The white expanse morphed around Twilight, making her feel like she'd spun around too fast. Seren was the only point of constancy, his unblinking glare and snide smile only emphasizing her hatred for him. With a jolt, it all stopped; though she could feel they were still there, Twilight could no longer see her friends. Instead, she was at the edge of a huge drop in some sort of stone chamber. Seren was on the far side of the room, a good hundred feet away. Between the two of them were, dangling by some rope, each of Twilight's parents. Their front hooves were bound, but their mouths were clear of any gag. Upon seeing Twilight, her father laughed nervously. “Twilight? What's happening? Why am I over this pit?”
“Father!” she called. She looked at Seren with a furious glare. “I thought we were going to fight. What is this?”
“Twilight,” Seren chuckled, “You know as well as I do that you'd certainly defeat me if I were to go at you directly, so I've devised a series of choices that I want you to make. If you can get through them all, I'll walk away without a fight. You can choose to not make any of the choices whenever you please, but to do so will forfeit Celestia's life. A fair trade, I think.”
Twilight lowered her ears in confusion and distress. “Did you just imply that you'd lose to me in a fair fight? You're an alicorn!”
“You overestimate the race's power. I'm strong, yes, but you've still got that crown of yours; remember, alicorns are nigh-invincible when they're granted their ascension's energy, but that's not necessarily true afterward. You were unwittingly clever and retained your power, rather than letting it burn off. Me, well, due to the circumstances, I didn't have much of a choice. I'm no fool, and I'm not particularly honorable; I'll fully admit this simply the best I'll be able to manage against you. Even if you'd forgotten the crown, or I got it away from you, let's face it; you have a certain knack for getting out of bad situations, don't you? Need I list the ways? A manticore, a hydra, a cockatrice-”
“That one paralyzed me, remember?”
“But Fluttershy came by to save you. Nevermind, those are only the natural entities. Nightmare Moon, Discord, Chrysalis, Sombra-”
“Not every one of those was me directly, and I had the help of my friends. I don't see quite what you're getting at.”
Seren smirked. “Are you honestly trying to convince me that it'd be better if I faced you one-on-one? Either you're right, and you're a fool for tipping your hand, or you're wrong, and you're just trying to trick me. No, I think we'll have a bit of fun in my realm, first. If things go south, we can always have that fight you seem to be itching for. I'm simply implying that the laws of this world bend whenever you're in direct danger, so I have to threaten things you'll care about that aren't directly you or your body. Trust me, I've thought this over for years, it makes sense if you give it time.”
“Can somebody explain what's going on? Twilight, dearest?” Twilight's mother spun slightly as she dangled. “The blood's rushing to my head, and I'd like to get down. I'm certain whatever your issues are, you can settle them like normal ponies?”
“A bit too late for that, I'm sorry to disappoint, mother,” Seren muttered. It seemed, despite the distance, sound carried as if he were a few feet away. It was obvious a good deal of this was illusionary, but just how much, Twilight wasn't sure. Seren shook his mane slightly. “Alright, here's the premise of the first challenge; you choose one of your parents to save, and the other dies. Simple! Just name one, and they'll be teleported safely to your side, and the other drops to a bodily death.”
“And if I choose neither?”
“I've got places to be, so you're given two minutes. At the end, if you still haven't made a decision, they both die.”
“Now, listen here, sir,” Twilight's father exclaimed, “You're clearly deranged, but let's see if I can get this through your head; you leave my daughter out of this. She's the many-time hero of Equestria! She's been nothing but good for our world, and you'll gain nothing by threatening us or her!”
“Don't antagonize him, dear.” Her mother managed a weak smile. “Twilight, don't worry about us. You're strong, and we're both very proud of you. Just take care of yourself, no matter the cost.”
“Sssssssh. No need to influence her choice,” Seren chided. “Just let her decide.”
Twilight shook her head. “I'm not putting up with this. Seren, face me now or die a coward.”
“Oh, I very well might be a coward. That's how I've made it this far! Any semblance of honor Quicksilver had has been burned out through all those years of unjust punishment. What good is a sense of superiority if you're dead? A minute and a half left.”
Twilight's eyes flickered between each of her parents; their horns were free of any obstructions, certainly they could use their magic? What of her own? She attempted to mold the stone underneath her into a pathway so she could recover them both. Seren saw what she was doing and frowned angrily. “No, that's cheating.” His horn flared up, and the ropes began to slip. Each parent fell a few visible inches, causing Twilight to flinch, and each of them to gasp in terror. Twilight took a few steps back.
“This is all an illusion. What does it matter if a figment dies?”
Seren rolled his eyes. “You really think I wouldn't go to the trouble of picking up your real parents? Do you want to take that chance? Just over a minute.”
Twilight grit her teeth. He certainly wasn't making this easy. She didn't have time to check his bluff, and if she pulled out her crown with the backup energy, he'd likely just let the two of them drop. And, assuming he wasn't bluffing, well, she couldn't live with herself if that were the case. She looked up to her parents with pleading eyes; only now did she catch the tears in theirs. “Mom, dad, what should I do?”
“Twilight,” her father began, “You've got two options. Either you listen to him and choose one of us -and if that's the case, you better choose your mother- or you find a second option. I raised you to be more than a star student, I raised you to be an innovator, a pony who could look at the world in a different light than others. I don't know the answer, but maybe you can find it. And, if not, know that I loved you.”
“What more can I say?” Her mother laughed weakly. “Twilight, you and Shining have been the lights of our lives. If we end here, then that's alright. But if we die, don't let our deaths be meaningless! Twilight, you have to promise me; promise me that you'll make the world a better place than you found it! Can you do that for me?”
Twilight began to tear up as well. “I can, mom.”
“Then do it.”
Twilight bit her lip, forcing herself to calm down. Her mother was right. She didn't have to play with this terrorist's rules. She was here because she'd fought for what she'd believed in, because she was willing to come this far. The only thing she had left now was her will. Seren craned his head lazily. “Well?” His voice, in any other context, might've been friendly. But Twilight felt more animosity for him than she'd ever felt for anyone else. His claims and reasoning were ridiculous enough, but now? Now he was messing with her personally.
“Seren!” she barked, causing him to physically flinch in surprise.
“To Hades be ye damned.” It was different, having Lustrous's tendencies, but oh, how wonderful it felt now.
“You've decided, then?” he brightened a little. “And here I was, afraid that you'd just wait until the last few seconds.”
“Yes. I've decided. Screw you.” She took a step forward, then another, and another, in quick succession, until finally her hoof connected with nothing but air, and she tumbled into the pit.
Seren was flabbergasted. “Bwuh, what?” He ran to the side, watching her fall the sizable distance. “No, no, no! That's not how this works!” He looked up at her parents. “Certainly you didn't raise her to be suicidal?” The false ponies didn't speak as the world warped once more. Seren was about six inches away from Twilight's face. Twilight, for her part, was equal parts triumphant and disoriented.
“Hah! I knew it was only an illusion.”
“Does that merit throwing yourself off cliffs? If you're always so dramatic, what will happen the first time you're wrong?”
“I've got another safeguard. It doesn't matter what you do here, because I can undo it all.” She waved the time-travel scroll at him.
“Is... is that what I think it is?” Seren frowned at it, trying to get a better look. Twilight kept it out his reach, as he reached forward and tried nipping at it.
“You said so yourself, you couldn't defeat me in a fight. So don't even bother trying to take it.”
He sighed and backed away. “Fine then. Use it, if you must. Go on, end yourself; why tarry? I've already lost, obviously. No need to continue with my carefully construed, soul-searching situations or anything, oh no.”
“You can't seriously be expecting sympathy? After all you've done, and plan on doing?”
“No, of course not.” He stared her down for a moment. “But regardless of your personal thoughts on the matter, your friends are ascending right now, and there's no way you can help them until we're finished here. Either you try to force a conflict, and I'll run or delay you, or you take my quick questionnaire. I'll be honest; it's all illusionary. I haven't had time to set up anything more. It's far more a means to get you to think than defeat you.”
“Why go to all the trouble?”
“Because, Twilight, you're pivotal, as you've always been; both my success and Celestia's depends on your cooperation, and while I know I can't win you over by flattery, I was hoping to win you over with logic and introspection. Perhaps I should've been forthright, but I didn't want to ruin the mood for the trial. Too late now.”
Twilight felt the clock ticking away, and this was the fastest route to move on with the situation. “Alright, fine, make it quick.”
“Thank you for your compliance.” The two of them appeared in Twilight's childhood bedroom. Everything was as she remembered it; the small bookshelf with as many books crammed in as it could hold, the small desk with the beginnings of a story stacked neatly on top, and of course, Smartypants tucked in snugly in the perfectly made bed. Twilight smiled a bit as she reminisced.
“It's been a while. I have some fond memories of this place. I spent most of my time in here; whether reading or writing, Shining Armor could always count on me being in here if he needed me. I guess not much has changed.”
“Why did you spend so much time here?”
Twilight's eyes flickered to Seren; what was he trying to show her? “I'm not sure. It was just... comfortable. Calm. It allowed me to focus on the things I cared about. Why does anyone spend time anywhere?”
“Are you sure your attachment wasn't because everything else in your life was so flighty?”
Twilight opened her mouth to talk, but Seren cut her off. “What do you mean, you were going to say? Well, consider your parents. I brought them up in the last trial as a roundabout way of getting to this same point; mother was an author, and if she wasn't off signing books, then she was in the study and couldn't be bothered, at least not without -whether intentionally or not- making you feel bad for doing so. Your father was an emissary for Canterlot; a prestigious position, but of course something like that would cause him to be gone at almost all times. A family dinner was a treat, not the norm. While your situation wasn't particularly wrong or even bad, it wasn't the best nor was it even very kind. You were left alone too much, and so, your books became your friends.”
Twilight held up a hoof. “Now, wait a minute; before you go too far, my parents only had the best intentions for me, and the times we were together made up for the times we weren't.”
“Are you sure you don't feel even a little put-off by how often they put you off?”
“Well... I do sometimes wish I'd spent more time with them, but that just means I need to spend more time with them in the future. But they didn't leave me truly alone; Shining Armor was a great brother, and if he wasn't around to help, there was always Cadence. I couldn't have had a better support group.”
“A babysitter is hardly a replacement for maternal nurturing. I'm willing to posit that you were never satisfied with your childhood, which is why you got so caught up in your books. There's always something off, isn't there?”
“Complacency breeds content, and contentment frustrates progression. Even if that's true, I don't see it as a bad thing.”
“Malcontent creates obsession, and there are very few things that turn out well if you're obsessed, rather than just being driven.”
“Like your obsession with Celestia?”
Seren didn't answer, ignoring her point completely. “Your obsessiveness came from your fear of losing things, you locked onto what you had, and were afraid of venturing any further. This is why, up until just a few years ago, you shut yourself off from those who would call themselves your friends; to gain a friend meant the possibility of a loss of one.”
“But as I've seen since then, it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. These things are all in the past; what are you getting at?”
“I'm almost finished. Let's have a change of scenery.”
With a jolt, they landed in the Sparkle family's favorite camping spot. Everything was set up for a night of relaxation, but there wasn't anybody around; Twilight suddenly remembered what this was. “The day I got lost in the woods.”
“Precisely. Certainly not as deadly as the Everfree, but terrifying to your parents.” Within a nod of his head, they appeared next to a much younger Twilight stepping carefully through the woods, Smartypants bouncing on her back. The filly had a look of genuine worry in her glances, and her voice was quiet and trembling as she called out for her family.
“You know where this is headed, Twilight; your miraculous recovery. This is what I mean by the fact that the world seems to intervene to save you, but that's not the point of this recollection; I want you to pay attention to how you felt that day.”
“I'd run away because Shining Armor had teased me for dropping my food in the dirt, when I already felt bad enough about it. It was trivial and childish looking back at it, but at the time, the feeling of insult to injury was enough to make me fume.” She looked at her younger self. The remnants of those tears could still be seen, matting her coat subtly. I guess I'd have to say I felt pretty rotten, but I've gotten over it; we've laughed about it several times since then.”
“But in the moment?”
“As I implied, I was furious. Admittedly, to the point that I remember spitting out that I never wanted to see my family again. That is, until I realized I was lost.”
“And shortly thereafter?”
“I fell off the cliff.”
The filly tripped over a particularly high root, causing herself to tumble head first down the hill the path had been built on. After the first few moments of shock, she tried to right herself, vaguely aware of the danger ahead, but the already fear-stricken pony, with the added pressure and pain of the spinning world around her, couldn't stop her bodily descent. Within a few seconds, all hope of stopping was lost as she was flung over the edge of the cliff and into the canyon below, rocks and twigs and dirt following her with glee. The present Twilight and Seren, for their part, were keeping time with the falling form, unaffected by gravity, as it was only a memory-illusion.
The filly finally found her voice and began screaming in terror and hopelessness, as the ground rushed up to meet her. She tried everything her young brain could think of; trying to run, tapping into her untrained magic, and even yelling 'no' at the earth, which seemed oblivious to her calls. Probably the wind ripping the words away. Her efforts spent, she instinctively prepared herself for the end, covering her eyes with her hooves and bracing for impact, though it'd be little use. The visiting future-self's throat caught as she recalled the utter feeling of helplessness, the realization that this was the end, and nothing could be done to change that, no matter how much she wanted to apologize to her family for her earlier attitude.
And then, finally, she was saved. Twilight watched with rapt attention; even now she didn't fully understand what had happened that day. The world grew considerably darker and the filly's descent slowed considerably, her movements as well. Twilight remembered not being able to fight against some sort of invisible force, though her mind had worked just as quickly as before. A quick glance confirmed her earlier thoughts on the matter; her horn wasn't glowing, so it certainly wasn't her magic. The spell, if it could be called such, seemed to come from the earth itself, but that was impossible. But at the end of it, Seren's reconstruction brought nothing new to the table, perhaps because it was based off of his memory, and consequentially, Twilight's; just before she hit the ground, the world seemed to slow around her, until she finally touched down as if she had fallen off of the last step on a staircase. She tumbled only a foot or two, and found herself very much alive. Being a good girl now that she'd been humbled quite enough for the day, her younger self had waited around for about an hour until Shining Armor had finally spotted her, and, much to the chagrin of their parents, slid down the steep descent just so he could comfort his lost sister.
Twilight turned to Seren once more. “Please, explain what you intended to show me with this memory. I'm genuinely confused; the only conclusion I can draw right now is that you're intentionally delaying me from saving my friends, so please, give me a good reason to not just force your hand entirely. If this was an attempt to get me to hate my family, well, it's only made me more fond of them.”
“I asked you to pay attention to how you felt.”
“I did. I felt horrible because of the injustice of what had been done to me, then hopeless as I realized I was lost, and then helpless as I realized my danger, and then eternally grateful that I'd been rescued. I went full circle.”
“Good, then you saw what I wanted you to see. Would you consider it a good example of the fickleness of emotions? That premise, that emotions are unreliable, is critical to my entire argument for my side of the story, as well as the actions I'm trying to take against Celestia.”
“...I suppose that's correct.”
“And would you further degree that decisions made through emotions, and emotions alone, shouldn't be held equal to those made through logic alone?”
“While I'll argue that emotions are fundamental to the decision-making process, I suppose once again.”
“Then consider this, Twilight; Celestia's decisions to frustrate Luna's rule and furthermore, to kill me, were done in blind emotion, whereas Luna's call for justice and mine for vengeance are done with sound minds. We've had plenty of time to think about the matter, certainly.”
“You mistaken me for a fool, Seren.” Twilight glowered at him slightly. “This case isn't as cut-and-dry as you think it to be. You can't base decisions on whether they were made through logic or emotion anymore than you can choose a spouse based on somebody else's recommendations; your logic and Celestia's logic are different, and have different value, and both are entirely different from my own. The emotion of a child is certainly more worthwhile than the mutterings of a madman, no matter how many years he's had to mull it over.”
“See, this is why I like you, Twilight. You're so quick to cut to the chase! And yet, so often, you can be so blind. Why do you allow this to happen to yourself?”
“Allow yourself to be surrounded by those who are less than you. Everyone in your life has been nothing more than nuisance, people you have to make allowances for, and people you've got to condescend to.”
Twilight didn't retort, instead settling a slight grin.
Seren, unperturbed, continued. “Think about it. Rainbow Dash is a liability; it's only a matter of time until either her mouth or her wings get you into a situation you can't fix. Applejack's thickheadedness -in every sense of the word- is legendary. Even I've heard of it! Pinkie, an airhead, oblivious to the world around her. Rarity, two-faced. Fluttershy? Nothing more than a weight. See, the thing is, Twilight, I'm not using mind-control like Discord, nor misdirection like Celestia.” He snorted angrily, instinctively kicking at the ground. “Trickery like Nightmare Moon! Brute force like Chrysalis!” A scoff escaped his lips. “I have been forthcoming, Twilight, I hope you see that. Why are you smiling?”
“Because, Seren, now I know you're just trying to buy time. And I've had enough of it; my friends have their flaws, but without them, I would never discover mine.”
She turned away from him. Seren's expression cycled through shock, disbelief, and then finally, anger. “Twilight, last chance. My request is simple; stand aside, allow me to kill Celestia, and let us be done with this mess. I am the God of Vengeance; don't make me turn my eye to you as well.”
“Seren,” Twilight began to reply softly, “Or perhaps I should say, Lustrous, you are a child. It's as simple as that. I don't care if Celestia has done things wrong, she doesn't deserve death. No one does.”
“And who are you to decide?”
“A rational, thinking, and feeling pony. Punishment comes with intent. She has the power and the will to change her ways, whereas you? You'll never change until you can lay down this obsession you have with her. Seren, last chance.”
The two glared each other down, the tension physically and literally causing the air around them to spark; Seren was having trouble maintaining the illusion with such a high temper.
“Fine then. We'll finish thi-” His thought was cut off as his head was.
His body slumped forward to reveal Pinkamina, pulsing with a soft, pink glow from her ongoing ascension. She hefted her ax, looking at Twilight. “I hope you don't mind, but I was sick of him.”
Twilight collectedly wiped the blood spatter off of her fur. “No, that will do quite nicely.”
The body disintegrated rapidly, the head doing much the same; the aura, which Twilight tried to impede, gathered and formed as a new body. Seren looked drained, but not particularly dead; he gave Pinkamina an appraising glance. “Not bad! But you won't have another shot quite like that-” he rolled to the side just in time to miss something that barely registered as a blur. It came to a halt right next to Twilight; The merged Spectral Slash-Rainbow Dash body crackled with energy and an air of anger.
“Shoot. I missed.”
Seren got up. “And how did you two escape?”
Pinkie saluted. “Our arcane powers seem to have multiplied considerably, sir. Thanks for the gift, sir. Allow me to repay the favor.” She dropped the salute and readied her weapon.
“Twilight...” he began carefully.
“No. You gave me my last chance, and I, yours. Can't help it if my friends step in to help.”
“How long will the last, though? They're bound to trigger the trance-state soon enough, at which point they'll either be sitting ducks, or the transformation will kill them anyways.”
“A sacrifice I'm willing to make if it keeps you out of Reality,” Dash spat.
The final remnants of the illusion broke down, and Twilight could finally see the rest of her friends; Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity were all still trapped by their bonds, and seemed to be praying, almost. She feared they were already lost to the final step of the ascension. Chrysalis and Cadence were merging as well, with Shining Armor trying to coax his wife into winning the internal struggle.
A sudden thought popped into Twilight's mind; where had Shining's reflection been in all this?
“Fine. No words, no games. Time for death to arrive in Reality.”
“Not while we hold you off,” Pinkamina said, rushing forward.
“Of course not. Haven't you figured it out yet? I am death. The deepest, darkest part of the Forgotten Realm. Trust me, even if I lose, I'll be winning sooner or later.”