• 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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Among Monsters (1)

∆-2 T-8 C-2:

The stars are beautiful tonight. There's not a cloud in the sky, and without the lights of civilization around me, the glow of the cosmos is on breathtaking display from zenith to horizon. A soft wind sighs through the trees behind me, and I draw in a deep breath of night and let my eyes wander around Luna's majestic constellations. Right before I turn back, I fix my eyes on a patch of empty sky, and am rewarded a second later when a meteor blazes through it, leaving a wake of mist and flame. I drink in every moment of the display. It's just as beautiful this time around.

On one hoof, changelings have taken over Equestria, my best friends are dead, and I'm deep in the Everfree Forest. On the other hoof, no night can be all bad when the land is so peaceful and the sky so vast.

I head back underneath the clinging darkness of the trees, tiphoofing — no longer because I think Spike is asleep, but because changing that might have unintended ripple effects later on — back to camp. The game trail back to our hidden clearing has become familiar through repetition, but I take it slow again, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness. Spike's curled in a tight ball next to the firepit, staring vacantly down at the shimmering heat of the embers.

"I'm back," I repeat. "I didn't expect you to still be up."

"I'm sorry." His reply is reflexive and subdued. "I tried. I couldn't sleep."

I continue reading through the mental script. "Thinking about our friends?"

"I … I just can't believe they're gone."

"Oh, Spike," I say, forcing the sound of sympathy into my voice. It's not that I don't feel the same pain, it's just that when you've been through the exact same conversation half a dozen times in a row, it's tough to summon any genuine emotion. "I know it's hard. But that's why we're on a mission to infiltrate Chrysalis' hive and find some leverage against her. Then, with the power of time loops, Celestia and I will reset to back before the invasion started, and make it so that none of this ever happened." I trot over to our bedrolls and fuss with his blanket, my back to the darkness beyond the fire, surreptitiously tugging Home Run loose from my saddlebags. "I just need you to be strong with me for a little while, and then you'll wake up yesterday morning, and we'll go greet them at the station when their train arrives in Canterlot, and you won't even remember this."

"But how does —"

"Excuse me," I interrupt, and charge my horn.

The world lurches around me, and I'm five feet to the left. A huge dark shape plummets down where I was just standing and lands with a heavy thump, jaws snapping closed on empty air. While the shadowcat is glancing around in confusion, trying to refocus on its prey, I grab Home Run in my horngrip and give it a solid thwap on the snout. It yowls and staggers back, and I follow up with a crack upside the skull hard enough to take down a pony. Under most circumstances, this would merely make the six-cubit-long predator angry — but this one was looking for an easy snack, and my resistance takes all the fight out of it. It whirls and flees, crashing away through the forest.

I turn back to Spike, who is staring with eyes wide as dinner plates. "See? Time loop. I've got this. Nothing else bad will happen the rest of the night, so get some sleep." I turn and walk away before he has a chance to respond. "I'm going to go stargaze some more."

I return to the edge of the chasm, where the skies open up, and pass the time by looking for flying changelings. I've gotten pretty good at picking out their tiny forms far above me by the way they blot out the stars as they pass. Most of the traffic is north-south, a steady stream that I've been shadowing from the ground in order to discover their source, although here in the Everfree there are also plenty of random flights crisscrossing the area thanks to the resistance forces gathering at the Ancient Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. In other circumstances, that would be an inspiring testament to the indominable pony spirit, but right now it's a major annoyance — forcing me to detour almost out to Rambling Rock Ridge rather than stumble through a succession of changeling patrols.

The stars creep across the sky, keeping pace with the moon. Half an hour later, when Aldebarn sets on the western horizon, I return to camp.

Spike's asleep. I sigh in relief — another conversation about our dead friends avoided. It's amazing how much time and energy can get sucked into providing reassurances nopony will remember. This way, at least I get an uninterrupted night's sleep. Sleep! Amazing how much you take it for granted until you live through several subjective weeks without ever reaching nightfall.

I wake up to birdsong and the wind in the trees — the sweetest sounds the world has ever welcomed me back to consciousness with. Almost worth the destruction of everything I've ever held dear. Spike's already boiling water for coffee, and as the scent of it unfolds from the beaten metal pot, my stomach growls. Hunger! You forget about that, too, when you keep reliving the same few hours of a war. I wolf down two days' worth of rations as Spike picks at a bowl of granola, and even though my stomach is screaming at me when I'm done, I finish off his leftovers.

There's nothing I want more after our meal than to simply lie there in a food coma — but I've got an appointment to keep and that little luxury isn't worth redoing the loop, so I force myself to repack my saddlebags and walk it off, ambling down the trail behind Spike as we wander generally southward.

After half an hour of silence, he glances back at me, eyes flicking back and forth between the steady glow of my horn and Home Run shining on my back. "What are you doing?"

"Preparing," I say. His face falls, and I quickly catch up and put a reassuring hoof on his shoulder. "You never know when it'll be useful to pack a little extra punch."

Spike stops, looks at me for a few moments, and sighs. "You do. So, how many?"

I feel my face flush. I've spent so many loops trying to explain the basics of time magic to him, over and over again, that it's a little disorienting to have him understand well enough to call me on that. "How many what?"

He starts walking again. "How many changelings are you going to fight? Any monster that was big enough to make you prepare, you'd have changed our route instead."

Smart little guy. Uncomfortably smart.

"Spike," I say sternly, "cut me some slack. We're on a mission."

"Not to fight them. Celestia even gave both of her invisibility cloaks to us."

"This time, it's important. Trust me."

He opens his mouth, reconsiders, and walks on in silence.

Half an hour later, Home Run is fully charged and we're at a bend in the path I recognize. "Alright," I say, turning around and looking back the way we came. "I need to prepare an ambush. There's a clearing up ahead, just far enough to be out of earshot. Go wait there until I catch up. You'll be safe."

He pauses for a moment. "Twilight, please. Let's just go. I've … I've lost everyone else I cared about. I don't want to lose you too."

I smile. "Well, then there's nothing to worry about, seeing as how I'm functionally immortal."

"That's not what I …" He trails off and trudges away. "Never mind."

I wait until he's around the corner and out of sight, put on my invisibility cloak, and then pull out a pocket watch. That's all that's left of my "preparations," after one loop to listen in, one loop to time the trip from this corner, and a quick raid on the castle alchemy labs before we set off on our hike. I whistle tunelessly for 1 minute, 37 seconds, stow the watch, and trot after Spike.

As soon as I hear voices, I cast a dampening charm on my hoofsteps and approach the clearing in perfect silence. A group of about twenty ponies, talking animatedly back and forth, is raggedly clustered around the remains of a campfire. At the center of it all, a bawling Spike is clinging to a disheveled Rarity, surrounded by our other friends.

"I'm so sorry I doubted you," Spike sobs, hugging Rarity's foreleg tighter as she curls her other forehoof around his shoulders. "But both Twilight and Celestia said you'd, you'd all … snf. Died."

Hmph. I set too quick a pace. I resolve to spend a loop recalibrating my mental metronome, and lean back against a tree to listen for a bit.

"Believe me, sugarcube," Applejack says, "we tried to let y'all know we escaped. Ain't nothin' gonna keep the Elements of Harmony down, right? But all our messages to Canterlot got caught."

"Yeah, squirt. We're just glad you're okay," Rainbow Dash says.

"Oh, my little Spikey-Wikey," Rarity says, lavishing him with kisses on the cheeks.

"But, um. Spike, if you don't mind me asking. What are you doing so far out in the Everfree?" Fluttershy asks. "It's kind of dangerous."

"I'm with Twilight on some kind of anti-changeling mission." Spike wipes his tears away. "Please, you've gotta talk to her! I think something happened when she cast her spell, because right after that she got all violent and scary. If we can comfort her as friends —"

"What did you say?" Rarity blurts out in an odd tone of voice. I'd love to see the expression on her muzzle, but she's got her back to me. "Spike, this spell you mention —"

Behind her — at the edge of the group, on my side of the clearing — Bon Bon loudly clears her throat. Rarity immediately shuts up. "Not to interrupt, Spike," Bon Bon says, "but where is Twilight Sparkle?"

"She stopped to ambush some changelings," Spike says as I level Home Run and trigger the spell I've been building up all morning.

The air splits with a sharp crack as the kinetic-transfer charm hurls the bat like a javelin. Within the blink of an eye, Bon Bon is cartwheeling forward, bouncing through the campfire and slamming into a tree at the far side of the clearing, a new wooden horn sprouting from her forehead where the bat wedged clean through her skull. She's dead before gravity can even drag her to the ground.

"Hello!" I shout, throwing back the invisibility cloak, my horn shining like the sun.

Pandemonium erupts. In between the loss of their underqueen and my sudden appearance, none of them even notices the little ball of metal fragments and explosives rolling into the clearing at their feet, much less the subtle hiss of its lit fuse. I duck behind a tree trunk and throw everything I've got into a shield spell. There's a loud thump and an avalanche of tiny pocks and pings as metal ricochets off stone, tears through chitin, and buries into wood and earth. Then silence.

I step out from cover to find a circle of charred, scarred dirt where the clearing used to be, studded with shiny black corpses. In the center of it all, wrapped in a bubble of raspberry-colored light, a wide-eyed Spike is clinging to Rarity. They're both frozen, staring at the surrounding devastation in abject horror.

"Aaaand goodbye," I say, dropping their shield and walking forward.

The sound of my voice finally spurs Rarity into motion. She turns her head and fixes a terrified gaze on me. "Please don't kill me."

"Oh, hey!" I say brightly. "I remember you. The smart one."

"What?"

"So are you going to do the smart thing and drop the disguise while you step away from the world's Number One Assistant?"

She hesitates, and for a moment I'm annoyed at myself — way to remind her she's got a hostage, numbskull — but then she does something genuinely impressive and saves me a loop by complying.

"Huh," I say as Spike dashes over to me and clings to my leg the way he did with Rarity's. "That probably shouldn't have worked."

"I know you're angry," the small changeling says. At the same time, Spike blurts out: "I'm sorry!" They both press on, and the rest comes in a jumble. "What happened to your friends —" "I should have known —" "— was unforgivable." "— but you said I'd be safe here." "But please —" "And when Rarity —"

"Quiet!" I shout. They both flinch back and look uncertainly at each other. I sigh inwardly; I thought vengeance would be more cathartic than this, but suddenly it's complicated. Maybe Spike was right — I should have just snuck past them and pressed on. I turn to the changeling. "Look. Nothing personal, but if I let you survive, you're going to go tell Chrysalis what happened here. Then it's back to flailing around for new plans for stars know how long, and I'm already sick of this and can't get back to my normal life until it's fixed." I yank Home Run from the underqueen's corpse and float it over. "So you've got to go."

The changeling sinks to the ground, cowering. "Wait," she says.

"Twilight!" Spike says.

I sigh. "What?"

"You're really going to kill her, too? What's happened to you?"

"I can help you," the changeling says.

"Help me? Pull the other leg, it makes my nose dispense applesauce. As for you, Spike, these were the changelings that set our friends' train on fire. Now is not the time for a lecture."

Spike looks at the changeling in horror. "What?"

She winces. "I'm sorry. Nodrone wanted to kill so many innocent ponies — that's just insane — but we had to. Chrysalis' orders."

Spike staggers back and sits down heavily. I turn to the changeling. "If it's any consolation, I'm working on a future where this isn't necessary." I lift Home Run.

"Wait! Future! Chrysalis!" the changeling squeaks, trying to cover its head with its forelimbs. "I, I think Chrysalis is, is manipulating time."

I lower the bat. "Are you serious?"

"Y-yes."

"No. I mean, did you seriously think that was news?"

"I guess not?" she stammers. "But, um, maybe I know something you don't. Let me live and I'll tell you everything."

I'm about to take a swing anyway when I realize that there's the potential for some efficiency here. "On one condition. Take us to your hive and help us sneak in."

The changeling's jaw drops. "You're joking. Chrysalis would tear my limbs off for grub food, one by one, while I watched."

I shrug. "Her or me."

Her thorax shifts as she swallows. "I. Um. I'm not sure you understand when I say she's manipulating time. It doesn't matter how sneaky you are or how much help you have. She already knows your plans. Please, for your own sake, start running now." The changeling cautiously stands. "Listen: conquering Canterlot is like trying to climb a mountain with your fangs. No hive has ever been able to do it despite decades of planning. She herself failed at it once. And yet, with her army still weakened and everypony still suspicious of us, it only took her a week to pull it off."

"Well, now Canterlot is fighting back," I say, lifting Spike to my back. "You heard my deal. I'm only giving you one chance, so if you want it, shut your mouth and lead the way."

She pauses for a moment, eyes flicking around, then lowers her head and starts trudging southward. I fall into step behind her.

As the tension of the standoff falls away, I hear some muffled sobbing from my back, and feel dampness start to seep into my neck where Spike's head is buried in my mane.

The changeling glances back. "Is Spike —"

"Less talking," I say. "More walking."

"I'm sorry. But he —"

I sigh loudly. "When I said 'less talking,' what I meant was 'I don't want to hear a single word from you unless I ask you for it'."

She shuts up.

After a mercifully quiet day, we set up camp by a stream in a forested ravine — which is to say, I find a small clearing, rip some branches from the surrounding trees, and point Spike at a patch of dirt. He digs a firepit and lights a fire without speaking, then wanders off into the forest while I sit down and stare at the flames. The changeling huddles against a tree, staring at me. The blessed, blessed silence stretches out as I idly prod the burning wood.

"Permission to speak?" she finally says.

I glance up. She looks scared enough that I figure it's important. "Fine."

"I … think I figured it out. You're manipulating time too, aren't you?"

"Oh, gee," I say acidly. "What was your first clue?"

"Well," she says, as if it wasn't a rhetorical question, "ever since you cast the spell Spike mentioned, you're acting like Chrysalis."

I fix her with a stare, feeling heat rush to my cheeks. "And what's that supposed to mean?" I ask, in a flat tone that suggests she think very carefully about her answer.

She freezes. "Was that a bad thought?" she squeaks.

"No, that was bad words, in your outside voice."

"I know. But … you let me say it, and then you got upset." The changeling stares at me. "I don't understand."

It takes me a few seconds to parse that, then I snort in disbelief. "What, you think I'm a mind reader?"

"Well, no — but you're looking into the future to see everything I say, right?"

"No. I'm repeating time. I learn things the hard way, by enduring these ridiculous conversations over and over, and over, and over again, and giving out exactly this sort of stupid explanation to people who don't remember a word I say, getting more and more pointlessly frustrated as … wait. I am looking into your future. At least, that's what I'll tell you next time. You'll be too scared to lie to me."

The changeling is silent for long moments. "Huh," she finally says. "That does explain a lot about Chrysalis."

I leap to my hooves. "Oh no. Let's get one thing straight. I'm not her, and don't you dare compare us. I never asked for my country to be invaded. I never asked to have all my best friends killed. I never asked to die painfully over and over again as I tried to set things right. I never asked to be like this, and you of all people don't get to judge me, you murderer!"

She shrieks and flings her forelimbs up over her face, which seems like an overreaction until I realize that I was brandishing Home Run at her to punctuate my statements, and it's poised above my head ready to swing.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she sobs, cowering.

I lower the bat. "I'm not her," I say weakly.

Author's Note:

Among Monsters, Part 2 will post on Tuesday, 2/18. I think Tuesday's good for me as a regular publication day.