• Published 9th Jul 2015
  • 1,513 Views, 104 Comments

Their Variables - Meta Four

A collection of short one-shots about alternate universes and "What if?" scenarios.

  • ...

The Longest Line [T]

Author's Note:

This is more of an exorcism than a story.

Blackness. Burning lungs.


Twilight beat her legs, swimming upward—too dazed by the pain to wonder how she got here. A faint light shone through the water, slowly drawing closer as Twilight rose. Brighter and brighter it grew.

Eventually—minutes or hours later, she couldn’t say—she broke the surface and gasped for air in the daylight. Her neck still hurt: she felt a line of fire across the front, and the distinct sensation of air against a part of her that had no business being exposed. Then somepony grabbed her foreleg and pulled, and Twilight suddenly found herself sprawled on soft grass.

“Take it easy, there. You’re safe now.”

The voice came from Twilight’s bad side, so she turned to get a proper look. She blinked the water out of her eye and saw a purple blur that soon resolved into a familiar face—her own.

“Yes,” the other Twilight said, “I’m you and you’re me. Let’s just get that out of the way.”

“I guess I should have expected this,” Twilight said as she rose to her hooves. “I’m dead, right? So you must be part of my vaporized brain, so it’s only appropriate that you look like me.”

The other Twilight facehoofed, a chain on her leg clinking with the motion. “I thought I was smarter than this …”

Twilight continued, “And since my mind is deteriorating, it’s going to just throw random imagery at me until I fade into non-existence. I can only assume that’s why you look like that.”

The other Twilight was as tall as Princess Celestia, though not quite as skinny. And, unlike Celestia, she wore iron instead of gold: a collar around her neck; a thick, heavy crown atop her head; and shackles and chains on her hooves. All four of them—she still had all her legs, and both eyes.

And now she was rolling those eyes. “Yes, of course. I’m not wearing these chains as penance for my own wrongdoings—I’m just here because of your issues.”

“Be as sarcastic as you like. When I stop existing, you will, too. Any time now …” Twilight looked around, seeking some sign of this hallucination’s impending collapse.

She and the princess version of herself were in a completely flat field of chest-high grass. The sky above was dotted with clouds and as bright as midday, yet there was no sun visible. Gusts of wind rippled the tops of the grass and carried sharp, wild scents to Twilight’s nose.

Twilight had seen a prairie once, as a filly, and had visited the ocean several times. Somehow, this great plain dwarfed either of those memories. She had the vague but unshakeable impression that this sky was larger than the one she knew, that this horizon was farther away. Only two things broke the enormous monotony—enormonotony?—of sky and grass: a bright white line on the distant horizon, and the water that Twilight had just emerged from. Yet, looking at the water now …

“Ah-ha!” Twilight said. “I was completely submerged in there, but now it’s just a puddle!” She stepped into the center, and the water barely reached her fetlocks.

“You probably shouldn’t stand there,” the other Twilight said.

“Proof that this a hallu—Whoa!

Another pony burst out of the puddle beneath Twilight, knocking her to the side. She fell again on the grass, then watched as the other Twilight pulled this newcomer onto dry land.

It was a third Twilight. This one was just a unicorn, and she was clearly confused as she glanced around. “This doesn’t feel like Discord’s work …”

“Ah, yes. Him.” The Princess Twilight smiled wryly as she said, “Would it make you feel any better to know that, where I came from, I killed him?”

“Maybe a little bit?” Unicorn Twilight scratched at the grass with one hoof. “No, not really.”

“Well, you’re a better pony than me, I guess.”

“Are my friends here?”

Princess Twilight nodded. “Everyone winds up here, sooner or later.” She pointed one manacled hoof towards the horizon. “You’ll have go to that white line over there to see anypony besides yourself.”

“Alright. Thanks!” The unicorn set off at a brisk clip.

The first Twilight intently watched her trot away. When her unicorn doppelgänger was just a purple dot in the distance, she finally rose to a sitting position. “Okay,” she said. “I’m still reasonably certain this is just my dying dream, but—”

“Why?” Princess Twilight interrupted. “Why are you so certain this isn’t real?”

“Because they killed my soul!”

“Oh. Never heard that one before.”

“The cultists slit my throat and caught my soul as I left my body—then burned it as fuel for their spell. I could feel my existence unraveling, my mind … Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t wish that on anypony else, not even Celestia.”

“That’s … ugh.” The Princess placed one hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“So according to everything I know, I shouldn’t exist any more. None of this …” Twilight waved her hoof, sweeping over everything. “... makes any sense.”

She placed her hoof on her chin, then explored lower. When she found the gash across her neck, she shuddered.

“Well,” Princess Twilight said, “I don’t know anything about killing souls. I just know that everyone ends up here, and that means everyone.”

“Hmm …”

“Perhaps if you go to the white line, you’ll find your answer there.”

Twilight rolled her eye. “Is that your solution for everything? Go to the white line?”

“Not quite.” The Princess wiggled one hoof, rattling her chain. “Or I would have gone there myself, long ago.”

Twilight noticed for the first time that the Princess’s chains weren’t fastened to anything.

“Well, then.” Twilight stood up. “If this is real, then exploring is a better plan than just waiting here. And if this is just a hallucination, then nothing I do here matters anyway. So I might as well go see what the big deal is with that white line.”

The Princess smiled. “Couldn’t have put it better myself.”

“Goodbye,” Twilight said, turning to leave. “I hope you do well with … whatever it is you’re doing. Assuming you aren’t really a figment of my imagination. Which I hope you’re not!”

She trotted away, her gait smooth in spite of her missing foreleg. Watching her leave, Princess Twilight realized that the limb must have been lost quite some time ago. She turned her attention back to the puddle, just in time to see another shadow rising from the depths. A purple face and flailing legs broke the surface, and the Princess grabbed her hoof, pulling another Twilight out of the water.

Twilight had absolutely no way to measure the passage of time, and she suspected that time didn’t mean very much in this place anyway. But after trotting for what felt like an hour, she realized with some surprise that she didn’t feel like she’d been trotting for an hour. She hadn’t even broken a sweat.

Twilight was closer to the white line now, but not as close as she’d expected. Perhaps space behaved differently here, as well. Perhaps this was evidence of her earlier impression that this world was larger than Earth. Or perhaps this was just the sort of absurdity one would expect in a dying hallucination.

She shook her head and focused on her goal. The white line was thicker now, and no longer uniform. It flickered, more like fire than anything else. And a single, small black spot broke the line. Twilight made for that spot.

The line looked like fire because it was fire—an inferno taller than any tower Twilight had ever seen, and stretching to each side as far as the eye could follow. Twilight stopped in her tracks to stare. Though the flames danced and leaped, they did not advance along the ground. That black shape did not move from its place in front of the fire, yet it was untouched by the flames, as best as Twilight could tell.

She wasn’t ready yet to throw away this second chance at a life, even if she wasn’t fully convinced that it was real. So Twilight made certain she wouldn’t be marching towards an out-of-control prairie fire, before she resumed her trek.

The black spot grew more distinct as Twilight drew nearer. It was an alicorn, and a tall one: what the usurper Celestia was to a pony, this pitch-black mare was to a Saddle Arabian.

She fixed her eyes on Twilight—eyes that burned brighter even than the wall of fire behind her. “Greetings, Twilight Sparkle,” she said, crouching until she was level with Twilight. “Are you ready to pass beyond the flames, to claim the great gift awaiting you?”

Twilight snorted. “Oh, you know who I am? You know my story? Then you’ll understand why I don’t trust strange alicorns bearing gifts.”

The alicorn smiled. “And we don’t blame you. Yet … if you don’t trust us, and you don’t trust yourself, who do you trust?”

“Trust is over—”

“Twilight!” A new voice interrupted. The owner, a unicorn, emerged from the wall of fire and dashed towards Twilight. Like the flames, she was bright, and her outline seemed to waver disconcertingly. Her mane was deep red, and she wore a chiton of some gauzy fabric that didn’t obscure her pale yellow coat at all. “You’re finally here!”

“Moondancer!” Twilight exclaimed. She rushed up to her old friend, to nuzzle her neck and give the tightest wing-hug she could—but, an inch away, she recoiled with a yelp. Moondancer’s skin was hotter than a blast furnace. Twilight stumbled back, her haunches landing on the ground.

What was—” Twilight’s demand ended abruptly as she saw Moondancer’s sheepish expression.

“Sorry about that,” Moondancer said. “I heard you were on your way, and I just couldn’t wait to see you again. I forgot about the … complications.”

“What complications?”

The black alicorn cut in: “You must be reforged, Twilight Sparkle, as your friend already has. You must pass through the flames, until the dross has burned away and only you—pure and eternal—remain.”

Twilight squinted at the alicorn, then cast an inquisitive glance at Moondancer.

“She’s right,” Moondancer said. “It hurts, but it’s definitely worth it.”


“Unless you want to just hang out in this empty field for the rest of eternity. But, you’ll love it on the other side! There are mountains and forests, and fields of the most delicious grass you can imagine, and, oh my goodness, the library! Twilight, I’ve been exploring it since I got here and I’ve still only scratched the surface!”

“Sounds pretty great.” Twilight cast her eyes down. “Sounds like you’ve been pretty happy without me …”

“Well, it’s almost paradise. There’s just one thing missing,” Moondancer said, pawing at the ground. In spite of the intense heat radiating from her, she didn’t scorch the earth or burn a single blade of grass. “Just one pony.”

“Please, Moondancer. You deserve better. And I—”

“Don’t deserve any of this? Just like you wouldn’t deserve to live in the world we’d have created if our little revolution had succeeded?”

“Yes! Exactly like that!”

Moondancer stomped forward until she was face-to-face with Twilight. “Well, Elysium to Twilight: I don’t deserve this either. No one deserves it. That’s why it’s a gift.” She raised a hoof, then refrained at the last second from prodding Twilight’s chest. “And if you really do think I deserve better, then this is your chance to prove it. Your chance to be the pony you think I deserve.”

“I … I … What?” Twilight leaped to her hooves and wheeled on the black alicorn. “Did you put her up to this?”

The alicorn just laughed. Moondancer answered instead: “Please. They tried to talk me out of seeing you like this. They had this forty-hour-long argument scripted out, to logically convince you to come. And they were so afraid I’d mess everything up if I saw you now.

“But I’ve been waiting years for you. So, ask me to just sit quietly for another forty hours? I don’t think so.”

Twilight could only stare, wide-eyed, at her old friend.

Moondancer trotted back towards the wall of fire. “I can’t be with you when you pass through, Twilight. Just know that I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.” With that, she stepped in, disappearing among the flames.

Twilight stared a few seconds at the spot where Moondancer had entered. “So,” she said to the alicorn, “a forty-hour-long argument, huh?”

“Your friend spoke true.”

“She has a knack for that. And I want to read a copy of that argument when I get to the other side.”

“You have chosen wisely, Twilight Sparkle.”

“I doubt it.”

Twilight marched forward, stopping less than a foot from the wall of fire. She extended her left wing into the searing heat—when it was an inch from the wall, several of her primary feathers burst into flame.

“Aaaaaugh!” Twilight recoiled, beating her wing in a futile attempt to extinguish the fire. She dropped and rolled on the ground, but that likewise had no effect. She looked again at her burning wing, and the panic on her face was replaced by dawning comprehension. Twilight had seen burnt wings in her old life, and her own wing now looked nothing like those blackened, mangled horrors. It still looked whole, even with tongues of flame still dancing across the feathers.

The fire hurt—sweet sun and moon, it hurt—but it was not consuming her.

Twilight took several deep breaths. “I see. So that’s how this will be.”

A huge, black wing draped over her back. When the alicorn made contact, strange images appeared unbidden in Twilight’s mind’s eye. The black alicorn was replaced by a succession of other forms: a lion with seven heads, an impossibly complex arrangement of gears and wheels, a writhing mass of spines and tentacles, a bear covered in wings and carrying a white-hot coal with a pair of tongs. She saw endless hordes of others approaching the fiery wall and stepping through—not just ponies but all manner of four-legged and two-legged people, and alien beings with no legs or radial symmetry—a rainbow of every sapient being, conceivable and inconceivable.

Then the black alicorn spoke, drawing Twilight out of the vision. “I shall be here to help, should—”

“Thanks, but no thanks.” Twilight took several more deep breaths. “If this is worth doing, then it’s worth doing myself.” She slipped out from the alicorn’s embrace.

Twilight walked forward and, without pausing, without thinking, she stepped into the fire.

Light. Pain. Burning everything.

Twilight couldn’t tell how long it had been since she walked into the fire. Days? Hours? Minutes? Pure agony had obliterated her sense of time. This was no ordinary fire—if there had ever been any doubt about that—but something worse. Ordinary fire could destroy nerves, so that the worst burns were ironically the least painful, at least initially. This fire, however, penetrated Twilight to her core, and she felt the white-hot pain in her bones, lungs, and belly.

The pain had already knocked Twilight off her hooves—how long ago, she still couldn’t say—and now all she could do was crawl forward. So she did, dragging herself along the burning ground, inch by agonizing inch. She looked ahead, hoping desperately that the end was in sight.

Instead, she saw images in the fire surrounding her. She saw the faces of her parents and brother, who she hadn’t spoken to in years, even before the revolution. She saw the Celestial soldier—a guard, little more than a scared teenager in a uniform—whose throat she had slit on a cold October night. She saw Nutmeg, Wind Whistler, and Perihelion, comrades who had followed Twilight on what should have been a simple reconnaissance mission and never came back.

Twilight grit her teeth and crawled further. Tears were forming, both in her good eye and in the ruined socket on her other side, but they evaporated before they could wet her face.

She saw even more faces, ones she didn’t recognize but still intuitively knew. There were the workers and bureaucrats of Celestia’s government—some serving willingly, others because it was the only way to feed their families, but all cogs in the state’s machine, regardless. And there were the faces of countless civilians who supported the Celestial regime, whether motivated by self-interest or ignorance of Celestia’s true nature. As Twilight looked upon these faces, all the hatred and contempt she had felt for them in life, now filled her like a bellyful of acid. Her stomach burned even hotter than before.

Her whole body convulsed, and she stopped crawling forward. With a shuddering heave, she vomited a spurt of purple flame, which burned every inch of her esophagus as it came up. Then she did it again and again, losing count of how many times she heaved fire before she eventually voided her stomach. She lay on the burning ground, still in agonizing pain but too tired to move any further.

Then, one last face appeared in the fire. It was Moondancer, as she had been the last time Twilight saw her alive: one leg broken, one ear torn, blood on her face. “Leave me. Go, save yourself,” her mouth had said. Don’t leave me. I’m scared, her eyes had said.

Too exhausted even to look away, Twilight could do nothing but gaze upon these reminders.

Nothing remained. There were no more tears to shed, no more of her own blood to spill—nothing else she could give to atone, if such a thing were even possible. She had no strength in her limbs, and even if she could move, she no longer knew where to. She was lost.

And she didn’t deserve any better.

Then, Twilight lifted off the ground—and not under her own power. Before she could react, she was floated a few feet to the side, then lowered onto something dark, soft, and blessedly cool. Twilight found herself deposited gently across the black alicorn’s back and withers.

“What? No, I …” Twilight’s protest died in her parched throat.

The alicorn trotted forward, as if the roaring inferno were no more than a spring breeze. Twilight ceased her struggle and slumped, resting her head atop the larger pony’s shoulders. She could still see faces in the fire around her—but as the alicorn bore her onward, those faces shifted, softening. They were smiling.

In a city of dark stones, gleaming glass, and precious gems, a chorus of bells rang to herald the news. People of every shape and size paused to note the glad tidings, some responding with loud cheers, and others with smiles.

Moondancer, standing at the edge of the city and watching the fiery wall, was one of those who smiled.

Twilight climbed down from the black alicorn’s back, closing her eyes and sighing at the feel of the cool grass and soft earth underhoof. The last of the flames clinging to her body flickered out or flitted away. But even with those flames gone, she glowed, a purple light brighter than the fire she had just traversed.

She opened her eyes and practically drank the panoramic vista that greeted her. There was the city set in the midst of a great forest, spires glittering like jewels between the tree branches—then beyond that, a prairie even more vast than the one on the other side of the fiery wall. Beyond even that, a mountain range covered the entire horizon, its tallest peaks obscured by the clouds.

And closer—just a hundred feet away—was Moondancer, staring back at her. Smiling, Twilight bounded over and threw her forelegs around her friend, and held her tight.