• Published 15th Jan 2014
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Hard Reset 2: Reset Harder - horizon



Twilight Sparkle is stuck in a time loop amid a changeling invasion. This time, she's not the only one whose day is repeating.

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Memory Leaks

"Twiliiight," Spike whines, breaking me out of my reverie. "We've been walking all night. Can't we set up camp yet?"

"Not here," I say, gesturing around the Rambling Rock ridgetop. "It's too exposed, and we're right under a changeling flight path. We'll find a sheltered spot down the southern side of the ridge and sleep all day before we reach the Badlands."

The trip from there is surprisingly uneventful. It's a big adjustment walking in darkness — more so since I'm carrying Spike the whole way — but with good planning, night vision, and avoiding the worst of the scorching sun, we make far better time than we did on our run with Crooked Fang.

I follow a route across the flat table of the mesa that takes a wide southwestern arc, avoiding the exhausting climbs and descents by skirting around the Coltarado River to approach the mountain from the west. With that simple change of direction, we only have to cross the canyon once. We're down at the bank of the Coltarado after just one more night's hike, and our third dawn is spent watching the enormous silhouette of our destination cling to darkness against the slowly lightening sky.

"Skyrend Mountain," I say as the sun finally crests over the side of its cone. "I do have to give Chrysalis credit for one thing. Everything about it screams 'evil overlord'. I mean, look at it — it's like a giant black knife stabbed through Equestria and the tip came out here on the other side, staining the world around it red."

"Uh-huh," Spike says.

"Of course, that's just because the mesas of the Badlands are highly ferrous sedimentary rock, and the mountain is obsidian. Which in itself is fascinating! Here's a young but dormant volcano, alone in an area with no other hints of tectonic activity. It's so geologically bizarre it makes my hooves itch."

"Uh-huh."

"But if you comb through local legends about Adiltahi-ya — the mountain's name in the original Buffalo — they say that he was born when once upon a time Father Earth and Mother Sun were fighting. She smote him with her light so hard he gave birth, and their child's blood glowed with her heat for generations. Think about that one. We have witnesses, through an ancient oral tradition, who suggest that Celestia once called down a spell so powerful here that it ripped completely through the crust of the world, down to the lava core, and this volcano was the result."

"Uh-huh."

"… Oh, come on, that was eight hours of library research, once upon a time, after she smiled cryptically and told me to look it up."

"Uh-huh."

"Equestria to Spike! Are you even listening?"

"Huh? … Oh, sorry! I, uh, was just thinking … do you remember, a while back, how you banned me forever from 'Star Horse' quotes?"

The question is so mundane that it takes me a moment to process. Spike has been ceaselessly and repetitively grieving our dead friends for two months of my subjective time now. The idea that he could be distracted by trivia rather than mourning is disorienting. But apparently spending three days getting love and support, rather than dealing with my weariness and his friends' killer, has made a lot more difference than I realized.

"I did?" I stall.

"Back when you were trying to figure out Pinkie Sense. You were staring at some calculations you'd just done and pulling at your mane, and I came up behind you and breathed funny and said 'I find your lack of faith disturbing,' and Pinkie wouldn't stop laughing for a whole minute."

I'm drawing a blank on that part of the incident — but even without the time loops that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. "Um, yeah. What brought that up?"

"Oh, nothing," he says in a voice that means exactly the opposite.

I smile — not that he can see me inside the invisibility cloak. Whatever he's got in mind, it's worth it just to have him acting real again. "Go ahead. Say it."

Spike clears his throat and deepens his voice. "Skyrend Mountain. You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

I groan theatrically.

"Sorry," he says in Opposite Voice.

I let him dangle for a few moments before I can't hold back my giggling any more. "Okay, that was actually pretty clever. Tell you what. If I can steal that line from you in future loops, you are officially un-banned."

"Deal!" I feel Spike slide down from my back, and there's a little puff of dust as his invisible claws hit the ground. He steps up next to me, one hand on my side. "So," he says, voice more subdued, "now that you're here, what are you going to do?"

I put a fore over his shoulders. "We are going to sit out here for a little while, and observe and communicate. You're crucial to this entire plan."

"I am?"

"Absolutely. You remember how we left Princesses Celestia and Luna down in the Arcane Storage Vaults when we snuck out through the one-way secret passage? You're our instantaneous, no-reset-required link to thousands of years of experience and tactical support."

I feel him nod. "Okay, but I don't get it. They're not running Canterlot. How come they didn't come here with us?"

"This is the only way to get the element of surprise. Raising the sun and moon takes such a huge burst of power that every mage in the country can trivially locate the princesses twice each day. This way, they've locked themselves inside hundreds of cubits of solid stone and thousands of years' worth of ponykind's best arcane wards, so Chrysalis won't be able to do anything to them until long after we're finished here. Also, because the three of us fled from her invasion this time around, this makes it look like we're holed up together doing some research or planning. If we were all loose, she'd have to expect some sort of counterattack."

Finally, Celestia had to drain dry some of the highest-powered artifacts in the Vaults and has been spending a solid day of each loop spellcasting in order to disable the ever-more-explosive Elements of Harmony. I don't mention that part.

"I guess I should take a letter, huh?" He pulls back the invisibility cloak from his claws, and they appear in midair along with a quill and scroll.

"Not here. We'll want to obscure the smoke of your sending. We'll set up camp in that shallow gorge to the north."

He climbs back onto me for one final trot, and we settle into cover. I've barely dictated the coordinates of Skyrend Mountain to him when his face squinches up and he belches out a letter.

"My faithful student," he reads, "my apologies for my vagueness when you asked me about Triangle-2 T-24 C-7. The 'research' I referred to was the week's worth of external reecoh …"

"Reconaissance."

"External reconaissance you and Spike performed last loop. There would have been so much to discuss that it would have delayed your departure considerably, and last loop's journey to Skyrend Mountain was so fast and uneventful that it was best not to risk altering the trip. While you were traveling, however, I wrote up everything you shared with me. Scrolls follow. Celestia." His eyes skip down a bit. "P.S.: We agreed I would reset, since you didn't want to remember all the hot, miserable walking and climbing. Clover."

"Clover?"

"That's what it says. Clover."

I'm puzzled for a few moments until I remember my secret code words. That's the "this is on the level" one I made up. Oh! Excellent.

Spike quickly belches up a series of scrolls. Several are horn-drawn maps, showing various external views of the mountain with features marked and labeled, accompanied by some old photographs clearly cut out from books. There are six routes into the interior of the mountain: the huge vertical shaft of the now-dormant volcano; a large cavern near the peak whose entrance has been collapsed; a pony-sized tunnel directly underneath the cavern; sizable northern and southern entrances into the changeling lair near the base of the mountain; and another pony-sized tunnel below mesa level in a canyon to the southwest, which appears to be a wastewater drainage.

There's a listing of all the observed departures and arrivals from the northern and southern entrances, along with the routes of their external patrols and the sizes and schedules of the guard details posted there. Finally, one scroll estimates the size of the hive from the volume of the tailing piles, the inflow and outflow of traffic, and the number of patrols. I feel the blood drain from my cheeks. There's at least ten thousand changelings in there.

I send an acknowledgement and spend an hour committing it all to memory, having Spike drill me on the facts until I can rattle off everything I learned without hesitation. (I make a mental note: Ask Celestia for advanced memory aid spells. Given her demonstration with her 340 deaths, she's got much better ones than the basic charms I've been using — which only stands to reason, for an immortal alicorn, much less a time looping one.) Then I dictate a quick letter: "Time for internal recon. Will scroll or reset within 24 hours."

We wait until there are no patrols nearby, then walk south to the drainage tunnel, quickly locating the entrance. It's halfway down a vertical cliff in a secluded canyon — but Celestia thoughtfully added some light climbing gear to my pack, and it's nothing a little impromptu rappelling can't handle. I magically work loose the piton once we're in the tunnel mouth and repack the rope.

I glance back once I feel Spike's weight return to my back, double-checking that he's still wearing his invisibility cloak. "You ready?" I whisper while I cast a night-vision charm.

"Actually," Spike whispers back, "there's been something bugging me. You said we came here to get leverage, right? Something you could trade her to stop her from killing our friends?"

"Well … yeah." Technically, something we can threaten her with to force the trade. You can't stand up to a bully without throwing a few punches, but in light of my recent revelations, there are still some uncomfortable questions about morality involved. I brace myself. "Why?"

"Is there really anything that Chrysalis cares about as much as we care about them?"

That's a whole different sort of uncomfortable. "Well. Um. Yes? I mean, that's what we're here to find out." I swallow and try again. "Celestia certainly thinks so."

He's silent for a moment. "I hope so."

"This was her idea, and I have faith in her."

"Yeah. But, I mean, I love our friends a lot."

"Me too." I cast a silence bubble around us, so we can walk up the drainage tunnel while we talk. I quickly realize I'd have had to do that anyway — an inch or two of thin, odorless green sludge is flowing in a steady stream under my hooves, splashing every time I step. "But I'm starting to think that ruling her hive is super important to her. According to Crooked Fang —"

"Who?"

"Long story. Anyway, Chrysalis apparently started looping to keep herself from being overthrown. The hive was ripe for a coup as recently as a week ago. With another looper on their side, I think a changeling rebellion might be a significant enough threat to get her to flinch."

"Hmm, okay."

I plod uphill through the featureless darkness for what seems like forever. A tiny star in the distance slowly brightens in intensity, finally expanding out into the tunnel's far end. The first thing I notice is the thick iron bars across the mouth — shiny and free of corrosion. Behind them is a large room whose rough-hewn walls are the lighter grey of rhyolite, ringed with crystal magelights of a foreign yet naggingly familiar design. Most of the room is taken up with a pool of the same sludge I've been walking through; more of it flows in through smaller tunnels that pepper the walls, and there's an irregular stream of changelings hauling buckets of it in. Two changelings wearing red sashes are slumped against the wall near the room's only proper exit, staring dully at the inbound traffic.

"Alright, Spike," I say. "I'll need to tighten up the silence charm from here on in, so we won't be able to talk, but for the moment I don't have anything more ambitious planned than getting the layout of the hive. Turn yourself around and ride backward, okay? Kick me once if there are any changelings behind me that might bump into us. Twice if you want to talk. Three times if we've been noticed. I'll pat your leg when we're about to start moving."

"Got it."

I take a deep breath to steady my nerves. I'll still have the opportunity to restart the loop as soon as I slip up, but it's taken me three and a half days to get here, so it feels like there's actual consequences riding on doing well without resetting. It's … huh. It's actually scary, in an oddly nostalgic way.

I tease that nagging thought out from the back of my mind. What does this all remind me of? Spike and I, alone against a malevolent tyrant wielding powerful magic … plunging into the unknown after a long walk through the darkness … my heart pounding as I try to piece together unfamiliar fears. Of course! It's just like when we saved the Crystal Empire from Sombra.

How I ever pulled that off without time looping, I have no idea.

An uncomfortable idea begins to gnaw at me. Did I pull that off without time loops? I didn't know the spell then, but because I changed history, Celestia was looping at the time. Did she help me get it right, observing from afar and resetting me by proxy? Did she watch me fail, over and over again, giving me a new nudge each time with a lecture and test that focused my mind differently?

How many times did that fear trap destroy me before she finally maneuvered me into taking Spike north with me, just like she convinced me to take him on this trip? How many resets before she convinced him to make a promise not to help me, so that I'd agree to take him down those dark stairs?

There are so many places, so many ways, that trip could have gone wrong. Statistically speaking, it's a near certainty that at least one of them did. There's got to be something that helped me beat the odds to get here … and now an obvious explanation is staring me in the face. In Celestia's place, I would have been foolish not to tip the odds that way.

I don't think I'll ever be able to not see time loops again.

Speaking of which … was I being helped out even before I changed history? I've been through more close scrapes than I care to count. The same logic applies, and even if Celestia wasn't looping at the time, there's still that thousand-year-old mystery looper to deal with. What's been going on behind the scenes? I've been focusing like a hornbeam on the invasion, but it's getting increasingly clear that powering through this and sorting out all the questions afterward wasn't a smart plan.

Spike's hindclaw taps my side twice, breaking me out of my reverie.

"What's up?"

"… I was going to ask how we're getting through the bars. But didn't you say you were going to tighten the silence spell?"

"Right. Sorry." I give him what I hope is a reassuring laugh. "Just lost in thought. Remembering the Crystal Empire."

"Oh! Yeah. Just like old times, huh?"

I wince. "Yeah. Just like." I change the subject to the first thing that comes to mind. "Do you think changelings read much? I hope we find some books in here. That library in the Crystal Empire was hooves-down the most amazing part of the trip, though I have to say that Due Date was a lot friendlier once she got her memory back."

"Who?"

"Um …" I'm disoriented for a moment. "That was her name, right? Due Date. The librarian."

"Twilight … the Crystal Empire didn't have a library."

I sigh. "Well, it did before I changed history."

He's silent for a beat. "But you only cast your time loop spell a couple of days ago. How —"

"I reset the loop of someone else who was anchored long ago." And, for some reason, that changed the civic planning of an Empire that vanished before the Celestial War. The question of cause and effect there is noteworthy enough to spark my curiosity. "Hey, when we were exploring the city … do you remember the, uh, second building on the right on South Street? A block deep and three stories high. Gryphon statues out front. If they aren't storing enough books inside for a 10:1-scale recreation of Fort Summer, what are they using a building that size for?"

"Well —"

"Wait. Wait, wait." A more urgent thought leaps forward. "No library? If there wasn't a library, how did we learn what events to plan for the Crystal Faire?"

"The what now?"

I can feel my eye starting to twitch. "Okay, Spike, please tell me that somehow we managed to beat Sombra and restore the Empire anyway."

"Of course we did. Did the time spell mess with your head, Twilight? The eight of us went through all that together."

"Once upon a time, yes, but then I … changed …"

My words trail off as something Celestia said an apocalypse ago finally catches up to me: All that the loop spell has power to do is add new memories from potential futures. That's not what's happening here.

I'd been writing off mismatching memories of Invasion Day morning as a side effect of the loops' intersections … but my trip to the Crystal Empire was months ago. Spike's right — I did live through it with him. If all the loop spell does is add memories of prior loops to my brain, why don't our pre-looping memories match? Even if I changed my own history, the me that's standing here in a sewage pipe talking with Spike did go to a Crystal Empire without a library a few months ago — and, right up until I cast the looping spell, presumably I remembered it that way.

Now those memories are gone.

Did the time spell mess with my head? Spike's question hits uncomfortably close to home. Something's wrong here. Something's very wrong.

I glance into the hive. Three and a half days of walking … but no. This absolutely cannot wait. Memory is my only weapon in this war, and I need to be able to trust it.

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work."

I sit up. "Princess, we've got a problem."

Celestia's staring at me in grim silence. Her face has got an odd aquamarine tint, and I quickly realize that's because everything in the room does except for me and the floor of the evocation circle. Spike is standing at her side, glancing back and forth uncertainly between us. Luna, on the other side of the circle, is staring at me as well, though her expression is blank.

"Princess?" I try again, stomach twisting in knots. "… Celestia? Um. Delta-2, T-25, C-8."

That, at least, stirs her to conversation. "Delta-2, T-25, C-9. Please, come join us."

I roll to my hooves and stretch a foreleg out toward her. At the edge of the evocation circle, it hits sudden resistance and stops. The air darkens at my touch, and then I hear a high-pitched crackling. Pain sears up my leg, and my hoof is shoved back. "Ow! What's going on?"

"You tell me," she says. "You were the one who set the ward's password."

I stagger back to the center of the circle. "Th-that's not funny."

"It's not a joke." Celestia's eyes flick over to Luna. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Luna give a slight nod in response.

I swallow through a dry throat. "Did I explain how I'm not remembering correctly what happened before this afternoon? We … we talked about that in the missing loop, right? I want your help with that. I'm not going to lie to you about it."

"That's not the whole issue," Celestia says carefully. "There were … complications. I'll explain after you help us clear up one or two details. Would you mind terribly singing the Crystal Kingdom Anthem for us again?"

"Huh? Uh … okay." I don't like where this is going, but the best way to fix this is to cooperate until she tells me more. I force a cough and clear my throat; if I'm going to be singing for the Princesses, authenticity demands that I use the proper archaic pronunciations and the harder Presolar consonants that I researched back in the Empire.

<The fires of thy Crystal Heart,> I sing.

Luna gives Celestia what I suspect to be a significant glance, keeping her face carefully neutral. Spike looks at me, confused. Celestia's grim expression doesn't so much as twitch.

I falter for a moment, but press on. <Were ever bright and glistening. Thy spires, ever from the start, to hymns of light were listening …>

"I think that's enough," Celestia interrupts. "You remember a significantly different history. That much is clear."

"Yes," I say pointedly, "and that's the problem I came to you about. What's with the containment ward?"

"An unfortunate but necessary precaution," Celestia says, "though it may have outstayed its usefulness." She brings a hoof up to her chin in thought for a few moments. "The password is three words relating to the pony who was most important to you growing up."

It's immediately obvious where this is going: some sort of identity verification. She said that I was the one who came up with the password — most likely based on the exact same prompt she just gave me. If she's not telling it to me outright, she must want to make sure that now-Twilight and pre-loop-Twilight are thinking the same way.

It's a trap, the paranoid part of my brain screams. She wouldn't have gone to all of this trouble if it weren't some kind of setup. But the calm, logical part points out that Celestia just had me, out of the blue, sing something I haven't thought about in months — something which, if the Empire doesn't have a library now, nopony else would know that I know. Was she concerned about a spell trigger tied to that? Nothing happened when I sang it — hopefully that's exactly what she was looking for.

I steady myself with a long breath. I need Celestia on my side if we're going to figure this out, and the current worrying circumstances aside, she's done right by me ever since we got that "teachable moment" thing straightened out. I tamp down my paranoia and speak the obvious answer to her riddle: "Sunshine ladybug dance."

Nothing happens.

"Um," I say as Celestia looks at me expectantly. "Sister in law?" Nothing. Panic begins to creep into the edges of my brain. "Empire's new ruler? Crystal heart butt?"

Luna inhales sharply.

"Stop," she says, first softly, then with more urgency. "Stop."

I shut up, increasingly lost, while Celestia walks over to her sister and touches a hoof to her shoulder. "Never?" she says with quiet steel. "Not even now?"

Luna stares at me in anguish for a moment before turning away toward a small box with dozens of locks and wards. "It is true. Tia … I concede. I see no other choice." She lifts an ominous black circlet from the lockbox, and places it on her head. Her voice hardens. "Stars help us all."

"Wait! What choice?" My heart is hammering in my chest. I glance at Spike, who won't meet my eyes, then back at Celestia. "What's true? Princess, for all stars' love, what is going on?"

Celestia returns my stare, the grim detachment on her muzzle finally curling into emotion — a fearsome and icy resentment. "What is going on," she says quietly, "is that I allowed foolish hope to blind me, when our downfall was right under my nose the whole time."

"What?! That's absurd. How could you think that?"

"Where should I start? You introduced yourself as a looper by offering your aid against the threat of an attack which conveniently started at the moment of your arrival. You sold me a literally impossible cover story by lying over something unrelated, deflecting all my suspicions onto it, and reconciling with me after a fierce argument over my own honesty — that was quite clever, by the way, I have to give you that. Then you sabotaged the only plan which could have ended your distraction decisively. Now, at least, we know why."

"That's not true. None of it is true. Stop. Talk this out with me."

"It's too late for that. You tipped your hoof. I can only hope it's not too late for Equestria." Celestia turns toward the door, wrapping Spike in a wing and pulling him away. "You shouldn't watch this."

"NO!" I shout, terror taking fully over. Celestia wouldn't bother with this setup if they were just going to do something to me that resetting would fix. I lunge at her, slamming my hooves into the force field, and there's a noise like a thunderclap as it flings me back to the center of the circle.

I scramble back to hooves I can't feel, overbalance, and faceplant. "Princess," I sob desperately, stretching out a leg weakly to her. "Wait. This is a mistake." She continues walking slowly, deliberately, away. "I asked you for help! What are you doing?"

Spike looks back at me, eyes filled with tears, but Celestia shifts her wing to block his view. "We'll do our best to save her," is the last thing I hear her say before she pushes him outside and closes the door.

To heck with this. The instant she leaves, I fire up my horn for a Euthanatos; it won't change my situation, but it'll give me more time to squirm out of it. But a wall of feedback from the ward slams straight into my brain, ripping the spell into sharp, tiny fragments, which dissolve painfully back into my memory. A few hot sparks scatter uselessly from my horn. I don't even know why that surprises me — it would have been criminally stupid not to account for it.

I climb to my knees and turn toward Luna, who is reading an ancient and fragile-looking scroll. "Stop. Please. Let me explain."

"Hush," she says, not looking up. "This shall be resolved soon enough."

"Why are you going along with this without hearing my side of the story? Luna! It's me! I saved you from the Nightmare!" She continues reading; I rear up and strike the floor with all the hoofpower I can muster. "Look me in the eye and tell me I don't deserve that same second chance!"

She meets my gaze with the calm implacability of a mountain. "I am afraid you are mistaken."

A faint "Huh?" is all I can manage in return.

"It was Twilight Sparkle who saved me from myself. It was Twilight Sparkle who cast Starswirl's spell a minute ago. You, to whom I now speak? You are not Twilight Sparkle." Luna's horn flares out into an ultraviolet antiglow that seems to suck space itself into the black hole of the circlet, warping the lines of the room.

"…," I protest as my lungs implode and spasms jerk my limbs.

"And it is time," her voice echoes as everything goes dark, "to discover what you truly are."

Author's Note:

LEAVING FOR MADAGASCAR, SEE YOU IN TWO MONTHS

… naw, I wouldn't do that to you. (Only to my prereaders, who were stuck on this cliffhanger for a cruelly long time.) "Aegri Somnia Vana" will post Tuesday 3/18.

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