• 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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Aegri Somnia Vana

Twi.del.tia (25+9+((t^1)*(55+74+(30±20?))+((t^0)*(378+(38-33)))):

I sit up in the fancy evocation circle of the magical vaults. There's something subtly wrong … something incomplete. Something screaming for closure.

Luna prods Spike. "Well, that sure didn't work," he says.

Oh, there we go! I can start fixing things now.

"Hello, Twilight," Chrysalis says, walking into the circle. "I'm going to kill you now so I can take over the world."

"I'd rather you didn't do that," I say. I am trying to schedule my pain. I have millennia of it to parcel out, carefully balancing severity and type and inconvenience, and I've already written 187 pages of notes which a death now would disrupt. She keeps stealing my pages, and she's burned five of them. Why is she so mean?

"Chrysalis, I do not believe you are telling her the entire truth," Luna says.

"You mean the part where I don't have to kill her if she's one of my secret agents?"

"Don't be silly," I say. "I've been trying to stop you from the beginning."

"Oh," Chrysalis says, disappointed. "Okay." She takes out an oversized knife and slides it smoothly through my chest.

I check my notes. This is a Mortal Pain, Class 8. Now I'll have to reschedule getting fried in that burning building for T-66, and that means a full fourteen Class 4s to redistribute. "Ouch," I say, because Mortal Pain, Class 8 hurts a lot.

There is the sound of a bell. Celestia floats a "6" up to the scoreboard and hangs it over my ones place, incrementing the "25". "Oh, drat," Celestia says. "Chrysalis, stop breaking her. That's my job."

"Does that not seem like a strange thing for my sister to say?" Luna murmurs. "Why would she say that?"

I have to think about that one. I gasp. "Because … she's not the real Celestia!" I bound forward, gripping her Celestia costume by the shoulders, and yank it away in a single swoop. Underneath is a changeling! I knew it!

Luna frowns. "Incorrect." Her horn lights up, and she grabs the changeling costume and pulls. It comes away to reveal the real Celestia underneath, who waves sheepishly and giggles. Ha ha! We laugh at it together because the reinforcement of her authenticity is a cathartic reversal of the subversion of expectation created by my unfounded doubts, and cathartic r. of the etc. has been correlated with humor reactions in double-blind tests.

"Tell her what you think of her," Luna tells the genuine Celestia.

Celestia curls her neck around me in a hug and smiles. "I don't love you in the slightest."

"I know," I whisper, nuzzling her back, feeling her warmth and her closeness and the rise and fall of her breath.

"Teachable moment!" Celestia says brightly. "Why?"

"Because I'm not good enough." That's obvious.

Luna clears her throat. "That is not correct. Celestia, do you love Twilight Sparkle?"

"I love Twilight with all my heart," she says.

The feeling of subtle wrongness intensifies. "NO! That is a logical contradiction!" I scream, loud enough for cracks to appear in the floor. I scramble back away as an increasing sense of vertigo overtakes me. "I am Twilight. You cannot both love me and not love me!"

Suddenly, there's a sharp snap, the scent of ozone, and a stinging pain in my butt. I flail helplessly as reality forgets about gravity for a moment. The room cartwheels around me, then explosively shatters as it slams to a halt in my face.

Something foreign stirs at the edge of my consciousness as the world's fragments batter me like hail — another room almost identical to the shattered one, dim and a touch chilly, with a dark body grappling and pinning a thrashing lavender form —

"Hold!" Luna shouts, leaping into my field of view with her wings magnificently flared, chilling darkness streaming from her in every direction, repulsing the shards of perception, sending me tumbling into the void of endless night. I freeze instinctively, and lose all frame of reference as the echoes of her shout disrupt my thoughts.

"…," I say. There's a part of me that wants to keep screaming and flailing, but it's a distant, abstract sensation, like listening to a scratchy phonograph from across the room.

There's a sense of motion amid the featureless dark, then she fades into view again. "Look at me," Luna says, as if there was a reason to do anything but. "Take a deep breath. Refocus. How are you?"

"I'm Twilight," I mumble.

"How are you."

I whimper. "I'm Twilight." The blackness is still whirling nauseatingly around us, and that's the only thing left for me to cling to.

"Clearly you must be for us to continue," she says more quietly. She glides in to grab me in an awkward full-body embrace, making the universe lurch back into alignment, and stares into my eyes. "Be calm. We are here to help Twilight. Every one of us cares for Twilight greatly. Twilight is among friends."

It's instantly obvious that that's true. "The princess loves me. The princess trusts me." I gasp in realization and look around for the weird other-place again. "There was another Twilight Sparkle! I bet that's what confused her!"

"There is not," Luna says firmly. "That has been ruled out, else we should not be here."

"But the other-place!"

"Look." Her horn glows for a moment, and she tilts her head toward what I saw earlier. It's only a giant mirror! There I am sprawled in the middle of the evocation circle, where I've been all along, and there's Luna, her body pinning mine to the ground in a helpful and caring and friendly hug.

But … wasn't there something more? The sense of subtle wrongness stirs again. I shift my hooves. My reflection doesn't move —

"Sshhh. Calm." Luna stares into my eyes, and I refocus on her. She waves a wing, and somewhere in the unimportant background, the mirror fades back away. "Breathe. Empty your thoughts."

It's hard. My head hurts. "I'm scared, Luna. Help me."

She closes her eyes. She's silent for long moments, and her lower jaw quivers. Finally, she fights her expression back into careful neutrality, and says: "Twilight Sparkle believes in the power of the truth, even when it is frightening."

I do. I take a deep breath, holding her. "Show me the truth."

"I have tried. Perhaps we should approach it in a roundabout fashion." Luna coaxes me upright and points back over my shoulder at the scoreboard. "Do you not remember that you died? It is time for you to reset your loop."

Oh! That's what was wrong. She's right, we've got to save Equestria! I walk back to the center of the evocation circle and lie down where I started, but Chrysalis is still there. I glare at her and she walks back out of the circle again. Celestia … huh, she's back in place already. Of course she is, she's perfect and awesome, even if sometimes she's smart on some transcendent level that looks horrible to us stupid mortals.

"Spike?" I prompt.

"Well, that sure didn't work."

Chrysalis steps forward. "Hello, Twilight. I am going to kill you, et cetera."

I read through my script. "I'd rather you didn't do that," I say. I have to follow it until it's time to throw it away.

I glance over at Luna. It's her turn to speak. But then I feel a Mortal Pain, Class 8 in my chest. "Hey," I scold Chrysalis. "You weren't supposed to do that yet."

"Hello? Evil."

"Evil enough to take her over without her knowledge?" Luna asks.

Chrysalis raises an eyeridge. "What, this twerp? Don't make me laugh. She couldn't even stop me the first time. She's useless without her friends."

"I am not," I protest as I die again.

Celestia increments my scoreboard. I shoo Chrysalis out of the circle and prod Spike. "Well, that sure didn't work," he repeats.

While I page through my script, Chrysalis steps back up to me and takes out her knife. "Hello, etcetera. Can we skip to the fun part?"

"Hmm," Luna says, hoof at her chin. "If I may?"

"Silly pony," I say. "Stop interrupting. You're not looping." She stops open-mouthed at that, so I turn back to my script and frantically flip ahead to see if I can figure out what to break to fix this.

Luna's hoof comes down, crumpling the scroll I'm reading. "We shall speak of that belief later," she hisses. "For now, know this. Time was my plaything long before either Twilight or my sister ever thought to bend it." It's true. She's the smartest; she's got thick glasses on. "Listen to me."

"Okay!" I say, staring into her eyes. (They're beautiful eyes. She almost destroyed the world twice.)

"Further confrontations here will tell us little. Our answers lie in the past."

"Yes! Let's apply the second-order derivative of the thaumic flux and reverse the polarity of the temporal matrix!" Celestia declares. She's put on her glasses too. (So hot. I wonder if they've ever caused an apocalypse together.)

This is a puzzle. But I'm good at puzzles! I'll make her proud of me. After a moment's thought, I fire up my horn, and a glowing arrow labeled "TIME" appears on the wall, pointing to the right, surrounded by ghostly spinning clockwork gears and swinging pendulums. I grab the arrow in my hornglow, pull it from the wall, flip it, and stick it back into place so it reads "EMIT" and points to the left. "Now I'm looping backward," I say proudly.

",krow t'ndid taht ,lleW" Spike says.

",lekrapS thgiliwT ,uoy esruC" Chrysalis says as she kills me for the last time ever. Celestia takes a "1" off my side of the scoreboard and there's a glistening, perfect "0" in its place. Her side reads seventy billion and twelve.

"!thgiliwT ,won uoy evol I" Celestia says and gives me a hug.

Luna blinks. "What?"

"It's true!" I say. "Life was wonderful before I started looping."

"You had not cast any time loop spells prior to this invasion?"

I point at my scoreboard. "Duh."

"Then let us not be misled by borrowed memories." Her horn lights up, and a glowing white "TWILIGHT SPARKLE" line appears underneath the "EMIT" arrow. She peels everything to the left of us off of the wall, neatly folds it up, and hides it under her wing — leaving only several hundred glowing segments where I've been looping through invasion day, and a huge grey foggy mess throughout the rest of history. "Let us, instead, seek where you learned the Crystal Kingdom Anthem."

I look at her, confused. "You took it away."

"But that is …" she says, trailing off, then closes her eyes in concentration for several moments. "Very well. Show us." She returns my life to the wall.

I trot up to the line, squint real hard, and point. Sudden cold stabs at my flanks. Surprised, I turn around — only to take a blast of snow full in the face and flinch. When I open my eyes again, we're atop a small hill near the center of the Crystal Empire, amid the blinding white of a storm.

"It was in the library. Let's find the library," I say, trying to walk downhill to the street. It feels like my hooves are glued to the ground. Why is there such resistance? I know where to go.

Luna walks effortlessly over to me and brushes the snow underhoof to one side. "Observe."

At her motion, an even greater gale roars up around us. The layer of fallen snow smothering the hill is picked up by the wind and flung into the night. Left exposed is the shattered boneyard of a building — jagged chunks of granite brick and marble facing; twisted pikes of snapped iron struts; smashed statues of gryphons. Deep in the rubble, scattered flinders of charcoal and burnt wood scar a bed of soft white ash.

I look up, through a sky scoured clean by the receding storm. There's that residential building right next door, and the armory across the street, and the public house on the corner … everything else is right where I remember it. This is the library.

Was the library.

"This isn't right," I murmur.

"And thus we draw closer to understanding. Where did you learn the Crystal Kingdom Anthem?"

"Here. Now. From a library book."

"Impossible. Where did you learn the Crystal Kingdom Anthem?"

"Here! Right here, before history changed! I read it!" We're about where the reading room should be, right? Why doesn't she believe me? Am I a little too far to one side?

"Impossible," she growls, leaning forward. "Your memories are not consistent with mere time loop alterations. Where did you learn the Crystal Kingdom Anthem?"

My eyes fill with tears. "I-I don't know."

Her voice turns kindly, and she smiles at me. "That is progress. Let go of the lies. Deep inside you, you know the truth."

I don't want to disappoint her. She's being so nice. "I do."

"Close your eyes," she says. I do. The world around me fades away into featureless black, leaving just the two of us. "Once upon a time, you learned the Crystal Kingdom Anthem. Open yourself to that memory." There's a funny tingle in my body; I think Luna's helping. "Excellent. When you open your eyes, we shall be in the location where you learned it. Are you ready to see that?"

"Yes," I say, and open my eyes confidently. We're still in the rubble of the library.

The smile falls away from Luna's muzzle. Panic stirs within me. What did I do wrong?

"Very well," Luna says slowly. "Foal steps. Twilight, when did you learn the Anthem?"

I glance at my pocketwatch. It's Sombra o'clock. "Now."

"Sing the Anthem for me."

I take a deep breath. <The fires of —>

"Thank you." Luna's horn lights up, and the minute hand of the watch jerks backward a tick. The world motion-blurs around us, back to the train station, back through the long trip north, back into the Canterlot throne room where Celestia has just finished preparing me for the journey. "Sing the Anthem for me."

I take a deep breath, and stop with it held in, confused. What anthem?

"Hmm," Luna murmurs, and advances the watch again. Time whips forward and jerks to a halt with us in the ruined library. "How did you learn the Anthem?"

"From a book."

"Where was the book?"

"In … there." I gesture vaguely underneath us.

"Impossible." She thinks. "And yet this place is significant. Were you reading the book by yourself?"

"No. Spike helped." I point to where he's holding it open for my perusal, a proud living bookstand.

"Tell her the truth, Spike."

"I don't know the Anthem," he says, peeking around the side of History of the Crystal Empire, "and I never went to the place where the library used to be before Sombra's reign." He shrugs as best he can while keeping the book steady. "Sorry, Twilight."

"But," I say faintly. "Spike was there."

"Then … perhaps that is significant," Luna says. "Dark magic is full of illusions and deceptions, is it not?"

I think about that for a moment. All of this is wrong, but she has to be right. I can't let Luna down when she's gone to so much effort to help me.

Spike blinks. His eyes go glowy purple. "Yes," he hisses.

"Waaaagh!" I say. Sombra!

"You pitiful whelp!" he says. "I had you fooled this whole time! Everything you remember about my defeat is an illusion!"

I crouch into a fighting stance. "Then it is both my moral and academic obligation to defeat you again!"

Luna quietly clears her throat. Her horn glows.

Evil Spike briefly glances at her. "But first," he gloats, "I feel strangely compelled to deliver a detailed monologue on my plans so that you know the true depths of your previous crushing failure! Because I am a villain, and that is what villains do."

"You fiend!"

"Yes," Luna says. "Explain."

Sombra shrugs off his Spike suit and sidesteps out into his unicorn form like a pack of clowns from a foal-sized clown-wagon. It's clearly him, but he looks … wrong, in a way I can't place. He walks up to a lectern, turns to Luna, smooths down his beard with a hoof, and clears his throat.

"Uh," Sombra says, "are you okay?"

I glance at Luna. Her muzzle is contorted, her eyes squeezed closed. She draws in a breath through her teeth. "Worry not about me. Continue." When she opens her eyes again, her expression is again distant.

Sombra glances at me and shrugs, then leans over the lectern. Dark clouds roll through the sky, and the shadows around us deepen. "Clearly," he says, voice deepening ominously, "I lured Twilight to the old library, as a location of the symbolic triumph of my deception over the power of her knowledge." His horn flares out with dark magic. In a burst of sulphur-scented smoke, cardboard standees of my friends appear, along with a giant white backdrop with the word "LIBRARY" printed on it. "She wouldn't have believed that she came on her own, so I created phantasms of her friends to help her with her research. And then …" He pauses dramatically. Thunder rolls in the background, followed by the deep, dissonant chord of a pipe organ. "I taught her music! Ah-hahahaha!"

Luna arches one eyebrow. "Why?"

The chord peters out and dies. Sombra glances at me uncertainly, then stands up straighter. "To turn her evil." The lightning crashes again and a new, higher chord plays. "Because it was evil music!"

Luna lowers her head and presses her hoof to the bridge of her nose.

Sweat glistens on Sombra's forehead. "Wait. This makes sense, I promise. It was … revenge! I knew that if I taught Twilight the Anthem, it would make you and Celestia kill her someday."

Luna turns to me, eyes flaring out into light. "Stop."

"No?" Sombra says. "Okay, I did it to make her stop trusting her memories —"

Luna's horn flares. With a quiet squit, Sombra explodes into tiny fragments of flesh, leaving just four smoking hooves and a large red stain. "Thou art defying us, somehow," she says, the solid white of her eyes boring into me. "No more games."

Silent terror floods me. What am I doing wrong? I'm trying so hard to tell her what she wants! "I'm sorry!"

"How didst thou learn the Anthem?"

"I — I don't know!"

She frowns, grabs me with her forehooves, and slams my thrashing form against the "LIBRARY" wall. "How didst thou learn the Anthem?"

"I read it here with my friends!" I say with desperate conviction, because it's the only other answer I have.

"Nnghaaah!" she shouts. "Impossible! Who art thou?"

"Twilight —" I see her horn start to glow. "NO!" I scream, and start shouting names. "Chrysalis! Sombra! Discord! Trixie! Gilda!" Her implacable white eyes are just inches from my muzzle. It feels like they're about to leap out and devour me, and the thought fills me with a terror beyond rational description.

"Tell me!" I sob. "Tell me who I am!"

Luna stares at me in silence. I am thrashing my limbs with all my strength — I can feel resistance, somewhere, and the world cracking and crumbling around the edges — but I'm not getting free. I'm not getting free! Nothing matters but that primal need.

"Be that a clue?" she snarls. "Dost thou mock us, spirit? Do we … know …"

Her words trail off into a sharp gasp. Her eyes lose their glow in a single blink, and her horn sputters out. She scrambles backward as if I'd just set her hooves on fire, and drops into a crouch, teeth bared, shivering with adrenaline.

I take that opportunity to whirl around and rip apart the world, flinging rocks and buildings and snow and air aside and flailing at the darkness. Other-place! Where's the other-place? Scary! Hide!

"N-no," she whispers, then: "No!" — and I slam into a wall of her words right as I'm about to escape.

It's not a very good wall. It's brittle, hollow, tasting of fear and full of bluster. But it's enough to make me think for a moment. She's scared of me? I must be scary. That's what I'm doing wrong! I'm not supposed to run!

I turn around and stand up straight, towering over this weak and cowering foal. "We are done here," I bluff, my voice a dagger of ice slicing through her laughable barricades, leaving only her between me and freedom. "You will let me leave."

"W-we cannot," she says, voice quailing. She closes her eyes for a moment, takes a sharp breath, and stands up on trembling legs. "We have realized the truth," she says more evenly, and her hornglow flares weakly back to life. "Small wonder thou wert powerful enough in this realm to confound the truth so. Thou art the Nightmare itself."

What? No! That makes even less sense than the rest of this! But … why else would she be so scared?

Alright, then.

I laugh, a low and building chuckle, as I release my new true form. My mane and tail go jet black to complement my deep amethyst coat. Dark smoke roils from the edges of my eyes and the tip of my horn. I grow wings of smoke, because that sounds like the sort of awesome thing that evil me would do. Note to self: Learn to fly.

(Nightmare Twilight. Nightlight! No, wait, that sounds ridiculous. Twilight Darkle … ugh, worse. Alright, second order of business after crushing this puny foal before me is finding a decent name.)

"I was wondering when you'd figure it out," I purr, in a voice that could kill with sexy at thirty paces. I reach out a smoke-wing to caress her chin, and she scrambles backward to avoid it. "You fell right into my trap. Now you're stuck here with me." Her face pales. This is fun! "I think I'll toy with you for a while — but not too long. I need to go … hm. Wreak eternal vengeance against the illiterate?" I shrug. "Really, it's about the joy of unfettered power, but that sounds like as good an excuse as any."

"W-we cannot let thee!"

I raise an eyebrow. "I don't think you understand. I'm the Nightmare, babe. You're the weak little filly who crumples like parchment every time we meet. Game over. I win."

"N-not so," she says, cold sweat glistening on her forehead. Her hornglow has grown bright enough to cast shadows. "Perhaps on our own we are weak, but somewhere within thee lies also the mare who was our salvation. We owe all to her …" She straightens and slams a hoof on the ground. The thunder-crack echoes around the ruined landscape. "And for her sake we shall stand and defeat thee!"

"You're kidding," I say, getting a trifle irritated. "You're kidding, right?"

Luna lowers her head, horn glowing like a newborn star, and hoofs the ground. Oh, it is on.

We charge at each other. I know how this goes. At the last second, she's going to swerve or dodge or teleport, unable to face me head-on, and then that's when I get to unleash the spell that's aimed a few cubits behind me.

The only problem is, that's not what happens.

She lowers her head, and we collide straight on, her horn spearing through my chest. I barely have enough time to get the wind knocked out of me when she unleashes the spell she's been building, and the full power of a goddess explodes straight into my heart —

` . ’

Author's Note:

Uh-oh.

Guess you'd better drop by next Tuesday, March 25, to find out what happens after this chapter's odd little dream interlude is over. In the meantime, check comments for a mini-contest!

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