Celestia stumbled forward, catching herself on the pedestal, jostling the set orbs ever so slightly. After a brief interruption, she was able to catch the largest in her telekinetic cradle before it dropped to the ground. She looked around in a panic. Something had changed. Several feet away, Discord was tending to a luminescent Rarity, whose developing wings made her look like she was skydancing. There were others here as well, but nowhere did she see her enemy, her sister, or her pride. “Discord, what's happened?”
The frighteningly tall Draconequus stood up, seemingly caught off-guard. “Celestia! Don't do anything rash!” He snaked over to her, his final resting position something between trying to be imposing and trying to avoid being dangerous-looking.
“And why would I?”
“You tell me; you're the one who was threatening to end the world.”
“Only if Seren entered reality; I wouldn't be so blind to people's needs otherwise.”
“How did you escape? I put you into stasis.”
“Ah, so that's why you hugged me.”
“Er... yes. I'm not going to lie, I had the ulterior motive of keeping your trigger-hoof at bay.”
“I didn't escape through my own power; I wasn't even aware I'd been put in stasis, besides appearing elsewhere. Kind of you to bring me with you, though.”
“Celestia, listen to me.” He sighed, his age finally beginning to show. “Seren is in there, with only a handful of ponies to stop him. They need you. They need your support more than they need your leadership. More than Equestria needs your leadership. You can't pretend that everything will go back to normal. Ever. The world will have to move on, and despite your best efforts, it's going to move on as a merged, whole world. That isn't a bad thing, and it isn't worth destroying everything over. Pain comes with darkness, yes, but without trials, we never would have improvement, and without fear we'll never have peace. If you ask others to forgive you for your crimes, then you have to forgive them for theirs. But that doesn't mean letting them walk all over you. It means getting in there, and beating Seren down for the sake of what's good and what's right, not because of what he's done in the past, but because of what he's promised to do in the future.”
“You, of all people?”
“Me especially. I became Discord, the spirit of Chaos, because of the storm within my soul, Celestia. The storm has almost subsided. I do not know what I'll be when I finally am at peace, but I can tell you the progress I've already made is worth anything that might come. I implore you only so you can begin to feel what I have. Please, for your sake, if nobody else's, put this behind you and move on.”
“You tell me to forgive him. But what of all the pain he's already caused? The lives that have been lost because of him? Does that mean nothing?”
Another voice cut in. “You speak like I once did, Celestia.”
The princess of the night stood there in cowered glory. She seemed unready to face her sister, but still she stood before her, as unflinching as she was unsure. “Hello again, sister.”
“How did you return?”
“It seems that Seren's hold has been lessened.”
“But you died? I thought I had lost you.”
“Is that what he claimed? I've intentionally been holding myself back so I wouldn't lash out against you. I can't go through that pain again.” She cleared her throat. “He only pushed me aside; I told him it was better he kill me, since I'd put a stop to his schemes, but he couldn't find it in himself to do so. I don't think he's quite as evil as he's painted himself up to be. Still, he's a criminal, and he needs to be put down, but no more than you do, Celestia. And yet, here you are. Things might've changed since I've been away, so before I act, please, explain your thoughts.”
“Explain my thoughts? Since when does Justice care about that? Isn't it only the action that matters?”
Luna glanced away, breaking eye contact. “By understanding why some act as they do, I might be able to help them with their issues before it gets to a point of reckless action. We are defined by our actions, but I've come to admit that emotions are what shape our actions, and thus, us. Celestia, when Seren pushed me aside, I had some time to think. I... My personal desires can't stand in the way of happiness for others, not if I claim to be Justice. I am no more important than the least. So tell me, what pushed you so close to the edge?”
“Abandonment,” Celestia murmured softly. “With you, my kingdom, and Twilight... each of you turning away from me, I was alone. And when I'm alone, I'm not in control of how the future will pan out.”
“If I may,” Discord began, “We are never in control of our futures. I know that better than just about anyone. We can only manage risks, never eliminate them.”
“Then let me amend, I have no say in how the future will pan out.”
Luna chipped in again. “But you do. In every case, you have the power to decide how you'll react. And if you actively being prevented by somebody else from acting, the blame isn't yours, but theirs. And so, Celestia, I have to ask. How did you think removing the power of choice from all would help your personal situation?”
“I don't know that I was thinking. I was reacting.”
“As most who make mistakes do.”
“But what is the alternative? Even if I withdraw, if Seren gets into reality and begins destroying everything, everything will be lost.”
“No. Not everything. Sister, you once helped me see the light, so listen to me, as one who has once been wrong and has risen from that dark pit. Celestia, as long as even one creature lives, and as long as that creature is willing to fight for its right to continue living, there is still help. Remember our lessons, when we were younger? What are the two forces that drive our world?”
“Light and Dark. The balances.”
“Specifically, Omnia Valore and Finem Poenitet, the earliest incantations known to our world. The dual concepts that everything, large and small, is worthwhile, and the other, that only the grand scale is important. 'All honors', and 'The end repents'. For the longest time I could only see the end goals, made up of inconsequential and fluid building blocks that, if replaced by something else entirely, wouldn't change the outcome whatsoever. People like you sickened me, Celestia. Worrying about ponies' feelings and circumstances, when we had a nation to concern ourselves with. But then... then I began to realize that I felt absolutely horrible, because nobody cared for my feelings, for my issues and struggles. It took a long time to see it that way, but I began to realize that you can never have a good outcome if you've sacrificed what makes you a good person along the way.”
Celestia's eyes began to relight, with a flame that had been cold so long she thought it dead. “And I, so focused on Omnia Valore, found myself without an end goal when everything began falling apart around me. I envied you, Luna. You were always able to act when the unexpected came up. You were unfettered, and that's because you had your sights set on a definitive, reachable future. When I was alone, I realized that my only goal had been to keep the happy days going as long as possible, and when they suddenly were cut short, I was overcome by uncertainty. And then, I became fixated on how terrible the world would be if in the wrong hands, and vowed to do whatever I needed to do to prevent that from happening.”
Discord grinned. “And so, Omnia became Finem, and Finem, Omnia.”
The sisters looked each other over, and for the first time in far too long, gave each other a warm, heartfelt smile.
Twilight awoke, looking at a mirror. It was the same mirror she'd entered into the Forgotten Realm through, but it was whole, and her image, flawless. She was immediately aware she was having a vision, and remembered all that had lead up to this moment. “Lustrous, where are you?”
“Right here.” As she'd expected, the mirror and the pony were out of synch to represent each of the halves. The mirror-image blinked and turned its head. “Twilight, we're about to separate. And before we do, I just wanted to give you the full story.”
“I wouldn't have complied if I weren't willing to listen.”
Lustrous nodded graciously. “Twilight, I don't think you'll ever fully understand what it's like to be all-consumed by the weight of the world. What I'm about to show you is a taste, but the true potency of trials comes from their duration, not their strength. Anyone can withstand a blow, even if they're toppled by it, but it's the constant wear that decimates walls and causes good people to go wrong.”
“If it brings you peace, show me.”
“It won't. Sharing pain never does, but your understanding will give me the strength to carry on.”
Twilight blinked and found herself in Lustrous' body, the reflected library, its cold stone walls hardly keeping out the winter chill. She turned and saw Thorn dozing peacefully on a perch that she'd made for him. She looked down and saw the battle plans laid out before her, and she was hit with a sudden wave of clarity. This was the three-hundredth and thirty-seventh day of conflict Moon Pool's neighboring griffons. And while Moon Pool almost always came out on top, the citizens were at their breaking point. Burials were more common than a meal, and what little companionship could be found was always cut short, either by starvation or by battle. Winter was unkind, and Lustrous was even less so. She had to be. The data was precise, and its meaning clear. Moon Pool had gone from weakling to the top of the pack through her leadership. Her ferocity caused all to cower, foes and allies alike, and that was what the town needed. But more than a leader, or indeed, a tyrant, it needed a savior. A way out. And she'd found one, but how gruesome the way. To bring others into this world? Moreso, a sapient creature that was her? The world had taught her to be cruel through necessity, not pleasure. But she had to, no matter the cost. And the cost had simply been that she continue to act the way she always had.
The reflections would be entering the world tomorrow, and then the greatest stage performance of her life would begin.
The vision skipped forward, and Twilight found herself, as Lustrous, looking at a bewildered and relatively fresh Reality Twilight. She lashed out with the dagger, introducing pain and blood to the Element, and what Twilight hadn't recognize until now, in this vision, was that Lustrous felt a full helping of Twilight's pain. Equivalent. And yet, her battle-hardened frame didn't flinch. She had known it was coming. But that didn't dampen the searing sensation, nor the shame in the necessity of the act. But it was what was needed. She was the stronger half, the core personality, and only the end mattered. It didn't matter how deep she fell, as long as it gave her the power to climb back up.
Again, the vision shot further, much further ahead, to where Twilight and Lustrous were about to merge for the first time, at the Abbey, right after their duel. Twilight could tell that Lustrous was intentionally dampening the pain she'd been experiencing at that point. Everything was focused on her thoughts. Twilight had just dropped to Lustrous' side, having declared that the two would put aside their differences and work together for the sake of happiness, for themselves and the others. Lustrous seemed astonished that Twilight could ever come to forgive her for what she'd done, and in spite of the physical trauma she was feeling, she was, for once in her life, happy. She wanted nothing more than to embrace this feeling and keep it forever. And now Twilight knew why Lustrous had merged with her. And as the vision sped forward, Twilight slowly saw Lustrous become less and less influential until she'd burned away into nothingness.
She came face to face with her reflection again. Twilight stammered a little as she tried to make sense of what she'd just felt. “You... you're dead. Gone. I didn't recognize it until you pointed it out to me, but I've been at peace for quite some time now. I made peace with you, and then... you died?”
“It was a more perfect merging than we could've hoped. If you were to search yourself long enough, you might find a twinge of anger or annoyance, but it's not from any external influence. You've tapped into your sense of right and wrong, and you have chosen balance. When you are wronged, you sense the injustice, but by accepting reality for what it is, in all its wonders and flaws, your anger becomes drive, and your annoyance determination. What place is there for a darkness in such a pony?”
“But something's not right. You're speaking to me right here, right now. You've been attached to Quicksilver, turning him into Seren, for over a thousand years, and you've acted in direct defiance to my will this entire time. Here, you seem a logical, understandable, and almost -kind- pony. What's happened?”
“Twilight, I'm not evil. I've never been. I've simply been through a lot. It's not an excuse, but it's an explanation for all the sins I've committed against you and your friends. The anger that I made Seren feel was real, and even now I burn with a hatred, not for you, but for the unfairness of it all. You and the others live in glory, as you have your entire life. You dip your toes into our world, and within two weeks, everything goes back to normal, as if nothing ever happened. I hate it all, because I know you're me, and I'm you, but I will never be you, and you cannot be me. We understand each other, and despite us sharing memories, you didn't live through them in real-time. Even know, the memories you've borrowed from me only come up if they're relevant, and with the way the world's going, with all these builders ruling instead of destroyers, I don't think you'll ever get through them all. You can't live two lives anyways. It's not meant for a pony. Twilight, I have this unbearable pressure, a chill that runs up my spine, a boiling in my blood. I want to lash out at every moment, but is it me? My upbringing? A nature that I cannot fight against?” She grimaced. “Twilight, you have to understand. We are about to create the Lustrous Revolt that returns to the past and becomes the villain of this production. The child throwing a tantrum, in a room full of other children. And the thing is, Twilight, I did it-” She coughed as she choked on emotion.
“I did it because I wanted you to have the future I never could have.”
Twilight remained silent.
“It's been hard for me to accept this, but the honest answer is that the darkness is never meant to rule. As long as a light shines, it flees from the source, only to return when all light has faded. Darkness is the default, and that is why it's uninteresting. The night sky is beautiful because of the stars, not the gaps between them. An ocean is wondrous because of the creatures within, and the movements it makes, not the still, unmoving water far below the surface. Twilight, I am nothing, literally the shadow in your light. And each of my companions are the same, whether they'll realize it now or in months to come. We are the reaction, not the action, and as long as you have hope, our pessimism will be crushed by its strength.”
Twilight's question was direct and simple. “Then everything you have done has been for our benefit?”
“Of course. I didn't plan on living through this. You have to carry the torch that I'd been reaching for for so long. The knowledge that it burns will be enough for me.”
“Because all my life I've been trying to heal the wounds I've been struck and given to others, and the only way I could do that was by forgetting myself entirely. Twilight, it hurt, every step of the way, especially when I thought it didn't. At the very beginning of everything, when I thought I was justified, I was consumed by my blind determination. The bitter taste of vengeance against the system is nothing compared to a single moment of bliss. Why? Because I've tasted too much of the bitter and just enough of the bliss to carry on any longer.” Lustrous stepped out of the mirror and put a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. “I now ask you to give up the very last of the bitterness in your heart.”
Twilight breathed deeply, not knowing what to ask. She finally settled on the question she'd been looking for. “What am I still holding on to?”
“You need to forgive yourself. Forgive me, forgive you, and be done with this pain. Give it all to me, and then I'll depart.”