What Didn't Happen: After
Chapter VII – Confused Memories
The room’s doorway glowed briefly before it swung open and Princess Twilight stepped out into the hall. She seemed to be in a daze, her focus turned mostly inward as she pondered over how Chrysalis could possibly believe that she was actually the Twilight from this timeline. Just as her magic was pulling the door closed behind her, the door suddenly stopped with a dull thunk when Graphite stuck his hoof in the way and pulled it back open to step out into the hall with her.
“Where are you going?” he asked, staring up into Twilight eyes with a stern glare.
Twilight side glanced to the doorway just long enough to quietly pull it closed before answering. “I need a moment to think about this.”
“What is there to think about?” Graphite nearly growled. He jabbed a hoof in Twilight’s direction as he hotly said, “Your spell has her believing that she’s you!”
Twilight narrowed her eyes and laid back her ears. “Graphite, yelling at me while I’m trying to figure this out isn’t going to resolve the situation any quicker.” Though her words came out sounding calm they were still tainted with an edge of frustration.
Graphite let out a heavy huff or air and then took a few deep breaths to calm himself. He gestured toward the door as he asked much more calmly, “Why not just remove the spell’s effects?”
“Because there isn’t anything to remove. And besides” — Twilight glanced toward the closed door — “this can’t be something caused by my spell.”
“I suppose she had a dream and woke up believing she’s you then?” Graphite grumbled.
“Do you not want my help?” Twilight said, sounding a bit annoyed as she glared down at Graphite.
“... Sorry,” Graphite quietly said. “I suppose there’s no point in pointing hooves. I’m just... worried.”
“I get that, but we need to work together. Now, let’s think this through.” Twilight paused for a brief moment, her eyes squinting a bit while she considered a troubling thought that had occurred to her before she left the room. “For a spell to cause someone to believe they’re somepony else entirely, it would need to be a rather complex mind manipulation spell. The spell I used doesn’t even come close to qualifying, which means the change has to be from some other outside factor.”
Graphite shrugged his shoulders and quickly added, “But she was herself before she was struck with your magic.”
“Was she?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow in question to Graphites statement. He seemed a bit annoyed at the simple question judging by how quickly his ears laid back and how deeply his brow furrowed. “Graphite, the last time I saw her was just over three and a half years ago in this timeline. I need to know if there was anything about her that changed during that time.”
Graphite sighed and sat back on his haunches. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then with a small nod he said, “Yes, there were changes. She has all but lost her ability to affect others across a mind link, and she rarely ever changes form any more. Being in any form other than what you saw actually causes her pain.”
“Loss of changeling abilities,” Twilight mumbled as she mentally noted the changes. “Anything else? Even something that seems unimportant.”
“Well, she did develop a healthy appetite for knowledge, far beyond anything she used to have,” he said as he twirled a hoof in a somewhat dismissive circular gesture.
The information wasn’t much to go on. Twilight sat back on her haunches as well and adopted her thinking pose, crossing her left foreleg over her chest so her hoof was resting beneath her right foreleg, and then tapping the tip of her right hoof against her closed mouth. She remained that way for nearly a full minute as she tried to find some other train of thought that might lead them to some answers. “Have you ever seen anything like this before, moments where she didn’t seem like herself at all?”
“Nothing this extreme. Her eyes,” Graphite began to say, gesturing to his own eyes. “I’ve never seen them change like that, and she’s always still known who she is.”
Twilight squinted her eyes slightly. “But you have seen something about her change before?”
“Rarely,” Graphite admitted reluctantly. “I remember seeing her aura shift during spell casting. It was always very brief, something that began—”
“After she used the Elements at the Crystal Empire,” Twilight said. Judging by the surprised look that Graphite gaver her, Twilight assumed that she was right on the mark. “I remember. I saw it myself before I left. Her aura would shift to magenta, for just a moment.” Twilight’s eyes glanced away toward the closed door as she thoughtfully added, “Same color as mine.”
“Do you believe the Elements somehow did this to her back then?”
“No, I don’t,” Twilight said with a quick shake of her head. “Chrysalis told me back then that the Twilight from this timeline shared her magic with her so she could activate the Elements.” How much magic the young Twilight had shared with Chrysalis was unknown. What if she had given everything she possibly could to help? The young filly likeness of herself that she had met within the mindscape all those years ago had no actual physical form, her mind and magic having been ripped away from her body long ago and placed within a hive mind spell construct. If she had given up what magic she did still have, what exactly would have been left?
Graphite furrowed his brow and shook his head. “Even if that is true, that was still years ago. Why would that change her now?”
“Well, you did just say she had already changed some since then,” Twilight quickly pointed out. She had a theory, a wild one, but still a theory that could possibly explain the changes. What if her magic was not the only thing that the young filly had given up? “I believe my spell may have uncovered something that was already there. I don’t think Chrysalis believes she’s me. I think that... somehow, that really is the Twilight from this timeline. She may have been like an extra passenger in Chrysalis’s mind all this time.”
Graphite’s ears laid back, and his eyes widened a bit in shock. He silently opened and closed his mouth a few times before finally asking, “If she isn’t our queen, then where is our queen now?”
Twilight glanced to the room’s door, furrowing her brow. “That’s the next thing for us to figure out.”
Just then, the door was pulled open, and Applejack peaked her head out into the hall. “Uh, I think you two should get back in here.”
“Why, what’s wrong?” Twilight asked as she and Graphite quickly stood and followed Applejack back into the room.
“Well, nothin’ wrong just...,” Applejack paused and leaned in a bit closer to Twilight to quietly mumble, “just sort of weird.”
Graphite side stepped around Twilight and approached the bed. As he did, Chrysalis, or rather, Twilight — honestly after the conversation in the hall he wasn’t sure who it was he was looking at right now — glanced away from talking with the other’s near the side of her bed, looking directly at him with her deep violet eyes. She blinked once as she tilted her head, squinting her eyes at him slightly before she asked, “Graphite?”
Graphite’s breath caught in his throat momentarily. “My queen?” he asked, sounding hopeful.
“No. I’m sorry,” she said, quickly shaking her. She glanced around a bit nervously, noticing that all the attention in the room was centered upon her. “I-it’s just that... we were just talking and... then I started to remember things.” She reached a hoof up, rubbing it against the side of her head as she squinted one of her eyes closed. “Names, faces, all these memories just started rushing in... still are.” She lifted her other hoof, and began to use the tips of her hooves to massage her temples as a grimace creeped across her muzzle. “I even remember the forest. We were all being chased” — she drew in a shaky breath — “and then there was the cave... a-and....” There was a sudden popping sound followed by a scattering of bright green and magenta sparks from her horn. She yelped in pain as she grasped at the sides of her head with her forehooves and nearly curled her entire body up into a tight ball.
“What’s happening to her!?” Graphite asked.
“I don’t know,” Twilight said as she quickly rushed forward to the side of the bed. “Twilight? Listen to me,” she said, sitting beside the bed and gently using her forehooves to guide the unicorn’s head back up. She was panting heavily, and her fur was damp to the touch from sweat. Her entire body was shaking while she gritted her teeth together in what appeared to be a very pain-filled grimace and continued to clutch the side of her head tightly with her hooves. “Look at me. Focus just on me, and nothing else.”
The unicorn stared back into Twilight’s eyes as she had been told. The intense shaking throughout her body began to lessen, and her breathing slowed from a rapid pant to something closer to deep, exhausted breaths. She sniffled a few times and tried to blink the tears from her eyes, and after a few more sniffles she rubbed at her nose with the top of her forehoof. When she glanced down, she noticed the dark red glistening smear covering the fur. “Oh, that’s not good,” she said, her voice quivering.
Twilight cast a quick, concerned glance over her shoulder to Luna, which was all the other princess needed to see to know that she should leave the room and find help, quickly. Twilight looked back when she felt the unicorn’s trembling forelegs brushing against her own, and quickly scooted in closer to the bedside to reach one foreleg around behind the unicorn’s back to help support her. She even reached up and gently brushed back the stray hairs that were hanging down in front of the unicorn’s face. “Hey, listen. We’re going to figure this out, alright? Just... try not to dig around in memories that might not be yours for now, okay?”
“This is Chrys’s body, isn’t it?” the unicorn said in a small, quiet voice. She was staring down at her shaking, overturned forehooves. “Of course it is. What did I do to her?” She turned her fearful eyes up toward Twilight. “I was just trying to help. I didn’t mean to do this,” she said, her voice sounding thick with sadness as the tears building up in the corners of her eyes began to fall.
Just then, the sound of hastened hoofsteps drew most everyone’s attention to the room’s door. Doctor Heart could be heard saying, “Why didn’t you come find me as soon as she woke up?” in a somewhat grumbly tone just as he reached the door and hurried into the room. Luna stood aside just outside the doorway long enough for him and the changeling nurse they had met earlier to enter the room before she entered herself.
The way that the doctor rushed up to the bedside caused the unicorn to flinch, drawing her hooves inward closer to her chest as she cowered away. “Relax now,” Doctor Heart said as he reached out and gently patted her on the shoulder. His magic plucked a silver thing from his pocket that at first glance looked much like a pen, but a quick press of the button at one end activated the small light at the other. “I’m just going to check a few things to make sure you’re okay, alright? Look here for just a moment,” he said in a calm voice as he flicked the small light to briefly shine it over her eyes, causing her to blink.
“This just started, when she began to remember things,” Twilight began to explain. She had scooted slightly to the side to make room for Doctor Heart to do his checking, still holding one hoof out to help support the unicorn’s back.
“Everything seemed like it was going okay,” Pinkie said nearby. She shifted her steps as the nurse tried to make it by her to get access to the cabinets on the other side of the room. “I mean, other than her being somepony else,” Pinkie added with a small shrug.
Doctor Heart glanced at Pinkie with one eyebrow cocked, then he noticed his nurse with the blood pressure cuff she had retrieved from the cabinet trying to pick a way back through the crowded room over to him. “Alright, Lacewing and I can’t be tripping over everyone, so everyone out for now,” he said making a shooing gesture toward the open door. “You can all wait out in the hall until we’re done.”
“Um,” the unicorn quickly began, her entire body noticeably tensing up. Her wide eyes darted toward Twilight and then back to Doctor Heart. “Could Twilight stay?” And her voice nearly dropped to a whisper as she said, “Please?”
Doctor Heart glanced out of the corner of his eye up to Twilight, letting out a small sigh and giving a reluctant nod.
Over half an hour had passed since the group had left the room, and the night was growing long. However, Graphite had stood in the middle of the hallway the entire time, simply staring silently at the closed door. The rest of the Ponyville mares had migrated down the hall to have a seat in the waiting room, since seating within the hallway itself was fairly limited. Across the hall from the room was the only two gray bench seats nearby, the type that had just enough padding on them to be just barely more comfortable than lying on the floor. Princess Luna had laid out across one, taking up the seat sized for two ponies fairly easily on her own. Her eyes were watching Graphite closely, or rather, how he was swaying slightly on his hooves and blinking his eyes a bit more often than was normal.
“Graphite?” Luna finally asked. When he seemed to ignore her call, she put a bit more volume behind her voice when she called out to him a second time. “... Graphite.” He flinched, and his ears perked up and eyes quickly darted toward her. She smiled gently, and then gestured to the other empty bench next to the one she occupied. “Why don’t you have a seat,” she said as she tapped the tip of her slippered hoof against the thin padding.
Graphite’s shoulders and chest heaved with a slight sigh. “I’m fine, your majesty,” he said, turning his attention back to the door.
“You appear to be nearly falling asleep on your hooves,” Luna quipped. Graphite’s only response was furrowing his brow as his gaze dropped to the floor before his hooves. “If you are tired, you should rest.” Luna said, tilting her head and catching his glance out of the corner of his eye. After a silent moment he finally gave in, walking over to the bench in a slow, tired shuffle and then laying himself on the bench with his back against the thinly padded backrest and his forelegs dangling just off the front edge. Even so, he kept his watchful gaze fixated on the closed door across the hall.
“I’ll keep watch, if you wish,” Luna offered.
“I should be in there,” Graphite stated simply. He laid his chin down upon his folded forelegs, but still kept his tired eyes focused on the door.
“It can be difficult to stand aside and allow others to help those we care for,” Luna mused as she momentarily glanced to the door as well. “I do believe those who are with her right now stand the best chance of helping her.”
“Do they?” Graphite quietly asked, remaining unmoving other than his eyes glancing up toward her.
Luna smiled softly. “Well, I can certainly vouch for Noble Heart. He’s likely the best doctor we have here in Canterlot. He’s also not one to give up easily.” She tilted her head to glance down to him and added, “Nor is Twilight, as we all know.”
The silence that fell upon the hallway afterwards coupled with the very late hour made it very difficult for Graphite to fight off the urge to fall asleep, but he still put up a valiant effort. For many long minutes afterward, he simply refused to allow his eyes to stay closed for any longer than a few seconds. And just when it seemed that he finally had no choice but to give in, the click from the room’s handle being pulled down jolted him back to full awareness.
Graphite sprung up from his seat, taking a few rushed steps to the doorway as Princess Twilight, Doctor Heart, and Nurse Lacewing all quietly stepped out into the hall. Before Graphite got a chance to speak, Doctor Heart held up a hoof, cautioning him to keep his voice down.
“She’s stable, but quite exhausted,” Doctor Heart said in a hushed tone. He turned aside, glancing back into the dimly lit room at the unicorn lying in the bed on her side with only the white sheet and blue blanket pulled up over her side and shoulders. “We gave her something to help her rest for a while.”
Graphite silently stared into the room for a time, appearing as if he hadn’t even heard what the doctor had said. Finally, he asked a question without breaking his gaze from the still form laying on the bed. “Do you know why this is happening to her?”
Doctor Heart glanced up to Twilight shortly before letting out a heavy, exhausted sounding sigh. “I’ll be completely honest with you. I’ve never even heard of anything like this happening before.”
“Two separate psyches occupying a single mind,” Twilight quietly said, which finally drew Graphites attention away from the room to her. “I’ve never heard of it happening before either, but it’s the only explanation I have that makes any sense.” She shook her head slightly, letting out a sigh of her own and allowing her shoulders to sag a bit, showing some of the exhaustion that was weighing down upon her. “Still, that’s just a theory. It would be helpful if I could find any references to something like this happening before,” she said, looking across the hall to Luna.
Luna stood from the bench, her feathers rustling at her sides as she adjusted her wings. She tipped her head slightly toward Twilight and said, “You needn’t ask permission. All of the knowledge contained within the archives is at your disposal.”
“Thank you, Luna,” Twilight said, tipping her own head in response. She tried to put on an encouraging smile as she looked back down to Graphite. “If there is an answer to this, I’ll find it.”
Graphite nodded in understanding. Though he knew Twilight was telling him the truth and that she was likely the best hope for finding the true answer behind what had happened, he still voice his greatest fear as he quietly said, “I hope there is one.”
Gale stood just inside the entrance to the cave beneath the Everfree ruins, surveying the squadron of Nightguard pegasi that she had brought with her. They had only arrived about a half hour earlier, and while what they had found when they arrived may not have been entirely unexpected, it could still be considered very strange.
Scattered about just inside on the cave floor had been just over a dozen changelings, which wasn’t surprising given that she knew Princess Twilight had already dealt with them herself. She was standing next to one that had already had its forelegs and back legs bound and its wings restrained with a thick, woven restraining harness, though whether the restraints were actually necessary was highly questionable. It laid there on its side upon a stretcher, its sides steadily expanding and contracting as it drew breath, but it otherwise silently stared off at nothing with its solid blue eyes. That was exactly how it and all the others had been since Gale arrived.
“The heck did she do to them,” Gale mumbled under her breath as she turned and slowly walked just outside the cave. It was nearing time for the patrols to start checking in, and she didn’t have to wait long before she spotted a pair of pegasi banking in a sharp turn as they flew down the side of the surrounding cliffside, coming to a landing only a few trots away.
“Find anything?” Gale asked as she walked up to the scouts, one a stallion and the other a mare. Both quickly stood at attention, crossing their right hoof across their chest in union, the action causing a metallic clack as their hoof armor tapped against their chest armor. Gale nodded and waved off the salute, and both guards quickly relaxed their stance.
“Nothing,” the stallion said, sounding a bit disappointed as he shook his head.
“Sort of hard to see anything above the trees in the dark,” the mare said, jerking her head back in the direction behind her.
“Yeah,” Gale said with a sigh, turning aside to glance back into the cave. “I’m getting the feeling we’re not going to find much else out there.”
Gale’s ears flicked to the side when she heard an unmistakable buzzing sound. For a number of years now, the various guard forces of Canterlot and Sanctuary had worked fairly close with one another, and anypony that spent enough time around changelings would be able to easily identify the droning hum of one mid-flight. She spun about, quickly shifting to a low defensive stance and raising her wings slightly as she reached her right hoof back to where her collapsed spear rested on the side of her armor. The other two guards had immediately fell in beside her, taking a similar stance as they traced their eyes through the nearby night sky to find the intruder that had likely followed them.
The buzzing came to a sudden stop when a shadow suddenly fell from the sky and landed with a thud and skidded across the ground in front of them. They all three flinched at the sudden unexpected landing that the changeling made, and seemed a bit unsure of what to do as they stood there frozen in place staring at it laying before them in a heap on the ground. After a few tense seconds of silence, the changeling began to shift, attempting to push itself up from the ground and grasping at a weapon lying next to it that it had dropped during the rough landing.
The two guards with Gale immediately unsheathed their spears, causing a sharp, metallic sound to ring through the air as the spears snapped to full length. Gale’s hoof flinched as she almost instinctively made for her weapon as well, but something stopped her. The weapon that the changeling was struggling to picking up was a collapsible pike, near identical in design to their Nightguard spears.
“Whoa! Hold up,” Gale said, quickly fanning her wings out before the two guards at her sides could make a move of their own. She furrowed her brow as she took a better look at the changeling struggling to sit up on the ground before them. It appeared like most drones, with the solid blue eyes and dark gray and black carapace, and it definitely seemed to be hurting in some way. But the reason why Gale had ordered her fellow guards to wait was the pike that the changeling was clinging to and using to brace itself against the ground. It was a Sentinel design, a weapon based off of the spears used by the Canterlot guard forces. And now that she had taken a moment to get a better look, she noticed the changeling was also wearing a satchel that was commonly part of the Sentinel’s standard issued equipment. Still, if the changeling was a Sentinel, it was otherwise out of uniform, lacking the distinct caprice plate armor their soldiers commonly wore.
“State your name and rank,” Gale said very clearly to the changeling sitting before them.
The changeling suddenly jerked its head up, seeming a bit surprised as if it hadn’t even noticed the three Nightguard standing not twenty paces away. It stared back at Gale for a few seconds, its ears snapped forward and its dull-blue eyes opened wide, but that look was very quickly gone when the changeling flinched and grabbed at its side with a foreleg. Its face contorted and its head slumped to hang back toward the ground as it gave out a painful sounding growl. Still, it managed to respond, its voice having a feminine tone as it said strained to say, “M-mystery. Cadet... S-sanctuary Sentinel.”
Gale recalled the name from when she had been briefed on the planned mission to recover the Elements. “The queen’s bodyguard,” she said, prompting her guards to put their weapons away. She wasn’t sure why Mystery was still out in the woods, but it was obvious that the cadet was in need of help.
As Gale and her guards trotted up to Mystery, she struggled to force herself up to stand upright and then promptly lost her balance, stumbling to the side. She likely would have taken a short trip back to the the ground had Gale not quickly stepped in and braced her. “Whoa, easy there,” Gale said, standing next to Mystery and holding her steady with one wing laying over her back.
Mystery stood there for a moment, panting so heavily that it seemed standing upright was one of the hardest things she had ever done. Her face contorted again as she lifted a forehoof and began to lean forward in an attempt to start making her way to the cave, but Gale lightly pressed a hoof against Mystery’s chest to hold her back, earning her a harsh look.
“You don’t look like you’re feeling to great,” Gale said, lowering her head down beside Mystery’s. Mystery stared back at her out of the corner of her eye for a few seconds longer before she suddenly made another attempt to pull away, this time managing to slip out of Gale’s grasp and stumble quite a few steps forward on her own. “Whoa! Hold on a second!” Gale said as she quickly caught up and grabbed Mystery to hold her back.
“Aauugh!” Mystery cried out as soon as Gale grabbed her about her barrel. Her legs immediately folded underneath her as she lost all strength to stand.
Gale managed to quickly sweep a wing around Mystery’s back to keep her from taking a hard fall onto her side, but she had pulled her forelegs away as soon as Mystery had screamed at being touched. She turned one of her forelegs over, and saw the dark greenish smear coating the side of her leg armor.
“Medic!” Gale screamed back toward the cave. She looked to the other two guards with her and said, “Help me get her laid down here. Careful of her wounds.” Together, they worked to lay Mystery down on her side, despite her being uncooperative. She grunted and squirmed against their efforts to keep her still until exhaustion got the best of her and she finally chose to lie still.
Another guard swiftly galloped up from inside the cave, and he quickly went to work as he slung his first aid supply satchel off his back to the ground and knelt down beside Mystery to take a look at the wound on her side just underneath her wing. However, he flinched back a step when Mystery started to squirm against the guards holding her down again.
“Hey! Listen to me,” Gale barked, crouching down on the ground just in front of Mystery’s face. She held one forehoof firmly against the side of Mystery’s head, holding her still against the ground to get her undivided attention. “They’re already back in Canterlot.”
The tension in Mystery’s body slowly melted away as she stared back into Gale’s eyes. She swallowed heavily between her gasps for air before asking, “They’re safe?” her voice sounding hoarse and tired.
“Last I saw. Now you need to hold still,” Gale said as she gently patted her forehoof on the side of Mystery’s neck. Gale raised her head to look across Mystery to the medic that was going through the supplies in his satchel, watching as he ripped off a length of gauze with his teeth and then opened a bottle of disinfectant to treat it. “How’s it look?” she asked him.
“Pretty damn good spell burn,” the medic said through the gauze clenched in his teeth as he squinted his eyes at the wound to look it over once more. He laid the length of gauze over his foreleg and glanced up to Gale, giving a confident grin and said, “Ain’t serious though, but I bet it sure hurts a heck-of-a-lot. I’ll get it cleaned up and give her something for the pain.”
“You hear that? You’re going to be fine,” Gale said, turning her neck to glance back down to Mystery, giving her a smile and a reassuring pat on her shoulder.
“Captain?” Gale sat up and turned herself toward the voice as another one of her guards trotted up to her. “All the drones are secured. We’re ready to move them out when you are.”
“W-what drones?” Mystery asked.
Gale glanced back down to Mystery, perking an eyebrow at the strange question. Perhaps she didn’t know? She had been away from the rest of the group for some reason. Gale looked back to the guard and said, “Tell her,” as she nodded her head at Mystery.
“The thirteen that we found in the cave,” the guard said gesturing with a hoof back behind himself. “They were all just laying there when we got here with this... blank look,” he said, gesturing a hoof in front of his face.
“Thirteen...,” Mystery mumbled quietly. She shook her head and said, “Should be fourteen. And they shouldn’t be drones.”
The guard exchanged a confused glance with Gale before asking, “What do you mean?”
“I was there—” Mystery voice was cut short as she grimaced at a twinge of pain in her side. She jerked her head up, glancing down her side long enough to give a displeased frown to the medic that was applying the gauze to her wound, though he seemed to pay her no mind as he continued his work. She let out a quiet growl as she laid her head back down then said, “I linked with them. There were fourteen, all casters.”
The guard exchanged another, even more confused look with Gale, slowly shaking his head. The story definitely didn’t line up, but the Sentinels weren’t exactly known to be liars either. Gale leaned back down and asked, “Mystery, can you tell me what happened out here?”
Mystery let out a tired sounding sigh and nodded. “I tried to lead them off, linked with them so they would see me. I remember fourteen chasing me, and they were group casting.” She shook her head slightly as she said, “Drones can’t do that.” And it was true, natural born changelings, which most other races simply knew as ‘drones’, were not known to be offensive spell casters, but the changelings they had found lying in the cave were definitely drones. Gale furrowed her brow as she tried to make sense of the conflicting story. Could there have been another group?
Mystery let out a frustrated growl and said, “Go check the woods near here if you don’t believe me—” Her voice cut and she flinched again when another twinge of pain shot up her side. She glared down her side once again, just catching sight of the syringe that the medic was putting away, and let her head flop back down as she let out another heavy, tired sounding breath.
“Easy,” Gale said. She patted Mystery’s should again. “I’m not saying I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t look like you do,” she mumbled back.
Gale closed her eyes and thought for a few seconds. If there really was a group of hostile casters roaming the Everfree woods, leaving them to do as they pleased would be irresponsible. “I believe you,” Gale said. She turned to the two scouts and drew a hoof in a small circle in the air as she said, “One more patrol, look for signs of spell fire.”
“Yes, Captain,” both scouts said simultaneously before they turned and kicked off to take flight.
“So,” Gale started as she watched the scouts fly up to and beyond the cliffside. She then laid back down next to Mystery, crossing her forelegs before her. “There was fourteen?” she asked.
“Yeah...,” Mystery said quietly, slowly blinking her eyes. “One of them was moving around all weird... like... teleporting but, I didn’t sense any teleport spells.” She laid there quietly for a moment, long enough that it seemed she was ready to doze off the way her eyes were slowly going more and more lidded with each blink. However, she spoke up again, saying, “Thought I had it, took a swipe at it with my pike but... it’s like it went right through her like she wasn’t really there.” Her brow twitched slightly. “I know what I saw,” she said in a half-whisper.
“Alright, I think that’s enough of a debrief for now,” Gale said, reaching out and patting one of Mystery’s forelegs before she stood. “You’re probably starting to feel those meds kick in. Just take it easy, you’ve earned it.” Mystery managed a slight nod in response before closing her eyes.
Gale trotted back toward the cave to check on the prep work for moving the prisoners. Since the unresponsive changelings couldn’t fly on their own, they would have to pair off to carry the changelings back to Canterlot, each pair of pegasi working together to carry a stretcher between them, plus another pair to carry a wounded Sentinel. It was going to be a long, slow flight back.
The guard that had given Gale the progress update quickly caught up to her as they stepped into the cave. He cast a quick glance back over his shoulder before leaning in a bit closer and asking, “Captain, do you really believe all stuff about a group of casters?”
Gale came to a stop after a few more steps. She drew in a long breath and let it out with a hum as she thought about the question. Mystery’s story didn’t seem to line up with what they had found, however.... “She didn’t get that burn from nothing,” she commented before continuing on her way.
It had been quite a few hours since Twilight had settled in for the day at the Canterlot Archives. Celestia had also joined her not too long after morning had arrived, and together they had focused their efforts on the search for answers.
The table that Twilight was sitting at was cluttered with paper and books. She had opted to set aside her regalia, leaving the crown and peytral that held the Elements she had brought resting upon a nearby bust. The other set of Elements that had been gathered by Chrysalis and the rest of their friends had also been brought to the archives for safekeeping, and now rested within a wooden case lined with red velvet nearby. Twilight hadn’t even had time yet to ponder on a reason for why they may need both sets, as her entire focus was dedicated to solving what she felt was a much more pressing matter.
She squinted her eyes as she scowled at the open book before her. She had hoped that this one would finally have what she was looking for, but as with the half dozen other books she had studied before it, it only held theories and a few scant references that mentioned similar studies on the inner workings of the mind. This one held theories on memory manipulation that one could only hope were never actually put to the test. She noticed the citation of another work at the bottom of the page and, with a slight eye roll, reached her magic out beside her to make another note. She let out a quiet sigh at the thought of trying to track down yet another obscure and ancient text that may or may not have survived the centuries and made its way to the archives. Normally, losing herself among her research was something she enjoyed, but not when the answer she was desperately seeking stubbornly refused to reveal itself.
As her eyes continued to scan the page, her magic flowed to her right, hunting for the quill resting in the inkwell sitting beside a stack of notes she had been making. When her first attempt at grasping the quill found nothing but air, she furrowed her brow slightly and reached out further, blindly feeling about in the space next to her while she remained otherwise focused on reading a passage from the open page before her. Her magic did find the quill only a few second later as it brushed back over it, however, she had misjudged the force that she put behind her spell. A quiet plink echoed through the archives as the inkwell tipped over on its side.
Twilight drew in a panicked gasp between her clenched teeth as her entire body flinched forward. Her magic grasped and quickly righting the capsized inkwell, but the damage had already been done. Her stack of notes were now soaked through with a large splotch of black ink. “Aaaaahh...,” Twilight moaned tiredly. Her head fell down to the table in disappointment, her forehead connecting with the table’s edge with a quiet thunk. She shook her head, rocking it back and forth against the edge of the table before eyeing the stack of ruined notes out of the corner of her eye. She let out one last frustrated groan and then grasped the notes in her magic, crumpling them. “Not like it mattered anyway. These notes were practically worthless,” she grumbled as she crushed the ink soaked paper and then set the resulting wad back down on the table. She could reproduce the notes from memory, had she wanted to do so, but the time would likely be better spent pursuing new avenues of research.
She looked up, finding Celestia silently looking back with a worried look from where she sat across the table. Twilight slowly blinked her eyes a few times before resting her elbows upon the table and running her forehooves up over her mane and down to the back of her neck, suddenly noticing just how stiff her neck and shoulders felt. She hung her head tiredly over the table and stifled a small yawn just before saying, “I feel like we’re chasing after answers that don’t exist.”
Celestia carefully laid a bookmark within the pages of the open tome before her before her magic slowly and carefully closed it and set it aside. “I believe it’s time for another break.”
“Didn’t we just take one?” Twilight asked, furrowing her brow as she glanced across the table.
“Quite a few hours ago,” Celestia said, her voice slightly strained as she tilted her head from side to side to work the stiff muscles.
“Are you staying up well past your bedtime?” Twilight’s ears flicked back when she heard Luna’s voice within the room behind her. She sat up and turned about in her chair to find Luna approaching their table, though she hadn’t noticed anyone entering the room. She wondered for a moment just how long Luna had been in the archives with them.
“Aren’t you?” Twilight asked, perking an eyebrow in confusion. Luna usually rested during the daytime hours since her duties often required her to be active at night, with a few exceptions. She had assumed the same would hold true for the Princess of the Night in both timelines, but perhaps that wasn’t true.
Luna stepped up next to the table, mirroring the look Twilight had given her. “It’s evening, I just awoke not long ago.”
Twilight furrowed her brow, then glanced up to the glass dome overhead. Sure enough, she found a darkening sky and the first hints of a clear, starry night showing itself. “Oh,” she quietly said, suddenly realizing why her body felt so heavy. Obviously, it had been quite a few more hours since she had arrived at the archives than she had realized.
“Tell me you’ve at least taken a nap since we last spoke,” Luna said, giving Twilight an expectant look.
Twilight’s ears laid back and a sheepish grin slowly crept onto her muzzle. The last time she had slept had been the night before she left her own timeline. The number of hours that had passed for her since then was likely well over a day and half’s worth.
Luna shook her head and made a quiet tisk-tisk sound through her teeth. “Am I going to have to send you off to bed again like the last time?”
“No. No, you’re right,” Twilight said, shaking her head as she waved Luna off. Twilight slid out of her chair, taking a few careful steps as her joints complained to her about being moved after sitting still for so many hours. “As tired as I am, I’d probably just overlook the answer even if I did happened to find it,” she said though a sigh as she glanced back at the desk.
“I insist that you make use of my bed chambers. The warding spells should ensure that you get a peaceful night’s rest.” Luna spotted the wad of ink soaked paper sitting on the table and, with a mildly confused look, picked it up in her magic and turned it about. She carefully set the crumpled notes back on the table as she took a seat at chair Twilight had vacated. “You can trust us to continue the search in the meantime,” she said as she looked to Twilight, wearing a confident smile.
Twilight smiled back to Luna, then looked to Celestia, who seemed to already know what was about to be asked. “I’m going to stay up with Luna a while longer. You go on head, Twilight.”
“Alright. Thank you, both of you,” Twilight said. She stifled another yawn as she turned away to make her way to the archive door. “Good night,” she called back over her shoulder as she opened one of the tall double doors with her magic and walked out of the room.
“Pleasant dreams,” Luna called back just before the door closed. She then turned her gaze back to Celestia, giving her a disappointed look. “Shame on you, Tia, allowing poor Twilight to work herself so hard.”
Celestia drew in a long deep breath before letting it all out in a sigh. “Honestly, you seem to have a way with her that I don’t. It was all I could do to convince her that it was a good idea to take time to eat something now and then.” She quickly lifted a hoof to cover her mouth when a small yawn took her by surprise. She blinked her watery eyes a few times before saying, “It’s been quite an exhausting day.”
“I take it there hasn’t been much progress,” Luna said as she skimmed over the open book that Twilight had left on the table. She raised her eyebrows and glanced across the table to her sister when an answer didn’t immediately come forth, and the only answer she got was Celestia silently shaking her head. She had hoped for some good news, but apparently good news was still in short supply.
“Nor has there been with the prisoners,” Luna said with a heavy sigh. “I checked on them again this evening. Thirteen drones, each of them still no more than a blank slate.” She leaned back in her chair, glancing upward at the evening sky beyond the glass dome overhead. “Quite the contradiction to young Mystery’s story of there being a large group of casters. However, my Nightguard did find evidence of a spell fight in the nearby woods. Something had enough power to reduce an entire tree to splinters, but that isn’t the discrepancy that truly bothers me the most.” Luna leveled her gaze to look directly at her sister from across the table. Her voice dropped in tone and her eyes narrowed as she said, “I don’t like that one is missing, at all.”
Celestia sat back in her own chair as well, crossing her forelegs over her chest and remaining quiet as she thought for a moment. “Do you think she could have been mistaken?” she asked.
“While that could be possible I do not count it to be likely,” Luna said, giving her shoulders a slight shrug. “She’s been quite adamant about there being exactly fourteen. And what reason would she have to lie?”
“I don’t believe she would, willingly.” When Celestia spotted the hard look that Luna gave her, she explained further. “She did link with them.”
Luna gave out a thoughtful hum as she nodded and lifted a single hoof to tap it against her muzzle. She still wasn’t entirely familiar with the various ways changeling magic could work. “Regardless, I feel that I placed too much hope upon us easily finding answers if we managed to capture them.” Luna drew in a breath and released it with a heavy sigh as she leaned over the table, resting her elbows upon the table and propping her chin up on her forehooves. “Oh, how I despise waiting for answers,” she grumbled as she eyed the open book on the table.
“Most answers worth finding are not easily found,” Celestia said with a small smile.
“True,” Luna said, glancing up and smiling back. She tapped one of her hooves on the open page as she said, “We also have another mystery yet to be solved.” She finished reading a few more lines before looking back up across the table to say, “I did see her just briefly before making my way here.”
“How is she doing?”
“Confused. Wouldn’t we all be?” Luna said with another light shoulder shrug. She leaned further into the one hoof that was propped up under her chin while she traced the other hoof in a small circle on the open page, quietly thinking about the short visit she had paid to the infirmary. “She tries to hide her worries, but I could tell. I can’t imagine what it must be like. I’m told she was actually questioning who she really was today, or if she was even real, the poor thing.”
Celestia shook her head, a sad look overtaking her as her ears drooped and a frown tugged at the corners of her mouth. “I’m afraid Twilight is taking all the responsibility upon her shoulders for what has happened.”
“Her spell didn’t cause this,” Luna said simply, pointing her hoof across the table. She rested her hoof back on the open book before she continued. “Triggered it, perhaps, but this was going to happen regardless. I’m sure you’ve noticed it as well; the changes in Chrysalis’s behavior as of late?”
Celestia answered with a small nod.
Luna glanced back down at the book, though she might as well been looking at nothing at all. She was busy diving deep within her own thoughts. She could not recall a single instance of two minds being merged, either intentional or accidental. Had she been asked only a day earlier if she thought it to be possible, she would have firmly believed it to not be. “I just don’t see any possibility of separating the two as of yet. We may just as well attempt to perfectly retrieve a bucket of water back from a pond after pouring it in, twould be simpler.” Luna stared absently at the open book for her for a moment longer before her eyes glanced up across the table to her sister. Celestia had always been very good at masking her emotions, but Luna easily picked up on the small tells in her sister’s facial expression, noticing the taunt muscles along her jawline and the way her ears were ever so slightly pulled back. Celestia hadn’t liked what she had heard.
“Do not misunderstand me,” Luna quickly said, pointing her hoof once again. She rested her forehooves together upon the table, leaning forward and looking straight on at her sister as she said, ”I intend to do everything within my power to find a way to help both of them, same as you and Twilight. However, we should stay mindful of alternative options, should they become necessary.” She leaned back from the table, her glance falling away to the side as she softly spoke. “I hate to even think it, but as sad as it would be to lose either one of them, it would be absolutely disastrous to Equestria should we lose them both.” Luna closed her eyes, slowly shaking her head as she said, “We simply can not let that come to pass.”
Celestia let out a quiet sigh, barely nodding her head as she reluctantly said, “Agreed.”