The Twilight Rebellion
It was the hardest decision I'd ever had to make. After I'd heard what Luna, Celestia, and the Nightmare had to say to me, I had chosen a course of action that I could not regard as anything but evil. But all the alternatives were worse.
Until then, I'd always believed that if I stood by my principles, I would never go wrong. But cold logic told me otherwise. When I woke up, the airship was over Canterlot, and I spent an hour going over everything I'd been told. Each of the ponies I had spoken with had their own view of the situation, but I felt I was capable of seeing beyond the individual perspectives and possible deceptions to the core of the matter.
I still hesitated. I drew out a decision grid in the air and went through the motions of filling in the squares with possible courses of action and likely outcomes, but it only told me what I already knew.
"Nightmare," I said softly as I let the grid fade away. "Are you there?"
A warm, dark stirring in my mind told me that she was with me and focused on what I was saying.
"The kingdom needs to be reunified under a strong monarchy. I will need all your power to accomplish this. You must surrender your will to mine. They won't give me any time to hesitate. If you resist me in the slightest, it could be disastrous."
And my reward?
"I don't think you deserve it, but I will release you, I swear it. If you want to rejoin with Luna... that's something you'll have to manage on your own."
I have no doubt of it. Perhaps her love for you will survive... won't that be interesting? Come, let us change the world! What is the first move?
A cold knot began twisting in my stomach, but it was not the time for fear or second thoughts. "We strike the Parliament first. The fear we put into them will make them all the easier to control later."
Eternal night! Her mental chuckle felt strange, like black ripples in my mind. Or just the threat of it. Long enough to make them cold and hungry enough to gladly bow down before me!
"Don't you mean 'us?'"
Another rippling chuckle. Do you really want their obeisance, Twilight? I, as the true Luna reborn, will take their adulation and you will run my world from beneath my wing!
"Yes," I said, my heart heavy with pointless regret. "Won't that be lovely."
I put on my armor and called up my magic.
= = =
On the afternoon of the previous day, I'd had a history lesson over tea in Luna's stateroom..
"It was a world where the slow, weak, or stupid quickly perished. The Everfree Forest is a pale remnant of her wild realm," Luna said.
"The Red Queen hated her subjects so much?"
Luna shook her head. "No, Twilight, she had high regard for her little ponies. She took delight in the ones who succeeded and was regretful for each one that passed away, unfulfilled."
"But, she was... is so incredibly powerful! Why didn't she protect them?"
"That is the heart of the matter. She believes that adversity makes for strength. That ponies who are unfit will fail and perish, and those who are fit will survive and pass down their superior qualities to the next generation, making all the pony races better and better as time goes on."
"So ponies who aren't good enough have to die? That's horrible!"
"Even worse, those who were simply unlucky were sacrificed to her view of how things should be. A truly superior pony might die young by mischance, but to an immortal, such a setback was trivial. Events would be evened out by the great timescale apportioned for her work. She trusted in the mechanism of her world more than she trusted her own judgment in such cases."
"No, Twilight, it may have been merciless and unyielding, but the way she ordered her realm gave her the results she desired. The ponies grew in strength, intelligence, and capability. In fact, it succeeded so well, that she found it necessary to create greater and greater challenges for them to face."
"Wait!" I snapped my open mouth shut. "You're telling me that as soon as the ponies started to be able to protect themselves, she made things worse for them?"
"Again and again," Luna confirmed. "And ponies grasped the essentials of controlling magic, gained the power of flight, and learned to forge weapons and tools. Her method worked."
"But how many ponies died unnecessarily for this?"
"You ask the same questions that Celestia and I asked of her, Twilight. Regardless that we were the pinnacle of her grand process, we questioned it. We thought that intelligent minds could guide the ponies into the future far better than chance and an increasingly hostile environment."
"But she didn't agree, obviously."
Luna shook her head again and began to pace. "It wasn't like that. She created us for just that purpose. We were children of her own body, blended with the best of the race she had created. It was our duty to question her, to put her plan to the test. But we were not exempt. As we grew, she set us greater and greater challenges."
I was starting to find the story unsettlingly familiar. "But you decided to skip right to the biggest challenge of all, didn't you?"
"That is a good way of putting it. That is certainly how Mother would have seen it. Our idea of how the world should be ordered was better than hers because we were able to put it in place against her will."
"Might makes right?" I suppose it was a good sign that I could still be a bit snarky in the face of what Luna was telling me.
"No. If that were so, we would have failed. Trickery gave us our victory. But victory was victory, no matter how it was achieved or what it cost us. In the lifetimes it took us to claw our way out of the heart of the world where we trapped our mother, the ponies themselves had replaced the most challenging horrors of her plan. New perils emerged from the wild magic, and others of her own making remained, now unconstrained, Discord being but one of them. By acclimation, we were accepted as the new rulers of Equestria, and the world became a different place, a more ordered place."
Luna sat down in front of me. "The Red Queen is the name the ponies of our early time gave her and they cast her as a great villain: the Alicorn of Blood. But she did what she did for the good of ponies as a whole, much as my sister has. Do you think Celestia has not made hard choices? Do you think she has not let good ponies die or sent them to their deaths for the greater good of all?"
I thought about that for a while. "So, deposing a monarch because you think you have a better way of doing things is okay?" At Luna's frown, I rushed to reassure her. "I'm not trying to be accusatory! From what it sounds like, the Red Queen's reign was horrific. I am just trying to find my footing in all this. Is it right to overthrow a tyrant? Most ponies would say yes. How about a monarch that just isn't doing very well by her ponies?"
Luna sighed. "According to my mother, there is no right or wrong. What we now call good and evil is merely the whim of those who are powerful enough to enforce their views. The only true good is the betterment of ponies as a whole, and that is only because it was what Mother wished for herself."
"What about the Wild Magic? The Elements of Harmony and the Rainbow of Light are part of it, aren't they? Don't they seem to make moral choices?"
"Those are different, and Celestia and I are responsible for them. During the time it took us to struggle out of the world, we made attempts to change the workings of the deep magic that underlies all things. We wanted ponies of good character to be rewarded simply as a part of how things naturally were. We only partially succeeded. The spells were capricious, unpredictable, and uncontrollable."
"So the Elements are just a focus for that power?"
"Yes. Wild Magic is only strong enough to do such great deeds when concentrated in such a place."
I have no idea why the thought struck me, but it seemed an important question to ask. "After she banished you, the Elements would no longer respond to Celestia. Was that because—"
There was a flash of magic and Celestia appeared in the stateroom.
"It was because they no longer perceived me as a good pony," she finished for me. "Yes, my own magic judged me and found me unworthy. I set the rules and then broke them."
I had no idea what to say to that.
"Is she laughing there inside you, Twilight?" Celestia continued. "It seems the sort of thing she would enjoy, the disappointment of an innocent."
"No, she is sealed away until Twilight dreams tonight. You can speak freely, sister," Luna told her.
Celestia stared at her for a moment, then at me. I nodded in confirmation.
"That is a stroke of luck!"
"Luck had nothing to do with it," I said, a bit miffed at her "innocent" comment. "I maneuvered her into it. It seems I may be a better student than you realize. I might have learned things you didn't intend to teach me."
"I see," Celestia said in an absolutely neutral voice.
"Luna, will you please leave us to talk alone?" I asked.
"If thou wilt call for me if need be, and come to me as swiftly as thou canst. I deign to be parted from you only so long as is needful."
"Of course I will."
"Soon, my love," Luna said as she winked out.
"You should not encourage her, Twilight." Celestia said sternly. "At least not until Cadance has—"
"I've taken care of that, too." I interrupted her. "The compulsion is gone and I still love her. Oh, it may not have happened without the Nightmare's interference, and it may have opened up a whole new can of awkwardness, but it's real enough. At least that's one good thing that has come out of this debacle."
"Love among the ruins of Equestria… Will that make you happy, Twilight?"
Despite her calm voice and subdued manner, I realized then that she was very angry. She was possibly more furious than she had ever been with me before. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind.
"I understand that I have made some very bad mistakes and questionable choices, but I want to assure you that the good of Equestria is my foremost priority now. I will do whatever I can to regain the stability of the kingdom, even if it means personal sacrifice."
Celestia's expression softened. "I hope so, Twilight, because the only way I can see to do that is to take drastic measures. I have come up with a plan, and if you truly mean what you say, then I feel it has a good chance of success."
"I would like to hear it," I said. "That was mostly the reason why I sent to ask for you. But there is another matter. Now that I have learned something about the real workings of reality..." I sat back, put a slight smile on my face, and tried my best to not look like a pony who was about to pass judgment on the daughter of creation. "I would like to know what plans you have for the future of Equestria and the rest of the world."
= = =
In Parliament Square stands the Fountain of Loving Kindness. The sculpture at its center is the work of Sweet Marble, widely considered to be her greatest masterpiece. It depicts Celestia lying on a low cushion, surrounded by several foals who are playing and cavorting around her. She looks on with the tender expression of an indulgent mother. The foals are supposed to represent the provinces, counties, and client states of Equestria that existed in Marble's time, but most ponies don't know the symbolic nature of the piece nowadays. Celestia's mane is a cunning piece of work: it channels the water that bubbles up all along the crest of her neck into the rippling channels carved into the translucent stone. It is designed so that, at dawn and sunset, the light through the stone and water divides into a prismatic fan of color, mimicking Celestia's actual mane in a very convincing way.
The first blast of magic from my horn pulverized the fountain into a cloud of marble dust and steam. The Nightmare's satisfaction at the act was palpable. I was not so happy about it, but it had to be done. The ponies of Canterlot had to know I was serious. Tearing off the outer wall of the Parliament building was much more satisfying. Even with my limited appreciation of aesthetics, I had always thought it was a really ugly building.
My dramatic appearance had put the assembly into a bit of a panic. One moment, the Loyalists had been furiously debating with the Council of the Elite as to how the kingdom in crisis was to be governed, and the next, they all were blinking into the mid-morning sunlight, their arguments made moot by the arrival of their new queen.
"YOU WILL BOW DOWN BEFORE ME!" I thundered across the square at them.
Most of them grabbed a chunk of floor immediately, but several of them lit their horns instead of bowing. I made sure to carefully note which ones defied my command.
"BOW!" I repeated, increasing the gravity beneath them so that they had no choice but to obey. Slamming the dissenters to the ground also had the benefit of disrupting the spells that they had been readying.
I stood on the roof of the portico of the Royal Library. It gave me a good vantage point with a solid stone building at my back. It also put me high enough that the ponies streaming into the square could get a good look at me.
Ponies tend to run away when beings wrapped in dark, smoky tendrils of magical power suddenly appear, but it was Canterlot, and I was obviously focusing my attention on the ruling class, so the average citizen's curiosity overcame their sense of self-preservation. The square began to grow crowded except for where the rubble of the wall had fallen, and I even thought I heard somepony groan, "Oh no, not again."
"YOU WANT A NEW RULER? WELL, YOU HAVE ONE NOW! I HAVE THE WILL TO DO WHAT CELESTIA WAS TOO KIND-HEARTED TO FORCE UPON YOU! ALL OF YOU WILL SERVE ME AS—"
The blast of energy streaked toward me from high above, and I batted it away with a contemptuous flick of a shield snapped briefly into existence. The bolt shattered a pillar in front of the Corn Exchange, and ponies scampered away from the falling marble, leaving the steps vacant.
Everypony in the square looked up to see Celestia, wings spread across the face of the sun, her horn boiling with power and her eyes sparking with rage.
"I HAVE THE POWER OF THE NIGHTMARE WITHIN ME, CELESTIA. DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE ANY HOPE OF DEFEATING ME? YOUR TIME OF INDULGENT RULE IS AT AN END. FLEE, AND I WILL LET YOU LIVE."
She also used the Royal Voice, and it was just as loud as mine, if less harsh. "YOU WILL NOT ENSLAVE MY PONIES. I WILL NOT ALLOW IT!"
"YOU CANNOT PREVENT ME. YOU ARE WEAK, CELESTIA!" I threw a black blade of killing magic at her, and she dodged aside, swooping down toward my position. I rose into the air and threw another blast, larger and more powerful than the first. It missed Celestia, but finished the demolition of the Corn Exchange's façade.
Celestia's next move was a quick series of shots of the sort intended for maximizing confusion and pain in their target. I didn't even bother with a shield. I spread my wings and forelegs wide and let them slam into my armored chest. They stung a bit, but that was all.
"IS THAT THE BEST YOU CAN DO?" I sneered at her and laughed. "PATHETIC!" I brought up all the combined power I had at my command and poured it into a combination of spells. A spinning, buzzsaw shield appeared in front of me, crackling with thaumic discharge as I slammed kinetic energy into it. "THIS IS REAL POWER, YOU FOAL!"
The spell rocketed away from me, and Celestia only managed to teleport away at the last instant. Unfortunately, the newly built Canterlot University astronomy tower had no such ability and disintegrated when my destroying spell hit it. The empty building, just days away from being opened to the students, turned into a rain of millions of bits worth of masonry and equipment down into the river valley far below.
I growled and felt for a teleport spell's exit vortex. Celestia would not catch me by surprise. No, it was Luna who caught me by surprise. A silvery crescent of magic slammed into my side, knocking me floundering through the air.
Celestia reappeared while I was still getting my bearings, but all my attention was on Luna. "What are you doing?" I gasped. "Luna, you—"
"I AM PROTECTING MY PONIES, NIGHTMARE TWILIGHT!"
"No, no, you..." I gathered my will and my power. "YOU BELONG TO ME, LUNA! EVERYPONY HERE KNOWS THAT TO BE TRUE!"
"IT IS TRUE NO LONGER!" She shook her head, and even across the width of the square, I could see the tears falling from her eyes, glinting in the sun as they fell all the way down to the crowd below. "I BELONG TO EQUESTRIA!"
"YOU MAY BE STRONGER THAT I, NIGHTMARE TWILIGHT," Celestia cried out. "BUT YOU ARE NOT STRONGER THAN WE TWO TOGETHER!" Her horn and that of her sister boiled with searing light. They both put every ounce of their combined strength into a killing spell.
"Now!" I hissed under my breath to the Nightmare. "Give me every iota of your power! This must end now!" And she did. She did it without reservation because we were in deadly peril. She did it because she trusted me.
And I betrayed her.
Stripped of her strength, I expelled her from my body in a great cloud of crackling energy and black vapor. To the crowd below, it would have looked like I had charged the royal sisters in a final act of defiance. The vapor lasted long enough to hide my retreat to the shadow of a spire on the library roof, just as we planned. Celestia's little mind spell, cast the evening before, had kept any hint of my duplicity from the Nightmare, and she had only an instant to realize what I had done to her. She managed to turn and face me before Luna and Celestia's blinding shafts of magic struck her and burned her from the sky.
I remained hidden, waiting for the next scene to play itself out.
"FEAR NOT, MY BELOVED SUBJECTS! THE NIGHTMARE IS NO MORE!" Luna said to the crowd. Ragged cheers erupted from below her.
The ponies in the square approached the smoking black body that lay among the broken marble and puddles that was all that was left of the fountain. The unicorns among them reached out tentatively and probed it with their magic, finding it to be real and undeniable. The mare of darkest hue was dead.
I didn't hear the question from the crowd, but I knew what it was. Celestia had known it would be asked. "NO, IT IS NOT SO!" she told the crowd. "EVIL MAY DIE, BUT NOTHING THAT IS GOOD CAN TRULY PERISH. BEHOLD: YOUR PRINCESS TWILIGHT SPARKLE RETURNS TO YOU, CLEANSED AND WHOLE!"
That was my cue. Celestia's magic would immolate the body of the Nightmare, and I would teleport into the updraft of smoke and flames, seemingly reborn from the ashes of evil like a phoenix, cleansed of all darkness, to be welcomed back among the good and righteous.
That was the narrative carefully constructed by Celestia. The faith of her ponies in her and her sister would be restored, and the kingdom would be at peace again. I had made it possible. I had deceived the deceiver. I had betrayed the betrayer. She had looked at me in that last instant of her life, and there had been no anger, cunning, or anything I would have expected from the being I called the Nightmare. Only fear. She knew what I had done to her, that there was no escape, and she was terrified. I had saved the kingdom again, and I felt as if the shame of it was crushing the life out of me.
I teleported once, twice, again and again, ripping my own exit points apart with overlaying vortices, so that there was no possibility that anypony would be able to track me. I actually planted a target inside a mountain and blew a fairly big chunk out of the granite as the transmission energy whipped the exit vortex around to a place with low enough density to be safe. When I finally stopped winking in and out, I was in a grassy spot, surrounded by a screen of trees and flowering shrubs. It took me a while to recognize the spot. It was the little park and playground next to my parent's townhouse in Canterlot. I had traveled hundreds of leagues only to end up less than a dozen furlongs from where I had started.
I think it was the sound of the swing set squeaking that finally tipped me off as to where I was. I turned to see if whoever was using the swings was disturbed or frightened by my appearance and found—
"Well, well, if it isn't the littlest princess, playing hide-and-seek!" Discord leered genially at me from where he swung enthusiastically back and forth.
Imbalance. Disturbance. Disturbed.
That's how Discord had found me. I suspected he had a natural ability to sense a pony's weak spots as well.
"I want to be alone right now," I told him in an appallingly normal tone of voice.
"Oh, but the other big ponies with the shiny, pointy hats are having such fun up at the palace tossing pillows at each other! Don't you want to join in?"
"They're having a pillow fight?" I asked in disbelief.
"Oh, wait... no, what's that other word that sounds like 'pillows'?" Discord put a thoughtful clawtip to his lips. "Oh yes! I meant accusations! Easy to get those two mixed up, isn't it?"
I shrugged. It didn't really have anything to do with me anymore. They could sort it out among themselves. I raised my gaze and looked up at the windows of my parent's house. They'd probably be in the middle of lunch at that time of the day. I could walk across the street and knock on the door. I'm sure they would welcome me in and find another plate for me.
"Maybe you'd like to listen in on the conversation," Discord said from behind me. "I could arrange that."
"Don't be silly," I said. "All I have to do is cross the street and they'll let me in."
There was a little whumph of displaced air and Discord was in front of me, peering into my eyes with a worried frown. "What are you talking about, Twilight? I don't think you're all there today." He illustrated his concern by making several parts of his body vanish. Funny.
"You should go away now. All away."
"Oh, come on, Princess of Friendzoneship! You've caused all this delightful uproar. Don't you want to enjoy it with a buddy? Let's pop up to the palace and watch the fun! You can learn all sorts of interesting stuff while invisibly eavesdropping."
"Celestia's just mad I ruined her story. She'll get over it. She's got much more important things to worry about than me."
"Oh, that?" Discord snorted and held up a little puppet that looked like me. "A quick illusion spell and you smiled and waved at everypony, boo-boos all better!" He made it wave and blow kisses at an imaginary audience.
Of course Celestia had been prepared for me to fail. I took a close look at the grinning foolish face painted on the puppet, then I cleared my throat and stood up straight, squaring my shoulders. It was important to look serious when delivering a professional assessment. "I can say with a high degree of confidence that the probability of me doing something extremely stupid is now approaching certainty. Since you are in close physical proximity, the likelihood of the aforementioned stupidity happening to you is rather high."
Discord rocked back on his tail and laughed. "Oh, that has got to be the most eggheaded threat I have ever heard! You're a hoot, Twilight!"
A hoot. An entertainment. A jester. A fool. A puppet.
I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek until the pain was worse than the burning in my eyes. Then I turned to Discord and smiled. Well, at least half of my face smiled at him; the other half remained sort of numb for some reason.
"I forgave you, didn't I?"
Discord finally realized that I was just a teeny bit more upset than he had assumed and he went quiet, his eagle talon and lion paw wiggling together in nervousness. "Uh... yes?"
"You can fix me! Like you did with my friends. Just snap your fingers, and then I can forget what happened. Or maybe you can make me just not care. That makes sense, right?"
Discord raised an eyebrow and then reached into the hedge next to him. He gave a yank, and pulled Big Macintosh halfway out of the dense foliage.
Big Mac took a startled look around and said, "What? Where am I?"
Discord sighed and shook his head. "You were supposed to say 'ee-nope', you big dummy!" He shoved Mac back into the hedge and folded his mismatched arms over his chest. "What in Equestria are you blathering about, Twilight?"
"I murdered a pony today, you idiot! It wasn't a fair fight. It was premeditated, cold-blooded murder! How can I live with that?"
"Oh, poo! You got rid of a monster who was a real threat to Equestria. She tried to kill you, didn't she? I seem to recall you threatened to kill her several times. Where was all this concern then?"
"But she wasn't a spirit of darkness! She was a pony! She was Luna!"
"Oh, please! Luna is up at the palace and healthy as a horse!" A shimmer of magic and a poof of scented smoke, and Discord stood before me in a wedding dress, clutching a bouquet. "Now you can marry her and live happily ever after. At least, a proposal might stop her from shouting at Celestia that her plan was stupid and she needs to find you before you do something foolish." His spiky mane turned blue and wavery and he put on a horrible imitation of Luna's voice. "Oh, Twilight! This beith all so sudden! I kneweth we were good friends, but I never daredethed to hope—"
I'd like to think that if it weren't for his choice of flowers, I wouldn't have snapped. But they were night-blooming jasmine: Luna's favorite.
"Time for the stupid!" I said as I half-grinned up at him, my horn blazing into a violent torch of power. "You might want to brace yourself; I think this is going to hurt."
= = =