CHAPTER 18: Exchange
“So, we've got a couple new recruits, Sergeant?”
“Yup. And the most important ones we've had thus far.”
“Are these the ponies from that other world?”
“Hawkeye, how do you know every whisper in this camp? That's supposed to be confidential.”
“It's my job, sir.”
“And you do great at it. I just hope your lips are as tight as your eyepatch.”
“Not a word from me.”
The sergeant jumped from the tower, catching herself with her wings before landing in the compound, several griffons scattering, fearing a beating. Hawkeye traced the trigger of her rifle with her hoof, her all seeing eye catching every movement in the camp.
Including an overly excited griffon heading over to one of the buildings. Hope was the easiest emotion to catch in the sea of broken souls. She'd have to keep a watch on this one.
The door burst open, just as Fluttershy had been reaching for it. She jumped back in shock.
“Oh, ever so sorry,” apologized Gilda. “I didn't want to keep you waiting. And to be completely honest, I couldn't wait myself.”
“So... this camp.” Rarity looked down at the crude, dusty floor. “How is it?”
“Depends on what aspect you're talking about. Where do you guys want to talk?”
“Is there anywhere private?”
“Not except the isolation cells they were keeping you in, and we don't want to end up there. There's always somebody listening in here. We don't have anything to fear from the other griffons, as I'll explain, and the Sergeant and her guards have heard it all before. As long as we're not openly plotting an escape, they won't even care. Maybe I'll show you around?”
Twilight shrugged. “Might as well get to know this place.”
The friends filed out of the building into the harsh winter sun. It was cold outside, but having donned the all important cloaks, only their faces felt the chill breeze. Another day gone. Less than two weeks before the Metaspectre's promised time was up. And now they were trapped here for Celestia knew how long.
Though, thinking about it, she probably didn't.
As they began walking around the compound, the griffons gave the ponies some odd stares, but upon seeing that Gilda was with the group, didn't confront them. As far as Twilight could see, they were the only ponies imprisoned here, the guards the only other equines in sight. Beyond the walls lay the city of Moon Pool, but with angle prevented any view into the actual streets. And a large net over the camp prevented any fliers from getting a better vantage point. Or escaping. There was only one way in, and one way out. Through the concrete building, solitary confinement, as Gilda called it.
As they walked, Gilda began pouring out her history.
“Where do I begin? There's been so much to talk about but nobody to tell it to. Well, I'll start from your perspective. You met a griffon who you thought was me?”
“Well, yeah, she sounded like you and even looked like you. With what we know now, we'd think it was your reflection, but she was in Reality, and that's before we knew about any of this.”
“How exactly did she act?”
Rainbow gave a quick summary of everything the Gilda in Reality had done, the Gilda currently present frowning at each negative point. After she told of how the grumpy griffon had stormed out of the party, Gilda sighed and dropped her head. “Really, I'm disappointed anyone pretending to be me would act in such as way. Proves she just wasn't even trying.”
“Do you know who it was, if it wasn't you?”
“I think I do. I was being completely honest when I said I hadn't seen you since Flight Camp, Dash. In fact, I had been preparing to come visit you when it happened.”
“When what happened, exactly?” asked Twilight. Despite her initial mistrust, she was just as interested as everypony else as to what Gilda had to say.
“When the griffon population flip-flopped.”
“Well, that's just it. Even we don't know the full story yet. But from what we've been able to gather, this world used to have alternate versions of ourselves. And these alternate versions, or Offshoots, as we call them, somehow became aware of our world and tried to enter it. Doing so pushed the true griffons into this world. It happened in the blink of an eye. We immediately felt something was wrong, but we couldn't place it.
“We were in the same buildings. They just looked run down. We were having the same conversations, with the same friends, but suddenly everything was darker. We eventually held a meeting, but none of us could agree on what happened. It wasn't until a group of ponies attacked us that it became clear just how different our world had become.
“We initially greeted them as friends, wondering why such a large group would come visiting from so far. But they began striking us down. The devastation... the terror... the pain... So many fell that day. Later we found out they were just after our food. Our predecessors were terrible neighbors, apparently.
“They mistook us for the Offshoots. Once we surrendered and were able to explain our situation to them, they treated us even worse. They took everything we had, and burned our homes. Tried to make us fearful. But that's not the griffon way. This world awoke something in our blood. We became hating, bitter, and violent creatures. We struck back. Much to our surprise, our fallen brethren joined us. This world would not let us die. Not permanently. So we fought that much harder.
“After a while, we began to realize what we had become. We remembered this was not how we were supposed to be. We remembered that we came from a better world. Why had we fallen so far? We redirected our efforts into discovering the cause of our animal-like behavior, and to find a way back home. Of course, now that we had continued the blood feud that the Offshoots had started, we were constantly plagued by attacks and violence. Through it all, we were able to find several key revelations that gave us hope. Firstly, that magic flowed through us, and that we could control it as any unicorn in Equestria. Secondly, that the griffons who had lived here earlier had indeed found a way into Reality, and lastly, that they were not happy there. Through newly invented divining methods, we could see into our old world. It was a bittersweet torture, seeing what we were missing. Remembering it's what we deserved, not this endless struggle for power. But it allowed us to view our doppelgangers.
“It seemed they didn't exactly fit in their new world. They were just as harried as we were. None of their neighbors understood them. They had connections, friendships even, that they couldn't carry on. They didn't know how. So they began cutting them off. I can only assume that's what my Offshoot did. But that just made them feel worse. They were just as alone in the land of promise as they were in the land of cruelty.
“Better yet, it seems they couldn't fully experience the joys there. They had hints of the good, just enough to make them want it, but their minds were simply not made to comprehend joy. To not understand the sweetness of a cake. To not know the touch of true love. They saw it around them, in the now alienated ponies. But they could never have it themselves. It seems the method they used was lacking something.
“From what we've gathered from our intelligence network, that something is you, The Elements. And the ponies of Moon Pool are fully aware of it. Actually, they were the ones who first attacked us. And they want out of here just of badly as we do. Of course, we can't let them into Equestria. Even put there correctly, I don't think their bloodlust could be sated. I don't think they could ever live in the presence of the light as long as the darkness remained. Not unless they were in between. A balance between the darkness and the light. But that would be a torture of its own. Knowing both pain and relief. It would make any joy sweeter, any pain that much more bitter. Any merged being would be a being of extremes.
“But the ponies of Moon Pool, led by what I now realize are your Offshoots, don't seem to care. They think that any joy is better than none, and I can't say I blame them. But their methods are frightening. As I'm certain you're now well aware.”
“Wow.” Twilight stopped walking. Here she had been, thinking that what the friends had experienced had been terrible. Here the griffons had been here for quite some time, feeling Blood and Pain day in and day out...
“How long has it been since the flip-flop?”
“Actually, it's been just about a year and a half. Coming up in just under two weeks.”
“And why do they keep you here?”
“Honestly, because it's easier than just killing us. They just let us starve to death.”
“Starve to death?” Suddenly Shuddercry's words made more sense.
“As long as we're here, we're more or less incapacitated. They drain our energy pools, use us as leverage, mentally and verbally abuse us, and in general give a show of dominance. Not that it does a lot of good. Eventually, we die off one by one and are reincarnated, ready to fight again. And though we're not proud of it, we've begun doing the same to their forces. It just makes more sense than letting the same ponies come each day to kill and capture more of us. They seem driven, these ponies, to prevent our happiness as much as possible. They're jealous any time we laugh or cry with one another. Because our bonds are stronger than theirs could ever be. They fight either out of fear or ambition. We fight for survival.”
One of the passing guards spit at Gilda who took it stoically. “Yeah and a good day to you too.”
“Is that their plan? To starve us to death?” asked Fluttershy.
“I don't think so. You're necessary for their plans. We're expendable.”
Gilda stopped suddenly, and Twilight looked up to see why. The Sergeant was standing before them, her whip at the ready.
“Alright,” she began, looking quite bored and perhaps even annoyed. “Some of my associates want to take some of you around town, for whatever reason. I don't have a say in this, but apparently it's 'take your reflection to work day'. Trust me, we're more than qualified to handle you, so don't try any funny business. You'll be traveling with your assigned babysitter, and you'll do exactly as they say. Come with me.”
The group walked back towards the concrete building, feeling the eyes of the guards trailing them all the way. Gilda stayed back after giving Rainbow a quick farewell. She didn't think it wise to push the Sergeant's good nature with any sentiment. They passed into the building, Twilight welcoming the temporary warmth, and out the other side. There were the five reflections, Pinkamina among them.
“Alright, Fluttershy, is it? You'll be helping me here at the camp today. You don't get to go out. The rest of you keep moving.”
The ponies stepped forward, looking each of their reflections resolutely in the eye. The reflections, true to their name, returned the glare, Pinkamina smiling coyly from the side.
As they parted ways, Twilight began questioning this pony she had begun to despise. “So, Lustrous Revolt, I suppose I should thank you for not attacking me right now. What's the plan today? Bring me to a banquet and make me smell it? Make me beg for a slice of cake?”
“Of course not.” Lustrous Revolt looked back, ignoring Twilight's hardly hidden sarcasm. “That's more of Pinkamina's style. She's the interrogator. You get to meet my benefactor.”
Twilight frowned. “I thought you were running this charade?”
Lustrous gave a laugh devoid of joy. “Of course not. We're all pawns to the Gods. Perhaps one day though. No, you get to learn just how Moon Pool got its name.”
“There's a lake that reflects the moon? Seems obvious enough.”
“Think about what you just said.”