"Scootaloo," Button Mash said. "I... just wanna say that it's great you found out about your parents. I can't even begin to imagine what it'd be like wondering if my parents didn't love me... "
Sweetie Belle hugged Scootaloo. "For a little while, I was scared about my parents, but Silver Spoon helped me realize I was being silly."
"I remember that, Sweetie," Button Mash whispered gently and hugged her too.
'Why do I feel like I'M the one who's missing memories now?' Sweetie thought to herself. And a question popped into her mind, not from outside cosmic forces, but her own thoughts. 'Would I trade the memories I have of how things went for the memories of Button Mash in the picture?'
Sweetie felt in awe at herself as he she decided she would.
"So that's what Button Mash must’ve meant when he told you 'your parents are your parents no matter how far away they are,' back on the MoonPearl," Scootaloo said.
"Oh, right," Sweetie Belle blushed, had heard an echo, and realized Button Mash was blushing and had said the same words.
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo locked eyes. "Ah never got a chance ta get to know my parents... but Ah believe ya'll get yer chance, Scootaloo!" Apple Bloom then added lowly. "And if they don't accept Rainbow Dash was the best guardian they could've asked ta watch over ya, that's their problem!"
Scootaloo hugged Apple Bloom.
"And I know what it's like to be stuck between your parents and your big sister in your heart... if you need any support, I'll be there," Sweetie Belle said.
Sweetie Belle looked up. "Diamond Tiara's got nothing left, Alula and Tootsie were her best shots."
Apple Bloom shivered. "There’s still Discord to worry ‘bout. And NIGHTMARE Diamond Tiara..."
"It's funny," Sweetie said, "I don't feel worried about Discord somehow, I know I should, but I'm not."
“Wait’ll we get to him. See him face-to-face."
Sweetie shrugged. "Maybe. But as for Diamond Tiara... well, after us fighting one on one with two super powered Alicorn fillies... one super-powered Diamond Tiara... can't... can't be THAT bad right?"
Button rested his head against her shoulder. "I don't want to lose you, Sweetie."
"And you won't, Button, I promise."
"Apple Bloom... uh... " Button Mash said unsure. "I love video games, but, well, yer smarter than me. And you should be proud you're so smart."
"Hey." Apple Bloom smiled. "The way Ah build stuff is just common sense to me. That doesn't make ya dumb. Ah'm no video game pro', my dancin' stinks, and Ah ya likely know how stories in games work better than anypony." Apple Bloom looked at her blank flank and then at her friends' cutie marks, and smiled. "We all got stuff that makes us cool."
Button Mash hugged her. "Before this quest is over, I just wanna say that you girls are the greatest friends anypony could have."
"Ya too, Button Mash!" Apple Bloom hugged back.
"You've been a great friend Button Mash and... sorry we tried to ditch you before," Scootaloo said.
"You... just figured I would get hurt less if I stayed home."
Scootaloo said, "You chose to follow us AFTER fighting a big monster, you're one brave colt."
Button Mash smiled. "So... we just gotta reach the printing press and... everything will go away?"
"Sure looks like it," Sweetie said.
The elevator reached the top. There was only one door, engraved like the front entrance to the World Tower itself had been, with Blank Diamond and Discord's symbols upon it, with the spirit of tragedy's defaced.
The elevator’s controls sat right next to the edge of the platform, a little bridge leading to the door. The foals braced themselves, but nothing attacked.
Button Mash checked his map. "We're at the top of the Upper Levels, the tower's hamlet is right above us."
Sweetie remembered what happened every time they'd completed a major part of the Tower so far. "Button Mash. Can you... stay in the middle of the formation? Near Apple Bloom? Me and Scootaloo will cover for you."
"I'm just... worried something might happen, Diamond Tiara might try something with you."
Scootaloo whispered. "If Tootsie and Alula were Diamond Tiara's last cards to play besides her and Discord, then we need to be ready in case she ambushes us. Be extra alert, remember when she was on the boat, we could see her, but she didn't have a shadow, make noise when she moved or nothin'."
"And I couldn't feel her magic at all." Sweetie reminded them.
Apple Bloom peered around. "Button, yer zapper."
Apple Bloom shot at the invisible eye-bats that the Truth allowed her to see, blasting them to pixels.
"Wanna hold onto it?" Button offered.
"Not really my style," she said giving the zapper back to Button Mash.
Apple Bloom took a trot forward towards the doors.
And everythin' 'round me just stopped. My friends, me, even the air felt stuck in place.
Ah tried to say somethin' or move, but nothin'! Ah didn't give up and tried harder and Ah got free! Too free. Ah looked back and saw myself still frozen with my friends. Ah looked down and saw Ah was see-through!
Before Ah had a chance to think 'bout anythin', the floor turned into a big clock-face. Then it turned into one big gear as the walls fell away like cardboard and other-me and my friends vanished! Ah heard a piston sound and the gear shot up, and up, and up!
Ah shot past the sky, Ah saw Equestria below, then planets, stars, galaxies everythin'.
The gear stopped as fast as it started. Ah was surrounded by a zillion giant gears facing a whole buncha ways all connected to each other. None of 'em were movin'. So silent. Then just like that, they started movin', all right! The gear Ah was on turned round and round and started climbing the gears' cogs!
Cogs! Gears! Rods! Pistons! All part of one big plan Ah could only see a tiny part of! Then -BOOM! The gear Ah was on flipped into place, bein' part of the floor of a big room.
The place was made of white and red marble... all sparkly, divided up with gold lines. The divides were all this way and that, but never crossin'. The place might have been round, there were super tall windows all around, showin' stars outside. Ah didn't recognize the constellations.
The tall ceiling had one big star map, but it wasn't like any star map Ah'd ever seen. The lines almost all seemed to go one way, startin' at a big bright nova, and endin' at a black hole, Ah think... That nova and black hole, they were lookin' at me.
There was a little telescope hooked up to and pointin' at a globe full of stars. Also a wall of metal punch cards and slots. There was a huge hanging solar system, but it was set up lookin' more like a tree. Another wall had a giant tapestry, unfinished, with the threads at the bottom showin’ a tangled mess.
There was a big workbench with tools and equipment that made me drool by an empty kennel, don't ask me. Ah looked back at the tapestry, Ah couldn't stand seein' that mess. Without thinkin' 'bout it Ah reached for one of the tools.
"Your tools are not here, Apple Bloom."
Where'd she come from? Was she here before and Ah didn't notice? Right, right, she was an Alicorn mare... I'd never seen 'er before. One of her wings wasn’t feathery, it was all clockwork.
"Who 'er you? What's goin' on?" My artist's eye and truthful eye knew what was what, so Ah knew this was no trick.
"I am Rota Fortuna. What you would call the Princess of Consequences, or simply Fate and Free Will."
"Fate and Free Will are the same?"
"... They always ask that."
"So ya brought me to you?"
"'Brought?' I've been all around you since before you were born, you could almost say this is reality filtered so you only perceive my existence. This is all symbolic to help you comprehend."
She looked into that telescope of hers, and, "YIKES!" Ah saw her eye all giant like lookin' at us through the window!
"Ember, Toola Roola, Cousin-who-never-was-of-one-of-Equestria's-heroes, Apple Bloom.
"I've always done my best to NOT be what everypony thinks I am: a know-it-all puppet-master. I weave myself only as everypony's choices dictates.
"Every choice you make affects the choices of countless others. I have committed a terrible crime by doing what as fate and free-will I've never done...I've made my own choice, and thus meddled in your choices and the choices of all those that your choices will affect."
And fer one second, Ah swear, Ah saw her collared and chained like some Earth Pony slave from the pre-three tribes era, covered in puppet strings.
"Now hold on!" Ah said, stampin' my hoof. "Ya say yer Fate and Free Will, but ya just do whatever everypony ELSE tells ya to do, where's YER free will? If yer really the Princess of Destiny and Choices, then what's wrong with ya makin' a choice? It'd be like... like... like the Princess of Friends not havin' any!"
"I can't become the monster every mortal pony thinks I am."
"If yer really the Princess of Destiny... Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle sure seem happy with theirs, Ah'd say yer doin' a good job! Applejack and Granny Smith... whenever they talk about... ma... and pa... they say how when stuff happens... it just happens. Ah..." I trotted up to Princess Rota and reached up and touched her cheek. "Ah don't hate ya. Pinkie Pie Swear."
"... I was more right than I realized when I told my family you were the right one Apple Bloom." She looked sad. "Know what it's like for everypony to always assume the worst of you?"
"Ah have a friend who knows what that's like."
"And that's why ... I've broken a basic law of creation... mortals are supposed to live their lives with their backs turned towards the way forwards only able to see where they've been. I've cheated in your favor."
Then we weren't in that room anymore. We were in a big grassy field. Ah saw dawn on one side, and dusk on the other! There was this super long road, it stretched all the way over the horizon back to the dawn. All the bricks had different symbols on 'em, never repeatin' exactly. Princess Rota was walkin' along, and Ah moved with her just standin' there like Ah was on a train. The road ended in front of us, but with every trot she took, another stone got laid down, inching closer and closer to the dusk.
"How'd we get out here?"
"Nothing has changed, Apple Bloom. Only your perception of it."
Ah thought 'bout that. "Like how a pyramid looks like a square from below, but looks like a triangle from the side?"
"Very good, Apple Bloom."
Ah noticed there were a bajillion paths around us, all headed for the dusk. And at the end of each layin' em down as she walked, was MORE Princess Rotas!
Ah noticed... on our road... Ah looked closer at the road... it was missin' bricks, and some looked like they'd been broken just so they'd fit. And some bits looked like they'd been eaten! Ah saw some tiny roads branchin' off, that just went off in little circles not goin' anywhere, but looked like they'd been trotted on a million times compared to the rest of the roads. And there were spots where the bricks were piled up in a heap with black glue.
Ah said, "Princess Rota... ya said ya changed it so all Ah could see was you... so... that means this roads, it's part of ya?"
"... How badly does it hurt?"
"... You're the first mortal I've ever met little filly, who CARED whether or not fate was in pain. And it does hurt a bit."
Then... the road split off... Ah saw another Princes Rota with another me on the other road, other-me was running back and tryin' to fix up the bricks one by one. The road split again, and there was a third me huggin' Princess Rota. Then another split, and there was a forth me tellin' another her in song she had to make her own choices too, and an ugly one where I just attacked her for some weird reason, and all of 'em kept building the road.
My eyes widened. "Those are... they're-"
"Every choice in existence, creates a new me. And it creates a new you, the you that made that choice, and the you who made another choice, and the you who chose to make no choice at all. Seeing this. Do you believe your choices don't matter?"
Ah narrowed my eyes. "No, Ah don't. They matter."
"Why is that? Don't you see how even if you make one choice in one world, the opposite happens in another?"
"All these roads we’re seein’re still goin' forward, side by side... Ah've gone back in time with my friends before, and we didn't run into a bajillion of us from other futures who did the same... that means we've all got our own pasts! No matter how many Apple Blooms are out there who made their choices!"
"Very good, Apple Bloom."
Ah saw another me on another road ask for chalk and a board and begin drawing out diagrams and stuff to explain it all fancy like.
"If time had stopped when... we started talkin'... how are ya still buildin' the road?"
"You tell me, Apple Bloom, how is that possible?"
"... Maybe time isn't stopped, maybe this is all just between the world's heart beats, maybe it's just my own choices Ah'm lookin' at."
"Good Apple Bloom. You're going to need that understanding."
Then we were on a raft, with Princess Rota using a staff to skid us along. There was a dark jungle all around us, things lookin' out at us. The jungle parted as we went, the river formin' ahead of us. And behind us... looked like the river was TRYIN' to freeze over as we passed, but black flames burstin' up, parts of the river kept poolin' into a muddy mess. And... Ah saw black roots spreadin' under the ice, chokin' the river.
"Apple Bloom, bearer of The Truth, listen carefully. I've looked through every part of myself. I've gone up and down the river... and I see the waterfalls ahead... in every worldline where you try to fight what Diamond Tiara has become... she stops you. You and your fellow crusaders, she destroys you. You fail."
Ah nearly fell off the raft. If Ah wasn't a spirit right now, Ah know my heart would've stopped. With the Truth, Ah could tell she wasn't lyin'. Ah really hate the Truth sometimes. Ah couldn't speak for a while... like my voice had gone on vacation. Princess Rota folded her good wing around me. What she said was truth, but it was the last Ah ever wanted to be true.
"Yer sayin' we just can't win?!" I finally blurted out.
"No. I'm saying that fighting her won't be the key to saving the world. Thwarting what Diamond Tiara has become, is not a matter of strength. It never was."
Ah wilted on the boat, my tail touched the water. Startled, I pulled it back. A memory that was mine and not mine popped up, an afternoon of gettin' to know Button Mash's family after school one day.
"... Is this like those stories from Button Mash's dad's favorite science fiction show? Where if the crew HAD just turned around and stopped what they were doin', the paradox they were tryin' to stop wouldn't have happened, even after two previous adventures had shown that stayin' the course wasn't a good idea? ... Or is this like those games where the only way to stop bad stuff from happenin' to the characters is to turn off the game, and the games makes ya feel bad for not doin' it?"
"No, Apple Bloom. Giving up was never the answer either."
"What about Silver Spoon?"
"Forgive me if I sound cold. She is Plan B. You're Plan A. You are still the best bet for happiness and sanity to return to this world. There are roads never built, Apple Bloom, please save me from making one that I'll have to pull apart."
Ah shivered... she didn't sound cold. She sounded sad.
"So there is a way."
"Yes there is. And I literally can't tell you. Because if I tell you, it won't happen. No ifs, ands, or buts. There is no way around that. It will only work if you reach your solution on your own."
I sighed very tiredly. So danged if we do, danged if we don't.
"Ah don't suppose Ah could just stay here until Ah figure out what Ah gotta do?"
"If I could keep you here forever to figure it out, I would. We likely won't speak again in your life, Apple Bloom, maybe, but if you manage to save the world, you'll meet a good cousin-in-law of mine who can help bring balance. And one of my avatars may give you a final thank you. I'm with you in every choice you make, Apple Bloom. Remember what you are NOT, as much as what you are."
Before my face could properly scrunch up in confusion, The black roots sprung out of the river, reaching for Princess Rota.
Then Ah was fallin', past the stars and everythin', and ... Ah was back with my friends at the top of the elevator. They kept trottin' along like nothin' had happened. My friends all bumped right into me.
"'Bloom, do you see a trap?!"
"... Not the regular sort." Ah wasn't sure how much to say. Ah knew my friends would believe me. But that wasn't the problem. "Ah... just had a long chat with one of Princess Celestia's cousins."
"Really? What did she look like?" Scootaloo asked.
"Did she give you anything?"
"What did she say?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"... She just told me stuff, Ah just, Ah just remember she had a wheel for a cutie mark, and one of her wings was clockwork."
"’Her,’ huh?" Scootaloo asked, furrowing her brow. "I think this must’ve been Rota-something ... Nightmare Dash told me about her in my dream... she said her job was to make stuff when ponies make choices, or something like that, it was really really weird."
"But what did she say?" Sweetie asked again.
"She said Ah had to make an important choice. Button Mash, if everythin' is still runnin' by the game rules ya put in, what's it mean when ya got a boss that you gotta fight but you lose no-matter-what if ya fight?" Ah asked.
"Well, usually it's a sign the game needs you to lose, so the story can go on in a certain direction."
"I gotcha." '... Ah was afraid of that.'
My friends looked at each other not-too-comfy.
Ah didn't say anythin' more as we trotted up to the doors. They slowly swung open on their own. And a plain ordinary hallway without a trap or baddie Ah could see waitin' for us. An open gate was hangin' right behind the door.
One of Button Mash's magic windows popped up.
= Warning, beyond waits the final leg of your quest. If you go beyond this point, there will be no going back. Be sure to finish anything else first. =
"That gate thingie will fall behind us after we go through," Button Mash said.
"It's called a portcullis," Sweetie Belle said.
Button Mash kissed her! "Sweetie Belle! You're the bestest special friend I would have ever wanted!"
Sweetie Belle blushed as Ah'd never seen'er blush before. "Uh, t-thank you, Button."
Button Mash looked in Sweetie's eyes. "I... " He sounded like his head was tryin' to hammer words together but kept forgettin' to put in the nails! "If... after this adventure we... ya know, drift apart like Apple Bloom and Twist did, I uh, just want you to know, erm. Being with you girls' been the most fun I've ever had. And! Uh... I hope you make somepony special happy too."
That last part was a lie. I could tell what he really wanted to say clear as crystal, "I want us all to stay together!"
"You're... you're the world's best gentlecolt, Button Mash." Sweetie nuzzled him.
Scootaloo for once wasn't making faces at Button and Sweetie being sweet to each other. If anythin', she looked sad. Ah wonder how Ah looked as Ah trotted towards the hallway entrance, an unbroken set of elevator controls right next to it. My friends followed.
Ah said, "Girls, Button Mash, Ah wanna just say, we got far case cause of you, Spike, Darin' Do, Razzaroo, Pipsqueak and his friends, Applejack and her friends, the changelings and bat ponies, all the Good-Nightmares, Lickety Split and his friends, Redheart, Phobia and his friends, we didn't get this far by just goin' alone. And this is gonna be the hardest part." Ah had tears in my eyes.
Ah bring out my boxin' glove machine, and smash the controls, and just like below, this turns on the elevator as it goes down. Scootaloo can fly. But Sweetie is caught off guard. Ah stepped backwards. And and the gate comes down, and the big doors close.
“This is somethin’ only Ah can do. Princess Rota said fightin' Diamond ain't the way to beat her. Go get Silver Spoon in case Ah lose."
No! Ah'm NOT keepin' my friends away cause Ah think them bein' there would get us all never-heard-from-again! Ah'm goin' alone so the risk is totally on me in case Ah can't figure out option number three!!!! Except... Button Mash had been literally inches from me... and he slipped under the gate before everything closed up!
"Uh, mind if I tag along?"
diary journal book!
I banged on the door for a bit, but it wouldn't budge. And there was no way in heck I was leaving Sweetie all alone in this place! Apple Bloom! This isn't the time to start thinking like me! At least Button Mash can watch her back.
The way down was super faster than the way up. I caught up with Sweetie in no time and we hit the floor where we started, (the next part is unprintable, whited out, followed by spanking and mouth washed out with soap).
"Can you fix it?" I asked Sweetie about the controls.
"Can you?" She asked back.
"I know some basic mechanics, but I wouldn't know where to start with this thing."
"Remember when you blasted a hole in the Everfree, even though the story had it so we weren't supposed to get past there? Think you can do the same with that door? Maybe I can just fly you up!"
"Maybe... but we don't know if Button is trying to keep Apple Bloom from moving on, I might vaporize them if they're next to the door. And... no offense, Scootaloo, but I don't think you can fly us up that far."
"Well, there's no way I'm just sitting here! Ugh!" I looked around. Not seeing anypony else. "Do you sense anything about Alula and Tootsie? I don't think Discord and Diamond Tiara are going to be very happy they failed to stop us and then jumped ship."
Sweetie Belle closed her eyes, and breathed in deep and let it slow. "I don't... think Diamond or Discord went after them... I think they might have just let them go."
"Oh right, their families are still here... they have to come back sooner or later."
"Maybe... but that doesn't feel right... more like... it just doesn't matter. More like she's just WAITING for something. Though the good news is, with me not there, Diamond Tiara has no way to sense what Apple Bloom or Button Mash are doing, or where they are, and with Apple Bloom taking out their magic eyes, it makes things a bit easier for our side."
"Well, whoop-de-doo! What was Apple Bloom thinking?! Was she thinking?! Agh! She's supposed to be the smart one! I guess this is how Twilight made her friends feel!"
"You sure? She didn't lie or use any of us."
"Well it feels the same to me. And there's no way I'm being shelved!"
"Happens to us when Rarity and her friends saved the world. Maybe we should do like Apple Bloom asked us and go get Silver Spoon!"
"Without Apple Bloom's magic eyes to see through the fog?"
"Well, I'm getting back up there no matter what I have to go through!"
The Tower must have heard me, because the entire place rumbled, and a big door appeared out of nowhere and slowly began opening. Sweetie and me got ready for a fight with some big old monster!
"Welcome to the 100 Block Puzzle Rooms Challenge. Can you solve all the puzzles and reach the top?" A friendly voice echoed.
Sweetie Belle looked at me, I swear I could hear her thoughts! "You did say anything Scootaloo."
I growled. "Let's just get started!"
Button and me trotted along, looking ahead, and side by side, keepin' a sharp watch for any surprises.
Ah said, "I wish ya'd stayed with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, ya bein' good at blowin' up monsters is gonna be a lot more helpful to them than it's gonna be fer me."
"I won't go the rest of the way... just a little further. Then I'll figure out something."
Button Mash lowered his head so his mane hid his eyes, "For what it's worth, I think it's better this way too."
"What do ya mean?"
"I bet for sure there's gonna ... be some bad stuff and... I... I don't want Sweetie Belle to see it." Button Mash bit his lip.
"After the stuff she's been -we've all been- though? How can ya, somepony who's spent as much time with her as you, not know that?"
"I know. I just mean, I... I have a really bad feeling."
"Ah know what ya mean. But hey, ya put the rules of a game in here right? And a game's rules always say there's gotta be a way to win."
"... Not all games have happy endings," he said lookin' at nothin'. “You should see some of the newer ones."
Ah glared at 'em! "Well this one's gonna! What da heck is WRONG WITH YOU Button Mash?! Since when do ya EVER look on the bad side of things?!"
"You think you know me that well?" Button Mash asked.
"Ya bet yer flank Ah darn tootin' do!"
Button Mash kinda grinned at that. "... Thanks Apple Bloom."
Ah though of us facin' Diamond Tiara and Discord like Princess Rota said... wait... Ah realized, Princess Rota didn't mention fightin' Discord at all, why?
For a crazy tick Ah wondered if Princess Rota'd been Discord in disguise, but she seemed too set in rules to be him, and Ah got the truth in my eye remember?
... Would Diamond Tiara fight Discord if she came around? Then Ah thought a crazy idea. That might be why it made sense. Why else would Alula honestly say Discord tried so hard to get her to see the truth? ... Was Discord... our worst nightmare... tryin' to help us?
Discord's sphere of influence spread, converting Nyarlathotrot's sadistic horrors to his insane fun and games. And his and Celestia's brothers and sisters found something most peculiar for Discord.
Not only had no pony died within Discord's sphere of influence, but nopony seemed to be in danger of dying, and none were wishing they were dead. This was very different from the last two times he'd run amok.
"Maybe we should just let him spread his chaos," Pandora said.
"Are you insane?" Justice asked.
"We're running back and forth to make sure nopony dies from Nyarlathotrot's lingering curse, at least it's one less spot we have to look after."
"And it might be worse, as it could give him a legitimate claim over this corner of reality."
"Either way, the ponies and other creatures here are all suffering Loony-Toons style injuries that aren't even painful and heal instantly. And isn't that STRANGE for Discord? Since when does he care about collateral damage?"
"Maybe he doesn't want to run out of toys."
"Which means he'd have to CARE about that. It means he'd have to CARE about them! What kind of foal takes care to not break their toys when they don't care about them at all? ... Since when does he EVER CARE if his toys are broken or not? And it's not purely chaotic to keep ponies SAFE from dying or suffering... "
"Oh Mother and Father, you don't mean to ask-"
"Is my brother helping us?"