I've watched a few psychological thrillers films in my time. There's this one... I don't know the right word... convention? Plot twist? Whatever it is, I've seen it more than once. It's been pulled off great in every movie I've seen it thankfully.
"It's part of my parole, work release..."
The villain's a truly twisted monster. She'd trapped the hero in her torture chamber and forced him to suffer unspeakable agonies for several days.
"...community service, restitution..."
Suddenly a team of rescuers burst in! They free the hero from the rack he's tied to, maybe kill a few of the evil guards on their way outside, load the hero into a cart...
"...whatever you'd like to call it."
The hero rides in the cart. Catching his breath.
The cart stops. The rescuers lead the hero out. He gazes up and sees...
"I'm building an entire whole universe by myself."
...The torture room. The very same torture room, again. His ‘rescuers' have driven him in a complete circle. Returning him right where he'd begun. It was all another horrific game... building hope up to crush it. And the villain's standing right in the center of the room, ready to pick up where she'd left off. Delighted by the raw shock on the hero's face.
With the power I used to have it might have taken me eight days tops, now...er...
The problem is shock shouldn't be the look on the villain's face.
"...it'll take me a lot longer."
In my head, it experience the sensation of a well-stretched rubber band stretching apart.
"Would somepony kindly mind telling me what what any of your bosses were thinking, if any of them were thinking, bringing him here?!?!"
"I told you, you should've let me disguise myself as Mare-Lynn Monroad," sighed Discord.
"Rainbow, please calm down," Bright Eyes beseeches me. "He's reformed now. Rehabilitated."
"You think I don't know that already?!!!" I shriek. "You think any of us don't know that already? I was there! Through all of it!"
I start crying while laughing hysterically.
"Then why can't you find it in your heart to forgive him?" asked Clover.
"I AIN'T EVEN FORGIVEN MYSELF YET!" But before they can respond to that, I hold up a hoof. "I, I... I need to be alone. I just need to be alone for a while. Just to process this..."
And I teleport away.
I've been sitting upon an asteroid in the depths of outer space. I'd brought several things with me; some food, a mattress and blankets, a deck of playing cards, several crates of hard apple cider and that one bio-dome atmosphere generator gizmo from those aliens we fought, back in the day. Just the size for my needs. I was surprised when that white angel with pink hair actually helped me get my stuff together. "Sometimes we need some time to think...just please don't take forever. You're alive."
None of them even tried to stop me. The pudgy yellow angel with the purple mane at the exit quickly asked me my name, I told her, "Nightmare Manacle!"
She wrote down. "Rainbow 'Danger' Dash, you exist.."
I gave her the hoof and sped off.
In my present I turn to see Nightmare Mirror now standing behind me.
"Howdy yourself," I reply. It wouldn't've been easy for her to've found this place, but it wouldn't've been impossible either.
"Mind if Ah sit down, Rainbow Dash?"
"IF I TOLD YOU ONCE, I'VE TOLD YOU A BILLION TIMES, MY NAME IS...!!!!"
My body slumps.
"...Rainbow Dash," The name might as well be ‘Drippy Diapers' for all the enthusiasm I put into it. "So I suppose I ought to be calling you ‘Applejack,' then, huh?"
"Ah call myself Mirror 'cause it helps me move on, callin' yerself Manacle is what's holdin' ya back!" said Applejack, hunkering down right by me. "But ta be honest, it's comforting hearin' yew callin' me that again. It's who we are at heart."
"Part of me was hoping that Twilight would be the one to actually find me," I admit, levitating a bottle of cider from a crate and passing it over.
"Twi... ain't been around." Applejack tells me, twisting the cap off.
"What about Rarity?" I ask. "Seen her any?"
"Can't say Ah have," Applejack says, pursing her lips to drink. "Starlight says she plum became the Alicorn of the whole dang Mortal World! Girl can't come visit us whether she likes it or not!"
"Go figure." We try to make her a Nightmare for so long...then the moment we're gone she becomes a Goddess. I levitate out another cider for myself but don't uncap it yet, waiting for Mirror to chug hers down.
"Of all the places ya could've fled ta... at least yew picked one with a gorgeous view."
She's right. The asteroid we're on floats before a humongous gas giant. It's bright and gives off a heat that's just right to warm the two of us against the absolute zero chill of space. No one color really seems to dominate the planet's atmosphere. It's never been discovered by any mortal astronomer and has no name. I've deliberately left it that way. Though I was tempted to name her Planet Scootaloo.
"Sooo... gotta ask, whatever happened ta us Nightmares being' ‘toxic waste' yew were gonna stow in some ‘lonely, far-off place where no one ever goes?'" Applejack looks over at the gas giant. "That it, over there?"
My shrug lets her know that I no longer care about that in the slightest.
"Y'know, ya coulda jest told them angel ponies, 'No. Ain't interested.'" Applejack was finally getting down to brass tacks. "Yah didn't have ta wig out and jest... VANISH on us completely! Skedaddle without so much as a forwarding address!"
I look towards the gas giant, still not opening my cider bottle. "When I came face-to-face with Discord, I felt... horror. Shame. Fear. Maybe this was even some super-long dream he'd planted in my head one night. And when I wake up... either the next day, or the next century... I'll be Traitor Dash again, Discord leering over me..."
"...But then it turned around...it stopped being that..instead it was Discord being pulled back into a torture chamber with us standing over Discord, being pulled back with a smile painted on his face, Nightmare Eclipse's chains around his arms... And me with the garden shears. And that I'll wake up to find myself still Nightmare Manacle and all of that was some twisted trick by Nightmare Eclipse to break the world again. I think there's a part of me that'll never, ever, ever be COMPLETELY convinced that this," I wave around at myself, her, and outer space. "...ISN'T all a dream. My imagination just refuses to let it go."
"Ah can help you with that," Applejack offers, drawing closer, her horn shining towards my forehead.
"NO!" I yell, and the Cruelest of Truths backs away as I instinctively conjure a crackling ball of magic. "I won't let anypony alter my head with magic! Ya got me?!"
"Crystal clear," Applejack tells me. "But Dash, who do yah think yanked that spike Eclipse put in your head out?"
My memory wasn't that good of that moment, but I did remember Nightmare Eclipse's lobotomy. Razzaroo had given me my Element of Free Will back, I hadn't stopped to think what happened to that thing.
"When the Tartarus did you have a chance to do THAT?!"
"When we were being washed away by the six-fold river of love and tolerance."
"We were for all we knew about to become statues, and you spent your last moments pulling that thing out of my brain?"
"If we were gonna be sealed away or whatever, Ah wanted ya to be yerself. Who knows, maybe if Ah did, the Elements would save you instead of hurting you more...and if not, at least yah'd've went as yourself."
"B-but! How does that make sense? We were astral projecting through Nightmare Eclipse! Those were just our spirits!"
"And she might have physically put it in there, but if it were just in yer brain, yah wouldn't have even been affected by it while we were astral projectin'. Remember? Astral? As in 'we weren't in our bodies anymore'. That spike was in yer brain, but it was in yer spirit at the same time. Otherwise it couldn't have worked at all. Eclipse had ta violate ya THREE TIMES OVER to make ya the monster she wanted for a friend. Ah don't have that excuse. And, Ah had a helper back in our stable Ah Pinkie Promised never to get 'er hooves stained in this horseapples ta get the one physically there too, since it was the end, Ah'm just happy she got back okay."
"Ain't tellin'. Forget it. Sorry. Cross mah heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in mah eye."
Applejack's signature stubbornness looked back at me. And part of me couldn't help thinking that I saw Pinkie somehow in her eye mouthing 'FOREVER!'
"I . . . thank you, and . . . thanks to your friend too, I guess."
"Yer welcome sugarcube."
After I calmed down, I rolled my eyes, seeing my magic ball was still on my horn, and let it dissipate. Then I remembered what I doing out here in the first place.
I continued. "Why him? Why couldn't the pantheon have gotten anypony ELSE? Anarchy, Strife, Rancor... don't tell me ALL of them are out on some super-secret espionage mission for some undisclosed length of time?"
"We did kinda leave a pretty dang gigantic mess fer 'em all tah clean up, RD. What with untangling the big knot we tied time into."
Then, with miserable mirth, I put on a big cracked smile, and in the glib, perky voice of one of those announcers from the game shows Discord would watch on his TV:
"Heeeeee's a sanity-shattering, reality-violating, loophole-exploiting lover of chaos, uber-tyrant, sadistic satirist...turned loving-father, altruistic-wish-granting repentant atoner who a gallery of psychopaths trapped forever in a timeloop of torture! Sheeeeee's a fearless, bad-flank, awesomely cool totally radical Element of Harmony-turned-Element Of Chaos-turned-psychotic-Nightmare who's heartlessly snuffed out whole galaxies of innocents... and if self-loathing were capable of resurrecting the dead, she'd have enough to clear her own rap sheet twenty times over! And all mortal life had been suffering bloody Armageddon like clockwork in her getting revenge like it was going out of style! Weeeeeee've given them a private pocket of reality and assigned them to create a new universe of it together! Can they possibly find it within themselves to finally let bygones be bygones? Tune in, Friday nights at seven!"
I wasn't expecting Applejack to laugh, and she didn't. Pinkie Pie wouldn't've. Tartarus, she couldn't make that funny, and that's saying something.
"They KNEW my past, AJ, and they knew HIS... did they seriously think I WOULDN'T react badly? And my immediate follow-up realization just chilled me: what if they KNEW I was going to react this badly and this was all part of their scheme?! Did they think I'd be as blasé as though Discord were just somepony who bullied me way back in PRESCHOOL . . . who I then I sent to the hospital with four broken legs? Or did they PLAN on me coming here? To this asteroid? For you to come here? DID THEY PLAN FOR BOTH?! Am I free at all?!...I'm surprised he didn't react the same way to seeing me...first I was his victim, then he was OURS..."
Applejack huffed out a breath. "To be fair, we don't know how long we've been stuck in the pretend Ponyville. Maybe they thought that'd been enough for 'em and us."
Usually, interrupting Nightmare Mirror in the middle of a rebuttal is a lost cause, but this time I chanced it.
"Look me in the eye and tell me that yes, AJ, time does heal ALL wounds. Every SINGLE last one. That there aren't ANY psychological scars Discord left on you that'll NEVER stop aching."
The silence was like a frosty wintertime chill brought in from an improperly shut door. "No," admitted Applejack as pain entered her eyes. "Cause Ah don't know the future. And that ain't what Ah said. Dangit Rainbow, YA JUST SAID YERSELF! WE -ALL- HAVE SCARS THAT MAY NEVER HEAL! SAME WITH NIGHTMARE ECLIPSE! But something yah really need to think about? What about the rest of us? We were tense! Shocked! Angry. Scared. Confused. Ashamed!...and you just blew up like there was a ticking bomb in the room and 'ported to find somewhere to sulk, not even thinking how we felt about it or heard us out...Did you wonder how we felt when you did that?...Or do our feelings not count for anythin'?!"
I cringed a bit at that.
"...Ah said maybe they thought enough time had passed for Discord and us, I never said anything about us bein' healed...What Ah meant was maybe they thought in the long run, we were ready to start healing. There is a difference yah know. Yah like talkin' 'bout yer alternate loop selves, but remember that final Rainbow? The one that kicked our flanks? Remember what happened tah her?"
"...She had to be put on suicide watch AFTER she was hit with the memory spell."
"Yeah, but in the end, she healed and was ready tah confront what she'd done and what was happening, time didn't heal all her wounds, but it healed enough she could have a chance tah heal the others."
"I know we deserve to be punished but how can they force this on us?"
"It was an offer they gave you, not an order. An offer you are perfectly free to refuse. And I imagine Discord probably was offered whether or not he wanted to come while we were still around. Maybe this is his way of trying to bury the hatchet."
"...But why would they even CONSIDER that AS an offer? You don't put me and Discord together on the same team, any more than you'd put a lion and hyena in the same zoo cage!"
Applejack glowered at me. "'Discord and me!' Stop it already! What about US!? Or did the rest of us sit on the lair's couch eating just bonbons all day? Ya think that Nightmare asked ANY of us 'hey, wanna help destroy the world over and over?', when we were turned into Nightmares? We were all strung along until it was too late!! Did ya think none of US could possibly understand this pain? Ah'm more drenched in sin than any of ya!"
"Sorry I'm the one of us who does the least thinking and does the most doing!"
"Then act like it instead of sittin' here on yer rump! Ah know this stinks worse than pig swill ta hear, but if after what we did to DISCORD and he's willing to give us a chance, maybe, just maybe we should return the favor!"
"THAT'S THE PROBLEM!" I shouted. "...I...It isn't me that's afraid of him, it's me that's afraid of ME. I'm not even sure if he had changed by MY loop or not...but he did, and we kept torturing him...I...I'm afraid that the part of me that helped Eclipse do that to him is still in there, and if I'm with him, alone, it will force itself back up...or that Nightmare Eclipse left some kind of failsafe in me...a hundred other reasons why this feels like a bad idea."
"...Can't say I don't feel the same way...none of us listened to a good old adage: 'He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.' A part of me feels the same way."
"...Tell me something I don't know..."
"But if Discord himself could change, the...the truth is, we can too...Rainbow," Applejack stood up, holding her hooves out at me in a pleading way. "Come with me. I want to take ya to Discord. So yew can talk with him. Jest a regular, peaceful, sit-down conversation at a table with coffee and cookies. No tricks, no weirdness. It's time yew face yer fears."
"Face my fears?!" I shook my head. "For all these time loops, I have done nothing BUT face my fears! Loop after loop, I kept finally dredging up the courage to face Discord... in arguments, in battle, in mind control attempts of his...And then it turned out that was all part of Eclipse's game. All those loops I was torturing a puppet king with flaming chains as his strings!... I ask you, AJ, when will it truly count for something?"
"Now," Applejack insisted. "Here and now."
I hear her but continue on as if I didn't. "At what point will I earn the right to face AWAY from my fears? Be free to avoid the company I don't want? I am free to choose who I DON'T want to hang around with, right? Or do I have to marry him, have a kid off him, and divorce him, before we can burn our bridges peacefully ...Before I can forgive what I did to HIM every time we beat 'em thinking we were saving the world only for everything I did to mean nothing after all? Why should I think it would even matter if I DID change anymore than anything else?"
"So," Applejack said. "Yer sayin' the reason why yah can't forgive yourself is because ya kept gettin' screwed over at the end of every last loop?"
"More or less..."
Anger flashed in AJ's face. Her hoof-slap echoed in the mini-atmosphere.
"Don't ya DARE say anythin' that selfish ever again!"
"It wasn't yew in those others loops facin' yer fears! It never was! It was countless OTHER Rainbow Dashes who were broken and hurt and tortured who rose up and faced their fears! US?! WE SPENT THOSE LOOPS WATCHIN' IT ALL ON OUR LIVING ROOM COUCH! Ya have NO RIGHT to say you were the one being tortured in those loops, in case ya forgot, because Eclipse kept copyin' and pastin' what the piece of sewage Discord USED TO BE did ta a PREVIOUS VERSION OF YOU!
"WE? YOU? ME?! They were OTHER Rainbow Dashes and Applejacks! NOT US!...Each and every single one was a pony of their own...and we slaughtered nearly every last one of 'em...Comparin' us tah them is like comparin' the victims in one of those slasher plays to the killer and sayin' they're the same person, it's nothing but disrespectful."
AJ bowed her head at me. "Ah'm SORRY, Rainbow, and Ah'll BE sorry whether you like it or not for hurtin' ya! But Ah'm not lettin' ya fall into Nightmare Eclipse's way of thinkin'! Nor any of my friends! As . . . as Ah trust the rest of ya would stop me from doin' the same."
"...Just because they aren't me, doesn't mean I can't blame myself," I finally admitted. "Look...I guess...all of this...It's made me think all I can ever do is fail...that every time I try, I can just fail...I feel like...I don't know…"
"Remember when ya told Nightmare Moon's Shadowbolt dummies 'screw you' and chose to help us along even when they were offering yer dream come true on a silver platter? Or when ya saved Rarity and the Wonderbolt's lives and did the Rainboom again? Heck, ya doin' the rainboom is WHY we all got our cutie marks. Those weren't 'little nothings.' Ya changed lives, you saved lives. Discord stacked the deck. Just like we stacked the deck against him and made it so none of those Twilights and her friends could ever lose. But ya choosin' ta be the hero and NEVER hurt Twilight no matter what Discord offered? That was all yew, out of all those Rainbow Dashes, it was only yew, it had nothing to do with any of Nightmare Eclipse's scripts."
" . . . I never knew."
"Ya think Nightmare Eclipse would say that? Or LET ME say that?...The truth about it, Rainbow?...Until the end of it when we lost and Trixie scarrin' Eclipse, ya came the closest tah beatin' her, take pride in that."
For the first time since I've known Nightmare Mirror, the Cruelest of Truths . . . I wasn't sure if she was telling the truth or not.
"Heh, at least I now know why some ponies like those video games where your heroes stay dead. Oh wait, that was true for us too, except we cheated and kept giving the NEW heroes the same names and stats."
"Rainbow, that ain't funny." Applejack tells me, with a sharply raised voice. "Be an adult."
This time I did drink, and the cider burned all the way down. "It's still happening, you know, AJ?"
"...Ah don't follow yew." I knew her puzzlement was sincere.
"Don't you see it yourself?" I ask. "First we're made to attack a friend: Whisp... Fluttershy. Then we're being made to ally ourselves with an enemy: Discord...All that's left is Eclipse showing up and saying 'time to New Game Plus again, Discord,' this feels like something she would set up... 'Friends and foes..."
"...forever in flux..." Applejack recited, guess knew how the old saying went too.
"...Forever fogged," I finished. This was something Twilight Tragedy, MY Twilight Tragedy, had written on a piece of paper once. I'd read it, and it'd stuck in my head. "Can't you see it's just the same vicious cycle, under new management? Only we've been demoted back to puppets."
"Listen to yerself!" shouted Applejack. "This is jest cuckoo conspiracy theory hogwash now! Eclipse is dead and gone! The last Twilight ate her! Discord's a good guy, we saw that. And the Pantheon wouldn't have gone through all this trouble just tah pull the rug out from under us! We ain't pawns in anypony's game anymore!"
"Pawn?!" I hurled my empty cider bottle straight at the heart of the gas giant's planet. It shot through cleanly, like a bullet through mist. "It was great being a pawn! ...A white pawn can proudly serve its bone armored white queen and know none of its fellow white pieces COULD be on the jigsaw-puzzle's black pieces side...They know 'white is my side, black is the other side, nothing else matters'. It's simple. It's...well, black and white. Good and evil. I would love to go back to being pawns, knights, bishops, and so on, under the good White Queen Celestia...we were all happy back then...then it was the White Queen Twilight that I proudly served in my loop... But that was never how it went for THEM, right, Applejack? All those Twilights and all theirs friends? They weren't chess pieces. They were playing cards."
And here, I picked up my own deck of cards.
"Shuffle once, and the queen of hearts MIGHT be properly paired up with her king..."
I passed out seven cards to myself and seven to Applejack; but showed her the hand I'd dealt myself right away.
"But shuffle again..."
Applejack was surprised when I magically grabbed all our cards, hers and mine, and reshuffled them again rapidly.
"...and she might find herself playing AGAINST her king, against face and number in her suit..."
I passed out a new set of seven cards: it definitely wasn't the same hand I'd dealt the first time.
"...with the jack of clubs and the jack of spades and the joker. That was us when we were used to give Discord his defeat. Playing cards, shuffled about! Remember the loops where it was six versions of us teamed together again, loops where a Derpy Hooves fought against Discord, loops where a Derpy was Discord's ruthless right-hand mare, loops where others versions of me stayed the bad guy, loops where other Applejacks stayed the bad guy, AJ. There was even a loop where a version of me teamed up with the Master and the Valeyard, and they were all the GOOD guys..."
"Rainbow Ah remember ALL those loops! Ah watched 'em with ya, remember sugarcube? The two of those time-whimey-ponies together came closer to beatin' us than most of the Twilights. Ya don't know the HALF OF IT when it was just me and Nightmare Eclipse before we recruited Nightmare Granfalloon! And only Nightmare Eclipse knows how long and what butterflies made hurricanes in loops only Discord now know about!
"Ya never paid attention, but in one loop, an Applebloom marries this fencin' colt from Canterlot who was gonna visit Ponyville called Lancer . . . in others, another her marries the son of Octavia Melody, who managed to avoid being turned into an octopony! In another, an Applebloom marries a Lancer and her foal marries Octavia's kid!
"Ah can't say which Applebloom was happier with her husband with if either. But what they fightin' for, what they believed in, didn't change! It was bigger than they were and they knew it! And Apple Pie . . . a her kept popping out no matter how the family tree got tangled, like her spirit was determined to come onto the world . . . no wonder all those Apple Pies' special talent was paradoxes."
"...But...here's the thing AJ...here's the real thing...In loop one, Discord didn't know about how things would go, Eclipse was born that loop...every other loop after, somecreature from the one before it, either Discord or Eclipse, meddled. Changed things...ponies made choices, but things were originally...'Twilight frees herself and leads against a still monstrous Discord'...I guess...it feels like it was so black and white in the beginning, but we made it grey and grey…"
"...Sugar...tah be honest? If that is right, in some cases that ain't a bad thing."
"I don't see how."
"...In that one loop, Trixie became an Alicorn, that couldn't have happened in the first loop. The Master never turned good in loop one, that's clear...grey morality means good guys can be bad guys in disguise...but it also means bad guys can turn inta good guys...doesn't make any of us right, but Ah think it shows what Discord said about Strife sometimes was dead on."
"That she's ruthless?"
"No!...That she believes life will always adapt and survive...Despite how royally we messed up the timeline, all the times either Discord or Eclipse meddled with it somewhere or somewhen, life still found a way tah adapt to it."
"Hehe...yeah...but...despite all of that…"
I threw up ALL the cards into the air, as though for a game of 52-pick up.
"For everything Nightmare Eclipse did wrong, I hafta give that devil-witch one teensy bit of credit. Once she counted you as 'real,' she NEVER betrayed you. She took attacks FOR us! And she never use us as living-shields, whether our damage was linked to her or not. She trusted us. She never sacrificed us for 'new models.' We Nightmares STAYED gallery-mates, at all times. And she never ever, broke her word with us: Even when it cost her everything. Under her, we Nightmares knew who our allies were and who to count as foes...It was kind of comforting that in a world full of grey, we were still black and white."
"If ya ask me, Nightmare Eclipse trusted me as far as her shadow reached, she called it 'lookin' out fer me,' like a true friend should cause Ah 'couldn't help myself.' The honest truth? Ah think deep down she could never get over Discord's game in the hedge maze and was afraid if we had half a chance we'd vanish into thin air. Ah hope ya ain't really yearnin' fer the 'good ol' days' of our endless vendetta. Of the total annihilation we wrought! Her golden world fantasy a buncha hooey! Other Nightmares at least put EFFORT into makin' their 'better world for everypony!'"
"Nope," I said, helping Applejack gather up the cards to put them back in their little cardboard box. "What I am saying is... does loyalty even have any proper place in a world like ours? A world where it's impossible to trust anything?" At AJ's sharp double-take, I said, "Yeah, I've had a lot of time to rethink things, out here on my own."
"Sweet Celestia... it's more serious than Ah thought. RD, ya can't REALLY have no trust at all!"
I glance back towards the gas giant.
"Well, technically, I suppose you're right. But the sort of things I do trust in: rap sheets, never taking anything at face value, what good intentions pave the road to... 'complete mistrust' just says it all in fewer words."
LOTS of lightning cracks across the hemispheres of the gas giant, like strobe lights at a rave. Great bolts that I can see from way out here, that have to be thicker than skyscrapers. Awesome.
"I mean, let's just start with my pretend Ponyville. Yes, the puppetmaster turned out to be Nightmare Whisper... but for a few 'tweaks,' it could just as easily have been Banneret or Granfalloon or myself! Any one of us could have been the villain."
"...What about Scootaloo? All of 'em. Do yah not trust those little gals?"
My words stopped in my throat. "Well...I...I…"
"...Rainbow, can Ah tell you somethin'?" she asked. "...The truth is, yer right, we did make the world grey...we strung up a puppet king who just wanted to stop against heroes who had no idea they were working for the bad guys...but Ah think after several hundred million years of that garbage, it's hard tah think of the world as havin' genuine white and black."
"...Was what we did black?"
"As Entropy's realm."
"Was the Scootaloo Army of Awesome helping us save the world white?"
"No 'if the deities are pullin' our strings'. Ah mean 'an army of little heroes comin' tah save everycreature they love.'"
"...Yeah...that was white."
"...Truth is, while what is evil depends on the situation, there is black and white, good and evil, Elsyium and Tartarus...Grey just means 'a side is a mix of black and white,' not 'there's no such thing as black and white'...So yah can trust in your moral compass...yah just need tah get used tah listenin' to it again."
"Alright, I'll admit it, Scootaloo, all of them, I know they can be trusted, but that doesn't make US trustworthy," I maintain. "What's to keep any of us from relapsing! Look at what happened with Fluttershy! She had her head put back on straight and look at the first thing she did!"
"Technically the same thing ya wanted to do at the start, only with innocent ponies caught in the 'toxic waste' drum. Maybe SHE was worried deep down we'd try to resurrect Nightmare Eclipse."
"Which we aren't anymore, whether like it or not. Remember Princess Luna? The ORIGINAL Nightmare? Nightmare Moon herself?! Was SHE still insane after she got blasted with the Elements? Did she relapse?! No offense sugarcube, but that sounds like what a lot of paranoid ponies, and Ah hate ta say it, a lot of versions of me too, thought of Princess Luna when she was cured. The Pantheon are offerin' ta turn us inta Concepts, jest like them!" Applejack shot back. "We don't HAVE ta be Nightmares no more, Rainbow! HECK! Maybe all we need to do is politely stand for a nice second rainbow of light shower and BOOM! All the crude comes clean off us!"
"Luna was already an Alicorn, what makes you think it works like that for us?"
"...Do yah think Trixie, the ALICORN, not the mortal, is trust-worthy?"
"I don't get where you're goin-"
"...Considering she kept fighting for her world until she died, yes."
"...That's the difference between a Nightmare and an Alicorn."
"...Still don't get it."
"Twilight Sparkle, the pony who didn't want to show off when we first met Trixie, went Nightmare and turned into a megalomaniac with an ego the size of Equestria."
"But Trixie, big 'look at how great and powerful I am!' Trixie, became an Alicorn, and became a wise, humble pony that fought Eclipse until her dyin' breath. And STILL somehow managed to survive her timeline bein' destroyed tah ascend...Ah don't know about you, but if ascendin' all the way can do that fer yah, Ah'm kinda lookin' forward to it."
But I shook my head. "Say we DO become Concepts. So what? That didn't stop Discord or Morning Star from causing misery, and they weren't flesh and blood ponies once upon a time! If I thought Concepts couldn't be monsters, I'd be first in line! But it didn't stop Princess Luna! The higher you're up, the farther you have to fall . . . I don't WANT to fall again Applejack! I'm TERRIFIED of it! I've fallen so low, I don't want to see what's deeper down!"
I'm blanketing my body in my wings, feeling the chill of outer space much stronger.
"I wish those ponies would LISTEN to me, for a change! I wish they'd quit with all the mixed messages!"
"What mixed messages would those be, Rainbow?" asked Applejack.
On the gas giant, the lightning's fading away, now fiery mushrooms are blossoming up, as the lightning comes right back. What fun.
"Here's one good example, AJ. So there I am, Rainbow Dash: Hero of Ponyville. Boy, am I proud of myself for that! Only the Alicorns sends dear old Razzaroo to show me: no, you aren't the heroic Rainbow Dash, you are the monstrous Nightmare Manacle. And it hurts so bad. But I pick myself up. If that was the shape of it then okay. I wasn't proud of it, But I did feel a certain... acceptance. Contentment. Equanimity. I may've been scum, but at least I now know my true self and my proper place in the Scheme of Things."
Applejack was twitching. "RAINBOW! HER WHOLE MOONSENT POINT WAS TO MAKE SURE YEW REALLY WERE RAINBOW DASH ON THE INSIDE! If ya were actually the monstrous Nightmare Manacle on the inside she'd have left ya and the rest of us sealed! Remember?! She never said to ya, you were Nightmare Manacle! She kept calling you Rainbow Dash!" She face hooved. "Ya know! Ah was really really not sure at all that showin' ya yer reflection on the inside was a good idea! Ya said it yerself, after the world got turned upside-down there was so little ya could hold onto as true. Sometimes pullin' a knife out can cause more damage than if ya leave in there! If Ah knew it was THIS BAD Ah'd have given ya the soul x-ray sooner!"
I huff out a breath.
...And to think those phantasmal foals who'd put that crown on my head had sounded so SURE of themselves.. . . maybe it wasn't such a good idea to listen to them. Well, technically they NEVER CALLED ME Nightmare Manacle. They called me the Queen of Chains. They only unsealed me and gave me back my black magic. I was already Nightmare Manacle underneath the seal . . . and UNDERNEATH THAT I was Rainbow Dash after all. Some game.
"Ah make no apologies," Applejack tells me, flashing me that one mirror a second time, so I can see my horned, frazzled Rainbow self in her Nightmare barding once more. Only now she looked downright sullen. "Yew are both Rainbow Dash AND Nightmare Manacle. As much as Princess Luna was Nightmare Moon."
"This another yin-yang thing?" I ask, toying with the idea of changing my name to Nightbow Danacle.
"Eeeyup," says Applejack, stretching her muscles a bit. "Though at this point, Ah'd say yer WAY more 'Rainbow' than 'Manacle.'"
She smiles at me as though this is supposed to comfort me.
"Here's another 'mixed message,' from the Pantheon I don't appreciate," I then say. "My whole experience in my own pretend Ponyville pretty much spelled out that I'm unfit to take care of mortals. Didn't even ONE of those Alicorns lugs hear me when I was saying things like, 'we have no right TALKING to mortals, let alone ruling their lives?' And Ponyville was just a village. Now the concepts wants for me... ALL us Nightmares to build a universe."
I slump to the ground.
"I'm a pretty flexible girl. Damnation... atonement... isolating myself from everypony else to just eke out a quiet existence alone... I'm cool with any of that. But this whole business of setting me up to repeat my old crimes on a grander scale... like a horrible parent being put in charge of an orphanage..."
Applejack tilted her head. "Ah'm sorry RD, Ah really am, but Ah just don't get that one."
"What? What is there to get? Us and mortal ponies is like giving kittens to-"
I noticed her flare her wing on instinct...same one she'd shown me little healed Rainbow Dash in actually.
"Ya sayin' 'we ain't fit to be around no mortals' is supposed to prove ya ain't fit to be around no mortals?! Rainbow it doesn't work that way! Ya let ponies live their lives in yer pretend Ponyville however they wanted, the way they wanted when they wanted! And ya wanted'em to be FREE once ya had a place for 'em...this was Fluttershy's doin', not yers, you had a completely different plan in mind and she hijacked it...Not to bucking mention, YOU PUT THEIR GOOD FORTUNE OVER YOUR OWN!!! The whole dang time, ya said you were fightin' fer them! Remember? Ya never let one pony get hurt from any of yer 'collateral' damage! Now get it through that thick head of yers, would Nightmare Manacle of done that? EVER? Now you can MAKE that new place for 'em the right way!"
She looked me in the eyes with her actual eyes. And strangely I didn't feel my soul burn. "...Are yah right we've done a lot of bad? Yes. We have...these ponies we saved are some clear water in an ocean of blood...but we put a lot more clear water in it by savin' 'em. And we can put a lot more in it by helpin' build a new universe. Realizin' yah done bad can go two ways, Rainbow: either yah say 'Ah'm a monster, Ah can only be a monster' or you say 'Ah'm a monster but Ah don't WANT tah be.' Doin' good things now isn't 'sparin' somepony tah live with ourselves'...it's atonement."
I felt that truth. I mean like how she'd used to force somepony to see bad truths to break 'em but...not...
"...Was...that using your eyes to see a kind truth?"
Applejack herself blinked in confusion. "Ah...Ah think it was somewhere in the middle...A little cruel, a little kind...Ah...didn't know Ah could do that...Ah just did."
"And they're going to trust us to make a universe," I admit, after seeing her show me more than just a cruel truth, I had to force some of that sarcasm. Nightmare Mirror wasn't supposed to be ABLE to do that!
"They ain't askin' us ta do it TOMORROW!" Applejack reminded me in slow-spoken words. "We'd be gettin' lots and lots of therapy first, before we get the first miracle rolling! Inside the womb of all souls if we take the concept route."
"Heaven knows we need it," I sigh, rising to a sit. "You know... even though I'm no shrink myself... let me try diagnosing myself. I'd say that I'm highly paranoid, antisocial, with a persecution complex, severe depression, anger management issues, prone to violent outbursts, deep-seated mistrust of all authority figures, post-traumatic stress disorder, a thin grip on reality, huge issues with guilt and self-esteem..."
"...Darlin'...you knew that all that stuff was wrong with yah this whole time, didn't yah?"
"...Yeah...I admit...I think you pulled a cork and a lot of gunk came pourin' out of meh…"
Her wing lifted again, same one as little healed Rainbow kept popping up in. I don't think she even knew she was doing it. "...Keepin' all that bottled up wasn't healthy…guess it's better yah let it out now..."
"...Since when are you a shrink?"
"...Ah don't know...kinda feels almost like Ah've spent a long time with one front leg and somepony finally gives meh the other one and tells meh Ah was always supposed tah have it...Well since Ah'm apparently a shrink now, tell meh what else is buggin' yah."
I thought again about the universe they wanted me to help make.
"...What's more, I'm terrified of mortal ponies. No, I'm terrified FOR them! When I'm around them, I'm not even a bull in a china shop; I'm a bull in a china WORLD. The idea that I'll help creating whole PLANETS of them... they'll be looking to me as one of their creator gods, to give them moral guidance, praying to me to right spiritual wrongs... and I'll be afraid to move out of fear of shattering them...in particular three of them . . . "
Shakily, I uncapped another bottle of cider and downed it in record time.
"No offense Rainbow, but ya were always focused on the action. Me? I saw and listened ta other things. Including one old loop where Princess Celestia and Luna's statues were rescued from Discord's castle. Princess Celestia? Here's a surprise I picked up spying on her once when it was just me, Nightmare Eclipse and Nightmare Granfalloon. Princess Celestia feels the exact same way you do. All the time. She feels she's an inferno in a world made of kindling. It's part of the whole reason she calls herself Princess instead of Queen. The truth? If she wanted to she could probably have incinerated the Hooviet Empire with one solar flare when it was a threat, but pulling that kinda trigger...Ah think she's afraid of how hard it'd be to STOP pulling it if she did it once. What ya just said kinda proves ya UNDERSTAND what a big deal it is . . . and . . . fragile they all are to bulls like us."
"...That doesn't make much LESS paranoid of my fellow immortals. If Fluttershy could do what she did for centuries after being hit by the Rainbow of Light... how can I trust myself or any of you, any of my friends any of us, to stay sane?..."
"...Ah was savin' this fer Fluttershy when she had head enough to listen, but she was willin' to go up against us and the Alicorns for what she thought was protectin' all of Ponyville from death or oblivion! She thought we were the only ones who WOULD protect all of the ponies rather than just them sink into Entropy's black ocean! That is truth! Fer all her talk about not carin' 'bout it, Ah think she was tryin' for her own redemption.
"From what ya told me, she was goin' without sleep!!! Keepin' that whole place running by herself and Flutternice looking after the Scootaloos! For who knows how long! And Nightmares or not, we still need to shut our eyes! We might not need sleep for our bodies, but we definitely need it for our minds! Ah think . . . she wasn't just addled by the guilt, Ah think the lack of shut-eye was makin' things worse, and her usin' her magic? Constantly since yers was sealed away? Ah think we saved her from keelin' over! Or becomin' a braindead shell that could only power the place! Ya didn't beat 'er Rainbow Dash! YOU SAVED HER Rainbow Dash!"
" . . . thanks fer telling me that one AJ, I think that one actually does make me feel a tiny tinny bit better maybe."
I saw AJ's face brighten just a little.
"But how can I trust that just the right amount of stress of creating a whole moonsent universe like the ones I've helped destroyed a bajillion times won't make me do something 'good' but very very stupid? Especially when my own," AJ gave me the stink eye. "I mean, OUR victim is right next to us?"
"Ta think" Applejack interrupted, in a downcast way, "Yew were startin' ta do so well, and all it took fer yew ta unravel was one quick look at his face..."
"I know!" I agreed, miserably. "I mean, suppose at some point, Discord says one little thing wrong, one tiny little thing wrong...and I snap like a twig..."
"Here's a thought!" said Applejack, with a strained smile. "What if... jest WHAT IF... the bunch of us simply conducted ourselves with perfect professionalism and respect fer one another the whole way through?"
I thought about it.
"Is that your prescription, 'doc'?" I asked, joking a little.
"Given the fact your hatin' yerself for what yah did tah Discord, knowin' if he forgave yah or not might help ease it...great, now Ah really am soundin' like a shrink!"
"AJ . . . after Discord, after Nightmare Eclipse, after the pretend Ponyville? A part of me is always going to be waiting for somepony, or for something to snap. Or until it builds up to be too much, and I snap instead."
"And ya really think that the rest of us haven't gone through those exact same things? Spike can't trust his own memories anymore. Not after livin' as Rarity. What other memories might he have that are lies? He can't even known if he him carin' about Sweetie Belle is just brainwashin' or him really feelin' for her like family! And think about this: ya said yerself in yer loop, even Twilight without a heart still cared about yew and Spike, and so did yer Applejack even when she was a liar! The pretend Ponyville? It got along fine without Spike! Like if he up and vanished, nopony would notice! YA THINK THAT DIDN'T HURT 'EM!? We're a herd! We're supposed to shoulder each other's pain!...Maybe yah and Spike coulda helped shoulder each others… That's why you're Loyalty."
For a moment this made me wonder, how much pain was the Cruelest of Truths hiding behind her own mirrors?
Well, she asked for what was bothering me...so I'd better hurry up.
"You're not gonna want to hear this AJ. No offense to Winona, but you know what's also not all that bright, easily mentally overpowered, relentless, a hard worker, utterly faithful and loyal? A dog. A dumb mutt."
I looked at myself in one of Applejack's mirrors. The angle let me see . . . let see Applejack a little in them too, was that a viola flower in her barding? . . . something about her eyes were blurry. I continued.
"For all Eclipse's talk about NPCs, do you know what Rainbow was, AJ? Nothing but the long opening cutscene. So gullible, vulnerable, and weak-willed that every version of her effectively railroaded herself into making the EXACT SAME BAD DECISION in that hedge maze EACH and EVERY time. Nag Eclipse might have been copying and pasting Discord, but what about the rest of us? What's our excuse that every version of us that fate churned out kept falling for Discord's games like all the versions of us before them? With all the changes that popped up in every loop?
"Never even felt like the 'game' handed me proper 'control' of my own life, until at least a thousand years into being Traitor Dash...Of course we both know why, Eclipse needed us to fall for it...I didn't have a chance to even try to pick something different, did I? Ain't that sad? All of that lowly pegasus' puffed-up vanity, that weathermare's need for adoration, that wannabe's idiotic pie-in-the-sky ambitions, what an absolute...!"
Nightmare Mirror was a veritable queen of stoics. Tombstones wished they could be as somber as her. She could unveil the most soul-shattering truths about yourself in the flattest, most disaffected monotone. You could beg her to shut up. You could scream at her in a furious rage. You could attack her with any weapon you pleased. And she'd just keep telling you everything about yourself you never wanted to learn.
Now she was sobbing wildly. As though she were the sole survivor of a wholesale massacre... at her own wedding.
"Ya AIN'T a dog, Rainbow Dash!" she blubbered, quivery and high-pitched. "Ya ain't dumb! Ya ain't weak! And ya don't need ta be this way! Ah... Ah... Ah ain't cried this bad even when my Big Mac died! How'd ya even DO that, Dash?!"
I didn't know. What could I say? This was a thousand times stranger than when the original Applejack had been turned into Liarjack. Applejack suppressed her tears, Liarjack pretended nothing bad was happening at all.
At last, I went over and tried just hugging her. She hugged back fierce as could be... as though we were mortal again, and I'd nearly dropped to the bottom of the ocean. I nestled my head against hers. It took a long while for her to get her sobbing under control. Even then, she was still weeping but it was under control.
"...Yah never forgave yerself for the maze, did yah?"
"...Not as much as I wish I had... Fluttershy . . . she showed me how I could have won . . . She was better than all of us . . . she was the only one who Discord had to cheat to corrupt. If only . . . if only ONE Rainbow Dash out that entire infinite had thought of it! Maybe Discord's second daughter may have gone Princess Aura Borealis on his Ming Vase The Merciless' tail."
"...All them times Ah told ya honest truths about yerself, Rainbow... Ah can see Ah accentuated the negative way too often, and yew took it all straight ta heart. So lemme tell yew some GOOD things 'bout yerself."
Applejack pulled away, looking at me in the eye. There goes that one wing up again.
"Yer honorable, Dashie. Ya got a big heart, and ya really do care about protectin' the lives of mortals. Ya have a sense of fun. Ya've always, always, always ALWAYS done yer best ta be a good friend ta us. Even when we weren't in right mind ta appreciate it, and all yew got back from us was loneliness and abuse. Sometimes, it's very, very helpful the way ya jump inta action, fearlessly leading the charge. The mortals in yer pretend Ponyville REALLY DO admire yew, because ya REALLY put yer heart inta savin' them! In Twilight's absence, ya've been a great leader: focused, effective, and driven. Ah've been proud ta stand behind ya! So've the rest of us Nightmares!"
She could almost have been just a simple cousin of mine, rather than some terrible force of nature.
"And it KILLS me, seein' yew loathe yerself so completely that yer out ta strangle everythin' good inside ya! Ah don't want ya bein' so petrified of taking risks! Ah don't want ya shunnin' everypony else in existence! We ain't all weasels, rats, demons and delicate li'l china dolls! Some of us actually ARE friendly folk, worth gettin' ta know! Give people the benefit of the doubt! We Nightmares CARE very, very deeply about yew, Rainbow: yer one of us! One of our dearest, oldest, friends! We're NOT out ta cut yer throat the moment ya turn yer back on us. Quit finding reasons ta be wretched because yer terrified that smiles and happiness are super-unlucky! This world's NOT gonna be snatched away from yew! Ya ain't dreamin' and ya ain't under any spell! There won't be any more resets! Relax! Laugh more! There's STILL incredible beauty in yer soul! Ya shouldn't live yer life like the whole dang universe is one big minefield! Go ahead, Rainbow Dash: let yer spirit of adventure fly free again!"
"...I always, always wanted to be an adventure hero," I say softly. "But that's impossible. Life in this universe is no adventure. It's a giant cosmic horror story..and we made it this way."
Applejack looks me square in the eye. "We really are finally on the threshold of escapin' this vicious cycle we've been trapped in forever! Don't be stuck in the past! There's a future ahead of us! Rancor, Twilight, and six sets of Elements burned Eclipse's cosmic horror story to ashes then those ashes into atoms! It's gone and from the sound of it, Rarity's outline is a good old high fantasy! And it ain't the sorta future ya wanna turn yer back on, or watch on the sidelines for. This future is for star player GET-UP-'N'-GO-GETTERS, GIRL!"
I swallow. "Tell me one good thing I can put absolute faith in. One happy nice thing that not even a god can ever take away.
Applejack thinks. And thinks. And then she thinks some more.
"Dash? Got a thought."
"Let's hear it."
"For all the rotten, awful misery Ah've heard spillin' out yer trap, one thing's fer certain. Yew've been really HONEST with me... 'bout everything, since reawakening as 'Nightmare Manacle.' All yer thoughts. What's in yer heart. All cards face-up on the table. So fer that... and especially fer all the loyalty yew've shown others, perhaps it's time somepony pledged some loyalty back to yew."
"What do you mean?" I ask.
Applejack places a hoof over her heart. "Ah swear with mah soul that no matter what, Ah'm gonna be the truest friend to ya Ah can be. Ah swear to always be upfront and honest with yew, and never lead yew astray. Ah'll never seek ta beat ya in a battle of any sort. No third party will ever be able to set me against ya. Even if we are far apart, Ah'll ALWAYS remain on yer side."
There wasn't any flash of magical light. Applejack's voice did not reverberate with mystical power. She simply lowered her hoof back to the ground.
"Now, yew remember me talkin' with Fluttershy, 'bout how souls are timeless? Because this promise was sworn WITH mah soul... it'll still be valid and binding fer me, even if yer fears are right, and things ARE reset. So no matter what, you CAN absolutely depend on at least ONE true friend. One friend who will always be there to pull yah back outta the dark if yah fall inta it again. Even if Ah don't rightly remember this moment in mah brain... it'll all come instinctively, from in here." She tapped her heart.
I was utterly stunned. "You'd do that for me?"
"Sure! Cross mah heart, hope ta..."
Her hoof starts to move over her heart, but I stop it. "No. No, I don't even need that. This is all you, you wonderful, wonderful stubborn stick-in-the-mud, you. Your word is twenty million percent better than any Pinkie Promise."
Said a voice hiding behind a nearby floating pink asteroid.
"Sorry Pinkie Pie," We echoed. Then laughed.
Applejack did NOT lie. Her ability to lie stunk like dragon's breath. Her strength lay in truth!
When she swore something with her soul, on her soul that thing was sworn.
One friend. One friend I could depend completely on. One bedrock in an ocean of chaos and inconsistency...
...The greatest treasure anypony had ever given me. This was the true magic of friendship.
On their own, we'd been broken by our own Elements...but it turned out the virtues were still virtues after all. We Nightmares had got it all wrong: the Elements were never meant to work in isolation from each other. And AJ could see the understanding on my face.
"And Rainbow? Ah know somethin' else yah can have faith in...Well, Ah should say 171,015 little orange somethings," she said, giving me a smile.
I was struck dumb for a moment, then hugged her tighter than I could remember. "You're right! There are! And I'm going bloody try my best to make sure they...they can have faith in me!"
"Ready to go back?" asks AJ. "Ya don't need ta be part of the universe-makin', if yew'd rather not. It's a big responsibility and a lot could go wrong."
"No," I tell AJ. "We're all in this together. Race ya back!"
And off we flew. Discord and our fellow Nightmares, and Scootaloo, and all our friends, awaited.