• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,468 Views, 1,032 Comments

Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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Symbolism

The sky is trying to drive her mad.

The colors should not exist, and she so wishes to believe they do not. Her soul screams denial, kicks reason against the world and desperately hopes to land a crushing blow. But it is not happening. The sky is in rebellion above her small form, and what it has gone to war with is the very concept of 'sky'. It feels as if that which is above her is trying to descend, not a few small clouds being lowered or wild zone fog sinking on its own, but the totality of it. For air has weight. Perhaps the pegasi know that on instinct, where the unicorn had to learn. But as she staggers forward through the nightscape, no longer capable of recognizing that she is in the nightscape at all, she remembers that fact: full bale-weights of atmosphere press down on every pony at every moment of their lives. Every movement the living can make is casually forced against an ocean nopony on the ground truly realizes they spend their entire lives swimming through. But she knows, and for a moment, as the twisting seems to accelerate, it is all she can remember, because the weight of that gas is increasing as it becomes the weight of liquid.

Above her, the colors go to war with sanity, with order, and logic is beaten, reason shredded into the dying screams of incoherence which make up the last sounds of the truly defeated. And the air is now liquid, the weight of it flows into her lungs as she pushes her way through the mad world and she can breathe, the liquid is something she can still breathe, but the horrible weight fills her lungs, presses against her ribs. She must breathe, and every breath she can take makes her feel as if the very act will break her from the inside.

Around her, there is ground, or what should have been ground. In a sane world, she might be trying to trot through a simple patch of something very close to natural pasture: mostly grass, a few sparse trees which nopony had tried to clear away, blue sky overhead and perhaps a few birds passing through it. But beneath her hooves, as air becomes liquid, ground is dispersing. Fight for each hoofstep, her head down so as not to see the horror of the sky, and peer into increasing void, something which cannot remind her of the absent center of a mark that should not be, for in her struggle to simply advance, to hold together against all-encompassing insanity, she does not remember that it exists. Not the pony, not the mission given to them from the mouth of madness. There is no Sun. No Moon. There is only a small unicorn struggling through what might have once been pasture land. And the grass is made from thin shards of bone and razor edges slice against her legs as she pushes on, trees begin to pull themselves from thinning soil, staggering away as mouths created by thousands of swirling leaves begin to scream.

It is insanity. It will break her. It will kill her, it will kill anypony who does not find shelter, it is the antithesis of hope and order and reason and harmony and thought, and it will not stop. Constants become variables. Variables refuse to be defined. There is but one piece of flotsam which retains any knowledge of what it should truly be, and she is bleeding and battered and her mind will break.

It is a chaos storm.

She has never heard the term. Nopony has ever said it to her, nor has any book contained it, much less the last shattered words of those who died within. But she knows it all the same, and she knows it is seconds away from something far worse than merely killing her. From having it somehow sense that last bit of order trying to fight for survival, and unmaking it. There is death, and there is never having been alive --

-- she sees a sparkle

It's just barely visible through the hues which so wish to take the last of her. But the sparkle is there, and it's a constant one. Shifting, yes, because they always do, but it's just the steady, natural pattern of such little position changes. And with that sparkle -- no, plural, there's another, and another, and -- she sees glow. Reddish-purple, and that color maintains. An active field, a field holding against the storm. However, it is a field, not a shield spell as she knows them: the distortion of the light (in those few moments which remain before 'light' loses its definition) does not include any degree of opacity or reflection.

But it's a field. There is another unicorn somewhere in this storm. And on the other side of that field, it almost seems as if she can see --

-- no. She will not hope, for to hope is to risk losing focus. She will gallop.

And so she runs. The bone slices her, the air drowns her, the ground tries to make her drop, and screaming flames which still retains the faintest vestige of bird shape writhe in agony as the sky extinguishes them. But she is moving, she must be moving, surely that can't have broken too, it seems as if the sparkling field is getting closer but that could just be cruel illusion --

-- she can't think that way, not while she can still think at all. She gallops, hoofs pound at what little is left of anything, the chaos lances towards the desperate hope for escape and her tail begins to come apart --

-- there is a faint tingle as she contacts the field. Goes through.

And then she is coughing up the liquid, watching it evaporate in front of her before it can soak into the constant earth.

It takes some time before she can raise her head. (Nothing would make her look back.) And ahead of her, there is... light. The field itself glows from the inner surface, the giant dome arcing into the air above her. It is light without Sun. She still cannot find Sun. But...

...somepony lives here.

Or did.

There are structures. They are -- crude, exceptionally so. Bent branches with odd textures and hues draped over them to form smaller domes, entrances large enough for a pony -- but no ponies are within sight or hearing. There are fire pits, lined with rock and filled with naught but ash. A little bundle of oddly-bound sticks near one tent catches her attention, and it takes a moment to realize the shape crudely resembles that of a unicorn, with a little bit of old bone where the horn would be.

It takes longer to realize that the exterior of the tents are made from animal skins.

She forces herself to advance. And as she does, the structures become somewhat more sophisticated. The tent city fades away behind her, replaced by balanced-off rocks that make up stranger, sturdier temporary homes

above ground, why are they risking having so much above ground

and beyond that, she starts to see market carts, strange ones, too heavy, too solid, as if they were designed with no true thought that they should ever be moved at all. And still no ponies. Simply wares placed out for sale, and she does not know what so many of them are. Some things look as if they might be worn: not just over the body, but the face. There is what might have once been a bookseller's cart, and all that remains of that stock is fragments of shredded pages carried by a sudden wind. One scrap goes past her eyes, and the only words she has time to read are ALL LOST.

Here: metal hung from the top of a cart, rough shapes of highly polished -- not silver, it's not silver, she would know if it was silver, she doesn't know what that is

argentium

and then she does.

The sudden arrival of knowledge freezes all four legs. She stares at it, and the distorted reflection of a small young adult purple unicorn mare stares back at her as facts rampage through startled brain, how the metal is underestimated, thought of by the majority as good for naught but crude mirrors, but just look a little deeper and see how many true uses it has for the canny and clever, every last thing which can be done with it by somepony willing to do anything to finish the experiment and --

-- gone.

All she retains is the name. Argentium.

She is remembering a metal which does not exist.

Slowly, she pushes on. And as she approaches the core, order continues to assert. Broken order. There is a building, the first true building, and the hole in its side shows where something had objected to the very concept. She peers inside just long enough to note the multitude of low-lying large, flat-topped rocks which substitute for benches in the conference area. And then something inside her doesn't want to look any more.

This new place, this was

the doctor, the closest thing to a doctor, the shaman

where the shaman lived. Spilled herbal mixtures stain the ground, their scents linger within the air. She recognizes the warmth-inducing smell of crushed

cantomile

and doesn't know what that is.

Further on. Above ground, so much above, an open shout of defiance against the chaos, but there are broken walls and torn fabrics, shattered attempts at furniture and abandoned toys, lost wares and no ponies, no ponies anywhere at all --

-- and then she sees the lab.

It must be a lab. It stands at the exact center of the

barricade point

and is the most recognizable structure of them all. Not just for the devices which appear here and there on the exterior, things which seem centuries more refined than everything around it. Not for the ventings and smokestacks which hint at the forges within. Not just because it's the most advanced building in the area, something with a true foundation and walls of -- well, actually, the walls sort of look like somepony with a truly powerful field just took huge planes of rock and then smoothed them out there and there, thinned them down a bit, added a few openings, and fused the whole thing together. Look what a strong field somepony's got, and then look what was done with it, because this structure will stand against the chaos, all of the chaos, and the broken places show that about eighty percent of that declaration had been right. But it still looks like what a lab should be, has to be and -- isn't any more. Not after what happened.

She goes inside, through one of the freshly-created holes. She doesn't know why. She just does.

There is a stallion standing in the center of the hollow space, among the debris from broken furniture, the scattering of pebbles that had once been stone beakers

grindshell: it doesn't react to anything at all, glass is too fragile even with every

along with broken devices, fragments of notes which still smoulder among fading embers from the recent fire. He is not facing her. Perhaps he will not, at least for now.

"It grows back."

She can see the color of his fur, what little of it is visible beyond robe and hat: a rather light purple-grey. The mane and tail are beige slanting towards white.

"It grows back," he says to nopony at all, and that oddly-curled tail lashes. "It always grows back..."

The robe and hat are weighted at the edges, and as he angrily shakes his head, none of the bells make the slightest sound.

She wants to step forward.

The word in her mind is 'sir,' and she has said it so many times in the nightscape when she greets him. But it will not come. Because she knows this is him. She knows, as she knew so much outside. But this stallion... the back has the tight curve of youth, the fur is smooth and soft, without the white of age speckling the coat, the color of which was not as she'd always believed it to be. This is

it's not, it can't be

it is.

And she wants to run.

"It was His joke," the unicorn stallion says. "I told Him I could undo everything he did. Every time. And then he did this. I shave it every morning, when I can find something to shave with. I've used every spell I could think of, a few I invented, made up on the spot... and the next morning, it's grown back, it always grows back. Because He wants it that way, because He could have killed me right then and there, but he wanted me to know what a failure I was, how weak, and he gave me this before he... broke the barricade. The greatest barricade in Eris, and he broke it with a thought. And left me to watch, and listen, while He laughed. At the Bearded."

Her legs won't move. Nothing will.

"They... asked me to come with them," he softly continues. "I laughed, when she asked, so soon after they all stopped here. A request to leave the greatest of all barricades, the one which would expand to cover the world. And it came from... it didn't matter. It was stupid of her to ask. Stupid to believe they might have another way. A chance to beat Him, if only... there were six. Or seven, really, since they had that... but I laughed at her. Because it almost felt like a joke, one of His, where the last punchline would be their deaths. I felt sorry for them. For her. But it was madness to come, the surest sign that I'd fallen to the madness like so many of the weak, as they surely must have fallen before ever arriving, just to believe in that. In... another kind of hope, the most desperate one. But I was wrong. They weren't mad. It was easy to see the difference, when true madness arrived. When He came."

He is starting to turn.

The face is young, the snout long and cheeks hollow. The eyes are yellow, at least for now. The chin still bleeds from where hair has recently been hacked away.

"I... have to go with them. There's nothing for me here. He's coming back, and soon even this will be gone. He wanted me to have some time where I could appreciate what He'd done, before He finished it, and she -- she still wants me, even though I'm weak, I can't do anything real, and... she still wants me, so I have to go with her, there's nowhere else and nopony to want me at all, but she still wants me, she still wants me, but..."

The words are coming faster.

"...she doesn't look at me the same way. I look at her, I consent to look at her, nopony among mine would ever look at her and I did, but she doesn't see that and then it was them, it was the two of them, it was them and I don't understand, why was it them when --"

The turn is complete. They are facing each other.

He's so young. Her age.

He silently looks at her. Her face, mane, body, tail, eyes, horn and wings.

He screams.

"-- why was it them? It should have been me! They should have known it was supposed to be me, they should have made it me, it always should have been me and it was them! And now..."

He is beginning to advance.

"It's you! How could it possibly be you? What could have changed so much that it wound up being you? What? Tell me, tell me now or --"

Blood drips, and it fills his eyes, turns them red.

She can move. Somehow, she can now move, when she truly needs to most. And her wings flare out, beat at the air, carry her back through the hole without thought, he is chasing but he cannot keep up, bursts of reddish-purple field fly past her, she's doing her best to create a flight pattern he can't anticipate but all he has to do is snatch her out of the air and he's chasing, he's below her and he's still screaming about how it's her, it's her and not him, never him and there's a burst of energy, it goes into her ribs and she's spiraling, tumbling out of the air and --

-- the soil is loose. It's rained recently, the soil is loose, and between the two, her impact is cushioned. Clumps go into her eyes, cling to her fur, and it is long seconds before her shaking body can try to get her back on her hooves. But she gets up in the end, looks around to see where her pursuer is, the pony she will never again consult within her nightscape, and he is gone. The barricade point is gone. She is --

-- she's outside the Acres. The main barn, or an older edition of it: the paint is weathered, the wood untreated for what seems to have been years. Discarded implements show rust. And there is a mound of loose soil under her hooves, just a little longer and wider than the form of

the loan repaid, the contract completed, and so she returns

She does not push herself away. She does not recoil, not physically, for she can teleport again, and the light takes her to the cottage, where there are no animals in sight, anywhere in sight, and vines have claimed the walls, the chicken coops have collapsed, nopony else will live on the edge of the fringe without cause and nopony else took that one up, she has arrived behind the cottage, in the place where her friend buries those she was unable to save, and there is a new disruption to the earth, for the cycle turns and in time, the wheel will crush.

There is a pyre in the clouds, still smoldering, and ashes make a final climb into the sky.

Balloons lose air eventually. Every last one guaranteed to sink, and the shell is so very fragile.

Cloth decays. Gems fall away from broken cradles and are trampled back into the earth.

There is a scale. A single scale. It is just barely visible through the crawling termites which cover nearly every inch of what had been their home, and she will not leave it there, she snatches it up between her teeth and it feels as if it will crumble to dust at her touch.

She is galloping now. She gallops through Ponyville, and there are ponies here, so many of them, and every last one knows her, while she knows none. They call out to her, and never in the thousands of cries is her name ever said. It is Princess, always Princess, and she says names, asks about so many names, and they do not know any, not a one, for to them, none of those names has ever been spoken until the moment she gave them ignored voice. There is simply her, just her, perhaps there had always been but her, and they want and they need and they crowd around her, hooves stretch out to touch her fur, faces beg for a nuzzle against unwanted feathers, they beg and she hears every plea, with no power to answer a single one of them. Children are raised up in front of her, dying fillies and foals, she cannot save them, they die before her eyes and the parents turn away, blaming themselves for not having believed deeply enough to justify her granting the miracle, she is screaming and none will hear, she pushes, she can't fly because she doesn't want to fly, doesn't want the wings, doesn't want any of this, never wanted any of this but they won't listen and her field surges, pushes a path through begging bodies, she flees and then she is in the ruins.

The ruins of the castle. The castle of the sisters, where the dead things are kept.

She is on the podium. Five tiny piles of shattered stone surround her. She sinks to belly and barrel, curls up in the center of them, curls herself around the tiny scale.

She weeps. And the world does not care. It has heard such weeping at least twice before. Nothing cares, and nopony.

That is when the voices come.

We/I know the pain, they say, and the tone is a caring one. I/We have seen this pain before. We/I know the hurt. You bleed, and nopony knows it. You cry, and nopony hears. You hurt. And I/We... am/are sorry.

She thanks them, through the tears. Thanks anything which is willing to truly hear her, when no others will.

You wish to discard this fate, the voices knowingly, compassionately observe. To simply go back, to be normal again. And you cannot. Fate cannot be kicked aside or pushed away. We/I are/am sorry for that. I/We wish there was a way. For none to suffer.

The curl becomes tighter still. The edges of the little scale crack from the pressure.

Fate cannot be discarded. Only -- exchanged, the voices gently tell her. I/We feel your pain. We/I understand. I/We will take your burden. Take your place -- if you let us/me.

The tears are slowing.

You want this. More than anything.

She uncurls a little. Nods.

We/I can withstand this pain, where you cannot. Should not, should never have been asked/made to. I/We know pain. A little more will not hurt us/me.

She looks up. There is -- something -- just above her. It is darkness without comfort, shadows without protection. It shifts and swirls and coils about her, and it offers her everything she wants, everything she needs, every wish she has ever made.

The words are filled with love. Will you let me/us? Let us/me help you? When no others can or will, when none will let themselves see your pain and know you need help at all? Will you let me/us do this for you?

And she listens.

Her forelegs stretch towards it. The voices stretch towards her fur. Darkness coats the bottom of her hooves.

"GET OFF HER, Y'STUPID PIECE OF HORSE APPLE SMEAR!"

And the farmer erupts from those hooves, the body streaming out from her very fur, forming in an instant, the hard head goes into the shadows, impact stuns and knocks back a few crucial hoofwidths, enough to buy time for a spin and kick, the rotation brings the face into full view and the features are true, but the colors are almost there and --

-- it is like she is looking at another kind of shadow. One which offers protection. The shadow cast by a --

-- the darkness dodges, it/them is/are screaming, they/it claims bargain which nopony can break, it/they dive for her wings and a prismatic tail whips across it. The follow-up attack is brash enough to almost work on its own, and the sheer shock of anypony trying that kind of stupid move allows the whole thing to succeed. And before it can recover from that, thousands of little stone fragments are levitated by soft blue, pummel it in a hailstorm of memory, it falls back, tries to escape, finds its way blocked by the echoes of birds and beasts and the one carefully directing them to close the path.

There is one final chance for it/them to escape. One last possible way out. And that is when the party cannon goes off.

Slowly, she gets up again. Looks at them as they reorient after the battle, the farmer taking special care to stomp on the few scraps which remain. Looks at shadows.

Two of them are approaching a little faster, caretaker and baker. They come up to her first, nuzzle, the nuzzle meant for friends, always. The others press against her coat, and they are there, and yet they are...

...they are there, aren't they? She is surrounded by them, so they have to be there.

But it is the touch of shadow. It offers protection, comfort. And there is nothing more except a tiny scale lodged in her fur, without even the memory of that body to hug her forelegs.

They pull back, but only so she can see them smile. She cannot smile back. Heads quizzically tilt. And baker and caretaker open their mouths, ask the same question in the voice of the doctor whose touch she never again wants to bear, ask it as if it was the only question which could ever be asked in the history of the world, for it was the only one that could ever matter.

"Did you feel them?"

She turns, spins her body. The voice came from them, and from behind. But she cannot see him, and at the moment she turns, the others vanish.

"Did you feel them?" the voice repeats its question, somewhere out of sight, within the shield-covered burnout. "Are they simply there, waiting for you to call on them? Tell me you could feel them. Tell me that."

And then there is anger, and it quickly twists into rage. Perhaps because there was something there, and he spoke, and then there was not. But it feels as if thinking about it might just be a waste of time.

She doesn't know where they went, how to get even the shadows back, she charges through the shield with horn lowered and corona blazing, charges with intent to hurt, and trips over the first of the bodies. She tumbles, goes down, her face winds up pressed against a tiny corpse, and she looks up to find herself surrounded by ash and the remnants of walls and dead foals, dead foals everywhere, her legs instinctively kick, but she is only bruising dead flesh and more tiny bodies fall in to fill the gaps. She cannot move without damaging the remnants of what should have been a life, but she has to get away, she needs to get away from this, she has to move and so the dead are pushed, kicked, but there are always more bodies, always more, and just ahead of her, there is a scream of pain, a scream she's heard before, it makes her focus just enough and there are still bodies, she's practically swimming in a sea of corpses but somepony is alive ahead of her, if only until the moment when she decides to die.

She reaches her, and sees the twisting. The writhing. Wing bones shattering under the skin, turning to dust. The dust becomes clumps, domes bulge out her coat, move up the neck in a river of traveling tumors, further distort her agonized features before erupting from the forehead as a horn. Gold flares, but only for a moment. And then the horn crumbles, the flakes fall onto the hooves and where those hooves touch the earth, wilted plants spring forth and wrap around legs, preventing escape.

"I," she says, and for a moment, it is all she can say at all. "I. I..."

Her teeth tear at the vines. But it is no use. She can break them, but as soon as she does, wind pummels them from above, presses them against the ground. She raises her field to shield them from that and a second color ignites, binds in chains of glow. Counter, and it provides enough time for the vines to return.

Trapped. Forever trapped. Forever screaming, and she's screaming again, she may be here screaming until --

-- and then the scream becomes a laugh. The laugh she would give so very much to never hear again.

"I," she laughs, "am. What happens. When it goes. Wrong."

The eyes lock on her own. Purple. Tan. Blue. Over and over.

"What makes you. Think. You're. What happens. When it goes. Right?"

She pulls back. But it is all she can do, for the vines are now around her own legs, there is dirt mounding up her hooves, earth reaching for her --

"Broken," she laughs. "Always the broken. Begin -- broken. Finish -- shattered. I... broken. Everypony sees. You... broken. Everypony learns. Broken -- forever..."

The laugh. The laugh which should never be heard again. The laugh which will ring out across centuries. It fills her ears, it fills the world, until there is almost nothing but the laugh and nothing else could ever be again but two trapped ponies in a field of bodies and a joke unending, the earth pulls at her and...


[/hr]

"...Twilight, wake up! Y'gotta -- you have to wake up! Twilight, come on, wake --"

-- and her eyes opened.

The first thing she saw was green, and then Applejack pulled back enough to let her see the rest of the farmer's worried face. (Still no hat.)

"...Applejack?"

"You were having a nightmare," Applejack stated. "A bad one. You were writhing under your sheets, your horn was starting to spark, and I couldn't get you to wake up. But you're awake now, and --"

Twilight was breathing too fast. The sweat was dripping from her small body, soaking the sheets. But she was awake. And with wakefulness came --

-- forgetting.

She couldn't allow that to happen.

"-- Applejack, I'm sorry, but -- stop, please, just for a few seconds, unless there's an emergency, stop..."

"But you were having a --"

"-- I know. And -- I don't want to talk about it right now. But if we don't need to gallop anywhere this second, then I need to remember it. I think... things happened... please, just give me a few minutes, let me try to concentrate, I need to remember as much of this as I can. I have to focus."

Confused, "Remember... a nightmare?

"Please."

Slowly, Applejack nodded, lowered the front half of her body back to the floor, retreated three hoofsteps, sat down and waited. Twilight closed her eyes, concentrated, forced herself to think. Portions were already trying to fade, and the only way she was going to keep them was to go over them again and again. No matter how little she wanted to. Voluntarily and majestically ignoring the fact that she never wanted to think about any part of it ever again -- just like pretty much everything else about Discord's mission.

Well, Twilight darkly considered, at least it's part of a matching set. And forced herself through the review, over and over and...

It took ten minutes until she was confident enough to stop, another thirty seconds before the trembling began to subside. And then she finally glanced at the window, and saw Moon on the descent.

"What's going on?" she finally got to ask. "Why did you come in from the cottage so early?" Although she was just happy to see Applejack coming into her room at all.

The green eyes closed. Stayed that way for a long moment, and opened slowly, as if constant had become variable again and gravity had tripled for her eyelids alone.

"We have to talk. While everypony else is still asleep. While we can leave privately, without anypony seeing us, and talk outside the castle."

And Twilight thought she knew -- but something could have happened overnight, something she'd slept through or been absent for due to her talk with Doctor Gentle, and so she had to confirm. "About what?"

Another long pause, and the unbound blonde tail slowly shifted across the floor. It took thirty counted heartbeats before the earth pony could finish making the third-greatest effort of her life.

"You know about two," Applejack said. "It's time to complete it."