Chapter 23: A Slippery Slope
“That isn't possible! I saw Luna only a couple of days ago!”
“Yes, you did. Currently, she's alive and well. Alicorns are immortal, but I suppose you wouldn't necessarily know that, seeing as the Princess burned all the books on the subject. Yes, Alicorns cannot die, at least not without consent. If they could, we could hardly call them Gods, now could we? But no, what Celestia did still counts as murder. She destroyed Nightmare Moon's –and therefore, Luna's– body. Her consciousness, her soul, if you will, was sent back to her creation. The moon. There she waited, a half-being, alive yet disconnected, just as trapped in her magnum opus as any prison, tortured a thousand years until the intelligence in the lake saved her, gave her the energy she had been denied, so she could rebuild her body from scratch, molecule by molecule. A terribly painful experience. This is the 'banishment' your Princess made you believe.”
“How do I know what I saw was real? That it isn't made up?” Twilight refused to believe what she had just seen until she had facts to prove it. She wasn't just about to throw away her trust in Celestia because a vengeful darkness and Lustrous Revolt told her to.
“Because what you just saw was a memory bubble. And memory bubbles don't lie.”
“Memory bubble? What's a memory bubble?” Twilight looked back down at the water, which was still churning softly.
“Ghosts of past events, contained in a perpetual energy field. They're created when something happens that's so emotionally upsetting or changing that the subject of the event can't fully comprehend it at the time. It allows them to revisit it later. They used to be all over Equestria, but they were caught in the whirlwind of banishment. After all, reliving memories can sometimes be painful.”
“Can just anybody use them?”
Lustrous Revolt shook her head. “Only the parties directly involved with the events, their descendants, or those that the universe deem necessary can see the bubbles. There's one for you, if you want to know that my words are true.”
“Well, where is it?”
“Concentrate, for a moment. Think of one event that changed you life forever.”
“When I got my cutie mark, I suppose.”
Revolt couldn't help but give a snort of laughter. “Sorry, every time I hear that, it's just so funny.”
“What, 'cutie mark'? You have one. What do you call them?”
“Merit marks, though they really don't have much function or meaning beyond identification in this world. It's not like Shuddercry's butterflies are a good show of her personality. After all, you Reality ponies are the ones earning them. We actually have them at birth. Your special talents are fore-ordained, it seems.”
Twilight frowned for a moment at that concept, then a thought popped into her head. “If you have been watching my travels in Reality, you must know about the Cutie Mark Crusaders. The three fillies trying to find their special talent? If you have them at birth, and their reflections are running around here somewhere, does that mean you've seen what their cutie marks will be?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“..That's it? Not going to tell me?”
“And allow you to ruin their moment of self-discovery? Never. Just focus on the memory.”
Twilight rolled her eyes, then shut them in concentration. She thought about the day she earned her cutie mark. The fear and anxiety of taking the examination, the support from her parents, and ultimately the joy still fresh in her mind as Celestia accepted her as her own pupil, and the cutie mark sealing the deal.
“You may now open your eyes.”
Twilight did as she was told, her mouth agape with wonder at what she saw. A ball of brilliance hovered in front of her, tendrils of light writhing from the center mass.
“You can recall memories at any time, provided they made enough of an impact to form a memory bubble. All you have to do is concentrate like you just did, and then step into the field. The best part, however? You can simulate different paths of the past. When you enter a memory bubble, if you take an active stance in it, you can see how the past would have changed had you acted differently. That is the memory bubble's greatest curse. The knowledge of what could have been. Some go mad, realizing they could have prevented terrible tragedies if they had acted ever so slightly. But that's life, isn't it? Well, I suppose you're only now figuring that out, but the point remains true. For now, step into the field.”
Twilight stepped forward, wondering exactly how this would work. She felt an external force take control of her sight, which almost made her jump back in fright. After a moment, she found herself in a misty void that looked very similar to the Natural Plane that the Oracle kept watch over.
“Perhaps that's because that is exactly what it is.”
“Bright Eyes! Have I left the Forgotten Realm?”
“No, this is only a projection of your mind. Only I can see you. Celestia and the Doctor still track your progress, and give their support. But it's part of the duties of the Oracle. I keep track of, organize, and can visit any memory bubbles.”
“Lustrous Revolt just told me that only those involved in the events could enter memory bubbles.”
“And those the universe deems necessary. The Oracle needs the ability so she can guide the path of the world. It's actually how I got my cutie mark. Or merit mark. Whichever you prefer.”
Twilight glanced at Bright Eye's flank. “Bubbles? Ah, I get it. Bubbles! Memory bubbles. But how did you discover it in Reality, when the memory bubbles are only in the Forgotten Realm? How did-”
She was silenced as the usually ditsy mare raised a hoof for silence. “Are you here to interrogate me, or to get a greater understanding of Equestria's history?”
“It's quite alright, but I would recommend staying focused on the mission at hoof.”
“It is a rather important one.” Lustrous Revolt had appeared silently behind Twilight.
“Now how are you here?”
“'The individuals involved'. After all the technicalities, you and I are the same pony.”
“I suppose...Derpy? Do the memory bubbles truly not lie?”
“They do not. They're tied directly into the time flow. What you saw in the lake was real.”
“Hmm. Alright. How do we get started?”
“Allow your mind to wander back into the memory, and the Plane will morph around you.”
Twilight did as she was told. The mist swirled and formed walls, ceilings and floors. Shades of beings faded into existence, until they were as vivid and real as the Oracle next to her. Shaking in place as she waited for her name to be called was the unsure filly Twilight, her dad with a comforting hoof over her shoulder. The examiners sat in their seats, making notes and discussing quietly the previous examinee's performance.
“Halt.” Revolt's voice was commanding and authoritative. The memory ponies stopped in mid motion, trapped in time. “Twilight, was there any particular reason you picked this memory?”
“Well, it's when I get my cutie mark, and that's a special day for anypony. But...it's also the day that I first truly met Princess Celestia.”
“Really? That's rather interesting. Forward.”
The ponies reanimated, moving a bit quicker than was physically possible as Revolt accelerated the memory. Before Twilight's eyes, her past self tried everything she could to open Spike's egg. Current Twilight's heart welled up in a combination of pity and pride. Then came the acceptance she could do no more, and finally, the Sonic Rainboom. Her horn flared up, her eyes glowed with a celestial power... Twilight frowned as she remembered being encased in the magical aura. Now that she looked at it from an outside angle, she wondered where all that excess power came from. She tried to remember. It wasn't directly from her natural energy stores. When she was that age, she barely had enough to levitate a book for a minute.
Nor was it the Sonic Rainboom itself. The radiant, colorful energy was high in the sky and was simply inaccessible to her untrained childhood self. Twilight looked around the room as the events continued. There were no nearby power sources, no gems to draw from... Now this was very interesting. As far as she could guess, her young self had somehow managed to tap into an unknown and extremely potent energy source. As she remembered the energy that flowed through her that day, coming from seemingly everywhere, Twilight remembered where she had felt a similar power. The Elements of Harmony. But that didn't make any sense either! The Elements wouldn't be re-discovered for a good number of years. This required further investigation, and now that she could apparently pull this memory out any time she needed it, she made a mental note to explore further, when Revolt wasn't around. Twilight didn't need her learning about any potential advantage she could have over her.
“Here we are. Halt.”
The scene froze again, just as Celestia stepped into the room. Twilight smiled softly at the sight of her mentor, even if she was but a memory. Twilight had only been gone a few days, and she already missed her influence. Despite everything that had happened and what Revolt said, she wished she had her direct guidance.
“Twilight, I must ask... see anything different or strange about your mentor right now?”
Twilight looked Celestia over. She looked much the same as she had three days ago. Age didn't tend to show on Alicorns. Twilight shrugged. “I don't see much of a difference.”
“No? Alright, let's go back, and follow her this time. Back!”
The memory went in reverse, Celestia stepping back out of the room and Twilight's parents returning to their non-plant bodies. Revolt led the way through the exit. After a flight of stairs or two, they were standing in the street. “Stop!”
Celestia was walking with her usual patrol of guards, looking a bit more tired than usual, as if she had something pressing heavily on her mind. “Continue!”
A flash of light and burst of sound emitted from the building as the young Twilight accelerated the newborn and yet unnamed Spike's growth. The guards looked up with shock and concern, whereas Celestia only looked on with resignation.
“Princess! We'll go check it out! You two, come with me!” yelled the captain of Celestia's guard.
“That won't be necessary.”
“Thank you for your help today, gentlemen. You are dismissed.”
“I'm sorry, your majesty, but I don't exactly thin-”
“You are dismissed, captain. That is an order.”
“...Of course, your majesty.”
The guards backed away, as Celestia re-entered the building.
Something was off. Not even Twilight could deny it. “Should we follow her?”
“No need. You know what happens next in there. Let's listen to the guards for a moment.”
“Sir, I know it's not my place, but has the Princess lost it?”
“You're right private, it isn't your place. But... that was unusual. In my twenty years as captain, she's never done anything like that. I don't know what's happening, but whatever is up there is either of great importance or danger. Who knows? Maybe both. Why else would she keep secrets from her guards? Now, I don't want any of us speaking of this further. If the Princess tells us anything about it, so be it. Otherwise I swear you to secrecy.”
“My...my sister is up there.”
All heads, present and past whipped to look at the new voice. Twilight couldn't believe it. But now it made sense. Shining Armor had been on Celestia's guard for about a month before Twilight got her cutie mark, and had unfortunately been on duty when Twilight had her exam, so he couldn't attend to give her moral support. She had been bitter with him for a little while, but forgave him as she always did. But now she couldn't help but remember his reaction when he told her what had happened that day.
The memory bubble swirled around her as she inadvertently changed the scene to later that day. The Sparkles were at home, having a home cooked meal in celebration of Twilight's big day as the star student of Celestia, and the earning of her cutie mark.
Twilight was recounting what had happened to Shining Armor, giving animated descriptions of each uncontrollable blast of magic, apologizing to her parents when she got to the point of their transformation. They shook their heads, letting her know all was forgiven, and urged her to continue.
“...and then Princess Celestia herself walked in!”
“Really?” Shining Armor forced a smile, his insincerity now apparent with Twilight's knowledge, though nopony had caught it at the time. To be sure, he was happy for his sister, there was no doubt, but like Twilight was beginning to see, he knew there was something more to Twilight herself and her relationship with Celestia than just student and teacher.
“Yeah! And she walked up and placed a hoof on me, and it brought me back to my senses! I was pretty relieved, actually, because I didn't know how to stop.” The young filly giggled with excitement. “She said she'd teach me how to control my powers though, so maybe someday I can be just as good as you!”
“That'd be wonderful Twilight.” Armor's eyes glazed over as he was lost in thought, wondering what it all meant. The filly Twilight caught the look, which was why the current Twilight remembered this moment at all.
“You okay, BBBFF?”
“Huh? Oh, of course Twilight. I'm happy for you. You'll do great, I promise. After all, you are my little sister.” He smiled again, genuinely this time, as he decided to forget his unanswered questions. He trusted the Princess, after all. She knew what she was doing.
The memory faded, and they found themselves back in the misty void. Twilight looked to the ground in thought. “What is so special about me?”
Revolt shrugged. “You heard the guards. You're extremely important and dangerous. Celestia needed to keep an eye on you. She needed people she trusted watching you. So she made Shining Armor eternally loyal to her, promoting him to captain of the guard not three weeks later. She kept you nearby during all of your waking hours, teaching you and guiding your magical ability for her purposes. Then she called in Princess Cadence, the only Alicorn to come into being during her reign of lies, to watch over you. After all, who better to keep a potential enemy in check than the Goddess of Love?”
“Potential...potential enemy? Is that what she thinks of me as?”
“Certainly. Powerful ally too, but it's better to prepare for the worst.”
Bright Eyes stepped forward. “I must leave you now, and you should be getting back to your mission Twilight. I will meet you again shortly.”
The mist darkened until Twilight could see no more. Then she felt her hooves once again on rocky ground, the cool air far more chill than the Natural Plane. She opened her eyes, and found herself back at the Moon Pool.
Lustrous Revolt nodded in arrogant victory. “Even if you cannot accept that Celestia is cruel, you cannot deny that her actions are in question.”
Twilight shook her head. “It's so much to take in. I wish I could speak with her.”
“And have her blind you again with that lying tongue of hers? No, it's better this way. The decisions you make will be yours.”
“What now? Are you going to take me back to the prison?”
“Soon enough. I thought you might like another word with the intelligence in the waters.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “What else could it tell me? That Celestia actually killed my parents too? I've been living with Changelings this entire time?”
“Probably not. You never know though.” Lustrous Revolt stuck her head in the water, and her body went stiff. Not an air bubble escaped. Twilight raised a brow. Had she looked like that? She looked around. She could run right now. While Revolt was distracted. There'd be nothing stopping her.
But yes, there would be something stopping her. Her friends. She couldn't leave them, and her escape might cause harsher punishment on them. It would be extremely difficult to rescue her friends from the reflections' clutches, and they wouldn't learn anything more. But she still had to remain focused on the core objective; save Luna from the Metaspectre. In less than two weeks. On the Winter Solstice.
Yes, as long as she stayed focused.
She plunged her head into the water. Then the water swelled and pulled her struggling form to the depths.