Twilight sat at her woefully cluttered desk, scribbling on a scroll with her tongue between her teeth. A trio of candles provided a gentle glow, doing the job of a moon that, tonight, lay hidden behind the sporadic cloud cover that made up the evening sky. On a perch in the window was Owlowiscious, who watched her work with a curious gaze.
At last, Twilight set her pencil down and studied the chart she’d drawn. Her eyes roamed over the names and numbers and facts, taking in every familiar detail until it all formed a picture in her mind.
Then she let her face smack the desk.
“Oh, I just don’t get it,” she mumbled against the paper.
“Am I interrupting something?”
With a cry, Twilight jumped and spun to the window. But the scroll remained stuck to her face, so she tripped over her stool and fell sideways to the floor in an inharmonious heap. Still blinded by the scroll, she chose to simply lay there and pretend she was dead. Yes, that would be far less embarrassing.
“Oh, dear. Are you quite alright, Twilight Sparkle?”
With a pained sigh, Twilight lifted the paper from her face to see Princess Luna hovering outside her window with a concerned expression. Owlowiscious at least had the courtesy to have his back turned, though he did have a wing slapped over his face.
“I’m fine,” Twilight said, sitting up and brushing the paper off. “Nothing wounded but my pride. How are you, Luna?”
“I am lovely this fine evening, Twilight Sparkle.” Luna offered a pleasant smile. “I have brought you the information you asked for.”
All embarrassment forgotten, Twilight’s ears shot up and her eyes brightened. “You got the spell for me?”
A bound scroll floated through the window, safe in Luna’s magical aura. “Indeed. This is the Mind Delve spell, which should let you see into the inner workings of a pony. Be warned, it is single-use only.”
“I shouldn’t need it more than once,” Twilight replied. She took the scroll in her magic and placed it gently on her desk.
Luna set her cannons on the windowsill and frowned. “I take it that Miss Lulamoon remains in a coma?”
Twilight nodded, her excitement dropping off once more. “Yes, and we still don’t have any idea why. But hopefully with this spell I can go in and ask her directly, assuming it’s something as simple as blunt trauma or whatever. If it’s something more psychological…” She cast her eyes downward. “In that case, she may need somepony else to help.”
A thoughtful hum rose from Luna as she took this information in. She pointed at the desk. “And is this the conundrum that has you assaulting your desk with your face so late in the night?”
Twilight made a weak sound combining frustration with worry. “No, this is something entirely new. Now I’ve got another mystery to solve.” At Luna questioning look, she explained, “Applejack’s pet dog was killed last night. I’m trying to figure out what is responsible.”
Luna frowned and her eyes narrowed. “So it was no accident?”
Twilight’s frown grew firm. “No, I’m confident it was no accident. Something murdered Winona, and I aim to figure out what. It’s not just because Applejack’s my friend; we can’t have creatures roaming around Ponyville killing innocent pets!”
Luna nodded, her manner serious. “I understand. I won’t keep you for too long, then. I simply have two things that I wished to say.”
“I was wondering why you decided to deliver the scroll personally,” Twilight admitted with a smile. She then tossed her mane and took on an exaggerated, high-browed pose. “And here I thought you were interested in keeping me company.”
With a wince, Luna hurried to speak, “I apologize, I didn’t want to intrude uninvited. I only thought that—”
“I was just kidding, Luna.”
“Oh…” Luna stared at her for a moment, then blushed and shook her head. “I guess we are tied for embarrassing displays tonight.”
With a giggle, Twilight asked, “So what’s the message?”
“Ah, right. First, the scroll.” Luna indicated the spell scroll on the desk. “Please be cautious with this magic. It works similarly to my dreamweaving, and can be unpredictable. I don’t think you will fall into any trouble, but at the same time, we cannot be certain of the state of Miss Lulamoon’s mind.”
Twilight gave a firm nod. “Got it. I’ll be careful.”
“See that you do.” Luna absent-mindedly reached up to scratch the tip of her hoof beneath Owlowiscious’s chin; the owl promptly went slack with an expression that Twilight thought suited a dog more than a bird. “Second, I wished for you to relay a message to the Bearer of Laughter.”
“Pinkie?” Twilight cocked her head with a lopsided expression. “That’s the last pony I expected. What kind of message would you have for her?”
Luna turned her attention back to Twilight, leaving Owlowiscious as a cooing puddle of contentment on his perch. “As you can imagine, I pay close attention to you and your friends’ dreams, doing my part to keep you all safe at night.”
At the thought of Luna looking into her dreams, Twilight’s cheeks warmed and her body tensed. “Oh, uh, I see. So you’ve seen… all my dreams?”
“No, not all.”
Twilight heaved a sigh and relaxed—
“And what I have seen is a secret between us.”
—and went rigid again. Her lips twitched into a toothy smile. “A-and, um, what have you seen, exactly?”
Luna purposefully crossed her cannons on the windowstill, wriggled as if to make herself comfortable… then flashed a knowing, sly smile.
With a giddy, faux laugh, Twilight waved a dismissive hoof. “Moving on! What did you want me to tell Pinkie?”
Luna’s smile faded and she regained her firm manner. “For the past five nights, Miss Pie’s dreams have been closed off. I can tell that she does dream, but I have been unable to see what it is she dreams of.” Her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed once more. “This is a rare, strange thing. I feel as though I am being intentionally kept out, and it leaves me uncomfortable.”
Twilight frowned, sensing the seriousness of Luna’s words. “I didn’t even know you could be shielded from a pony’s dreams.”
“As I said, it is a rare thing, but not unheard of.” Luna’s expression shifted to uncertainty. “I would not have thought Miss Pie capable of such a thing, but I am well aware by this time that she is known to do some some… interesting things. For now, I do not wish to push her, but would you please let her know my concerns? It would ease my thoughts to know of a reason behind this unusual restriction.”
“I’ll tell her,” Twilight replied quickly. “I can’t imagine she’s doing it on purpose, though. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Please do.” With one last scratch of Owlowiscious’s chin and a flap of her wings, Luna pulled away from the window. “I must attend to my nightly duties. Do come by to visit sometime, Twilight Sparkle; my sister and I would both appreciate it.”
Twilight offered her a warm smile and waved. “I’ll be sure to do that. Soon. Good night, Luna, and thanks for your help.”
“Anytime.” Luna began to turn away, but paused to cast one last smirk over her shoulder. “By the way, I think she looks best in the midnight blue socks, don’t you?”
Twilight practically melted, legs wrapped over her eyes as she whimpered. “If Pinkie has found a way to keep you out, I’m going to make sure you never see another one of my dreams ever again!”
Dirt kicked up in the darkness as Pinkie made her trotting way out of Ponyville. For the second night in a row, the sky was dotted with clouds, but for the moment the waxing moon was peering down at her. Pinkie wondered if Princess Luna could see her. Rumor had it she could watch ponies that way, but that seemed rather rude to Pinkie. After all, weren’t ponies entitled to at least some privacy?
Nah, Luna was a good princess. She wasn’t the type to spy on ponies for no reason.
She spies on their dreams, doesn’t she?
“Well, yeah,” Pinkie replied with a shrug, “but that’s different. She only does it when they’re having a bad nightmare and need help.”
Are you sure about that?
“Yep!” Pinkie giggled and patted the side of her head. “You need to be more trusting, Mr. Voice-In-My-Head Guy.”
A disgruntled mumble rolled through her skull. I have a name.
“A name you won’t tell me,” she countered, sticking her tongue out at nothing in particular. She held it that way for a couple of seconds, then blew a raspberry and giggled. “You’re Mr. Voice-In-My-Head Guy until you tell me.”
Can’t you come up with something better than that?
“I dunno. Can’t you tell me what your real name is?”
“Then no.” She shook her tail playfully, though she regretted the voice couldn’t actively see her do it.
Though the voice said nothing, she could sense his anger. It felt like a quietly roiling thundercloud was cooped up in her skull. Which was weird, because if it was there, where was her brain? Had it gone on vacation? Maybe it went to Bermooda! She hoped it kept the receipts, airship tickets weren’t cheap. Would she have to work a few extra days to cover the airfare?
You have one of the strangest minds I’ve ever had the experience of living in.
“Yeah? Well you’ve got a funny face!”
The roiling paused. The voice offered a confused, I don’t have a face.
Pinkie broke into a fit of giggles. “Yeah, and that’s funny!” She laughed out loud for several seconds, hardly noticing the complete silence in her head.
Just as the laughter ceased, her hooves touched upon solid wood. She forced her legs to stop, which required a curious amount of effort on her part. A short bridge was before her, and beyond that…
“Why are we going to Fluttershy’s cottage? She’s gonna be asleep.”
I just wanted to see where she lived, the voice replied pleasantly. Aside from the brief meeting at the orchard, I didn’t get much of a chance to come to know Fluttershy.
Pinkie cocked her head with a nonplussed frown. “You know, you could just say hello. Don’t you wanna make more friends than me?”
Not particularly, no.
Brow furrowing, Pinkie crossed her eyes, as if that might let her see the thing inside her head. “That’s not very nice!”
The voice scoffed. When you end up locked in a box for thousands of years by the ponies you thought were your friends, you let me know how open to friendship you are.
She sat and rubbed her chin in thought. “But you were friends with Trixie, right? I mean, I found you in her wagon and took you home because I thought you were meant to be a gift for somepony and I didn’t want that somepony to accidentally find you but there was no tag on the box so how was I supposed to know who it wasn’t supposed to go to and it wasn’t wrapped at all which was terrible and remind me I have to teach Trixie how to properly wrap gifts because that’s important information every pony needs to know! Especially a show mare. What if she’s asked to perform at a birthday party?”
Her legs started walking of their own accord. Can we please just move on?
“Right you are, Mr. Voice-In-My-Head Guy!” She ignored his sigh and hummed a familiar tune as she trotted across the bridge. “But what are we supposed to do here? I wouldn’t want to wake Fluttershy, or her animals for that matter.”
No answer came, but she could feel the clouds in her head shifting about. She could only guess that meant he was thinking. She paused a few feet from Fluttershy’s door and took in the dark cottage. It always reminded her of a tree, which struck her as silly, and maybe just a little dangerous. After all, The Golden Oaks Library was a tree, and far older than the cottage, and maybe it would think Fluttershy’s cottage was trying to shoulder its way into its territory! A turf war between trees made into buildings? Scary!
But now poor ol’ Oaks was nothing more than a bunch of scraggly roots in Twilight’s Castle. A shame, really. Did the cottage respect it for going like the good soldier it was?
Would you please think about things that make sense?
Pinkie gasped, then thrust her upturned muzzle aside with a huff. “Wow, rude!”
No, it’s practical. Come on, let’s walk the perimeter.
“But why?” Pinkie asked even as her legs started moving on their own again. She quickly reclaimed control, but didn’t stop moving. “What are we supposed to learn by walking circles? Not that walking in circles can’t be loads of fun, but it would be much more fun with friends. Why not just come to visit during the day?”
Why didn’t you tell me you had a friend who could talk to animals?
They turned around the corner of the cottage, heading for the back yard. Pinkie glanced through one of the darkened windows, but wasn’t sure if the motion was her own doing or not. A strange uncertainty passed through her at the thought. “Hey, don’t you think this looks creepy? And I don’t mean Nightmare Night creepy.”
The voice didn’t respond at first, but when it did it was quiet. We can’t have the animals telling Fluttershy what we’re up to, Pinkie.
Just as they reached the next corner, Pinkie forced her knees to lock. Her entire body rocked forward, but she recovered before she could fall. Her heart felt like ice. “No! What are you planning? You said Winona would work!”
The voice let out a long sigh, which resulting in smoke floating out of her nostrils. The effect tickled her nose and she sneezed.
The dog did work, but come now, My Dear. Did you really think the blood of one small dog would satisfy the Gates of Tartarus? It’s going to take a lot more than that to ensure they stay closed for a long time.
She lifted a leg, tried to step back… and found herself locked in place. Even so, she still managed to tremble. “No. Please, it’s too soon. I don’t want to hurt anypony.”
The clouds in her skull churned. The Gates won’t wait! They calmed just as quickly. We’re not going to hurt a pony, Pinkie.
“I don’t want to hurt any animals, either,” she responded, keeping her voice low. She managed to take a step back, but it was like trying to walk through molasses. “Please, let’s go back home.”
Once again, she felt that mild storm in her head, a sure sign of agitation. Didn’t you say you wanted to protect your friends? If you don’t do this, the Gates will open again. Or maybe you want Tirek to get loose again. Or one of the others! I promise, there are far worse things down there.
She shook her head, struggling against the urge to move forward. “But I don’t understand why! If this is the only way, why doesn’t Celestia do it?”
Another moment of silence… and then, like the snapping of a taught rope, the force on her legs disappeared. Pinkie yelped as she fell on her hindquarters, almost toppling head over hooves. She sat up and shook her head to clear it.
The voice spoke in a soothing tone. Pinkie, you must understand. Celestia is an idealist. She wouldn’t hurt a fly if she didn’t have to. There’s no way she could bring herself to sacrifice lives to keep the Gates closed. That’s why she ordered the practice ceased and elected to hold them closed with her own power. She’s been doing it for thousands of years, ever since I got sealed in that box.
“And she’s done a great job of it all by herself,” Pinkie declared with a firm nod.
With a lecturing tone, the voice asked, Has she? Cerberus got loose. Tirek escaped. All of Equestria almost fell.
Pinkie flinched, her ears folding back. “Everypony makes mistakes.”
It wasn’t just a mistake, Pinkie! For a moment, the storm in her head grew more intense, but it quickly calmed. Celestia keeps the Gates sealed with her magic day-in and day-out. It’s draining her, steadily. She’s robbing herself of her own lifeforce by doing it, sacrificing centuries off her life so that she won’t have to hurt others. She’s going to die because of this!
Pinkie rubbed her hooves together and chewed her lip. “She’s the princess. It’s her decision to make, isn’t it? I mean, I do feel bad for her, but she’s doing it for a good cause.”
The voice went silent. Pinkie waited, staring at her ever-rubbing hooves and wishing her stomach would stop churning.
And what about Twilight? Don’t you want to protect her?
An ear twitched. “Twilight? What does she have to do with this?”
Oh, come now, My Dear. Luna doesn’t have the power to hold the Gates for long, and Cadance is focused entirely on the Crystal Heart. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that your friend was chosen to ascend to alicornhood now, when Celestia’s power is clearly on the wane? She’s being groomed to take Celestia’s place!
Pinkie cocked her head with a lopsided frown. “Well, duh. How is this bad?”
It’s bad because every minute Celestia holds the Gates is a year off her life! And when she resigns and Twilight takes over? Tell me, is it right to let your dear friend suffer and purposefully strip centuries, maybe even millennia off her new lifespan just to spare a life or two? Can you let her do that when you know how to protect her? A life or two every thousand years is a small price to pay!
A whimper broke free of Pinkie’s tight throat. She folded her legs close to her chest and stared at the grass beneath her, shivering. “I don’t want Twilight hurt, but… but this can’t be the only way. Maybe it is better for Twilight. You know, needs of the few?”
The storm rolled about, making her feel woozy as the voice contemplated her response. Very well. You want to speak about the needs of the many versus the needs of the few? Tell me, is Celestia a great leader?
“Of course she is. The best leader there is."
And she trained Twilight from foalhood. So it stands to reason that Twilight will be just as good a leader, if not better. Unless you have doubts?
Pinkie shook her head forcefully. “Twilight’s going to be the best ruler ever! The best of the best, so best that even the best would call her the best, because that’s what she is, the best!” She paused as she repeated the line in her head. “But Twilight’s not full of herself like that, so I guess she wouldn’t say she’s the best, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”
There came a faint itching in her scalp, and somehow Pinkie got the impression of an eye roll out of it. Right. Anyway. If Twilight’s going to be the best ruler there ever was and lead Equestria into a new era of harmony—
“Which she will!”
—then doesn’t it make sense to keep her in power for as long as possible? Her place on the throne guarantees a happy world. Now, if she’s controlling the Gates personally, like Celestia is now, that time in power will be dramatically decreased. That’s thousands of years Twilight would have been Princess, maintaining peace and happiness across Equestria.
Pinkie’s ears folded back once more as she put the argument together in her head. “So… if we were to keep the Gates closed in the way they were designed to be, she could rule for all that time, and all the generations of ponies who live then can be happy.”
The smoke storm in her head seemed to swirl like a miniature hurricane, making her feel warm… but also tickling. Exactly! Put down one or two, spare millions. Maybe even billions! I ask you, is that such a large price to pay?
Her moment of hesitation was all it took for her legs to start moving again. She cringed, but didn’t fight them. “I still don’t like it. And why didn’t Trixie help you?”
She tried. She wasn't strong enough.
“But that’s silly. Trixie's a unicorn, and no slouch when it comes to magic. I mean, she's got a reputation, but I'm sure—” Pinkie turned the corner and found herself staring into a wide mouth lined with sharp-looking teeth. “Whoa, somebear needs to clean his teeth!”
The bear finished his yawn and sat up, rubbing at his fangs with a hurt expression.
She patted his leg with a smile and pointed to the cottage. “Don’t worry, Harry! I’m sure if you let Fluttershy know then she can get you all fixed up. Right, Mr. Voice-In-My-Head Guy?”
Are you speaking to that bear? Really?
“Uh, duh! I mean, I know he doesn’t know what I’m saying exactly, but he understands hoof gestures, and I understand paw gestures, so we can talk that way! Right, Harry?”
Harry cocked his head, then glanced around. When he saw nopony else, he scratched his head and gave her a quizzical look.
Pinkie pressed a hoof to her lips and made a shushing sound. “We’re just going on a little stroll. Nothing to worry about.”
On the contrary, I think there is.
Abruptly, Pinkie felt something hot rising in her throat. She choked, coughed, and finally gagged as a thick grey cloud of smoke erupted from her mouth! Her eyes watered at the nasty, burnt taste and the pain in her esophagus.
Harry reached forward, concern in his eyes as she continued to hack. He hardly seemed to notice as the smoke engulfed his head, but then he breathed in. This lead to a cough, and he shook his head. Pinkie could only watch in alarm as the cloud, just like the one she’d first seen upon opening the box, escaped her mouth completely and invaded Harry’s. Within seconds, it had disappeared through the bear’s mouth, nose and ears.
The massive animal stumbled backwards, shaking his head and snorting. Pinkie, at last recovering from her hacking fit, took a step closer. “Harry? Are you okay?”
Harry kept shaking his head, as if trying to dislodge something. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, he became as still as stone. Not a muscle moved as he stood on three legs, one paw raised up as if about to rub his muzzle. If Pinkie hadn’t known he was real, she’d have thought him a statue.
But his eyes were still very mobile, darting about wildly before settling on Pinkie. In them was confusion… and fear.
There. That should make things easier.
Gasping, Pinkie rushed over to press her hooves to Harry’s muzzle and study his face. “What did you do to him? Harry didn’t do anything to you!”
Keep shouting like that and something will hear us!
Lowering her voice, she demanded again, “What did you do?”
I’ve prepared him. He’s all yours.
“All mine? What do you…” Her ears folded back as cold comprehension chilled her to the bone. “N-no. Not Harry. He’s a good bear. He’d never hurt anypony!”
The clouds in her head bucked to an unknowable wind. What did we just finish going over about sacrifice?
She shook her head and backed away, only for her hind legs to lock up. “Let me go. I’m not ready to do this again.”
If I let you make that decision, you’ll never be ready.
Pressure began to build in her mind. She’d felt that sensation several times in the past week, and by now had an idea as to what it was. Tears welled in her eyes anew as she shook her head frantically. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to!”
But even as she said the words, she felt her panic and fear diminishing. Her forelegs stopped fighting her hind legs and her expression calmed. Even so, her heart continued to slam against her ribs, and when she looked into Harry’s frightened eyes she felt like sobbing for the both of them.
You’re strong, My Dear. You can do this.
“I d-don’t want to be,” she whispered, mentally thrashing against the subtle manipulations.
Be reasonable. You know this is the best, most efficient course of action.
“The best. The most… efficient.” She stepped forward, breath coming in a slow, deep rhythm. “But it… It’s wrong.”
The pressure in her skull intensified. A tear fell down her cheek as she moved in a daze towards the motionless bear. “Don’t… make… me…”
The words were like the caress of silk. Seal Tartarus. Protect Equestria. Save your friends. Save Twilight.
“Twilight.” Her hooves grasped Harry’s head. “Protect my friends.” Her grip tightened with all the strength an earth pony could offer. “P-protect Equestria.”
Harry whined. His eyes pleaded. Her heart felt like it would burst.
You are strong.
Pinkie stared into Harry’s eyes. She felt like screaming, but all she managed was a frail, “I’m so sorry.”
Her hooves twisted.
The snap filled her ears like a thunderclap.