'll hang us all with it unless we act quickly. There's another alicorn about to enter Reality with the sole intent of destroying it, and even if both of those two were to do nothing for the rest of forever, we'd still be stuck with the remerging of the worlds.” Twilight ran a hoof through her mane as she considered just how bad the situation was; she was beginning to regret turning away the use of the altar. “Eclipse and Flare have essentially sacrificed themselves to prevent Seren from coming in, but they'll fail soon, and reality-wide death will come right behind them. Heh. They're about to die, and then we can as well! My time scroll isn't working, Celestia's going to press the button, Seren's not going to stop, I just...”
“Hey, Twilight,” Shining Armor put a hoof around her shoulder. “It's alright. Remember what our parents taught us; the test isn't over until you get the grade.”
“After a certain point you have to turn in your answers.”
“True, but if you don't try, then of course you're going to fail, right? It's tough, far worse than either of us have had to deal with. But it's what we have to work with. There's nopony else to do it for us, so we have to step up.”
Twilight shook her head. She wasn't willing to argue back, even if she still felt hesitant. “Where's Rainbow Dash or Spectral Slash in the middle of all of this? And the others are still channeling the reflections away?”
“The speedy pair have gone to see if there are any problems in the other cities; there are only, at best, twenty or so of us to do this right now. We can't contain an entire world, and it's somewhat silly to try. I think we're going to have to force the conflict with Seren, maybe we can get him to agree to honorable terms of combat or something.”
“That's our plan?”
Jackie gave Twilight a dark glare. “You're not much of a tactician yourself. Where's Lustrous when I need her?”
“She's... she's here. I don't think we can unmerge, at this point. We grew too alike. So if I'm not my normal chipper self, I'm going to use that as the excuse.”
Jackie and Applejack shot a couple of worried glances at each other. “That's a danger?”
“It'd seem so. Idle chitchat later. Chrysalis, Cadence, Shining, what can you add to the table?”
Chrysalis was the first to answer. “Cannon fodder. I'm a fairly good combatant myself, but unless I genuinely think the world's in danger, I'm not going to get myself killed, just letting you know up front.”
“The two of us are willing to help wherever that may be, whether that be fighting, magic support, or heroic martyrs.” He gave a playful nudge.
“Your joke might not be too far off of the mark. Course of action?” She waited for a moment, without receiving a response. “Right, I'm the leader. Especially when I have no idea what I'm doing. Uh, we fight! Everything comes crashing down if Seren makes it here! So we take the fight to him. We'll die either way, might as well go with a fighting chance. We need the others, but we need the time. Applejack and Jackie, fetch Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie and however many related reflections may be with them. I'm going to go catch some pegasi. You three.” Twilight looked at the newcomers from Canterlot, drawing a blank. “Stand here looking important until we come back.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. I'm good at being lazy when the opportunity comes up.” Shining Armor got kneed by his wife.
“Twilight, dear, I'll sustain a tether for you if you want to try tele-hopping. It'll be like a string through a maze for you to follow on your way back.”
“Alright, perfect.” Twilight raised a brow at the orange twin ponies. “You're still here? We've got a world to save!”
Twilight opened her person rift with a good deal of effort; transportation was harder when you were grounded in Reality. But with the support of Cadence and the delayed-ascension-tiara in her pack, it was viable. She jumped through, opening and closing warps in quick succession, casting her mind far to get a hint of Rainbow's location. She could only travel to places she'd personally been, and Twilight had only been to Manehatten and Cloudsdale a few times each; she only had so many jump-points. For once in the terrible day, however, she had a lucky break; she landed in the sky somewhere near Cloudsdale, receiving a very strong signal. As she began to fall, she yelled out as loud as she could. “RAINBOW! SPECTRAL SLASH! Get your rears over here right now!”
After a few seconds more of falling, she was caught and slowly decelerated by one of the two pegasi. “What's going on?”
“Change of plans. We're taking Seren head-on, and we need your help.”
“Count on it.”
The other pegasus turned out to be Rainbow Dash; it had been Spectral Slash who had saved her. They joined around Twilight, who prepared the spell for the transfer backwards. With a tangible sucking sensation, they were ripped through the rifts at far less than the energy it'd required to open them. It seemed like the hasty plan was going to pay off. But then, with a sudden jerk, they stopped part-way through one of the portals.
“Is this normal for magic users?”
“No, something's wrong.” Twilight tried to will them forward, regardless of the tether, but they held in place. “I think I see where this is going,” she groaned.
To their immediate relative left, another rift was opened, with obviously quite a bit more effort than any of Twilight's.
“It can't be healthy for existence to be abused like this,” Spectral muttered.
Finally, the natural order of the universe gave way to whatever was willing itself through; in a sudden motion, the rift cleared enough space for all three to be pulled through. They were deposited into a stark white expanse, which was endless as far as they could see. Except for, of course, for the very pony they'd been trying to avoid at the moment. Seren stood in all of his indignant glory, which was really more of a cloud of sulkiness. “So. I thought we might talk.”
Twilight rubbed her eyes wearily. “Take a number and go to the back of the line. I don't suppose it's about killing Celestia and bringing ruin to the world?”
“It's about killing Celestia and bringing ruin to the world.”
“What if I were just to claim my vengeance on Celestia, and Celestia alone? I propose a trade; you give me Celestia, and I'll give you the world.”
Twilight shook her head to protest, but was immediately cut off.
“I'm not joking, Twilight. If you'll allow me to set up a gate with your crown, we can rip Celestia from where she stands, and there's no way she'll be able to cause any more harm. Conquest has only ever been the icing on the cake. I'm not even asking you to join me; I'll shuttle back to my pool in the discontinued Forgotten Realm, it won't take too much energy to maintain it for just myself. I can create my own world there; why take this one? It's never meant much to me, and I don't want to hurt the innocent; only the unpunished.”
“Was what Celestia did really so bad? You're the one who killed Luna this time around. Celestia made you sit in time out for a thousand years; I understand that's a ludicrously long time, but Luna went through it too, and she did just fine.”
“I admit that perhaps I should be punished as well, and I'm willing to accept that, but I cannot let her get away with her crimes. And since nobody else is willing to face her, I can't stand aside until she's taken care of; if you must, take me after that. I won't resist.”
“How can I trust you?”
“Because, Twilight, I'm you. A lone unicorn who's been mixed up way over her head. I just happen to be in the body of the personal guard to Princess Luna, who, while he has his own motives, they don't differ from mine very much. Let me tell you something; those thousand years can really clear your head.”
“I'm sorry, but I can't accept that. I'm not convinced that you're me in any significant way, and if your bitterness is my destiny, that's a future I'll fight every step of the way to avoid.”
Seren nodded. “Fine. You have courage and tenacity, I'll give you that.”
His horn flared, and though Twilight expected the worst, he hadn't targeted her; the rift behind opened wider, and the destination changed as well; with a quick sweeping motion, Twilight's startled allies poured into the demi-plane. With a final flourish, the portal closed.
Twilight looked around, confused. “You want to fight more of us at once?”
“I'm honorable, but I'm not a fool. No, I'm giving you incentive to make this quick.” He tapped his hoof, and Twilight realized the ambush. This plane was his realm, and in it, he was already a god. The hidden runes underneath the feet of each of the ponies bound them into place, leaving only Twilight free. And then, the strangest thing happened; the bindings began rotating, dragging the non-merged ponies together, forcing Temperament and Rarity to touch, and after some resistance, to combine in a flash of light. Spectral Slash and Rainbow Dash fell to the same fate, followed shortly by Fluttershy and Shuddercry, and Applejack and Jackie. Neither Chrysalis nor Cadence were spared, their final form obscured as the two forceful personalities fought for initial dominance. Twilight watched all of this with wonder and confusion; only Shining Armor remained, seemingly wholly paralyzed.
“Your plan is to make them stronger? Give each pony the talents of both lives?”
“No, of course not. I plan to face you one-on-one. The others, however, are going to join us in Godhood. And, if you don't follow in kind, I assure you there's no way you can survive.”
“You're forcing ascension? But...” Twilight considered the implications for a moment, with abject terror. “If they can't find their attribute, they'll burn up and die!”
“Tick-tock. Now, face me and live, or let it all end here.”