• Published 16th Feb 2015
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My Little Apprentice: Apogee - Starscribe



Second Chance has her memories back, and now the responsibility of an entire civlization rests on her shoulders. Can she save her old world without betraying her new one?

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Chapter 4: Memory

Twilight reread the brief letter at least a dozen times, and not just because Spike hadn't come in to help her send it.

Dear Princess Celestia,

When you told me I would be receiving an important visitor, you made it clear I needed to pay close attention and learn why she had come to Equestria, along with everything else I could.

The spell you gave me to make her a pony also took away most of her memories, and they were coming back so slowly it might have been a long time before I learned anything useful. During the night before the Summer Sun Celebration, Discord visited Second Chance and did something to her. Magical examination showed he made no lasting changes to her pattern.

I think we both know those aren't the only kinds of injuries Discord can cause. It feels as though his presence liberated most or all of her memories, and with a little prompting she was able to answer all the questions you had.

Her world has been destroyed, and nopony can live there anymore. Her people expected to find Equestria empty, and they sent her to make a door the rest of her people can use. Chance tells me ponies being here changes her mission, and she won't follow her original instructions. I believe her.

She thought that ponies might be able to save her old world, so that her people wouldn't have to come through. All of the problems that have made her world unlivable can be corrected with pony magic, though it would require centuries at least.

You also wanted to know about her loyalty. I believe Second Chance is a loyal Equestrian. If we refuse her plan, or ask her not to contact her people, I think she'll listen. I also think asking would destroy her. She's quite fragile, more since Discord returned. I think for the moment it would be best for your questions or instructions to go through me. Meeting you so soon after meeting Discord would be far too stressful for her.

At least, I think so.

Your Faithful Student,

Twilight Sparkle

Only when she had decided that there was nothing else to add did Twilight finally sign the scroll and seal it with wax, slipping it away behind the nearest book and trotting into the kitchen.

It looked a little like she had set off some sort of pasta-bomb. Noodles were everywhere, most only half-cooked and none safe in a pot or a bowl. Red tomato sauce was pooled in various places, and made the whole room smell like garlic. Twilight almost laughed; the streaks Chance's hooves had left made it seem like the pasta was a monster who had dragged its latest victim into the garbage and devoured it. Judging from the red stains all over Chance's coat, she was the victim.

Twilight quickly reconstructed the scene from the evidence before her. A pot spilled sideways near the stove, doubtless the source of the noodles. A potholder was fallen beside it, half-soaked in water, and the burner was still running. Identifying the source of the pasta was a little harder, until she spotted a few shards of glass Chance's hasty cleanup had evidently missed near the edge of the table.

The filly rested on her haunches before the mess, half-drenched and looking as defeated as any filly could look. She turned and noticed Twilight, and her sobbing only got louder. It physically hurt to watch her struggle to force words through the tears, gasping for air all the while. "I... ruined everything Twilight... Horrible... not worth... pile'a horseapples." That was evidently all she could handle, because she buried her face in her hooves again, smearing more red all over herself.

Twilight chuckled, though she strangled the sound as best she could. As funny as this was, she remembered well how the smallest of mistakes had felt like the end of the world once. This might not be the smallest of mistakes, but it was nothing to the "Nanophage" debacle of a few days ago. This was the sort of problem she could solve with a rag and plenty of soapy water. "You learned that word from Apple Bloom, didn't you?"

Chance said nothing, though her sobbing was trailing off. Twilight wasn't exactly sure she liked its replacement very much. Even as she watched, her apprentice transitioned from a state of perfectly understandable distress to something like a catatonic stupor, staring off into the distance and making no noise.

"All right, I think that's about enough." She gripped her apprentice in her magic, lifting her gently off the ground. Under ordinary circumstances she would never carry her like this, but the alternative was trailing red all over the library. Even wood floors could be stained. Chance did not squirm or struggle, but went as limp as any of the noodles.

Twilight carried the filly all the way to the bathroom, careful not to let her drip. She let her down into the bathtub as gently as she could, but even so the filly slumped sideways like a sack of flour. She started the warm water, and was almost afraid that she would have to stop it from drowning the filly inside. But no, however limp she might be, she was also positively buoyant, and floated to an uneasy standing position as the room filled with steam.

"What's wrong, Chance?" she asked, opening the cabinet and removing the soaps and brushes that waited there. "You made a mess, it's not a big deal. Spike and I will take care of it for you... If he ever makes it back from Rarity's."

Chance didn't laugh. She didn't even turn to look at Twilight, and made no effort to pick up the brush with mouth or magic. Most fillies would've been appalled to be treated so much like a foal, but Chance showed no sign of reaction, negative or positive.

"I can't help you if you won't tell me what's wrong." Twilight lowered her face to the tub, looking her apprentice right in the eye. "Is it... because of Discord?"

That provoked a reaction, a spark of recognition through the glassy blindness in her eyes. But she shook her head, mumbling. "N-no... my fault... All my fault..."

Twilight waited, hoping that her silence might prompt the filly to continue. But much as she had been early in their relationship, the filly remained stoic.

"What's your fault, Chance?"

The filly mumbled something in response, but Twilight didn't hear it. Didn't, because at that moment the front door banged open and Spike trundled inside. A few seconds and he was standing in the open doorway, a grin spreading slowly across his face. "I thought you said baths wasted too much water."

Spike didn't wait for an answer, but backed up a pace, as though he was preparing for a cannonball jump. She suspected that he was, but she wouldn't give him the chance. Twilight caught Spike in a glow of lavender magic. "No, Spike. Not tonight." Ordinarily, the filly was always eager for Spike's company. The two seemed to get along well, and Spike had been relieved to have somepony else to help with his more menial responsibilities. Somehow Twilight guessed Chance would be less than happy about another shock.

"There's a letter on the top shelf of the reference section, behind the botany encyclopedia. Could you send it to Celestia? Then, if you wouldn't mind tidying up the kitchen, there's a whole bowl of emeralds in it for you." That was far more than Twilight usually gave him. Just now, the expense wasn't her first concern. Besides, he would learn why such a simple chore was worth so much to her soon enough.

She waited for Spike's nod before releasing him, and he didn't run for the bath. He shrugged, and vanished out the door. At least there was someone in the library she could count on not to go completely insane. Again.

As it turned out, Chance did not get better. Nothing Twilight said seemed to get through to her, and eventually the filly had curled up into a ball and was unable to do anything but cry, muttering to herself in whatever passed for her native tongue. She thought about putting a translation spell together, but eventually decided the best option was simply to put the filly to bed and hope for the best. Whatever shock she had been through, it was possible time would heal. She had survived the transition into Equestria after all. Her sanity had survived remarkable things according to Princess Luna. There were probably plenty of other ponies in shock from what Discord had done to them.

Instead of fight the darkness tonight, Twilight took her into bed with her and held her as close as the little filly would let her, until she eventually relaxed and fell asleep. It wasn't as though Twilight herself was in much better shape. The stress of what she had learned still irked her, and not just because some of her most nagging questions hadn't been answered.

Equestria was in trouble. They didn't have the Elements of Harmony anymore. What did that leave them with to protect Equestria? What would happen if Discord's friendship with Fluttershy wasn't enough to keep him in line? What if any of their old enemies came back? There were mighty dragons that could level cities with flame. Who knew what had happened to the Changelings after they had been defeated? What about King Sombra, had he been banished for good? What if there were more forgotten "surprises" from the era of Discord still floating around somewhere, just waiting for some trigger to wake up?

Twilight Sparkle had brought home an important artifact from Canterlot, one penned by Clover the Clever herself before the Lunar Rebellion. The scroll had been called the Apocalypse Manuscript. Was this why?

When Twilight was absolutely sure Second Chance was asleep, she slipped deftly away and down the stairs. She knew she should've stayed, that she needed the sleep nearly as much as her apprentice after all that had happened. But that didn't matter. The Manuscript was calling to her now, its tendrils stretching across a thousand-year gulf with the promise of answers.

Twilight had tidied the basement on the day of the Summer Sun Celebration, restoring all the furniture that Chance and her friends had turned into barricades. It had been some impressive work for three fillies, none of which would've been strong enough to move any of the tables or bookshelves with their own strength. Her apprentice might not be as magically varied as some, but she could sure levitate like a pro, and she even had her cutie mark now.

That was both very interesting and a little troubling to Twilight Sparkle. After all, one could usually tell a great deal about a pony from their cutie mark. What did it mean about her apprentice that she had an alien world as her mark? Did it mean she wasn't loyal to Equestria? Or was it merely a reminder not to forget about her home?

Twilight found the Manuscript exactly where she had hidden it. She unrolled it on a worn wooden desk, and sat on her haunches in front of it. She had been focusing much of her attention and study to the beginning of the Manuscript before, the part that had been publicly available thanks to a previous translation provided by Greymane.

That part of the story had facilitated the creation of the Equestrian Precursor Society, along with the almost deific reverence they gave to the Precursors and their creations. Twilight knew now that the story was more nuanced. Her apprentice had not arrived as the ambassador from a world of perfect harmony, and she had not come to usher in Equestria's golden age.

Twilight was no stranger to prophecies and predictions. Precognition and postcognition were legitimate magical disciplines, even if the former had become quite illegal and the latter was highly restricted and obscure. Swimming against the currents of time was a dangerous business, as Twilight herself could attest. But relying on the visions of another was no crime. That was how she had known about the return of Nightmare Moon when nopony else had. Clover was as legitimate a source as Starswirl, even if this ancient unicorn wasn't her idol.

She scanned the long scroll with her eyes, until she found something that stuck out to her. She had been translating the ancient document often enough that understanding the words was coming more and more naturally to her. It didn't take hours for each sentence as it had at first. So perhaps her early study of the non-restricted part of the document had counted for something. She poured every ounce of her considerable Alicorn intellect and concentration into the labor, and was able to read at only slightly less than the average reading speed of an ordinary pony. As it turned out, the part she was looking for was scarcely more than a paragraph, hidden at the bottom of the Manuscript. It was so short in fact that she nearly missed it.

"The Builders come as heralds of doom, as this is their calling. The first doom averted, but the second inevitable. When the feet of builders again trod Equestrian soil, they come with a choice. Two choices for two dooms, made at Twilight. Equestria will burn, or forever altered. Two choices for two dooms. Order or Chaos. Ponies or Builders. When they come, fire. When they come, change. When they come, death."

The Alicorn leaned close to the page, scrutinizing the pages for anything she might have missed. Could there be some sort of code here that would explain the vague words of her prophecy? She couldn't think of any other reason to be so general with what she said. What was it about ancient prophecies being written in such a vague way that they could mean anything?

She didn't find any code hidden in the words. She spent nearly an hour turning over the scroll under every scrutiny and code-breaking spell she knew. For all her talent and skill however, she lacked the subtlety and precision-manipulation of Clover the Clever at the height of her power. While she poured power into the scroll searching for codes and secret messages, she completely missed the spell she was powering with her own energy, until it was too late and her body simply dropped unconscious right where she was standing.

* * *

For the third night in a row, Second Chance dreamed alone. It was a worse feeling than just being abandoned, since Luna was no ordinary pony and (in Chance's mind) not the sort of pony who ever could leave her alone.

Second Chance was not a pony in this dream, but she was still a child. She wasn't on Equestria, and she wasn't on the moon. Rather, she was somewhere in-between. Great trees, each as large as the Golden Oak Library, rose around her from the pale lunar soil. Only it wasn't dust, it was ash, and it burned her bare feet with a heat the moon only knew in the infrequent asteroid impacts.

She walked on despite the pain, bare feet never burning but never failing to feel the pain. There were no stars in the sky, a damnable gulf that stretched for maddening eternities. The blackness above was worse than empty. She knew the mad things watched her, with eyes that were not eyes and nothing even close to a mind as she understood the concept. Discord had said that she knew the awful things that waited beyond the physical universe. He had been right.

A chill breeze passed over her bare skin, forming a thin patina of frost and making every movement painful. Whoever said pain didn't exist in dreams was an awful liar.

She was looking for something. She didn't know what, didn't even know for sure it could be found, yet still she looked. She was needed somewhere, and had to get there before she was too late.

It hurt too much to run, it hurt too much to even think about running. Unlike being a pony, where she could walk for many hours without even the beginnings of exhaustion, she had moved only a short distance and already started to ache. It was a fight to keep moving and yet she knew she had no choice.

As Chance stumbled on, the wind seemed to whisper to her, rustling thousands of leaves all around her. In little clouds they broke apart from the trees above, showering the gray in their yellows and oranges and reds. As she walked, the whirlwind lifted them briefly from the ground, some already burning. They formed strange shapes in the wind, shapes that had voice and forms almost familiar enough for her to identify. "Chance," they each seemed to say, in the same strained and haunted voice. "Chance, don't go."

But she ignored them. She wasn't about to be tricked. The Strange Ones that waited in the void had many ways, but in all they waited to deceive. She would not be stopped in her mission when she was so close.

"Don't go!" said the leaves in front of her, forming a shape nearly twice her height and thicker by far. It was enough that it was almost solid, or close enough to solid that she started to see something familiar in it.

"NO!" Chance screamed at the outline, only there were two of her now and not one. There was a pony outline beside her, with green fur and a yellow mane and a cracked horn. Strangest of all they were both the same size, though something about that seemed wrong somehow. She was both of them together and not one. "You can't stop me!"

However frightening the figure might be, it was still only a phantasm of leaves and wind. She pushed through it, and in a scream of frustration it exploded into a thousand individual leaves. Each one drifted away, powerless to stop her advance as she neared whatever strange destination had been calling her.

She heard it first, the crashing of distant waves like the bay she had passed every day in her childhood. She could feel those memories in the sound of the water, and she took courage.

She had been right in at least one respect; in shape at least it was the Elliott Bay of her childhood. Yet in every other respect, it was an alien place, and worse than anything she had seen in the forest of strange trees.

It was not a bay of water that washed upon lunar sand, but a bay of bones. An uncountable sea of bleached skulls and femurs and every other bone she knew rippled to chthonian currents. She was hearing waves, but it was not water crashing to shore. It was only in their vastness she had mistaken the noise. She did not know what caused them to move, but she could tell the tide was coming in. In the far distance, she could make out the skyline on the other side of the bay, skeletal towers with missing windows and metal supports blackened by nuclear fire.

She screamed, two voices and then one again, from a human mouth. Fingers groped for support, something, anything she could use to hold herself up. She found nothing, and tumbled to her knees. The ground still burned, but she almost did not notice the pain over her fear. Something moved in the waters of the bay, something that knew she was here. The tide was rising, but only inasmuch as it was coming for her.

Three figures emerged from the ocean of the dead, putting on rotten flesh and half-burned clothes as they advanced. She was paralyzed with fear, far too weak to struggle. As they drew nearer they became more alive, though there was no mistaking the rot and the burns. It was her family; the part of it that hadn't survived. Her father still in the armor of his unit, which had served him not at all as protection from the bombs. Her mother and brother in civilian cloth, more badly burned. They all had eyes to look at her, with the hatred of the limitless abyss. She had never seen such evil in a human face before, not from the most heartless war-criminals.

"You didn't save us," her mother said, her voice distant and feeble. Though she opened her mouth, it came from the ocean and not from her body. "You watched us die and did nothing."

"No!" she yelled, sounding even weaker than the dead. "I was just a child! There was nothing I could've done then! It was only an accident that I lived!"

"And what did you do with it?" Her father's voice was a little stronger. Perhaps his flesh had been slightly better preserved by his armor when the bombs actually fell. "You were no daughter of mine."

"I... I tried! All of us did! Saving Earth was our whole life! I did everything I could!" Then, a little louder, "I died for you!"

Her father ignored her. "No daughter of mine. My daughter would have done my works. Instead you have forgotten us." He stepped aside, so she could see across the bay. Even as she watched, another great structure tumbled, collapsing under the weight of advancing years. It fell into the sea, sending a splash of white high into the air.

"I didn't forget you!" she tried to shout, but found the words strangled in her throat. It hurt too much to argue with the dead, particularly when their words rang so true.

"You forgot me," her brother said, his voice smallest of all. "You left me to die, and then you forgot me."

"No!" She tried to reach toward them, rot or no, but found they retreated from her. She crawled along the ground toward them, and yet when they touched the sea they melted away, in a single pained scream and the distant rumble of an atomic bomb whose flash she did not see. Yet in the rumble she saw a distant wave begin to rise, a wave of bones large enough to crest the trees behind her and to sweep her away to reaches unknown.

"You will not escape twice," whispered a quiet voice, truer than any of the others she had heard. "You will be with them again, in realms untrod and paths unfollowed. We missed you."

"No more!"

The moonlight came. Chance hadn't realized until then just how dark her dream had been, because when the moonlight came it was bright enough to blind her. Yet in the fire of night there was no pain, no pain like the scorching soil on bare skin or the words of the dead. She was not alone anymore, not like she had been.

As the Nightmare took shape beside her, Chance found she too was more distinct, more real. With each receding wave the currents had taken something of herself with them, and the return of the Nightmare brought them back. She resolved into the self she had known for the last few months, with green coat and sturdy hooves that didn't feel the burn of the soil anymore. Besides, this way made it easier to shelter beside the thick armor and imposing strength of the newcomer, her friend who had not abandoned her after all.

"Peace," the princess said. Chance felt the calm at once, the gentleness of soft pillows and loving embraces that took all the dark away. There was no place for fear now, even though nothing had changed and the danger had not passed.

Intricate runes burned themselves into the soil all around them, runes whose names she did not know from all her study with Twilight. Also unlike any of her previous dreams, Princess Luna was wielding a sword. A terrible light came from Achelois, a sword like the ice of comets hammered in the chill of space.

"Just... Just let it kill me," she pleaded, her voice a meek whisper over the growing roar of the ocean. "I'll just wake up."

"You wouldn't." Luna's voice was harder than her armor, the sword high in her magical grip. She did not look at Chance, but up at the wave. It was not Chance's imagination that an awful face was forming itself there, without anything resembling humanity or even sanity. The wave was no wave at all, but an indomitable, alien will.

"You may not have this one!" Luna seemed to care not for its size, or its strength. The distant city crumbled before it, yet she did not falter. "Many others you have taken, but this one is mine!"

This time the voice that answered sounded nothing like her parents. "She came to us first; she is ours by right. You may protect your ponies, but you cannot protect her. She is one of us, and ours to take." The wave loomed above them now, vaster beyond any of Earth's dead cities.

"They lie." She felt a protective wing around her, holding her close against the alien presence. "They haven't taken an Equestrian in a thousand years, and even her they couldn't keep. Stay close to me."

Chance closed her eyes as the wave crashed upon them. She felt Luna's magic more than she saw it, like moonlight beaten into metal and wrapped around them. The power burned hot, far hotter than the lunar soil, but it didn't burn.

Something roared, dragging at her hooves, trying to force her away from Princess Luna. Chance clung desperately to her, with her will as much as her hooves. She was lifted off the ground, buffeted about as though she were standing in a gale. "Don't let them take me!" she cried, with more force than she had before. "I don't want to go back!"

* * *

No crushing weight came, nor was the light of Luna's sword ever wholly extinguished. Eventually the rush faded, and in a flash it was gone. The sound of the distant ocean faded along with the rustling of the leaves and the heat burning at her hooves.

When she opened her eyes, she was back on the moon, with its familiar craters and the numberless stars. The familiar blue of her homeworld was there, a distant blue glow set beside a distant sun.

Luna released her then, though Chance clung to her for a full minute after, her whole body trembling. Luna did not rush her. She simply waited. Slowly, though in the dreamtime nothing really felt slow, Chance found her heart stopped racing and her emotions began to clear. She took several deep breaths, then sat on her haunches in the lunar soil.

"It is done." The princess removed her helmet, levitating it into the air and then dropping it. As it fell, all her armor vanished. She even lowered the sword, though that gesture was more reverent. There was greater respect in that expression than in the way she handled the armor.

"What was that?" Chance didn't scream, she didn't yell, but the question she really wanted to ask remained unspoken. Why did you take so long?

"Demon," Luna answered, gesturing vaguely upward with a hoof before sitting down beside her. "Or more than one. There is no difference." She sighed deeply. "I know more about them than most in Equestria. Perhaps you remember why."

Chance nodded, though she didn't like how sad Luna looked. "That wasn't an ordinary dream." A long silence, and Luna said nothing. Chance went on. "You saved my life, didn't you?"

Her companion nodded slowly. "We almost didn't. Death is not so fearful a thing, but that being did not bring death. A few moments more, and you would have been lost forever."

Chance didn't know what to say to that. She really didn't want to say what she wondered most. In the end though, her shock and her curiosity overcame, and she asked the question anyway. "Discord came days ago. Ever since, I've been having nightmares." As close as Chance actually dared come to asking the question, anyway.

Princess Luna's response came only after a long delay. "I have been unable to reach you until this moment." Her voice was pained. "It has taken this long to devise the spell that made this conversation possible. It nearly failed; at first I was afraid you couldn't hear or see me."

"That was you!" Chance sat a little straighter, eyes wide with recognition. "Those ghosts and the creepy voices! You were doing that!" She wasn't angry; if anything she sounded amused.

"That would explain why you ran." Was it just Chance’s imagination, or did she sound exasperated?

"Why, though? You're the Princess of the Night! Discord couldn't do anything that stopped your powers from working on me, could he?"

"I do not think so, young filly, not without serious damage. Oneiromancy is a complex and delicate art, and the changes he would have to make to your mind to make me unable to pierce your dreams would be serious and easy to identify." She moved one hoof idly through the dust of the lunar surface, as though she were tracing something.

Chance glanced down to see what it was, but could make nothing of it. With a shrug, she lifted a rock in her magical grip and hefted it out over the crater's edge. At least in dreams her magic still worked.

Luna went on. "Discord did do something to you, though. I suspect he did not fully comprehend the consequences."

"My memories." She hefted another stone, this one nearly as big as her head. She manipulated the magic easily here, as she had before all this had started. Before Discord had arrived, she had been able to manipulate masses an order of magnitude greater than her own, or several smaller objects at once. An imaginary stone gave her no trouble. "They're back now, all of them. I remember everything." Even as she said it, the space around her seemed to darken.

It wasn't just that the space above seemed to be getting darker. Luna beside her seemed to flicker, as though she were a radio transmission that had encountered interference. Her sudden shout of panic was enough to startle Chance from her thoughts. It seemed almost as soon as she stopped thinking about it, Luna's image returned. "Control yourself, young pony! This spell can take little strain as it is."

"What just happened?!" Chance jumped to her hooves, eyes wide with terror. "Luna, I thought we were safe!"

The Alicorn rested a hoof on her back, pressing her gently down into a sitting position. "Listen carefully, Second Chance. Some of the memories you carry with you are more dangerous than armies. Like Discord before you, you have traveled the broad road between worlds and returned alive."

Chance nodded. It took all her discipline not to dredge up those memories again as Luna mentioned them. Yet, however much she might be tempted, it seemed now those very memories were what were putting her in danger. How could that be?

"You had barely any sanity left when you made it here. A powerful spell healed you, and masked your memories to protect you from the consequences that knowing brings. Surely by now Princess Twilight Sparkle has taught you of Sympathetic magic, yes?"

"Briefly. She said it was too advanced for me to learn for at least a few decades, but she mentioned it a little when discussing theory. It's like... You don't use your senses to target a spell, you use your knowledge of something. That's how she can teleport so far, right? She knows the library super well, so no matter how far away she goes, it always feels close. That's how Dragonfire letters work too, I think... But she said only really advanced unicorns and Alicorns ever learned it! That's like, Starswirl stuff!"

"You learned of awful Demons there, Chance. I do not know what they did to you, except that I know you survived." Luna leaned in close, her face inches from Chance's. "They know you, and care enough to try and take back what they lost. Your memories of the Outer Darkness is your anchor to it."

It took her a moment to let that sink it. "So... I lost my memories of home so I would also lose my memories of the place between Earth and Equestria?"

"Between all worlds, yes."

"But I was remembering things again! It came slow, but... The longer I stayed, the more of my memories were coming back! Not just the happy ones!" Tears streamed down her face now, and above her the distant Earth faded to a lifeless gray in the darkness. She was screaming. "Why couldn't she take those away?!"

The Princess of Stars and Darkness drew Chance into an embrace so tight it nearly squeezed the air from her lungs. It would have probably, if there had been any air on the moon. Her voice was quieter, gentle in her ears. "There is no sweet without bitter, Chance. Stealing that away would have been worse than letting you die."

Luna's embrace did not take away any of the pain Chance felt, and her words served only as a reminder of all she had lost. Yet for all that, Luna's body was warm and her hooves around her made her feel safe, like when she was with Twilight. Princess Luna would not take her suffering away, but she wouldn't let her suffer alone.

Who did that for Luna?

She sniffed, wiping her tears on Luna's chest and steadying her voice. "The spell. What was it doing? Giving my memories back piece by piece?"

The princess released her. "When your present body was created, only some of your memories traveled with you. The rest were stored in the matrix of the spell. As you became more a part of Equestria, the life you lived helped the spell cast away those few thoughts and feelings that did not belong within the physical universe. Since the Darkness only returns in your weakened, sleeping state, it seems the spell had nearly run its course." She shook her head. "What Discord has done to you cannot be undone."

She jumped, slumping onto the ground in a weak sitting position. She didn't even care that the lunar surface was cold, or that the sand seemed to grate on her bare flank. That was nothing compared to the horrors she had witnessed tonight. "So I'm doomed, then. You can't watch every dream, and you said the spell to get here was difficult. Maybe tomorrow, maybe a week from now... It's gonna get me. Drag me off forever. Unless the plan is not to sleep!" She looked up, slightly more hopeful. "I hear somepony lived eleven days without sleep once!"

Luna shook her head, sending the cascading curtain of stars rippling around her face. "Fear not, child. There is another way, but it is more difficult. The dangerous memories can be removed all at once, under the hooves of an adroit neuromancer. We are very fortunate that Equestria has just such a pony."

"You?" Chance felt a wave of relief wash over her, like a lifeboat breaching the waves after a terrible accident at sea.

Apparently it had an awful leak. "Unfortunately not, Second Chance. Were it something simpler, I could do it. Causing a pony to forget a single moment or series of moments would be trivial for an Alicorn. Unfortunately, your difficulty is much more severe. The nighted blackness you have seen is a cancerous thought, and it infects. Your understanding of reality becomes warped and skewed by its lies, and each one is an anchor. Should even one survive, the rest would resurface in time. It is holographic, the whole within the part."

"If not you, then-"

"Correct, Second Chance. The only pony in Equestria who can do this is the same one who wrote the first spell intended to heal you. My elder sister, Celestia."

* * *

The house felt emptier than it used to be as she stepped inside, removing her shoes at the door and storing them away in the rack. But then, there had been a time when Charles had two younger brothers, who filled the house with the sound of laughter and wrestling and broke things almost daily. Many years had passed since then, and neither had frozen themselves the way Brigid and Charles had done. They had their own homes and duties now, though neither had left Boardwalk-6 and they always returned for dinner. Even so their rooms were empty now, one a sewing room and the other used for storage.

Brigid hurried up the stairs, taking the first door and walking slowly into her friend's room.

Like the rest of the house, it had been crafted by hand, not summoned into reality through Datamancy. The measurements were imprecise in more places than one, but everything had been carefully sanded and finished. Bree tossed her robe on the bottom bunk of the bunk bed, where she always slept when she visited, and turned to face the display on the far wall.

The display held his armor, given to him by the king himself, steel lined with platinum and shining from careful polish. The robe and sword were both missing; no doubt with Charles at this moment. Brigid changed into a comfortable sundress Halko had made for her, and made herself as useful as possible until Charles returned. Mostly that meant breaking as little as possible, since she had never learned how to cook or clean or any of the other tasks that were required to maintain a house without Datamancy.

She wouldn't be able to sense Charles's location as she might've done in less backward parts of the Realm. As a result, she had to rely on her hearing, and she listened intently for any sound that might indicate her friend was returning. That usually worked; Charles was nothing even close to subtle and neither was his mother.

Sure enough, she heard their shouted greetings from downstairs. She made herself as small as possible behind the doorway, waiting for him.

The flowing white that the Knights of the Tower wore was elegant and beautiful, though somewhat less when someone was tugging it awkwardly off their head and they made the room smell like sweat with every step. The robes, like other sacred objects, violated the rules of the simulation and remained pristine regardless of how nasty the conditions were around them. The britches and tunic Charles wore underneath had no such protection, and were damp with sweat.

"What's the point of simulating a body that gets sweaty and weak when you wouldn't have one of those Above?"

There had been a time when her surprise visits made him jump, or yelp in surprise. But years of training as a knight had changed that. He finished removing the robe, and didn't look away as he returned it reverently to its place on the display. "If I can fight through weakness, a proper body will make me invincible." He returned the sword, and only then did he turn to face her again. "Good to see you, Bree."

He took a step closer. Outwardly he was a boy of only eleven years, and no amount of training could make him look less the child. The sweat wasn't even that bad, really. He didn't stink like grown men did, nor was he bulky and cumbersome. Of course, spending a few decades as a child meant he also wasn't awkward and never tripped over himself. His hair was pale like his mother's, cropped short so that he never had to deal with it, and his eyes were bright blue.

Something was different about him today. Bree couldn't tell what it was at first, since this Simulation stripped all her Datamancy. She had to rely on human senses to approximate.

He might be gross, but not gross enough that she didn't fling her arms around him in a close hug. Brief, so she wouldn't stink up this dress. It might not be half so fine as the ones she could conjure for herself in an instant. Yet in some ways, the flaws made up some of the value. The method of its creation counted for the rest.

There wasn't a soul in all the realms she would hug like this, at least not any that didn't live in this house. But then, Charles had secured her affection for all time when he had saved her life, and his family had earned it in the years that followed.

Still she gasped, breaking away prematurely and her face going pale. "Ch-Charles, you're... You're taller!" Indeed, she wasn't looking down on the top of his head anymore, but directly into his eyes. That shouldn't be possible! You couldn't alter your avatar here, not like you could in other simulations. That had to mean. "Are you... Are you older?"

Her closest and only friend did not answer.

"Charles!" She took a step closer, moving in front of him so he couldn't look away. "You've got to stop! You know there's no way to put your brain back once it gets older!" She kept her voice calm only through great effort, searching his eyes for the answer he had not given in words. "Why?"

He said nothing for a time, though he did not look away. Charles had the eyes of a knight; he did not flee the consequences of his actions, no matter how they hurt.

Brigid was the first to look away, the fierce blue forcing her to turn. Either that, or it was the water of tears. "We found another slaving ring today." He strode past her to where his sword lay, taking it in one hand and a polishing cloth in the other. Of course there was no need for such practice; what looked like a sword was actually a physical representation of the root-level deletion subroutines he wielded. The sword of a knight was the most permanent thing within this world, the only thing that could truly kill. None but its owner could wield it; in the hands of any other its blade was dull and useless. "Not sure how many people they took. Best we can tell, thousands." His hand worked furiously on the blade, and under the pressure it did seem to shine brighter.

"Rescued the ones they had; or what was left of them. Not much of their original personalities left. Barely more than Forks at this point. Not much we could do."

Of course, Brigid knew at least a little of the practice. Slavery within the Infinite Realm was not about labor, for of course such things were meaningless. The only labor that really mattered was the labor that helped the Tower, and that was duly compensated. Slavers kidnapped minds from the realm, stealing them away on pirate signals to run drones and operate machinery. In a world without the precision tools to manufacture truly intelligent AI, they were harvested from the realm.

"You say that like it happens every day, Charles! It doesn't! It took those people months of Above time to find another hole in the network! How long has that translated to down here, a decade? I'm sure the Tower will find them before they can steal anyone else! Or... Maybe you got them this time! That sword of yours would've fried them even if they're using a remote connection, right?"

He shook his head, returning the sword to its place with quiet reverence. "Organics. Probably destroyed the interface, but can't hurt the brain." He turned, his eyes wide with sudden anger. Not at her, that was clear enough. Yet that didn't make the anger any less real. "They don't even think of us as human, Bree! The Tower can't afford to go after a few independents, assuming that's even what they are. They can't chase after a few thousand that might've been taken anywhere in Europe when the reactors might all stop running tomorrow. They can't spare anyone to follow them, so all we can do is react. Too late... Always too late."

"What does that have to do with getting older?" She hadn't seen Charles this angry in many years, but it did not cow her. "Just because bad things happen doesn't mean they're all your fault! There are billions of people down here!"

"Six months ago, just after your last visit, I sent a petition to the king."

She gaped. "You spoke with King Richard?"

"Every knight can petition the crown, Bree. He answered; said that he would trust me with the task of eliminating the slavers. As soon as I wished, I could travel Above. He would prepare a body for me, and a warship." He met her eyes again, his expression like a pair of blue coals. "He gave one condition; I had to grow up." He sat down weakly on the lower bunk. The anger drained from him like fluid pouring from a vessel. It didn't leave behind a mighty knight, only a nervous boy remained.

Bree slumped to the ground across from him, looking up. It was all she could do to keep herself from crying as she spoke, but she managed. "Why didn't you tell me? Six months ago... You could've said something."

He shook his head, tired and sad. "You could visit more often."

She had no retort, because of course he was right. Just because time moved faster down here didn't mean the months didn't still feel like months. She had experienced so much of life that longer and longer between these visits just hadn't seemed like it mattered much. What was half a year to the Shea?

"I have a mission." Her eyes were on her hands. "I can't tell you much, but you're a knight, so I can say some. It's off-planet. Long term, several years of Earth time at least. Important. Might just save the whole human race."

He still looked tired. "That's why you came, then? To say goodbye?"

She rushed over to him, taking his hand in both of hers. "I came here so I wouldn't have to! I get to bring a pilot, Charles! You could come!"

He seemed awake again. Was that hope in his eyes? "What kind of mission?"

Bree rose, shaking her head. "I can't say." She tapped the side of her head. "It's encrypted. I can-" she tried to explain, tried to fight through the blockades that her mind had placed around the knowledge. She couldn't. "If I succeed, we might not need to send salvage crews out into the ruins. We won't need to worry about the reactors giving out, and the Tower can be great again."

That silenced him. He rose, striding past her to his armor. "What would you need me for? This foe, are they mighty? Are we going to take the Luna colonies at last?"

She shook her head. She didn't want to answer, afraid that if she did he might not come. Yet she could not lie; not to Charles. He would be able to tell. Charles could always tell. Something to do with being a knight? "No battles... No foe. But there could be wild animals! Dangerous natural disasters! We would have minimal resources to start, it would be dangerous!"

As she had feared, the hope vanished from his eyes. "No war. A program could do your piloting for you. One of your Forks could probably do it, even." He shook his head, and tore his hand away from the armor. "Even if the king let me go, I couldn't. I need to be here." He glanced at the door. "I can't leave them."

"You would just be leaving later!" she screamed, shoving him backward towards his armor. "A few years, a decade maybe. You'd be going Above to hunt slavers, you just said so! If you would be leaving anyway, why can't you come with me?"

Charles just shook his head. "I can't, Bree. I want to be with you, but... the people need me. Who's going to protect the Realm if I'm not here? There are other pilots, but there aren't other knights."

She opened her mouth to argue, ready with one of the objections she had already prepared. But then she saw his expression, saw the rigidity and the pain, and she knew there was no point. Charles cared for her, but not more than he cared for the Tower and its people. He would not abandon them for her. She reached into her pocket, drawing out the little computer that represented all of her authority here in a full-Earth simulation. Ordinarily that meant only communication, the sort she would've been able to do mentally anywhere else. But now, she was on a priority assignment from the crown. It would enable her to activate commands that were ordinarily forbidden.

She selected the one that would transition her to the waiting external module, for her final meeting with King Richard. She didn't even bother picking up her robes; she could make more once she was out of this simulation. "Goodbye, Charles."

She didn't wait for his response, but keyed in the activation command. There was the harsh discomfort of Transit, then nothing.

Author's Note:

Hey everybody! Well, not very many of you, but still everybody. I'm not sure what it's been, if I'm just not writing as well or if there are other interesting things to read. Whatever the case, I'm going to try switching back my publication date to Saturdays. To you few who have been reading and commenting on new chapters, I am incredibly grateful. I would've given up without you. Thanks for believing in me. I'll make it worth your time, I promise.

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