Inner Glory

by Erindor

First published

A utopian society cannot exist without the corpses of the revolutionaries.

CURRENTLY PUBLISHING PHYSICAL COPIES, UNTIL THE 25th OF SEPTEMBER: http://igg.me/at/InnerGloryFinalFund

After doing some research into the history of Alicorns, Twilight finds a dead end. When she chooses to pursue it against Celestia's wishes, she finds herself entangled in a messy history that some want forgotten. An Alicorn's position comes with sacrifice. And when given power, one will always be in want of more...

A complicated explanation for the history and intricacies of the My Little Pony universe. If you're reading this, be ready for the long haul.

A rewrite, or rather, the heavily revised and actually worth reading version of The Struggle for Power, my earlier work. Think of that as an alpha build, and this as the "released-to-the-public" program.
http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/05/story-struggle-for-power.html

Chapter 1: Divided Loyalties

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CHAPTER 1: Divided Loyalties

A single pegasus sat alone in an endless, misty void, her blond mane flowing in a sourceless breeze. The bubbles on her flank contrasted her darker gray body, and if it weren't for her gentle breathing, her form may have been lost in the fog. Her eyes were closed in concentration, and her ears flicked every now and then, as if she were listening to some unheard voices.

Without warning, her eyes flew open. They were a bright gold, full of intelligence and understanding. "It has begun," she said quietly to herself. The words fell off as if it were nothing more than a simple statement of fact. As calm as if she had remarked that the sky were blue. She turned in place, motioning a pattern in the air with her fore-hoof. Her eyes began to burn with a celestial light, and a small rift appeared in the air.

"The two worlds will be merged once more. But at what cost? At what cost." The mare peered through the tear. On the other side of it was a vast, brightly colored landscape. Equestria. "I do not envy your situation, Celestia." The view changed, but ever so slightly. It was still the same landscape, but much more muted, covered in shadows and tainted with an air of danger. "Nor do I condemn your retribution, dark one." After a moment's pause, she turned away, her eyes fading as the rift closed behind her, space healing itself once more.

"So much pain and hardship. Are you sure it will be worth it?" She looked up to the sky of this world, where a faint light was shining. She sighed. "Twilight and her friends will be here soon..." she mused to herself. "I suppose I'd better start baking those muffins."

***

Twilight Sparkle scowled in annoyance at the breeze which was unhelpfully turning the pages of her book for her. Spike had forgotten to close the window. Again. The dragon was helpful and almost always cheerful, but he did tend to forget little details every now and then. Whereas Twilight sometimes couldn't see anything but the little details.

It had all started when she had begun some reading on the history of Equestria. Twilight had remembered she had decided to make a class on the subject before Luna came to visit on Nightmare Night. When she had begun gathering materials, however, she found an interesting piece of information in the same book that had lead her to meet her friends, The Condensed History of Equestria. In the back cover of the book, somepony had scribbled a note that Twilight hadn't noticed before. It was a reference to another book, simply reading A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology. But after a quick look around her library, Twilight discovered that there was no such book to be found. So she had written letters to each of the major libraries around Equestria, asking them to check for the book in their archives.

That was over a week ago. Each letter had returned with an apology; the book was nowhere to be found, and nor did they have any records of ever having a copy. She should have let it rest, but Twilight was not the pony to leave loose ends. She had emptied her shelves, twice, in the vain hope that maybe she had simply missed it.

Out of ideas and feeling frustrated, she was now going through all the rest of her history books, trying to get some sense of what the mysteriously non-existent book could have contained. "The Princesses ruled in Harmony together... Nightmare Moon..." she muttered to herself. Twilight's horn flared up with a warm purple glow, telekinetically grabbing a book behind her while her attention was turned to yet another. "Mercy, peace, prosperity..." She turned to the third, which hovered gently beside her, feeling her annoyance come to a boil. She was going in circles and nowhere quickly.

A young dragon walked in, carrying a basket filled with warm bread. "Twilight? You want to come for a walk? You've worked yourself hard enough on this. Why don't you just write a letter to the Princess and be done with it?"

Twilight dropped the book with an exasperated sigh. "I can't bother her with something so trivial. She's busy running a kingdom. And besides, what do I say? 'Oh, hello Princess Celestia. I was just wondering if there's any way you can spend an afternoon looking through the castle's library to satisfy my curiosity about your race?'"

Spike shrugged. "I don't know, sounds pretty good to me. Besides, you're not the only beautiful mare with a number one assistant. She probably has a servant whose entire job is to go through the royal library. Where's the harm in just asking?"

Twilight pursed her lips. She really was close to her wits' end. She knew she had to get out of the house before she went insane. "Alright, Spike," she said, pushing herself up. "A quick letter to the princess and then I'll help you deliver that bread to Applejack." Spike grinned, pleased with his victory over the stubborn pony.

The dragon gently dropped the basket and retrieved a scroll and some ink. Twilight cleared her throat as she began to dictate. "Ahem. Dear Princess Celestia, my recent studies have lead me to a dead end. I am searching for a book called A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology. If you could help me in my search, I would be most grateful. Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle."

Spike smiled as he dotted the last word. "See? Not too hard. Short and sweet." He rolled up the scroll, took a deep breath, and burned it. "Even if she can't help us, it's better to have tried." Spike had a point, Twilight knew. Ever since that incident with the Want It Need It spell, Twilight had been much more cautious about overworking herself. She still needed some help every now and then from her friends, however.

The two house-mates stepped out of the library, Spike locking the door behind them. It wasn't so much a safety precaution as a way to let people know the library was closed. As they set off, their steps made soft impressions in the early winter snow. Twilight took a clearing breath, watching the vapor trail off, visible in the winter morning. Spike was right, she assured herself once more. A walk and some fresh, cool air was just what she needed.

They walked through Ponyville, greeting friends and neighbors as they passed. Twilight remembered the first day she had arrived at Ponyville. Each of these familiar faces had seemed so foreign then. But now she couldn't imagine life without them. The Cutie Mark Crusaders ran by, throwing up a spray of powder as they giggled happily, no doubt rushing off to test some new idea to earn their Cutie Marks. Lyra and Bon-Bon had built a snow mare and were now engaged in a friendly snowball fight, laughing as the other got pelted by the frozen projectiles. Acquaintances chatted underneath the verandas of the local cafe, sipping hot cider and gossiping about the upcoming Winter Solstice Celebration, which might be reinstated with Princess Luna's blessing. All in all, an average, yet happy day in Ponyville.

As they neared Sweet Apple Acres, Twilight saw Applejack approaching them. "Well howdy Twilight! I was actually just off to see you. I was bringing you some more apples from the storage cellar."

Twilight giggled. "And we were just bringing you some whole-wheat bread to thank you for the last time. Applejack, you're far too kind."

"Well, ah just like to help my friends in any way I can. How 'bout you walk with me back to the house, we'll drop off the bread, and then I'll come with you to the library?"

"Sounds great. How's Big Mac doing? I heard he sprained his ankle again?"

"Shoot, you know how he is. Takes a blow and gets right back up. He'd already be up and about were it not for me tellin' him to stay put."

They entered the Apple Family's house, where Granny Smith gave them a warm welcome from the kitchen. "Oh, thank you so much for this wonderful bread, both of you,” she said, giving Spike a light-hearted prod. “I think we still have some zap-apple jam somewhere if you want to stay."

Twilight smiled brightly. It made her feel great to see her friend's family so happy. "Thank you so much for the offer, Granny Smith, but I just ate. I hope you'll enjoy the bread though."

"Oh certainly. And I'll be sure to give some to Big Mac. You take care now!"


They walked along in silence for a while, taking in the scenery. That was one of the things Twilight loved most about Applejack. You could be with her and say nothing at all, yet still feel like you had the most wonderful day.

Twilight was pulled out of her thoughts as she saw Rainbow Dash speeding towards them. Now there was a pony who couldn't stop talking, though she seemed as quiet as Fluttershy when compared to Pinkie Pie. Not that the chattiness was a bad trait. Her friends were a good mixture of personalities.

As Rainbow neared, Twilight saw it wasn't for a casual visit. The speedy pony was carrying a note of some sort.

"Well hey there Rainbow!" said Applejack as Rainbow landed gracefully. Despite the pegasus' brash personality, she still had hints of ladylike style. "Whatcha got there?"

Rainbow stuck the letter under her wing so her mouth was cleared to speak. “Well, I was just flying over Ponyville when I saw a unicorn I didn't recognize poking around the library. I wouldn't have really noticed her if she hadn't been trying to peek through the side window. So I tried approaching her, to see if there was anything I could help her with. She seemed spooked and ran without saying anything. I tried chasing after her, but she simply teleported away. There was a note attached to the door. Probably left by her before I saw her.”

Twilight frowned thoughtfully. She wasn't expecting anypony, nor could she think of any reason why anypony would be so anxious to see her. "Well, what does the letter say?"

Rainbow scowled. "Really Twilight, I'm the Element of Loyalty. I don't read other ponies' notes. Give me some credit." A quick smirk showed Twilight her friend was just messing with her. Rainbow retrieved the letter and passed it to Twilight, who opened it immediately. Spike jumped on her back to read over her shoulder.

"Dear Ms. Sparkle,

I heard you are looking for information on the Alicorn race. I don't expect you to know me, but I have the information you desire. I will be at the edge of the Everfree, tonight, and tonight only.

Yours truly, a friend in knowledge."

"What's this information, Twilight? And why'd she come from out of town to tell it to you?" Rainbow leaned in, trying to glean any further knowledge from the concise letter.

"I've been doing some research on the history of the Alicorns and I've hit a frustrating dead end. It's great that somepony can finally help, though I don't know why she couldn't have just sent a book or something."

"Well, there's only one way to find out.” If there was one thing you could count on, it was Applejack always being to the point. “Just meet them tonight and ask. We'll even come with you."

Suddenly, Spike heaved, letting loose a mighty belch. A scroll materialized in front of the friends, bearing the royal crest. "It must be Princess Celestia's response." said Twilight.

"To?"

"Well, I decided to just ask her if she had the book I was looking for, the same one our mysterious mare has information about. Let's see what she says." Twilight opened the second letter, and began reading aloud.

"Dear Twilight Sparkle, my faithful student,

I am sorry to inform you that while I always encourage you to learn about the world around you, this is one path of research I must ask you turn away from. I also apologize that I cannot give you my explanation for this. Just know that the history of my race is a messy one, and I ask you leave it at that.

Princess Celestia."

Twilight said her beloved teacher's name with all the weight of the world. Applejack and Rainbow Dash stood in awkward silence, and Spike suddenly found the vast snow-covered landscape much more interesting than the letter.

Twilight silently lifted the two letters together, her eyes flitting from one to the next. One in a hasty, almost sloppy font, the other in beautiful and refined calligraphy. One enticing, the other forbidding. Certainly, one right, and one wrong.

Rainbow coughed. "So... what are you going to do, Twilight?" The purple mare turned to her friend, her eyes both sad and thoughtful. She looked up to the sky, where the Princess' brilliant sun shone, giving life to all the world, even in this winter frost. Twilight's day had gone from bad to great, to worse than before.

"I'm not sure. My loyalty is to the Princess, not only as ruler, but as teacher and mentor. But it's not like her to hide anything from me. Is this a test? Does she know I have a lead?"

Applejack stepped forward, placing a comforting hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "Listen here, Twilight. You're a smart mare, and you have a good heart. You'll make the right decision. But there's no sense frettin' 'bout it in the cold. Why don't we gather the rest of the gang and ask their advice?"

Twilight sighed. "Sorry for bringing you into this. I should probably just let this rest."

Rainbow shook her head. "No worries. I'll fly ahead and get the others, we'll meet you at the library in a bit." With a flap of her wings, the blue pegasus was off. Seeing her friend leave, Twilight had the distinct impression that her troubles had just begun.

***

"I'm certain the Princess has a good reason to ask you to restrain yourself Twilight," said Rarity matter-of-factually, as if the entire thing had been settled right there.

"Yeah, but shouldn't she at least let Twilight know why?" asked Rainbow. "Twilight's the smartest pony around. She'd be able to handle it."

"Well, yes, I think we can all agree to that," said Fluttershy, taking more of a stand than usual, "But the Princess is wiser, if just from experience alone. She's never led us astray before."

"Though," Rainbow said, a snort of derision punctuating her pause, "she does seem to like letting us do her dirty work."

"Rainbow!" yelled Applejack.

"Oh come on! I'm not complaining, but think about it. Ancient goddess of the Night, her sister, none less, and who saves the day? Us six. It allowed us to become best friends, and I'm eternally grateful to the Princess because of it, but where was she? Then there's Discord, and boy, I don't think I need to go into that."

"Remember what she said there, Rainbow," began Twilight. "She and Luna had somehow been separated from the Elements. The Elements had passed onto us, we were the only ones who could wield them."

"Why was that? Why did– oh." said Rainbow, her countenance suddenly shifting.

Twilight frowned. "What?"

"What if that's it, Twilight? What Princess Celestia doesn't want us digging into? The reason she and Luna were separated from the Elements? I mean, what could cause a pony, an Alicorn none less, to no longer be worthy to use the magic made to protect the kingdom?"

A heavy silence filled the room. Everypony was sure Rainbow had just hit the nail on the head.

"So, what?" asked Applejack quietly. "Is she restraining you to protect herself, or to protect you?"

"It could be both,” commented Fluttershy.

Twilight turned to Pinkie Pie, who had been uncharacteristically quiet the entire discussion. "What do you think, Pinkie?" Pinkie looked up from something she had been drawing in the dust.

"Well, I think this is all silly. We should all just go up to Canterlot and ask the Princess directly. If she says no, oh well. Everypony's entitled to their secrets. Honestly though? If you don't go talk to this pony tonight, I'm going to. If Dashie hasn't seen her, that means I haven't either, because Dashie's pretty good at remembering faces. And if I haven't seen this pony, that means she's new to Ponyville. And of course I'd have to give her a proper welcome after she's come so far, especially if you're going to turn her down. I mean, how rude would it be for me to turn her away without a signature Pinkie Pie party? Of course, if I'm going to throw a party for her, I better start get cooking soon. If I don't, the cake wouldn't be ready when the party is, and what a disaster that would be? Could you imag--"

Twilight tuned her out after that, as did the rest of her friends. Rarity spoke first. "Pinkie has a point, Twilight my dear. You could just ask for some clarification. Nor did the Princess say we couldn't meet with this mysterious informant of yours. However, it's getting late, and we'll have to make a decision soon. If you are going to meet with with her, you don't want to be late.”

Twilight looked at each of her friends. All of them loved her, supported her. And she trusted them with her life. She thought about how much similar faith the Princess had in her. Could she really just throw that away?

"I can't let it rest here. I'll see what this mysterious 'Friend in Knowledge' has to say. But I don't want to betray the Princess just for the sake of my curiosity. I'll leave at the first sign of treachery or danger."

"Should we come with you?" asked Applejack. "We could provide backup in case anything goes wrong."

Twilight shook her head. "I don't want you guys to get blamed for this. I'll be sure to tell you everything afterwards.”.

Twilight turned to leave. “Thank you all for your advice. I'll be back before morning.”

“If you're not, I'm coming after you,” decided Spike.

“Me too!” Piped Pinkie Pie.

“And me,” added Apple Jack. The others voiced their agreement.

She looked around to her circle of supportive friends. In spite of herself, Twilight couldn't help but smile. Not two years ago she would have laughed at the idea of having friends, especially with such varied personalities. Yet now she couldn't imagine life without them.

“Thanks guys. I'll be safe.”

With a swish of her mane, the purple mare was gone, her friends left alone to worry for her.

Chapter 2: Hidden Motives

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CHAPTER 2: Hidden Motives

Twilight glanced over her shoulder, confirming that nopony had seen her. Though she would have enjoyed her friends' company, she had decided it was better for her to go alone. This mysterious pony would certainly be wary of six ponies if Rainbow Dash had scared her off, to say nothing of Pinkie Pie. As the lights from Ponyville grew more distant, the Everfree Forest filled more of the horizon, the wall of trees dark and imposing. Most of the creatures of the night lived in the Everfree, and with the trees eating up all noise, Twilight walked in a deafening and foreboding silence.

She finally reached the edge of the forest. Now that she was here, the purple mare wondered how this informant was going to find her. The note hadn't mentioned any specific meeting place, just "At the edge of the Everfree." Twilight looked, first to the left, and then to the right. No sign of anypony else this late at night.

Well, she could either walk up and down the tree-line, tire herself out, and possibly miss her contact, or she could stay here and wait. Twilight dropped to her haunches and began to be lost in thought.

Eventually, she was pulled out of her trance by a quiet snapping noise. Twilight's eyes flitted around in the darkness. As she watched, a royal blue unicorn melted out of the shadows. "Twilight Sparkle?" she asked, not stepping out of the woods.

Twilight nodded. "And you are?"

"Eclipse."

"Tell me, Eclipse, why did you bother to come this far, just to tell me about a missing book?"

"It's much more than that. The missing book is only the tip of the iceberg, at the cost of sounding cliché."

Twilight cleared her throat. "I received a letter from Princess Celestia that forbade me from meeting with you."

Eclipse stepped back, whether out of surprise or anger, Twilight couldn't decide. "You told the Princess?"

"Not quite. I just asked her about the book, before I got your message, and she asked me not to pursue the matter. So before we go any further, I must ask, why all the secrecy? What are both you and the Princess hiding?"

"That, Twilight, is why I've gone out of my way to find you. I am as perplexed as you are, and I was hoping that you, with your knowledge of Equestria and the Princess, could illuminate something for me."

"What is it?"

"I can only show you. Come with me."

After a moment's hesitation, Twilight entered the foliage, and the two unicorns began trekking through the forest. They walked for about a half an hour, the two of them only speaking to warn the other of a branch that seemed to claw at them or a root meaning to trip them. The creatures of the forest could now be heard, but none were seen. Twilight checked their progress whenever she could by consulting the stars. Pretty soon, it became apparent where Eclipse was taking her. Near the castle of the royal pony sisters.

Finally, they broke through into a clearing. In the center was a sizable pile of ashes, protected by some sort of magical bubble. Here, in the partial light of the moon, Twilight could see more of Eclipse. She had a golden cutie mark, a set of balanced scales, which contrasted rather well with her royal blue coat. Her mane was untidy yet clean, as if she didn't care so much for appearances as she did functionality. Eclipse motioned for Twilight to step forward.

"I'll release the spell. Tell me what you see." The bubbled melted away, and Eclipse's horn flared up to provide better light.

"It's just a pile of ashes."

"Look closer."

Twilight nudged a smaller pile with her hoof. To her surprise, it flaked. "It's... paper?"

"It is. Keep looking."

Twilight pushed through more of the ash. As she did, she realized the paper had words and pictures, but they couldn't be made out due to the damage. She felt as if something were off, that some connection should be made in her mind, but she couldn't place it. Finally, Twilight's hoof hit something hard. She brushed the loose ash away, and cradled her find in her magic's soft magenta glow. It was a book cover. All the pages had been burned out. Through either a freak accident or a miracle, this fragile cover had survived. The inside was badly scorched, but the front seemed to have been protected by the earth in which it lay.

"Turn it over," bade Eclipse, her voice calm and quiet.

Twilight flipped it over, looking at what had once been a beautifully designed leather binding. Wait... the title...

Twilight gasped in horror and shock as she suddenly realized what all this meant. This book, no, this entire pile of books, were the torched corpses of A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology. A flurry of emotions and thoughts filled Twilight's mind. One rose to the top.

"How could I not see this?"

"An amnesia spell. Whoever did this didn't want the casual observer finding this. It took the title, which you've been searching for for so long, to help you break through the spell."

"Did you cast the spell?"

Eclipse shook her head. "I have a gift, Twilight Sparkle. I can sense energy releases. I can tell you their approximate origin, and if I've met the pony that caused them, I can identify their work. This burning was caused by an Alicorn. About a month ago. I'll give you one guess to which one."

"But... why would she? And not tell me?"

"Again, I was hoping you might know." Eclipse stopped suddenly, grabbing Twilight's gaze with a fierce stare. "Something is wrong with this world, Twilight Sparkle. I've felt it since my birth. I don't know exactly what, but I believe that those books aren't the only thing that had an amnesia spell cast on them. This entire world has."

Eclipse looked away. "I must be going. I don't have much more solid evidence that I can share, and our presence might be treasonous. I do not expect to meet you again, Miss Sparkle, unless one of us uncovers this mystery. Goodbye."

"Wait!" Twilight yelled, but it was too late. The strange mare had already teleported away. Now Twilight knew she couldn't let this rest. The Princess was hiding something from her. But why? What could be so big, so dark that the wisest pony in the land had to keep secrets from her entire kingdom?


When Twilight returned, her friends immediately bombarded her with questions. She told them everything that had happened, but it only led to more questions. Eventually Spike had to tell them all to leave, so Twilight was finally able to get some much needed sleep.

Sleep didn't bring the peace she was hoping for, however. Twilight found herself in a large cave. It was dark and damp. A dream, Twilight realized. She felt driven forward into the darkness, led by her shining horn. Something had happened, she knew, but in her dream state she didn't know quite what it was. She rounded many twists and turns for what seemed an eternity, then finally she heard the voices of her friends. They're in trouble!

"Help us Twilight! We're trapped!" yelled Applejack. Her voice came from the other side of a rock slide, some of the boulders five times as tall as a pony.

"I'm here! Just hold on girls!"

"Twilight! We're running out of air!" called Rainbow Dash.

"Just hold on! Try to relax, calm yourselves! You'll use less air!"

Twilight began throwing the boulders aside. Another, and another, and another. But no matter how many she pulled away, the pile didn't seem to grow any smaller. She could sense the impending doom growing closer. Frustrated and scared, she began doubling her efforts.

"Twilight... hurry... I'm light headed, and Pinkie's already fainted..." came Rarity's voice, barely audible.

Rock after rock flew, until Twilight felt every inch of her body ache as her magic began sapping her life force. "Twi..." came a soft plea. Then nothing more. Ignoring her own pain, Twilight pulled a few more stones, until finally, a glorious opening could be seen. Twilight dropped to the floor, physically sick and unable to move. "Girls?" She cried out weakly. "Girls?"

No answer.

Twilight forced herself to her hooves, and with her body screaming in protest and weighing her down, she stumbled over the stones until she could see through the opening. There her five friends lay. Unmoving, unbreathing. The unthinkable had happened. They had died. As she watched, their bodies began to glow with a bright light. One by one, her friends bodies disappeared as their life energy was returned to the earth. She had failed. She had let them Blink.

Twilight awoke with a gasp, drenched in sweat. Just a dream. And yet it had felt so real. She began sobbing forcefully, realizing just how much her friends meant to her. Tears flowed without restraint, and Twilight didn't try to stop them. And with Spike sleeping downstairs, there was nopony to comfort her.

Chapter 3: Insecurities

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CHAPTER 3: Insecurities

Luna stared into the mirror, not comprehending the being carefully holding her gaze. Her reflection was so beautiful, so regal, so poised. Yet she felt as if she had the weight of her moon resting on her back. Readjusting to life after her banishment had been a long, tiring process. Yet somehow the servants always managed to make Luna look not only presentable but admirable. Thankfully, however, she was about to get the rest she needed. She sighed as she felt the sun's rays arching up her neck. Daylight. Just as most everypony else was beginning to rise, it was time for her to return to her chambers.

Luna turned from the mirror, her star-filled mane flowing from the motion. She had finally recovered from the Nightmare Moon incident, almost an entire year and a half ago. Thinking back on it, she couldn't even remember why she had transformed into the Dark Mare in the first place. Some childish reason, she was sure. One thousand and one years was a long time. All in all, she was thankful to Celestia, Twilight, and her friends. She had been restored to her former glory and power and had a proper sense of direction. She acted for the greater good of the kingdom. If nopony noticed her, so be it. At least they would profit from her actions, rather than be hurt by them.

She passed a couple of guards in the hallway, who nodded ever so slightly to acknowledge her, while remaining vigilant. As she passed by, Luna had a sudden feeling that something was off.

"Excuse me?" She said.

"Yes your majesty?"

"Is anypony missing?"

"My liege?"

"I feel like somepony's supposed to be here. That somepony's missing."

"I'm sorry, but I don't think anypony's out of place, Princess. We had the changing of the guards fifteen minutes ago, but we always keep the same number of guards out here to keep you safe. Besides that, Her Majesty, Princess Celestia, will be taking her place on the throne. The staff are doing their jobs cleaning or cooking, and nopony even called in sick today, Your Majesty."

"Hmm. Quite right. Sorry for disturbing you."

"Not at all, Princess."

Luna continued into her room. The guard was right. She was just tired from the night's shift of ruling the kingdom. Celestia had the harder job, Luna was forced to admit. Luna only had to meet with three ponies the entire night, and one was a casual visit from one of lead researchers who was doing a study on the night sky. Everypony else wanted to meet during the day, with Celestia. Not that Luna really blamed them. Though she had tried her hardest, Luna still wasn't adjusted to modern life quite yet. She still slipped up every now and then, referencing long outdated metaphors and using the 'royal we'. Besides, Celestia had an entire thousand years more of experience ruling the kingdom.

And being loved.

Luna shook her head. This was silly. She was a Princess, an Alicorn, and it was her duty to put on her brave face for the good of the kingdom. Besides, Celestia loved her enough to make up for an entire kingdom's disdain.

A thousand years. A blink of the eye in the perspective of an immortal. But still one thousand years of lost experiences. Of lost time. She had spent it all in a stasis sleep, not quite aware of what was happening around her. When she had found herself on the ground in the Princesses' previous castle, it seemed like waking up from an extra long sleep. In the sleep, there had been a dream. One of anger, hatred, despise, and... fear. She had seen everything that Nightmare Moon had done, everything she had done, but it felt so far away. When Twilight and her friends sapped the younger Alicorn's power and reverted her to her younger self, it felt like she had woken up from, well, a Nightmare.

The deep blue Alicorn sighed as she sunk into her 'bed.' As much as she had tried to modernize, she never adjusted to mattresses. Her bed was in the traditional style, a velvet bag filled with loose pegasus feathers. It morphed as you shifted in it, and was the closest you could get to a cloud on the ground. Just what she needed. Luna closed her eyes, and began to nod off.

A soft knock came from the door, waking her. Celestia peered around the door frame. "Luna? How are you?"

Luna smiled tiredly. Celestia was only a few mortal years the elder, yet she had taken the parental role since their parents' passing. "I am doing well, sister, but shouldn't you be on the throne? The day's begun, and I'm certain ponies will be wanting to visit with you."

Celestia stepped into the room, her presence seemingly filling it with light. "I waited a thousand years to be with you. They can wait a few minutes." She lay down next to Luna's bed, and the two sisters sat in silence for a moment.

"Have you thought about the Winter Moon celebration? The delegates across Equestria want to begin planning now, if you give your blessing." Celestia looked at her sister with concern. "I understand if you'd rather not."

Luna shook her head. "I already disappointed them last year. And after seeing how much fun Nightmare Night was for the citizens of Ponyville, I actually would love to have the solstice celebration held."

Celestia smiled warmly. "I hoped you'd say that." They sat for a while longer, drinking in each other's company and the peace between them.

"Luna?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you regret anything you've done?"

The graceful mare of the night blinked in surprise. "Well, yes. I let myself lose control. As Nightmare Moon I made ridiculous and childish demands, harming my reputation and the trust the kingdom had in me."

"Have you forgiven yourself?"

Now Luna looked at Celestia, holding a steady gaze. Celestia's eyes were full of yearning, almost desperation. "I have moved on," Luna began, "and I know what I did was wrong. Yet I've done all in my power to make it right, and to continue forward in righteousness. I will forever regret my hasty decisions, but they have made me a better mare. If that's what forgiveness is, then yes, I suppose I have."

Celestia looked down for a moment, taking in her younger sister's words. "Thank you, Luna. For everything. I'll let you have some rest now."

Luna grinned. "Don't let anypony give you grief today. Especially that one designer from Manehatten. He came to me claiming that the royals should give him rights to the Canterlot garden park for his display. After I told him that we wouldn't be able to help him, seeing as it has been rented out for the ambassador banquet, he got flustered and said he'd try talking to you instead."

"I'll see what I can do. Thanks for the warning."

"See you tonight, sister."

Celestia walked out of the room, pausing for a brief moment before closing the door softly behind her.

Chapter 4: Absolution

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CHAPTER 4: Absolution

The next day found Twilight studying furiously, as usual. Ponies came and went, checking out books or just getting out of the cold for a moment. After an entire morning of grunts of effort and bright flashes from upstairs, Spike's curiosity won out. "Alright, Twilight, what are you practicing now?"

Twilight turned to look at her faithful companion. "Oh uh... energy transference. That pony, Eclipse, said she could sense energy releases. I realized that it could be really helpful, and so I've been looking into it. I'm just reviewing the basics of energy flow, which is the school of magic it's based off of."

Spike, after realizing he had nothing better to do, sat down to watch. "I think I've almost perfected it," said Twilight. "Now, normally, unicorns function on whatever leftover energy is produced by their metabolism, which they store in an imaginary pocket, but in cases of extreme need they can get it from other sources, such as I do when I use the Elements of Harmony. But actively controlling energy is a rather difficult process and takes a lot of concentration. If you release it too soon, it will explode and all your efforts will be for nothing. To say nothing of the damage it can cause."

She pushed a potted plant forward. "This is what I've been working with. Everything has dormant energy in it, living things more than minerals. However, some minerals have the ability to store lots of energy, which is what I believe the physical Elements of Harmony are. Storage devices for pure arcane power."

"So what, you're trying to create your own?"

"Well... yeah. You never know when you could use extra magic." Twilight's thoughts turned back to her horrible nightmare last night. Of course, it was only a dream. But if her friends did ever need her to be strong, she was going to be ready. She levitated a small crystal and placed it next to plant. “First I'll try just taking the energy out, and putting it back in. Then we'll try moving it into the crystal."

Twilight's horn flared up, and the plant began to glow with the same magenta aura. Before Spike's eyes, the plant shriveled up and died, the entire plant going yellow and limp. The energy that was drawn out of the plant circled around itself, a writhing mass of white light. Twilight gave a slight smirk. "First time it hasn't given me trouble today." Carefully, she pressed the orb back into the plant, and it sprung up, erect and green.

"Whoa! That was awesome Twilight!"

"Heh. Thanks Spike. We'll see if I can get this next part though." She drew the life force out once again, and this time pressed it into the crystal. The stone began to glow as it hungrily ate up the power. "Haha! Finally! Something has gone righ-" Her words were cut short as the crystal sparked, and exploded with a small bang.

"OH COME ON!"

"What happened?"

"Must have been the material. The book says some minerals hold power better than others. But this is the only one I had laying around. Shoot, that was the crystal I found on that hike on my fifth birthday." She scowled at the shards, which lay a short distance from the epicenter. "To say nothing of the fact that I just killed my petunia."

"Let's go looking for more crystals, Twilight, before you work yourself up too much over this. I'm certain the Diamond Dogs would be willing to help us, now that we've made peace with them."

"Alright, I'm coming. Just let me gather my things."

The rest of the day passed without much incident. After they were able to collect a variety of gems and crystals in exchange for a couple books to be added to the Diamond Dogs meager library, Twilight was able to test her new skills to her heart's content. Like all experiments, it had long periods of failure occasionally shaken up by moments of triumph. Through it all however, she couldn't find the perfect mineral. Some could take all energy placed into them, but they began to leak it afterwards. Others would just overload and explode. Others seemed to reject any extra energy entirely. There was no perfect gem. Several hours after nightfall, Twilight realized how tired she still was from yesterday's escapade. Rather than fall asleep while working as she sometimes did, she treated herself to an early bedtime. For the second time that week, however, fate had plans other than a peaceful night's sleep.

Deep in the Everfree Forest, the air became uneasy. The creeping and terrible monsters paused in fright. With a flash of light, an orb of brilliant white light burst into existence, in the very clearing Twilight had visited the night before. Wind picked up, carrying the ashes of the burned books into the orb, which grew bigger and brighter. Finally, the orb expanded along its equators, and the collected energy blew out in a ring of glory.

Far away, two Alicorn sisters looked up in unison, noticing the arcane overload. They turned to each other with a look of concern. “Far too much for a unicorn.” said Celestia.

“And it seems to be emanating from the Everfree Forest. That's never a good sign. Could it be one of our old enemies returned?”

“It can't be, Luna. We've kept track of each of their resting places. This magic is new... or extremely old.”

“I'll take a patrol and investigate.”

“I'll come with you.”

Luna shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, but you need your rest. You just tended to the kingdom's needs for the whole day. Besides, I need to prove myself worthy to rule again, after...”

They both stood awkwardly, thinking back to the fateful night that had finally reunited the Elements of Harmony.

“Even if I've forgiven myself, much of the kingdom hasn't.”

Celestia looked up with understanding. “Alright Luna, I'll let you go, if you promise to report back to me if anything, and I mean anything goes wrong.”

Luna looked at Celestia with gratitude. “You have my word Tia. Get some rest in the meantime.” The two sisters nuzzled each other in a loving farewell, and Luna retreated from the room, guards already gathering for the escort.

"Nighthawk and Skystreak, get the others, meet me at the gate. We fly out in five minutes."

"Of course, my Princess."

Luna set her face in cold determination. Here was her chance to redeem herself once and for all. To repent of her past injustices. Whatever danger had appeared would have to deal with her first. She allowed herself a quick grin. It was good to back in action.


Back in Ponyville, Twilight had been awoken by the disturbance in the Everfree as well. The unicorn shook her head as she slid out of bed, flicking on the light. “There was a massive energy release in the Everfree. More than I've ever felt before, except when using the Elements. Even Celestia's control of the sun is less powerful.” She stared out the window of her beloved library across the sleeping town of Ponyville and into the dark forest beyond.

Spike joined her, rubbing his eyes. “Should we be concerned?”

Twilight shook her head slowly, but it wasn't a negative response. “I don't know Spike. If it were the Princesses they would probably have sent some forward notice. But if it's not them, I don't know what it could be, and that isn't a very settling thought."

"Well, we could always send a letter, ask them what's happening." Spike suggested, already heading to the table to pick up the enchanted scrolls and ink.

"There's no time. Considering how close the Everfree is to Ponyville, I'll have to check it out myself. If it's a threat, we need to take care of it as quickly as possible.

Spike frowned. "Is that really the best idea? You'll be putting yourself in danger. The Everfree's dangerous enough without energy explosions."

"I can handle myself. I'll stick to the main path as long as possible, alright?"

"Visiting the Everfree twice in two days is pushing it, Twilight. If anything happens to you, I'll never forgive myself."

Twilight gave a warm smile. "And that's why I love you Spike." She hugged him tightly, holding a bit longer than she normally did. "I will come back." She turned to leave, only pausing to grab her saddlebags which had a few provisions and a survival kit, in case she got stuck out there. Despite her promises, she wasn't so brash as to go unprepared.

Ten minutes later she was in the Everfree, contemplating the intelligence of her plan. She was to march, unarmed and alone, into what could be dangerous enough to kill her. Why was she doing this? Was it her natural curiosity? Her desire to document everything new? She thought back to her dream. Was she trying to prove she was strong?

Twilight checked her position again, grateful she had spent the day studying energy transference. She was able to sense the remnants of the release, feeling them spread from the epicenter. She was close now, she knew it. She looked up to the stars. If she was correct, and she prided herself on accuracy, she was headed to the same clearing she had visited the night before. It couldn't be a coincidence.

Twilight slowed her pace as she neared the clearing, ears erect and straining for the slightest noise. Only a faint hum. The forest had been abnormally quiet on the walk over. She hadn't heard the slightest peep from any of the creatures, she realized with some fear. Anything that could keep the monsters of the Everfree quiet was a force to be reckoned with. Twilight blew out a soft breath, realizing she had been holding it in. A droplet of sweat rolled down her neck, the sensation spooking her. Calm yourself, Twilight.

She jumped around the last row of trees, ready for trouble.

For once in her life, Twilight couldn't think.

Stairs. Stone stairs. Ancient stairs.

In the Everfree?

In the clearing I visited the night before. What?!

Twilight's gaze was naturally drawn up the staircase before her. The stairs led above the canopy, disappearing out of sight. Twilight stopped for a moment, questioning her sanity. Maybe it was the lack sleep playing with her. But no, the stone felt very real underneath her hoof. All of her senses said these stairs were real despite the logic against it.

Why were they here? The only way to figure out what was up there was to climb them. Throwing away reason, Twilight determinedly ascended the staircase. Whatever had dragged her out of bed better be good. About three fourths of the way up, however, she heard voices. She could see the top of the stairs now, which flattened away into a plateau of sorts. Due to the angle, she couldn't see who was talking. Pausing once more, Twilight strained her ears. One of the voices was deep, and almost like a whisper on the wind. The other was strangely familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. Nor could she make out any of the actual conversation.

Twilight stepped closer, step by step, until if she had stood on her tippy-hooves she would have cleared the horizon. At last, she could hear the two voices clearly.

"You understand the conditions, correct?" asked the oddly familiar voice.

"We do," came the whisper voice.

We? Twilight wondered.

"Then your bonds are lifted, and you're free to go. Remember, we cannot change predestination. It'd be just as dire for you as it would be for me. I look forward to meeting again."

"Of course.”

Twilight strained her ears as the two went silent. Then suddenly, the whisper came, striking her with fear. “Speaking of predestination, our lady, somepony is listening in right now."

Knowing she was compromised, Twilight cleared the stairs and stood to face these voices. She gasped in shock. Now she knew why that voice sounded so familiar.

Chapter 5: A Meeting with the Devil

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CHAPTER 5: Meeting with the Devil

Luna's convoy was nearing ground zero. "Princess Luna," asked the captain of the guard, "we're approaching the coordinates of the release. Should my men go first?"

Luna shook her head. Though the guards had sworn their lives to the Princesses, it was also the sisters' duty to protect all of their subjects. It was a simple fact that Luna would be able to survive more than her protectors.

"No. Whatever it is, it's trying to attract attention. I'll go first, but keep me covered."

"Of course princess."

A small pegasus flew to the front of the formation. "Sir, scout report."

"Out with it then."

"Not a klick ahead there seem to be... stairs, though this part of the forest is well mapped. A fly over from not three days ago had no mention of these, yet they seem ancient."

"Did you go up these stairs?"

"Negative, sir. I believe the source of the release was directly up them, and thought it better that I tell the group what I had found before foolishly endangering myself or the patrol."

"Very good, corporal. You'll be getting a promotion once we return. Back in line with the others." After the scout fell into formation, the captain leaned over to Luna. "Any idea what it could mean, Princess?"

Luna thought for a moment. Something about the situation seemed familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. "Nothing solid. We'll have to see what we run into."

A few minutes of walking confirmed the scout report. Ancient stone stairs ascended out of sight, and here the canopy was too thick to easily fly out of. The only way to see what was above was to climb. Luna tentatively set her hoof on the first step. When nothing abnormal happened, she strode up the stairs confidently, her guard following, eyes alert for any sort of ambush.

She didn't voice it, but Luna had a growing feeling of dread. This situation seemed so familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. She prided herself on remembering details, yet something as important as a potential threat to Equestria escaped her memory.

Here it was. The moment of truth. One more step would allow Luna to learn what held so much power. She took that last decisive step, and gasped at what she saw.

At the top of the stairs, the path continued a short distance to an imposing, dark altar. Deep black crystals towered over it, humming deeply with energy. The sound was enticing. Luna could feel herself being pulled towards the altar, and took all of her willpower to keep her hooves grounded. Something about this... thing, this situation. She knew that she knew it. She frowned. She'd been feeling that half déjà-vu often lately, and she hated it. She was a pony of logic and reasoning, and to be confronted with something she couldn't solve frustrated her.

The next thing she saw was Twilight Sparkle, not a hoof's reach away. How Luna had missed Twilight, she had no idea. "Miss Sparkle, what are you doing here? Did you cause this?"

Twilight, who was facing the altar and thus away from Luna, gave no response.

"Miss Sparkle?" Luna reached out and gave Twilight a light prod.

Twilight shook her head. "Uh... what happened?"

"You were just standing there, in some sort of trance."

"Princess Luna! What are you doing here?"

"I could ask the same of you."

"I... don't quite remember."

The rest of the patrol caught up behind her, and stopped in their tracks.

"What... what is that?" asked one of the guards.

"What?" Asked Twilight, who turned around once more. "Oh."

"I'm not certain." said Luna. "Twilight, we're here to investigate the power surge I'm certain you felt. I'm glad you're safe, but I must ask you to let me take control of this." She turned to her patrol. "Stay close, but be ready to retreat. Who knows what it's capable of?"

Luna finally relented to the mental pull, her eyes fixated on the strange construct. As she approached, she could see that there were seven orbs in the black altar, which seemed to be made of the same material as the crystals above it. The orbs themselves were a metallic gold, placed in perfect semi-spheres hollowed out of the top of the altar. The six smaller orbs were equidistant from the center orb, which was quite a bit larger than the others.

Seven orbs. On an altar of darkness. Stairs. A massive release of energy.

Suddenly everything became clear. How could she have not seen it before?

"The Devil!" cried Luna.

"The... what, princess?" asked Twilight.

"The Devil, Twilight Sparkle. 'Tis a childhood tale. Have you never heard it?"

"Never, Princess, and you know me. Perhaps it's been phased out over the last thousand years?"

Luna nodded consent. "It could have, though the message was so clear and powerful, I'd be surprised if it had. First things first, though. The Devil is a powerful and dangerous creature. Though I believed the story as just that; a story, all of this," she said, sweeping a hoof around the altar and plateau, "fits the descriptions in it. If this is the real thing, we could be in for trouble."

Luna stepped forward. "Devil! Answer me!"

The golden orbs remained motionless.

She cleared her throat and tried again. "Princess Luna of Equestria demands an audience with The Devil!" Still nothing could be heard except the humming of the crystals.

"Those orbs do seem to contain a awful amount of power, Princess, though they're holding it really well," said Twilight, thinking back to her earlier studies. Now that she was close to the orbs, she could sense the minute yet highly condensed field of energy around the orbs that at a distance was completely overpowered by the radiating crystal towers above it.

"Indeed, Twilight Sparkle. Yet the intelligence within is either gone or asleep. Either way, we must take advantage of the situation. Come, help me with some restraining spells while I tell you the tale of The Devil and the Jealous Brother. Guards, keep a perimeter. Celestia has to see these before something happens to this strange place. Or worse, us."

Luna levitated the orbs, and the two of them began placing spell after spell on them. Physical barriers, protection fields that would contain as well as expel, stasis fields, everything the two knew. Which, between an Alicorn and the most studious unicorn in Equestria, was quite a lot.

"The Devil and the Jealous Brother is a cautionary tale,” Luna began. “Two brothers loved the same beautiful and kind mare. The elder won her over with his heart, while the other tried in vain to win her with worldly goods. The second brother became jealous of the first, and took a walk in the forest to vent his anger. After he had walked his usual route, for this walk was his standard way of relieving stress, he took a different path instead of returning home, still too angry to confront his brother. Due to the deviation, he became lost, and just when he thought he would never find his way out of the forest, he found a stone path that lead to stairs. Thinking the stairs meant civilization, he quickly ascended them and found himself looking at an altar made of deep black crystal. He approached it cautiously, and found seven golden orbs in fitted slots."

Twilight looked closer at the orbs she was restraining. They were both beautiful and mysterious. They glowed with a visible energy, and though they seemed peaceful, gave a sense of dread.

Luna, seemingly reading Twilight's mind, continued. "The brother too felt the sense of dread, and began to turn back, thinking he'd rather take his chances in the forest than deal with strange magic. But the orbs began to call out to him, in his mind. 'Stay with us...' they said. 'We could use the company, as you yourself know you could. You are lost, yes? As are we.'

“'Who are you? What are you?'

“'We are many and all. We are the darkness, the temptation, the Devil...'

“The brother recoiled in horror. 'Then I have no further discussion with you.' He began to run down the path. Yet the voice stayed with him.

“'You want something, do not deny it. A mare. You have been unfairly slighted by your greedy brother.'

“The jealous stallion foolishly stopped. 'It's true.'

“'We can help you with your problem. A deal with the Devil isn't so bad. We won't even ask your soul... We just ask your help.'

“The brother, after a brief pause, began to go all in. “I'm listening.”

“'We have restraints on us. We have power to tempt and listen from here, but we cannot take any physical action. The restraints are weak and can be undone by any magic user except ourselves. You are a unicorn, you could free us.'

“'Free the Devil? I'm sorry, but I can't do that, not even for the most beautiful mare in the world.'”

Twilight stopped Luna for a moment. "To clarify, Luna, was 'The Devil' a common term? I don't think I've heard it before."

Luna blinked. "Why, yes. In a metaphorical sense, it's somebody who wants to work towards your destruction and enslavement. In a literal, it's this very creature that we're restraining, that the story is about."

"And the Devil, why does it speak with the Royal We?"

"I'm actually not certain, Miss Sparkle. It may be because it was just speaking with the language of the time. Or perhaps it truly is more than one pony, as the Devil claimed. Shall I continue?"

"Of course Princess. I'm sorry for the interruption."

"Ahem. 'It's not what you think,' said the Devil. 'We are only freed to carry out your wish. The one rule is that we carry out the wish in whatever way we decide is best. After you've freed us, you cannot control us until the deed is done. Understand?'

“'I do. So I can give you my wish?'

“'State it, free us, and it shall be done.'

“'Very well. I wish for the mare to forget my brother and to love me instead.'

“'We agree to the demands. Do you agree to the terms?'

“'I do.'

“'Then free us, and by the time you return home, the mare will be yours.'

“The brother did as he was told, touching his horn to the orbs. The darkness drained as smoke from the crystals and a black stallion formed out of the shadow. Its eyes were flaming white and its mouth was a gaping maw lined with many sharp teeth. The brother unconsciously took a step backwards. 'We shall return to this place when the deed is finished, and we will be restrained once more. Go, return home.'

“The Devil galloped down the path at a frightening speed, and leaped clear over the stairs and into the forest. The brother followed at a more comfortable pace, pondering what he had just done, though regretting nothing.

“When he finally made it home, it was well into the night, and the Devil was nowhere to be seen. He entered his house, and called for his brother. There was no answer. Typical, the brother thought with some disdain, He must be out with the mare. The foolish brother then called upon the mare's home. As he reached a hoof up to knock, he heard weeping behind the door. He opened it, not sure what to expect. There, in the darkness, lay the mare, her normally beautiful mane soiled by her tears and the earth. She hung over the kind brother, who lay dead upon the ground.

“The foolish brother immediately regretted his deal, but couldn't bring himself to tell the mare what had happened. So she told him her story. The kind brother had been working in the stone quarry as he normally did, for he was a mason. A loose rock from above that the workers had thought was safe had fallen, heading towards one of the water-colts. The kind brother had sacrificed his own life by tackling the child out of the way, only to be crushed by the rock. His fellow workers had carried him to the mare's home, where he lived just long enough to say he was sorry that the last he had spoke to his jealous brother were words of harshness, reprimanding him for his childishness.

“The foolish brother could feel nothing but the deepest guilt and sorrow. Though he had been jealous, he realized deep down inside that he had still loved his brother, even more than he had been infatuated with the beautiful mare.

“In this moment of deepest sorrow, the younger brother heard a dark whisper with no source. 'We kept our end of the bargain. We have no blame in this matter.'

“Over the next couple of weeks, the brother found that the Devil had indeed kept his word. The mare cried often for her lost lover, and the jealous brother comforted her. As time went on, the tears became fewer and she expressed the greatest appreciation for the younger brother's strength in this horrible matter. Little did she know that she was beginning to see him in the same light as she had the older brother."

At this point, the two had finished their spells, and Luna now began to head back, the guards following close behind. Twilight, after a moment's thought, unearthed one of the smaller humming crystals and placed it in her bag. She ran to catch up, and Luna finished telling the story.

"One night, the mare finally expressed her feelings for the younger brother. With this last weight on his conscience, he couldn't take the guilt anymore. He ran away without saying a word, leaving the mare confused and heartbroken.

“He returned to his home, where he wrote a note explaining all he had done, and he disappeared back into the forest. Nobody ever saw him again, but the story goes that he returned to the altar and begged his brother's life back. The Devil resisted, saying the sin was the foolish brother's. Finally, the brother came to a decision. 'The sin is all mine, yes. But my kind brother was innocent. Bring him back, and you can have me.'

“The older, kind brother, was miraculously found the next day in the woods, stunned and confused but very much alive. When he read the note, though he feared for the worst, he hoped for the best, and watched the path out of the woods every evening, hoping that his brother would someday return so they could laugh again as they once did. The younger brother never came."

Luna looked at Twilight, who was quiet and somber. "Twilight, now you understand my urgency in this matter. If these orbs are the Devil incarnate, we are holding the purest evil in existence. The cleverest and oldest entity known to ponykind."

As Luna continued quickly down the path and into the forest, her thoughts turned to her sister, who was anxiously watching the path out of the woods.

Chapter 6: Keep Your Enemies Close

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CHAPTER 6: Keep Your Enemies Close

By the time the patrol stepped out of forest, Luna's moon was high in the sky. “We have to contact Celestia somehow. This was originally a scouting mission, but we had no idea we'd come across –this–” Luna said, lifting the seven orbs for effect. “I don't want to carry these any further than we have to. Flying with them could be unpredictable, and as strong as our spells are, I'm not sure they'd be enough.”

“If we get to the Ponyville Library, I could have Spike send her a letter.”

“That would be perfect, Twilight. Though, I don't want to disturb the citizens of your city, nor worry them with my escort. Will most be asleep?”

“They should be. Especially since the nights are getting longer, with the Winter Solstice coming up.”

“Thank you Twilight. Though it may have been a coincidence, I am glad to have you along.”

In short order, the patrol made it to Twilight's library. “Huh?” came a sleepy voice from upstairs. “Hey Twilight, I'm glad you're back. I wish I could say I was kept awake with worry, but– Oh! Princess Luna!” exclaimed Spike, who tripped down the stairs as he attempted an awkward bow.

“Good to see you again Spike.” said Luna calmly, completely unfazed by the dragon's blunder. She knew his species was tough, and sure enough he got up immediately, unhurt except his pride. “I'm sorry to wake you, but we have royal matters to attend to. Would you mind penning a letter to my sister?”

“Of course not, my lady.” said Spike, glad for an opportunity to redeem himself.

“Dear Sister,

I have some potentially grave news for you. The release in the Everfree seemed to have been caused by what can only be identified as the Devil from our childhood stories. I have, with the assistance of Twilight Sparkle, restrained the seven orbs that form the Devil's physical body. We need your wisdom and experience. We've taken a temporary refuge in the Ponyville Library. I ask that you come as soon as possible, with any resources you can find that may help.

Yours truly, Princess Luna.”

“Speaking of which,” Luna continued as Spike began to roll up the letter, “we should probably search your books for any reference to the Devil. Knowledge is the best way to fight any enemy.”

“Well, I'm not sure if I have any. I've read them all before... no, wait, there was something in an astrology book, but I can't quite remember which one.”

“Try looking for it. My guards will be happy to help you in your search.” The guards nodded consent, and stepped forward, awaiting Twilight's command.

“Alright, you, look in the book titled Astronomical Astronomer's Almanac to All Things Astronomy. Boy, I'm glad I remembered to buy another copy. You, in The Concise Constellation and Comet Chronicles. I'll see what I can find in these general history books.”

As the ponies began searching the old tomes, Luna regarded the orbs which were causing so much trouble. Try as she might, Luna could not budge the satellite orbs out of their slow, careful orbit around the center orb. The condensed energy field saw to that. It seemed to be there for that very purpose; to protect this minute solar system. What was the purpose of the orbs? Were they the prison for the Devil? Or the life support?

Luna...

“Yes Twilight?”

The purple unicorn looked up from her book. “Sorry Princess?”

“You called, didn't you?”

“Sorry, no.”

“Odd. I could have sworn I heard a voice.”

A soft knock came from the door before Luna could think about it any further. The guard that had been posted to the door looked through the eye-hole, his posture snapping to perfection as he saw who was on the other side.

“Princess Celestia,” he said, opening the door for her.

Twilight noticed the library was becoming just a bit crowded, but felt no annoyance at seeing her mentor and sovereign. “Princess Celestia!” she said, abandoning her work. “I'm sorry we called you out this late.”

“No trouble at all, Twilight. Especially for something so important. May I see the orbs, Luna?”

Luna's horn glowed just a bit brighter as she poured more energy into the levitation spell, passing the orbs to Celestia's telekinetic grasp. “Yes, these do seem to fit the description,” Celestia remarked. “Did Luna tell you the story behind these, Twilight?”

“She did Princess. But I thought all the dark creatures were locked up in Tartarus, guarded by Cerberus?”

Celestia hesitated before turning to Twilight, setting the orbs on a table Twilight had cleared. “Well, they are. But the Devil must have not been around at the time of the Purging. As Luna's probably already told you, the Devil is a childhood story villain of ours. A figure that embodied everything we needed to fight against. I'm just as surprised as you are that it exists, that it's here, now. Any idea of what could have caused it?”

Twilight's mind turned back to her secret meeting with Eclipse. If she remembered correctly, those stairs and the altar were in the very spot the book burning had happened. Could her meeting somehow have triggered this appearance of the Devil?

“Um... nothing comes to mind.”

Celestia turned to one of the guards attending her, who was carrying several books. “I've brought some books that may help us know what we're dealing with. And I've called in my personal advisor, The Doctor.” Luna took the books and began looking over them.

“The Doctor? Have I met him?” asked Twilight.

“Possibly. He travels around the kingdom a lot. He's a bit unpredictable, but his advice is always sound.”

They sat down and got to work reading from the dusty tomes. Besides the occasional turning of a page or slight sniffle, the library was silent. Finally, one of the guards that had been assigned to the books cleared his throat. “I think I found something my Princesses.” He held the book out for Celestia to read. She looked over it for a moment before her eyes lit up.

“Here's a reference; it says the orbs were found in a crater after a bright flash lit up the night sky for a whole minute. No specific date, but definitely before our reign began, Luna.”

Luna trotted over. “A meteor then?”

“Sounds like it. Though this book's so old it doesn't name it as such. Calls it a 'sky scar.' Poetic, though not scientific.”

“I found something as well,” said Luna. “Apparently the myth of the altar appears in more than just that storybook you used to show me. The characters and setting change, but there are two constants; a foolish pony wants something, asks it of the Devil, the Devil always manages to find a loophole that ruins the asker's life, and then it claims their soul. That also explains, conclusively, why the creature refers to itself as 'we'. At first, I wondered if it, like I used to be, was just out of the times and used the Traditional Royal Canterlot Voice, perhaps out of jealously for the position of the Alicorns. But it turns out it's literally more than one being; it accumulates the knowledge of every soul it leads astray. Though each individual was foolish enough to listen to it, gather enough of them...”

“And it doesn't matter how foolish they are,” finished Celestia tiredly. It was the first time in a long while that Twilight had seen the weight of the kingdom so heavily on Celestia's shoulders. “I thought this was nothing more than a cautionary tale. Mother used to read it to me, even before you were born. Never did I think it was based on fact.”

“The best cautionary tales are about real dangers.” reminded Luna. “It takes the souls of the lost. Is that what it's here for now?”

“If it is, Equestria has a real problem on its hooves.”

We have a problem on our hooves, sister.”

“I know. But this creature is older than us, and probably even cleverer. Definitely more deceptive.”

“We can't keep something so dangerous around. Let's take care of this now.” Luna rose, her horn flaring up. She channeled arcane power through her legs and into the tips of her hooves, much like Nightmare Moon had when she had shattered the physical Elements of Harmony. With a crack of thunder and the power of lighting behind the strike, Luna smashed her diamond clad hooves into the orbs and through the table. A terrific crack could be heard as the glass table shattered and vaporized due to the force and magic behind the blow. The orbs were driven into the ground, maintaining their formation as Luna pressed ever harder. “Come on... Come on...”

Suddenly, the force was turned on her, the orbs giving off a blast of light and physical force. It threw Luna across the room and into a bookshelf, the recently shelved books toppling around her. Twilight saw Celestia suppress a morbid giggle as Luna stuttered for words. “Wha-that's a move powerful enough to destroy the Elements! How could it not-”

“Remember the energy field, Princess Luna,” offered Twilight. “The one protecting the orbs?”

“Well of course! But I thought I could simply overpower it! Whatever barriers, physical or magic, should have shattered under that attack. But it seems to be not only retaining its energy almost perfectly, mine was completely returned. How is that even possible? There's no such thing as a completely closed system. Something has to be lost.”

“This might help us understand.” Celestia pulled out another one of the books she had brought: A Discussion on the Theoretical Magic of Soul Based Energy Manipulation.

“Soul based energy manipulation? Why haven't I heard of this?” asked Twilight.

“Like it says, it's theoretical. Nobody's ever had the chance to test it out, because once the soul is separated from the body, it's hard enough to find the body again, let alone control other objects. But think, if your soul was in a physical form...”

Luna's eyes widened. “Your entire consciousness could work as a horn does, a guiding center of external control. But keeping the soul in a physical form would make it really vulnerable. OH! That's why the Devil's placed the energy field!”

“Exactly. As good as the Devil is at destroying others, it's even better at preserving itself. So it's invulnerable to any sort of physical attack, it seems. And any sort of magic would probably just be absorbed. We might be able to overwhelm it with either type, but it's more likely that it would just tire us out first.”

Yet another knock came from the door. The door burst open before the guard could even reach for it. “The Doctor is in!”

Chapter 7: The Doctor, The Devil, and The Darkness

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CHAPTER 7: The Doctor, The Devil, and The Darkness

“Hello Doctor, glad you could join us.” Celestia's voice was calm and cool, as if she were completely unfazed by the sudden and unceremonious entrance. Twilight, for one, had to remind her heart to keep beating.

“What's all this about then? Another big old adventure about to begin?” shot off the brown stallion, rubbing his front hooves together in anticipation. His Cutie Mark was a golden hourglass, indicating that his talent had something to do with time. Now that she saw him, Twilight realized she had indeed seen him around before, but she'd never thought to stop and talk to him. He had just been another face in the crowd, and yet here he was, apparently a sage of sorts and completely trusted by the Princess. She noticed that the guards hadn't reacted to the potential security threat either, after they had seen who it was.

“Miss Sparkle, I've heard a lot about you. Sorry for disturbing your night's rest, but I hear we have something big on our han- er, hooves.”

“Yes we do, Doctor. We've found what we believe to be the Devil, a figure from our childhood fairy tales.”

The Doctor's countenance suddenly shifted. “Did you say the Devil?”

“Have you heard of it?”

“Well, you could say that. But you say you found it?”

“In the Everfree Forest, after a large release of arcane power.”

The Doctor was quiet for a moment, lost in thought. “May I see it?”

Luna pointed to the floor, where the orbs still lay amidst the remnants of Twilight's table. The Princess of the night made a mental note to compensate the unicorn for the loss later.

“Orbs? No biological body?” he trotted over to examine them. “Wait... This couldn't be...”

“Couldn't be what, Doctor?”

He turned back to Celestia with a look that was a combination of shock and wonder. “I think what you have there is a Metaspectre.”

“A what?”

“A Metaspectre!” he said, looking back at the orbs. He gave a small laugh of disbelief. “A very powerful race that supposedly died out long ago. Though, if I had a bit for every time I've thought a race has died out... They were always reclusive, and loved nothing more than knowledge. They were known to conquer planets, their only demands for surrender being a tribute of philosophical writings.”

“They conquered... planets?” Twilight asked in disbelief.

“Well of course! You didn't think yours was the only one with life, did you? Though I will say yours is the most charming.”

“What caused them to die out, Doctor? What's their weakness?” asked Celestia quietly.

“Well, nobody's quite sure. As far as I know, they never lost a battle. And because they're non-organic, they don't age. The older they become, the more expert they become at what you know as magic. And the more expert they are at magic, the harder they are to destroy. Normally, however, they don't kill unless it's necessary. You called this creature the Devil?”

“Yes Doctor. It's a manipulator. In ancient times, it would grant wishes to those who would seek it out. The 'Metaspectre,' as you call it, would find a loophole in their request, and make life so horrible for them or those around them that the wish-seeker would give their own life to fix the pains they had caused.”

“Does the Metaspectre kill those it corrupts?”

“It's implied that it does, but we found a reference in the book that says it absorbs their knowledge and personality.”

“That sounds like a Metaspectre alright, though a bit more direct than they normally are. But it seriously is odd that one still exists, especially so far from home. You said the Metaspectre, or rather the persona it's taken in Equestria, 'The Devil,' was a story from your childhood. But you thought it was nothing more than a story. So it must have existed long before your childhood, correct?”

“That makes sense to me,” said Luna.

“Well, if it's been active this entire time, it will be immensely powerful. Perhaps as strong as you, my Princesses. But there are no recent references to it. So it's either been dormant, or someplace else entirely. The energy release, however, is what tips it off. The Metaspectre race is very good at retaining energy, and only uses as much as is absolutely necessary. So that energy release isn't a mistake. I believe it was both a beacon to draw attention and the natural result of a temporal shift.”

“A temporal shift?”

“Time travel/teleport combo. If done correctly, it can also allow somebody to jump between dimensions, and though it takes a lot of power, a Metaspectre could pull it off.”

Twilight looked at the orbs, which were still spinning ever so slowly on her floor. “If the Metaspectre is so powerful, why hasn't it spoken to us, or hurt us, or... done something at least. It's just sitting there.”

The Doctor shrugged. “Beats me. It depends on this specific Metaspectre's goals and personality.” Then, raising an eyebrow he added, “You do have an awful lot of charms placed on it. Perhaps they're working as intended?”

“Or it's biding its time,” said Luna. The others looked at her with some concern.

“Isn't it obvious? We have the three most powerful magic users in Equestria in this one room, along with the Doctor, who, from the short time I've known him, is a miracle worker. If it's really as clever as you say, Doctor, it probably wouldn't want to challenge all of us at once.”

“It's definitely better at manipulating in one-on-one situations, as shown in the stories,” noted Celestia.

“One other thing,” the Doctor began, “The Metaspectre race is a very proud one. They, though slippery in words, will make good on whatever promises they make. Whether they be threats or favors. If they can find a loophole or an alternate translation that technically still fits the covenant, they'll use it to their advantage. Sadly, though, that's pretty much everything I know about them. I've only actually met one, and that was a long time ago.”

Twilight held a hoof up to her head. This was a lot of information, even for her. Especially the part about life on other planets. It made sense, but to have it confirmed so suddenly, so casually seemed... disrespectful.

“So. Princesses, Doctor. It's getting late, and I should probably put Spike in his bed,” Twilight hinted, looking over to the dragon which had fallen asleep not long after sending the letter summoning Celestia. He'd even remained asleep during Luna's attempt to smash the orbs. “Would you like to stay over? I know my home isn't much, Princesses.”

“It will do just fine, Twilight,” said Celestia warmly. “Is it alright with you, Luna?”

“Of course. Though, since I've had a day's rest already, I volunteer to watch the Devil with my night guards.”

“And you, Doctor?”

“I have my own arrangements. I'll be just next door if you need me.”

“Next door?” asked Twilight in disbelief. She was pretty certain Colgate would have told her if a pony as interesting as the Doctor moved in.

The Doctor opened the library's door with a push of his hoof. Just outside, almost blocking the door's full swing, was an odd, blue, wooden box. “Goodnight Ms. Sparkle.” The doors of the box swung inward, and he stepped inside.

“Is that... big enough for him?”

“It's bigger on the inside!” came the distant reply. “I'll show you tomorrow.”

Twilight was now positively confused by the Doctor.

“It's alright.” said Celestia with a slight smile. “If it's any consolation, I felt much the same when I first met him. But we can trust him.”

“Will you be wanting my bed, Princess?”

“I'll take the floor next to it. Though I'm your Princess, I was at one time just another unicorn like you. I didn't always live in luxury.”

A short time later, the library was dark, with quiet snoring upstairs. Luna sat alone in the shadows, the only sources of light the moonbeams from the windows and the soft glow of the orbs. Two of her guards stood by the door, leaving her some space; the others had stepped outside.

Luna had an ulterior motive, being alone with the Metaspectre. She was hoping to get a chance to speak with it, to learn more about it and why it was here. Seeing as it wouldn't talk in a group, perhaps it would speak to her alone.

“What exactly are you?” whispered Luna quietly.

The orbs glowed brighter in response. Luna caught her breath. It was the first time the orbs had acknowledged her presence, except when they had lashed out at her in self defense.

“Can you hear me?”

We can. As we have been able to. The voice in her head was deep, yet not dark. It was both clear and intelligent, and yet not condescending.

“Are you the orbs, or rather the being inside them?”

We are. Every name you know us by is correct. The Devil, The Metaspectre,The Corrupter, The Temptation...

“Are the stories true?”

Most are.

Luna felt her heart rise. She was finally getting answers.“Why are you here now?”

We are here for you.



Twilight shot out of her bed before her brain knew what it was doing. Something was wrong. She leaped to her balcony, Celestia only a moment behind her. Down below, something was happening to Luna. The orbs were in the air, perpendicular to the floor, pouring a smoky darkness into the blue Alicorn's mouth. Luna convulsed, her eyes wide with fear.

The guards rushed forward, but were thrown back by a flash of light. The orbs buzzed like angry bees, glowing brighter than was bearable to look at. The light was soon consumed and extinguished by the same darkness that was entering Luna, as a body began to form.

Celestia jumped off of the banister, horn glowing. “Luna! Stick with me!”

Sun Goddess. Twilight started at hearing another voice so clearly in her head. Telepathy was one of the higher forms of magic and required immense concentration. Here was this creature holding back guards, restraining and corrupting Luna, building a body, and it took the time and effort to make small talk.

“Devil! Metaspectre! Whatever you are! You have one chance to release Luna or I'll have to destroy you!” Celestia was furious, more than Twilight had ever seen her. Why, even when Discord returned, the Princess didn't seem much more than annoyed. And truly, she had only been stern with Chrysalis, Queen of the Changelings.

With what? Not a challenge, simply a question.

“You question my power?”

Yes.

Twilight's jaw dropped.

“Every spell I know. My life if I have to.”

We would hold you to that, but our plans do not have time for deviation. We are taking Luna. Attempting to stop us would be... unwise.

The door burst open as the rest of the guards flooded in. The Doctor lead them, carrying some sort of glowing rod in his mouth. “Freeze Metaspectre! This is a peaceful kingdom! They've done nothing to provoke you! On the pride and honor of your species, let her go!”

Doctor. In another life we could be great allies.

The darkness stopped. Floating in front of them was a true creature of nightmares. Though it was the shape of an earth pony, its flaming white eyes seemed to pierce into your mind, scrying every thought. The mane and tail were an ethereal white against the smoky black body. The mouth seemed completely absent, not at all the gaping maw described in the story Luna had recounted. Yet The Devil's presence made Twilight want to cower in fear, though nothing about its physical appearance was particularly frightening. Yet looking at it made Twilight remember horrible moments of her past. Every wrong she had done to another, every unresolved conflict, every word of harshness.

Luna stood stock still, eyes closed and head lowered. The guards had the door blocked and the Metaspectre surrounded. Celestia glowered in anger while Spike cowered in fear. They were at an impasse. Then...

Twilight Sparkle.

Twilight's eyes grew wide.

Nobody else can hear this, these words are for you alone. Celestia has hidden great darkness from you. You are a creature with a thirst for knowledge, something I, the core personality, share. You are about to be thrust into a bloody history that Celestia has left unresolved. If you don't fix it, this kingdom, this world, will fall. And not by my hooves. By yours. You must choose where your loyalties lie, and don't be too quick to answer. Friends will fall, allies will betray. And I will say I am deeply sorry for what I'm about to do.

Luna's eyes shot open, but a different intelligence was behind them. Dragon slitted irises shot around the room, each glance accusatory and challenging. The dark umbilical cord between her and the Metaspectre sparked with energy. Luna cried out in pain as she grew in stature, her coat growing darker as she matured into a true adult Alicorn. She began to laugh. A dark, familiar laugh. Nightmare Moon was back.

And then the library exploded.

Chapter 8: Up In Flames

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CHAPTER 8: Up in Flames

Twilight had never noticed how beautiful and soft the grass outside her home was. She always had her nose stuck in a book or her head in the clouds. No, she hadn't noticed it until she had been violently thrown through her wall in a shock wave of destruction. She picked herself up, grunting from the effort. Looking back, she saw her home was in flames.

Her home was in flames?!

Twilight ignored her pain and ran forwards, charging through debris and jumping over the other unfortunate late night visitors. “No! Nonononono!” Twilight's horn flared up as she cast spell after spell at the burning wood. The heat was intense, but it was nothing compared to her desperation. If she lost her home she lost everything. Every bit of research she had done in her life. Every book she had read and re-read in the library. Every memory of life with Spike. She'd lose her one refuge. Her one haven.

The flames taunted her. For every one she put out, another appeared. Her tears dropped uselessly to the now exposed earth which ate up the moisture as greedily as the fire ate her home.

“No! No. No...” Twilight dropped to her haunches, body shaking with emotion. She looked to the sky. The rising smoke was the last she would see of home. As strong as she was, it hadn't been enough to save her home. Not against the enchanted flames.

What happened next was a blur. Twilight was so emotionally distraught she couldn't even focus on reality. Indistinct voices called out and shapes moved around her. Eventually she found herself being carried away from the wreckage.

“Twilight!” She snapped back to Reality. Princess Celestia was carrying the purple mare on her back, staring into Twilight's eyes with utmost seriousness. “I understand your pain, but now is not the time for grief. Books can be replaced, homes can be rebuilt, but lives cannot. If Luna has truly become Nightmare Moon again, all of Equestria is at stake. I need you to be strong, Twilight. As I know you are.”

Twilight shook her head, realizing the Princess was right. It didn't make the pain go away. “What happened?”

“The Metaspectre caused the explosion that destroyed your home. It disappeared shortly afterwards with Luna, before anypony had the chance to recover. Nopony was seriously hurt, but the entirety of Ponyville is now awake. While I consult with the Doctor to see if we can track them down, I need you to gather your friends and the Elements. We need all the help we can get.”

Twilight sniffed back the last of her emotions, storing them for later. “Of course Princess. You can count on me.” She jumped off of the Princess' back, Spike waiting for her only a few feet away. “Come on Spike, I'll find the others. See if you can find the Element of Magic in the... the remains of our home. Thank goodness I stuck it in that fireproof safe.” After the incident with Discord, and more recently Chrysalis, Celestia and Twilight had agreed that it might be safer to split up the Elements, so they couldn't all be lost at once. Each of the six friends kept their respective Element in a secret and safe place in their homes, and were instructed to bring them anytime the Princess called them anywhere.

“Twilight? Is that you darling?”

“Rarity! I'm glad to see you.”

“Did um... did your home explode?”

“Yes, and there's no time to explain it. Go home and get your Element. Tell any of the others you find on your way to do the same. Luna's been possessed by a creature of great darkness.”

“Oh dear! Sounds absolutely dreadful.”

“It is. Princess Celestia herself is here to help us. Meet me at the libr- at the remains of the library in ten minutes.”

“Of course Twilight.”

After Rarity left, Twilight continued on her way. Sweet Apple Acres was just far enough away that Applejack might not have heard the explosion. So Twilight would go there first. Then she could make a wide loop to Fluttershy's cottage and Rainbow Dash's cloud home. Hopefully Rarity would find Pinkie, wherever the hyperactive pink pony was, and then the six of them could head out.



Applejack, sure enough, was already long asleep, following the age-old adage of 'early to bed, early to rise, makes a pony happy, healthy, and wise.' She was pulled out of her slumber by the sound of a small 'clink' on her window. She stepped over to the window and looked down. Twilight was motioning for her to come out. Shaking the stupor from her eyes, Applejack quickly donned her hat, and making certain to not wake her peacefully sleeping family, made her way out into the front yard.

“Twilight! I wasn’t expecting a visit from y’all this late. Nothin’s wrong is it?” Twilight’s look said otherwise.

“I'll explain at Fluttershy's. You need to go get your Element. We'll be gone for a while, so grab anything else you need as well and catch up with me.”

Applejack nodded. She knew from experience that if Twilight seemed hurried, it was best to just listen to her. She turned on the spot without a word, and went back to her room, grabbing her saddlebags which were always ready for a journey. She had her lasso, some dried rations, and a survival kit. The basic needs for survival in any situation. If Applejack was anything, it was practical.

As she stepped out, Applejack peeked into Apple Bloom's room. She was sleeping peacefully, lost in much needed rest after a hard day playing. Applejack smiled happily. “Love ya' Apple Bloom.” She shut the door quietly behind her, and ran quickly to Big Mac's room, where she left a note explaining where she was going. Big Mac would have to take on Applejack's responsibilities while she was gone, but the two of them traded jobs all the time. Applejack had been at her worst the last time, when Big Mac hurt his side. Why, if it hadn't been for Twilight's logical intervention, Applejack might have been confined to her room for weeks just to recover. Looking back on it, Applejack laughed at her stubborn self.

In short time the two friends were at Fluttershy's cottage. Fluttershy was outside calming the animals, which apparently had been startled by the blast. “Oh Twilight! That's horrible! I'm so sorry about your house!” Twilight bit her lip. She could only hear that so many times without being overwhelmed by her emotions. “We'll track down that meanie and make him pay for what he did! I'll just put Angel in charge while we're gone.”

They visited Rainbow's house next, but she had left a note on the front door, which Fluttershy brought down for them to read. “Pinkie told me what's up. I'll meet you at the library. -Rainbow”

“Oh good, Rarity found Pinkie.” said Twilight. “At least something is going right today.”

As they approached the remains of the library, they saw that the mess had been largely cleaned up by the guards and townsfolk. That didn't make it any less painful to look at the gap between the buildings. Celestia and the Doctor were conversing quietly, the Doctor obviously fiddling with something. Spike was talking with the other three spiritual Elements, holding Twilight's crown.

“Oh! Twilight! You're here!” exclaimed Pinkie, bouncing over. She stopped suddenly, and stuck out her lip in the most serious and sad face she could muster. “Twilight, I'm so SO sorry about your house. I just want to let you know that I'm here to help you however I can. The Cakes have already offered you a room if you want it, though the babies might be too loud for your tastes.”

Twilight smiled. Seeing Pinkie look genuinely distraught made Twilight feel worse for her than she did about herself. “Thanks Pinkie. I'll keep it in mind. Spike, you found the Element of Magic?”

“Yeah, it was thrown clear by the initial blast. And lying next to it was this,” he said, holding out a picture frame. Inside were two photographs, one of Twilight and her family, the other of the very friends gathered to support her. Once more, Twilight smiled.

“That's wonderful Spike.” She took both of the items and placed them in her saddlebags. Then, looking to the others, “Everypony have their Elements?”

“Yup!”

“Uh huh.”

“Yes dear.”

“You betcha.”

“Yes indeedy!”

Twilight approached Princess Celestia. “Twilight! I'm so glad you're here,” the Princess welcomed. “Perfect timing as well. The Doctor's just finishing up.”

“I've programmed the Sonic Screwdriver to pick up the smallest isotopes from induced trans-consciousness communication.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Forced mind control, sorry. The energy required to directly control another consciousness through brute strength leaves a distinguishing trail. And this,” he said, holding up a small metal rod, “will lead us right to the Metaspectre and the missing Princess.”

“What is that exactly?” asked Twilight, pointing to the rod. “You called it the Sonic Screwdriver?”

“Think of it as a unicorn's horn.”

“But you're an earth pony.”

“Let's just say, where I come from, technology is magic. But, it's too early to explain those nuances to your beautiful, uncorrupted world. Shall I lead the way, Celestia?”

“Of course, Doctor.”

The rod sprung to life in the Doctor's mouth. The tip buzzed blue, and the Doctor strained his ears forward for the slightest frequency shift. He spun slowly in a circle until, finally, “Aha! They've gone this way!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. Of course it was towards the Everfree Forest.

“Let's go!” shouted the Doctor, around the Sonic. He took off in a gallop with the Princess, her guards, Spike, and the spiritual Elements following after. It was smooth sailing until they reached the tree line. As they maneuvered between the thick foliage, the Doctor had to almost constantly recalibrate their direction. “Around this one... dodge that bush... over the stream... alright. We're getting close.”

Twilight stopped, realizing something. “The Metaspectre's not heading back to the altar.”

The Doctor looked at her, and then up. “Huh. You're right. Where else would it be going?”

As they turned the corner, it suddenly became apparent. “Oh.” said Twilight quietly.

Princess Celestia tensed up. “The old castle ruins.”

“Where Nightmare Moon was defeated.” whispered Fluttershy.

“Where she'll be defeated again! Come on!” Rainbow, true to her name, dashed off, the rest of the friends struggling to keep up. Only Celestia remained unmoving, her guards uncertain how to act.

“It was a miracle they missed it last time...” she whispered under her breath.

Chapter 9: Muffins with the Oracle

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CHAPTER 9: Muffins with the Oracle

The troop entered the broken castle, sidestepping fallen stones and shattered glass. The castle was silent except for their echoing hoofsteps. None of the creatures of the surrounding forest took refuge here, despite the seemingly ideal conditions for a lair. Something about the place seemed to scare them away.

“Down this hallway!” the Doctor called. “We're getting close.”

“Why would the Metaspectre come here? The Elements have been taken away.” Rainbow pointed out, voicing everypony's thoughts. “Well, now they're back, but that's only because we're following it.”

“Perhaps it's scared,” suggested Fluttershy. “When something's scared, you can't expect it to make the most logical decisions.”

“I dunno, from what Twi's told us, it seems to be very much in control.” said Applejack.

“That's right,” confirmed Twilight. “It didn't seem fazed by our threats. It also seemed to know all of us, though we'd only just met it. We need to somehow get inside of its head, know what it's thinking. What it wants. Why it took Luna.”

“We could just ask him! Is it a him? Or a she? Or an it? Oh! I have so many questions! I bet we could become bestest friends if we asked nicely. He'd give Luna back if we let him know why she needs to stay.”

“Pinkie dear, this creature isn't a pony. It doesn't seem to have feelings or caring for others. Why, it destroyed Twilight's library with no provocation!”

Twilight bit her lip. She hadn't told anypony what the Metaspectre had said to her privately. What did it mean that she was “about to be thrown into a bloody history that Celestia has left unresolved?” She looked over to her teacher, who was completely silent and lost in thought, her guards forming a barrier between her and Twilight.

“And here we are!” said the Doctor, stopping in front of a closed door that had somehow survived the weathering the rest of the castle had been beaten by. “Huh. The trail ends here. Well, there are two things to do when confronted by a barrier. Turn back or go through. I'm partial to the latter.” He pushed open the door, which was apparently unlocked.

The door swung wide, letting the entire party see inside. Standing alone in the center of the circular room was an oval mirror, defying gravity by standing perfectly still on the narrow end. It was about two ponies tall and one wide, and wouldn't have looked out of place at Rarity's Boutique. As soon as there was a clear path between her and the mirror, Twilight felt a mass wave of arcane power. The mirror was releasing a constant stream of energy that even the earth ponies could feel. Almost as much, if not more power than the Metaspectre's altar. The room itself seemed to be designed to contain the leaking energy, however, because they had not felt it until they had entered. The mirror was perfectly reflective, and didn't seem to be made of any material Twilight could name.

“Well, what's this then?” said the Doctor, trotting forward with no fear. “Awful lot of power coming from something so mundane. Ah! The Sonic's picked up the trail again. It leads...” he trailed off as he listened carefully above the slight hum of the mirror, “yup, right into the mirror itself.”

“What's the plan?” asked the Doctor, looking to the Princess. “It's pretty obvious where the Metaspectre went, but should we continue?”

“We have to.” said Princess Celestia. “But we also need to make sure it's safe. Doctor, what's your diagnosis?”

“Hehe. Diagnosis. Well, as far as I can guess, it's a stable gateway of sorts. A portal, if you will, to somewhere.”

“Somewhere? Nothing more specific?” asked Rarity.

“Somewhere. You can't tell much about a dimensional door just by looking at it. You have to go through.”

“Go through? But it's a solid mirror!” protested Rainbow.

“Is it?” the Doctor said. “Try it for yourself.”

Rainbow, with her reputation at stake, stepped forward boldly. The mirror was perfectly reflective, with not a single blemish on the glass. The image staring back at her was so perfect, Rainbow almost could have believed she was looking at an entirely different pony. She lifted her hoof up slowly and cautiously, and pressed against the glass. Expecting resistance, she pulled back with a small yelp when her hoof went right through the material, the movement causing the surface of the mirror to ripple like a pond.

Rainbow, having recovered, jumped forward once more. “That's cool!” She stuck her hoof through without hesitation. “Quick! Somepony go around back, see if you can see my hoof.”

“Nothing back here, Dashie!”

Twilight raised a brow. “The frame itself seems real enough.” To prove her point, she knocked against it, the dull wooden sound reverberating around the room. “Even the back,” she called out. Twilight pressed herself against the wooden backing, trying to topple the freestanding mirror. It pressed back with all the force she put against it. It would not fall over.

“Wouldn't something like this need a constant source of power to remain open? So where is it coming from?” Twilight closed her eyes, concentrating. She began to 'see' the energy in the room represented as light, the hearts of each pony lanterns of red in a field of darkness. The mirror itself was glowing a bright white, harsh enough that she couldn't look directly at it without discomfort. From up above, yellow particles were flowing into the top of the portal, but they came from everywhere at once, falling from the heavens.

“There's no single source,” she concluded. “It's pulling any energy it can. It's completely self sustainable as long as heat or light remain in this room. The walls are reflecting any we give off right into the portal.”

“Well, we can keep wastin' time investigatin', or we can just go through. No matter what we learn about this portal, the fact remains that Luna's on the other side.” Applejack stamped her hoof to punctuate her point.

“Well, um... we should be certain nopony gets hurt though, right?”

“That'll take too long! I'll go through, then y'all can come after me once you see it's fine.”

Applejack stepped forward, took a breath, and walked through. As the mirror rippled and eventually cleared behind her, everypony in the room found themselves holding their breath. Finally, just after Twilight was beginning to worry, Applejack's head reappeared. “Come on y'all. I'm not quite certain what's over here, but it's safe as far as I can tell.”


Celestia nodded to her guards, who stepped forward with the others to enter. She looked pointedly at Twilight, who stepped over. “Twilight,” Celestia whispered so only the two of them could hear, “I've been hiding something from you.”

Twilight swallowed. The Metaspectre was right! How did it know?

“I've done everything I could to create peace for Equestria. However, it's come at a price. Past that mirror is another gateway, and from there, a world of torment. It's a prison for everything dark that once existed in this world.”

“What, like Tartarus?”

“Exactly like Tartarus. The gate that Cerberus guards is a decoy. If the true location of all darkness was known by everypony, it would only take one lucky and determined fool to bring all that pain back.”

“Which is why nothing escaped when Cerberus got loose. Nothing is even there! So... The Metaspectre...”

“Might be trying to unleash the darkness in the true Tartarus.”

“So why does it need Luna?”

Celestia hesitated once again. “I... I can't tell you. Please, just understand we need to get her back.”

“Princess?”

Celestia turned away. “I trust you, Twilight. More... more than anypony else. But I beg you leave this alone.”

The last time she had said that, there had been a book burning, Twilight noted. A betrayal the Princess still thought was secret.

Twilight stepped forward to the mirror, leaving Celestia with her thoughts. All the others had stepped through, and there was nothing to do but follow. She pressed her face to the glass, and passed through, instinctively holding her breath.

Twilight opened her eyes when she felt air around her.

“Glad you could join us,” grinned Rainbow. Twilight moved out of the way as Princess Celestia came through the portal as well.

Twilight looked around. “Where are we?” She wasn't standing on a physical surface, yet she felt completely stable. Soft gray clouds were rolling over an endless expanse, driven by an unseen and ubiquitous breeze. The whole place seemed somewhat surreal, like a dream.

“I believe I can shed some light on that situation.”

All heads turned to look at the newcomer, who had somehow approached them without being seen.

Celestia's guards shot forward. “Who are you?” the captain demanded. He had seen enough weird things today to last him years.

“A friend, no worries. I know why you're here and where your quarry is. But peace, they will wait.”

Twilight had to shake her head several times before she broke out of her stupor. It was just what she was looking at made no sense. It was Derpy, or rather, Ditzy Doo, though everypony called her Derpy and she replied to it. But the clumsy courier mare from Ponyville was standing right in front of them. Golden eyes straight forward and full of intelligence and wisdom.

“Derpy?” she asked in disbelief, finally finding her voice.

“Greetings, Twilight. My Princess. Elements of Harmony. The Doctor.”

“Hey Bright Eyes, good to see you again,” called the Doctor cheerfully.

“Come, I've prepared refreshment for you. You must be worn out from these recent events.”

Now that this enigma of a pony mentioned it, Twilight hadn't had a lot to eat lately, to say nothing of rest or sleep. Noticing her friends looking to her for guidance, Twilight merely shrugged. She didn't know what to think of the situation. The Princess seemed unfazed, and the Doctor a bit excited. So it must at least be alright.

Derpy, Bright Eyes, Ditzy, whatever her proper name was, turned and walked right into... a house. That somehow had escaped Twilight's attention. Despite it being right there and in her face. Some strange mental magic was happening here.

The cabin was warm and filled with the sweet smell of baked goods. There was a sitting area with several small wooden tables, and a kitchen in the back. “Please, sit.” Derpy walked to the back area while the group settled in silence. After a short while, she returned carrying a tray of blueberry muffins. “I'm sorry I don't have much more to offer, I've been busy trying to sort out these next events.”

“You've been quite hospitable and well mannered, but who are you exactly?” asked Rarity, no longer able to hold her curiosity.

“Oh, I haven't formally introduced myself yet. I must apologize once more.” She looked around. “The Doctor knows me already, but for the rest of you, I am Bright Eyes. The Oracle of Time and the keeper of the Natural Plane. I am given sight of the future, knowledge of the past, and wisdom to guide the present.”

Silence fell on the room.

“Believe what you want. But I know you are anxious to see to Luna's safety.”

A comfort we can provide.

The party whipped around, even Celestia showing surprise. The Metaspectre stood at the entrance, eyes blazing with light.

Twilight couldn't control herself. She felt all of her pent up anger finally spilling out, overwhelming her normally logical thought process. “YOU!” she yelled, jumping up from the table, toppling her half-eaten muffin. “There are two things I need to say to you right now. Number one: I am going to destroy you.”

What's the other?

“There doesn't need to be one!” Twilight leaped at the shadowy being, horn blazing. She landed with a thump on the other side.

We are a non-physical entity, you do realize. Besides, even if you were to hit our soul by chance, what would you do then?

Twilight seethed with rage. This thing was more arrogant than Rainbow Dash could be. But is was right, as well. She just felt she had to do something.

“Where's Luna?” Twilight demanded.

A wise gambler does not reveal his cards so early in the game.

The Princess stepped forward, recognizing that Twilight was in no mind to handle diplomacy. “Metaspectre. You must realize that your history and reputation caused us to act harshly. Please, understand, Luna is my sister, and has been trying for so long to redeem herself. Don't ruin that for her. Return her to us, and go in peace.”

We are redeeming her in the way you never could. She is living a lie. The same lie that your faithful student has been living. An illusion of peace and prosperity, threatened by the encroaching shadows. There will be no middle ground in these upcoming events, Celestia. All must be decided.

Including, and especially you, Miss Sparkle.

The Metaspectre turned away. We only came to give you fair warning. Celestia, we're taking your sister into the Forgotten Realm.

Celestia's calm demeanor was replaced by shock, and then disbelief. “You wouldn't.”

It's the only way. You're certainly not going to tell her.

“I can't allow that.”

Then stop us.

The Metaspectre casually shut the door behind it as it left. Celestia threw it open immediately and gave chase. The others, after glancing at each other for a brief moment, followed suit.

“Twilight! It won't listen to reason. It's time!”

The six friends gathered together, Twilight stepping in front.

“One last time, Devil! Release Luna!”

One last time, Celestia, there's nothing you can do.

“Very well. You leave me no choice. The Elements!”

Twilight hesitated. It seemed wrong, using the Elements in this way. As a weapon, simply because somepony refused to listen to reason? The Metaspectre hadn't even threatened harm on any of them, and Luna could very well be safe, especially if it was saying it wanted to tell her something. Then Twilight remembered the lying snake had destroyed her precious library. She tossed all doubts aside and planted her hooves firmly into the astral nothingness.

Each of the necklaces of her five close friends began to glow. She could feel the energy of each flowing into her, embracing her, guiding her. The other times she had used the Elements, it was an automatic process. Now that she had done some training in energy transference, she felt powerful. Unstoppable. Ready.

Twilight's eyes flew open, glowing with a heavenly light. The energy build grew to a climax, condensing into a purifying visible rainbow. It flew towards the Metaspectre, encasing it in a cocoon of brilliance. The aura around the friends grew and exploded outward, finishing the mass spell. Each of the ponies fell to the ground, disoriented as their eyes readjusted to normal light.

Twilight looked up in victory. Another day, another creature of darkness defeate-

The Metaspectre was meeting her gaze, no worse for the wear.

Are you quite finished?

Chapter 10: Covenant

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CHAPTER 10: Covenant

The Metaspectre dropped to the ground and stepped forward, getting in Celestia's face. Realize, it began, we are not trying to hurt any of you. But push it any further and we cannot guarantee anypony's safety.

“The... the Elements failed?” asked Celestia quietly. Twilight was in just as much shock. Unlike when they had tried to take down Discord, benevolence was strong between the friends. They had used the Elements correctly. And yet the Metaspectre was fine. It didn't even seem disoriented.

We are bound by rules older than you, Goddess. The chief among them that we cannot directly harm any being on this planet. The other side of that is that none may directly harm us. Not even the Elements.

Bright Eyes pushed through the crowd and stepped between the two aggressors. “I can see this will get nowhere without my intervention.”

The two all-powerful beings stepped away from each other, separated by a simple pegasus mare. Twilight almost laughed despite the severity of the situation.

“Celestia. As I understand it, you wish for the safe return of your sister. Metaspectre... is there a name I can call you by?”

Thael will do.

“Alright then. Thael. You wish to take Luna with the intent of?”

Restoring her to Justice.

“Very well. Celestia, you are a mare of your word. Thael, your very race is bound by covenants. I believe we can reach some sort of middle ground.”

“Perhaps.”

We will consider. Celestia, I, the core personality, can promise you that no harm will come to Luna. But your intervention we cannot allow. If you allow us to enter the forgotten realm, with Luna, we will return her, unharmed, before two weeks are up.

“How is that any different than what you were already going to do?”

You have a guarantee of safety and a time restraint, neither of which were certain before.

“Though you may hold to your word, I cannot leave Luna without any sort of support.”

Once more, I cannot allow you to follow me. However... The Metaspectre turned to the six friends, who were still standing in formation, too engrossed by the current events to move. I never said anything about these six.

“Never! The atrocities in there are meant to be forgotten. I cannot have any of my subjects relive them.”

Twilight stepped forward. “Princess. I am willing to go.”

“Twilight, if you understood what you're offering, you'd change your mind.”

The bookworm shook her head. “I'm not certain I would, Princess. I have a duty to the kingdom and to Luna, as my ruler and my friend.” That was all true. However, Twilight had an ulterior motive. She needed to know more about the Metaspectre. As much as she despised the Devil, it seemed to know what was going on. It knew what Celestia was hiding, and why. Besides, the temptation of a 'forgotten realm' and all the potential knowledge it held was too great.

It's decided then. Our business, one way or another, will be finished in two weeks. If Twilight and her friends can stop us before then, so be it. Celestia, if you break your covenant and enter the Land of the Lost and Forgotten, our agreement is off. No guarantees for anyone's safety. Now, we'll be off. Follow me whenever you're ready, Elements.

The Metaspectre disappeared with a loud crack, the scar in space mending in its wake. Celestia looked at Twilight sternly, who, for once, held her gaze in rebellion.

“Twilight, though I appreciate the intent, I cannot condone your actions. The Metaspectre wants you in there. You're smart enough that you should see that. And as we've already found out, the Metaspectre never has your best interest in mind. Only its own.” Celestia stopped, letting out a quick groan of frustration. “Don't misunderstand, Twilight. I'm grateful that you'd consider, but it's so dangerous there. I can't even begin to explain it, because I've made every effort to erase the words from our language. I'm trying to keep you safe.”

“And I appreciate your concern Princess. But it's not like I'm charging in there unprepared. I have the strength and support of my friends.” The five ponies nodded their agreement and Spike smiled and waved.

Celestia sighed consent. “If only there were another way to save my sister... I would wait out the two weeks but I fear what the Devil can do with that time. Twilight, there will be no way for me to communicate with you in there. So remember, in the darkest moment, light will return. Sometimes all you can do is wait for the dawn. Get in and out of there as quickly as you can. The longer you stay, the harder it will be to stay strong.”

“Thank you, Princess.”

Bright Eyes stepped forward. “Before you enter, Twilight, know that I will always be watching. If you need it, I can help you along your way. I am not supposed to directly influence events, but I can give a slight nudge to the time stream in one direction or another. I might be able to illuminate a dark path but I won't be able to fight off an army of foes.”

The gray pegasus moved her forehoof in the air, eyes glowing with a celestial light. A rift similar to the one the Metaspectre made, appeared in front of them.

Twilight raised a brow. “Did you just use magic?”

Bright Eyes gave a melodic yet calm laugh. “The Forgotten Realm will change your perspectives on Reality. This is nothing.” She paused for a moment, before looking very seriously at Twilight. “Would you like your future revealed to you?”

Twilight thought for a moment. She had read countless books that used fortune telling as a plot device. The heroes in there always became flustered and tried to change the terrible future, and often ended up causing it. She thought back over the last day. If she had known that her house was going to be destroyed, that Luna would be kidnapped, she probably wouldn't have even left her bed. Besides, all the frustration caused by her trivial causality loop, her future self warning herself about nothing... that had been a headache for all parties involved.

“Actually, Derpy, I don't think I do. It's better to deal with problems as they come, especially if they can't be avoided.”

Bright Eyes smiled. “You have shown great wisdom, and that's exactly why I asked. Remember what you've learned with your friends. It's the only thing that can save you. I wish you good luck, Miss Sparkle. Sometimes, that's all it takes to change the future.” The mare extended a hoof towards the rip.

“Well girls?” asked Twilight.

“And guy, don't forget me,” added Spike.

“How about friends?” Twilight looked to Celestia, who nodded her approval.

One by one, the friends stepped into the portal, which closed behind them at Bright Eye's command.

“Will they be safe?” asked Celestia.

“A better question to ask is: do you trust them?”

“Twilight's a wonderful girl,” interjected the Doctor. “But she'll never know the extent of her own ability until we've let go. She has the making of a true hero, but she has to know that for herself.”

“I know, Doctor. You're right, as usual. I just feel like I'm abandoning her, rather than letting her grow.”

“Sometimes that's what it takes.” said Bright Eyes, placing a comforting hoof on Celestia's back. “I'll open a window to the Elements. You'll be able to watch their progress, but knowledge might be a greater torture than ignorance.”

Chapter 11: Disillusionment

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CHAPTER 11: Disillusionment

The exit portal wasn't as kind as the mirror had been. The friends were dropped from the air several feet to the ground. Each landed with a grunt of surprise, some on their hooves, though others were less fortunate.

“Everypony here? Nopony hurt?”

“Despite the fall, I am fine.” Rarity looked around. “Where are we anyway?”

“Looks like the same room the mirror was in.” Fluttershy's appraisal was right. It was the same room they had left, minus the mirror itself.

“Wait, how do we get back?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“I don't think we can. Not until we're finished. We've metaphorically burned our boats. The only way to go is forward.” Twilight reached for the door handle.

“WAIT!” yelled Pinkie, jumping in front of her.

Twilight stopped, a hint of annoyance on her face. “What is it Pinkie?”

“My knee's achy!”

“Stretch it out then.”

“No! Don't you remember? It's my Pinkie Sense! It hasn't been active for a long time, but that's because it hasn't had reason to.”

“What does it mean?” asked Spike, a full believer in Pinkie's odd abilities.

“Like I told Twilight when she was washing off the mud that sprayed her from an earlier prediction, an achy knee is the sign that something scary's about to happen!”

The friends looked towards the door, waiting with bated breath. They sat like that for two whole minutes, Pinkie constantly shifting her knee to try to compensate for the ache. When nothing happened, Twilight sighed and grabbed the handle. “I trust you Pinkie, but we have to keep moving.”

She threw open the door, ready for anything. Nothing but another hallway. “Oh. Well Pinkie, it looks like your prediction wasn't about the doo-” Her train of thought was derailed as she turned back to look at Pinkie, whose mane had drooped and straightened.

“Are you okay, Pinkie?” She had seen this once before, when Pinkie had jumped to conclusions about the surprise birthday party. That was the only time Twilight had really seen Pinkie mad. Well, maybe that and the time she had thought Applejack broke her Pinkie Promise. But the party ordeal had been different, like Pinkie had been scared her friends were abandoning her.

“Yeah... yeah, I'm fine.” said Pinkie. Her eyes were far off and glazed over. She shook her head and they cleared up, her face lighting up with a smile. “Sorry about that. I'm don't know what came over me.”

Twilight noticed Pinkie's mane didn't return to its normal bounciness.

“Well, if you find out what that achy knee was about, let us know.” Twilight made a mental note to watch her friend, but she thought pushing it any further might cause unnecessary problems.

The group filed out into the hallway. The only noises that could be heard were their gentle breathing and their hoofsteps echoing off of the walls. Wherever they were, it seemed to be fairly well kept despite being abandoned. Decorations lined the walls, some familiar and others outlandish. And some were a strange combination of the two.

“Why would anyone hang up knives like that?”

The group stopped. The two longer than normal blades were crossed, forming an X, in front of an elaborately painted shield.

“The aesthetics are rather nice, though I never would have thought of the design,” continued Rarity.

“There could be symbolism behind it.” Twilight stepped closer, looking at herself in the reflective metal. “Shields are defensive, of course, and the knives could symbolize industry and provision of base needs at home. It could be a standard for national unity, wherever we are.”

“Ah suppose that would make sense. Noble things to want to display.”

Rainbow cleared her throat. “Not that this isn't interesting or anything, but we're not here to sight see. Let's keep moving.”

They quickly found the front doors, which were heavy and beautifully polished oak. “It's so strange,” Twilight commented. “A castle this well kept should have occupants, yet we're the only ones here.”

“Maybe they're all outside, enjoying the weather,” suggested Fluttershy.

Twilight pushed the door open and immediately froze in place.

Literally.

The air coming from the other side was so bitterly cold she couldn't even think straight. Every square inch of her body screamed out in numb pain. It was a cold far colder than she'd ever experienced. The howling winter wind poured into the entryway, sapping the heat and the conversation.

Twilight acted on instinct alone, throwing up a magical shield around them, restoring the temperature to a more bearable degree. The door shut with a slam.

Rainbow was shivering violently. “What. Was. That.”

“I...”

“We...”

Fluttershy remained silent, eyes full of fear and pupils constricted. She seemed the most affected.

“I didn't feel anything.”

“Hush Spike, you're a dragon. You hardly feel lava.” Twilight dropped the shield now that the outside temperature had equalized. “Alright, something's going on out there, something we haven't necessarily prepared for. I mean, that's what I imagine when I hear about the cold that drove the original founders of Equestria out of their land.”

“So what do we do?”

“Well, I can place homeostasis fields around each of us, but that will passively sap our energy. Any hiking we do will be that much harder, so it's only a temporary fix. We need to find the direct cause of that cold and either avoid it or stop it.”

With their magical protection in place, the ponies braced themselves as Twilight opened the door once more. The wind blew and clawed at them, but the shields stood firm. “Let's head out and get this taken care of as quickly as possible.”

The ponies stepped out onto the snow covered path, which lead down into a barren forest. Nothing seemed especially out of place. The sky was partially cloudy, letting the sun peek through in some places while blotting out vast sections of land, as if the Pegasi around here had gotten lazy.

As they walked through the trees, Twilight noticed there was no life in any of them.

“They're made of stone.”

“What?”

“The trees. They're made of stone. It's called petrification. Put simply, these woods have become fossilized. Very interesting. I've never seen such well preserved samples before, to say nothing of an entire forest.”

They continued down the path. Seeing as they had no idea where else to go, it was the only logical route.

“I see somepony!” called Rainbow Dash after some time. Sure enough, if they strained their eyes, the group could see a distant shape growing steadily larger. As they neared it, they could see it was a tall stallion pulling a wagon.

“We'll ask for directions,” decided Twilight. No sense in being restrained by pride when they had a time sensitive mission.

Once they got within hearing distance, Twilight called out a greeting to the stallion, who was focused very intently on the ground. “Excuse me sir? Do you know where the nearest town is?”

“Do you have any sense of decency?”

Twilight was taken aback. “Pardon me?”

The stallion scoffed, unhooking his cart and fumbling around in the back, all the while avoiding the group's gaze. “For the love of the gods, get some clothes on.”

A pile of garments flew through the air and landed at their hooves. Rarity lifted them up with her horn. “Ooo! Cloaks! I was actually planning on making a line of these the other day.”

The ponies donned the cloaks, which, as Rarity noted quietly, were not at all fashionable. They were dreary grays and browns, functional but not particularly pleasing.

Once they were clothed, the Stallion looked up, obviously off-put. “What were you doing out here without any protection anyway? Did you not see the snow around you?” Twilight noted he was protected by a heavy fur coat of some sort, with a rimmed hat protecting his head and obscuring his face. He also had a thick accent, most similar to the Southern Manehatten dialect, that made him difficult to understand.

“We, uh. Well...”

“To answer your earlier question, the nearest town, Moon Pool, is just down this path. You were heading the right direction. Have a little common sense though. You're obviously foreigners, and we normally don't take kind to them. Keep to your own business and don't do anything weird. I won't charge you now for those cloaks, but come talk to me at Orchard Fields some time tonight.”

Without saying another word, the stallion pulled off once again, the cart rumbling behind him. The friends watched him for a while, until he turned a corner and was out of their sight.

“Alright, I'm confused,” admitted Rainbow Dash.

“I think we all are. Why would anypony wear something if it weren't fashionable?” asked Rarity, tugging at the tie on her cloak as if it were a live cobra.

“He said something about 'protection.' Could he have meant from the cold?” asked Applejack.

“Only one way to figure out.” Twilight prepared herself, breathing out as if she were about to take a dive into a frozen lake. Because she might as well be. She dropped the homeostasis field around herself and...

“Hey. These cloaks are working. I still feel a bit cold in my hooves, but nothing unbearable.”

She took down the rest of the fields, grateful that they no longer had to worry about the energy drain.

“So how do these work? They contain the heat given off by your body, bouncing it back and thus your body heat compounds. Ha! Brilliant! Simple, yet refined.”

They continued once more, chatting idly about the landscape and the strange stallion. Hopefully they'd be able to get answers in this town, Moon Pool. Somepony had to have some idea of where an all-powerful corrupter could be hiding an Alicorn.

They crested a ridge, and finally the town was revealed to them. “Nice little town. Looks about as big as Ponyville.” The town looked pretty developed, with smoke rising from the chimneys, clothed ponies walking the streets, and some sort of meeting happening at the town square. Twilight grinned wildly. “Finally, time to get some answers.”

“Or more questions, as the case always seems to be.”

“Always the optimist, Rainbow.”

“I try.”

Chapter 12: Disturbance

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CHAPTER 12: Disturbance

The part of the town they first entered seemed rather desolate, with only the wind and the light snowfall to greet them. It was better this way, Twilight decided. They'd be able to get a feel for the ponies living here and how to deal with them at a distance.

As they progressed further in the city, several ponies passed them by without a word or even a second glance. Unlike in Ponyville, where everypony was open and friendly, these ponies seemed cold and withdrawn.

“What are we looking for, exactly?” asked Applejack.

“Somepony to talk to, who looks like they know what's going on. Or at the very least looks like they'd be okay with talking to us.”

Her ears pricked at a distant clanging. The others shrugged. It was as good of a place to go as any other. Once they got closer, they saw that the noise was coming from a blacksmith's shop, where a white unicorn was bustling around with the superheated metal.

“Excuse me?”

“Just a moment,” came the gruff reply. The red-hot metal piece dipped into a bucket that had ice chunks floating in it, which melted almost immediately, steam rising into the air with a sharp hiss.

The unicorn turned around, wiping sweat from her forehead onto her apron, which was as black from the soot and grime as the snow was white. Her mane was a royal purple, but was pulled back in a messy clump and so streaked with ashes you almost couldn't tell. “Whaddya want?”

“We were wondering where to get some information about the surrounding area.”

“It depends on what you want to know. Information isn't cheap.” She held out a hoof.

Twilight raised a brow. “You want... payment?”

“Well of course. You're taking time out of my work schedule, which I could be using to make money. I'll give you everything you need, but you'll have to pay me first.”

Twilight sighed. “Listen, we just got here, and I don't have any mone- no wait, maybe I do.” She turned to her saddlebag and pulled out four bits. “Will these do?”

The blacksmith picked up the coins, looking them over. “Looks like real gold. But these aren't spurs...”

“Spurs?”

“The local currency. Since you're obviously foreign, tell you what. I'll help you exchange your money. Any more of those?”

Twilight pulled out six more bits. She usually carried about ten around in case she ever wanted to splurge on the go.

“Alright, I'll take four of these as payment, for both the exchange and the information. The rest, based on the current value of gold should come out to about twelve spurs.”

The smith handed Twilight the coins, pocketing the bits.

“If it's general knowledge you're looking for, you'll probably want to head down to the pub. It's down that way. Somebody down there can help you. Tell them I sent you and they'll help you with anything.” The unicorn craned her neck, looking past Twilight. “Miss Pin- hmm? Oh, sorry, I guess I thought you were somebody else.” Twilight turned around, Pinkie still straight haired and seemingly disinterested. She turned to Twilight, and gave a slight smile.

“I have one of those familiar faces, you know? Makes it easier for me to make friends.” Pinkie batted her eyelids to make her point.

“I suppose...” said Twilight, still unconvinced. She turned back to the blacksmith. “I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“I didn't. You didn't ask, nor have you introduced yourselves.”

“Um, we're just travelers passing by.”

“Travelers? We don't get those very often, with the current political situation.”

“Current political situation?”

The blacksmith stared at them like they were crazy. “Geez, how have you made it this far? The kingdom's in complete disarray. Each city has declared its independence as a city-state, and there are constant border clashes. To say nothing of the scumbag griffons constantly harassing the border cities, which we have the distinct dishonor of being amongst. Been good for business though, I can't deny that.”

“Why's that?”

“Where did you come from? Do you know anything? A smith's main money is made in weapons. Sure, some have those firearms, but they can't be mass-produced without shared commerce between cities. People want blades, and I can't blame them.”

Twilight decided to play along, thinking she didn't want to bring any further attention to the group than had already been paid. “Ah, of course. So, about that name?”

“Temperament. Best smithy in town. Well, the only smithy in town but my products beat anything any of the other cities can come up with. If you need armor, weapons, repairs, anything, come to me. I'll do it all. For a price, of course. I even work in enchanted metal, but that's a little more expensive, but hey, it's extra labor.”

“I'll definitely keep it in mind. Thanks for your help, Temperament.”

“No need to get personal.” Temperament turned away and began to work on the metal again. As she did, Twilight caught a glimpse of her cutie mark. Three very familiar diamonds. After raising a brow, Twilight trotted away, her friends following after her.

“Alright, so we need to find this 'pub.' So, look at the shop signs, I suppose.”

This part of Moon Pool was much more active than the outskirts had been, but little more attention was given. In one alleyway, Fluttershy noticed a bone-thin dog. “Oh, come here you poor thing. Have your owners not been treating you right?”

The dog gave Fluttershy a doleful glance, and slunk off into the shadows.

“Don't be afraid, it's alright.” She stepped closer and closer, cooing softly. The dog began to growl in return.

“What? Oh no no no, I'm here to help. Sssh, it's okay.”

The dog let out a bark and darted forward, snapping at Fluttershy's outstretched hoof. The yellow pegasus squealed in fright, and leaped into the air, her wings catching her fall. The mutt turned tail and ran down another alleyway, and out of their sight.

“Wait! Come back!”

“Fluttershy! Leave it alone!”

“But no creature's ever turned down my help before! And I haven't seen one who needed my help so badly in such a long time!”

“Your heart is in the right place, but we just don't have time for it right now. Perhaps on our way back.”

“But I... that didn't feel right.”

“I'm sorry, but we have to be more worried about Luna than a grumpy dog.”

Fluttershy gave one last, sad glance down the dark alley. “Okay Twilight.”


“I found the pub!” called Pinkie Pie.

The building was larger than most of the others, and chatter and clattering could be heard from inside. The sign near the front door was emblazoned with a picture of a tankard, with white lettering that said, simply enough, 'Moon Pool Pub.'

“Looks a lot like the Salt Lick in Appleoosa. Do we knock, or just walk in?”asked Applejack.

In answer to her question, one of the townsfolk pushed through their group, opened the door and stepped inside.

“Hmph. How uncouth, he didn't even say excuse me.”

“We don't know what he's been through Rarity,” reminded Applejack. “Maybe he had a tough day.”

“I suppose that would explain it, but it doesn't excuse it.”

“Let's just get inside, shall we?”

The friends stepped inside, Spike jumping off of Twilight's back as she shook the snow off her cloak. They were greeted by the warmth of a fire off in the corner, the smell of fresh food, and some strong odor that Twilight couldn't quite place.

“Shut the door, would ya? You're letting out the heat.” The pony behind the counter pointedly looked at Rainbow Dash, who was closest to the door. She shut it quickly.

Twilight stepped forward to the counter, which had a few shady characters sipping out of tankards. Most of the patrons were at the tables scattered around the room, speaking quietly as if afraid anypony would overhear them.

“So, what do you want to drink?”

“Actually, we're here for information, we've been sent by Temperament.”

The bartender's ears perked up. “Oh, you're one of those ponies, eh? What do you want to know?”

“We're looking for a friend.”

“Aren't we all? Well, anyone in particular?”

“Well, they've been kidnapped, by a shadowy creature called the Metaspectre.”

“The Metaspectre, eh? Hmm... I can't say I've heard of it. But if you're looking for shadowy creatures with shadowy dealings, you'll want to talk to Spectral Slash. She's over there.” The bartender pointed to an empty table in the corner.

“Uh... the table's empty.”

“Heh, that's just what she wants you to think. Look harder.”

Twilight focused, and a pegasus melted out of the shadows. She was slumped over onto the table and seemed to be asleep, hoof still in the handle of her drink.

“Oh. Thank you very much sir.”

“You can thank me by buying a drink.”

Twilight frowned. “Fine, what is there?”

“We have cider, beer, straight up vodka, ale... you name it. None of that fancy prissy stuff though.”

“I'll take the cider, I suppose.” Having never heard of any of the others, she thought it was safe to go with what she knew.

“Good choice. Half a spur for the drink, though I suppose I could cut you a deal and say two for you and your six friends since it's your first time here.”

Twilight pulled out two of the spurs she had acquired out of her saddlebags. She held them out for the bartender.

The bartender turned them over, inspecting every inch. “You look foreign. And you said you were sent by Temperament? Heh. What'd you pay for these?”

“Um, currency from my land. Each coin is an ounce of gold. She gave us twelve 'spurs' for six.”

The bartender gave a chuckle. “Just like Temperament, taking advantage of the new ones... You got scammed. Not as terribly as usual though, so she must have taken pity on you. No denying she's good at what she does but she'll stoop to any level to get a bit more cash.”

Twilight groaned. Just her luck, to run into a scammer in the first five minutes in this town.

“Sorry kid. She does give good info though. This is exactly where you want to be, and Slash will know exactly how to help you. It was cider, right?”

He scooped up two of the spurs and threw them into the register, and began filling seven tankards. “Here you are.”

Twilight levitated the drinks telekinetically, and walked over to the table where this 'Spectral Slash' was sitting, dodging chairs and other patrons along the way. Their target was wearing a tactical suit similar to the one Twilight had worn when she unneedingly infiltrated the Canterlot Library for the time travel scroll. Spectral Slash, however, was wearing a utility belt and some sort of goggles on her head, her face obscured by the table and a hood.

The group gathered around the table. “Hello?”

Nothing.

“Excuse me, Spectral Slash?”

A light snore met her words.

“Um, maybe we should come back later...” suggested Fluttershy.

Rainbow, never one to be kept waiting, jumped onto the table. “Hey! What's your deal? How can you even sleep in this noise?” She reached out and tapped the apparently lifeless pony.

Faster than she could believe, Rainbow was thrown onto a neighboring table, spilling tankards and launching food in the air, much to the indignation and protest of their owners. Dash felt the cold metal of a knife at her throat. Suddenly she realized what those crossed knives on the wall could mean. Death.

Chapter 13: Duplicity

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CHAPTER 13: Duplicity

“Don't you know to let a drunk pony lie? I'm going to have the worst hangover now.”

From her unfortunate vantage point, Rainbow got a good look at her assailant. Were it not for the discoloration, Rainbow would have thought she was looking at a perfect copy of herself. This pony, however, was in gray scale. Her mane was much like Daring Do's, a gradient from white to black and was obviously dyed, though it was even messier than Rainbow's, and her coat was a medium gray, also obviously dyed. Her eyes, however, remained a bright and startling magenta.

The attacker pulled back in shock, so she must have seen the similarities as well. She withdrew her knife and climbed off of Rainbow, looking her over with wonder.

“You're... ha. Heh. HehehehaHAHAHA! WOW!” Spectral Slash spun around in disbelief, placing a hoof to her head. “Alright, alright.” She turned to the rest of the group, helping Rainbow up. “Sorry about the outburst. But I wasn't expecting visitors. Come, pull up a seat at my table, and sorry for the mess,” she added to the patrons who had lost their meals in the brief scuffle. She tossed a few spurs to the disgruntled ponies as a peace offering.

“So, what are you here for?” Spectral Slash asked, as the friends got settled in. “And why, may I ask, do you have my apparent long lost twin with you?”

“Well,” Twilight began, not certain how much of her current theory she wanted to reveal. “Perhaps the resemblance is coincidence?”

“Perhaps. But nothing really seems to be with hindsight. What's your name?”

“Twilight Sparkle. As for your first question, we're looking for a friend of ours. She was captured by a dark creature known as both the Devil and the Metaspectre. It looks like a dark stallion, and seems to be made of smoke.”

“Really? Well, I haven't seen anything like that lately, but I know somebody who certainly has.”

Twilight gave a sigh of relief. She had been worried they wouldn't find any leads. “Can you take us to them?”

“Of course, of course. I only have one condition.”

Of course there's a condition, thought Twilight somewhat bitterly.

“You look tired from your trip. Eat a bit, drink a bit. Consider it my apology for scaring you, Miss...”

“Rainbow Dash.”

“Rainbow Dash and Spectral Slash. Hmm... Hey! Fox Ears! Bring some food over to go with these drinks!”

As the bartender, Fox Ears apparently, went about providing the group with a meal, Spectral Slash began chatting them up.

“So where exactly are you from?”

Twilight caught a couple of exchanged glances amongst her friends in her peripheral vision. “It's... pretty far away. You probably haven't heard of it.”

Slash looked up from her drink. “Yeah? Try me. I get around.”

Twilight decided to take a leap of faith. After all, she needed an ally in this harsh and somewhat rude town. “Ponyville.”

“Ponyville, eh?” Slash rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, I guess I haven't heard of it. So it's pretty far then?”

“You could say that.”

“So you came all this way to rescue a friend, captured by a dark monster? You must really like her to be traveling around much right now.”

“Why's that?”

“You know, the war going on?”

Twilight craned her head, thinking for a moment. That word. 'War.' She'd read it plenty of times in history books, but it seemed so foreign a concept. There were disagreements in Equestria, of course, but those could usually be solved through diplomacy, or in some extreme cases, through mock battles, like the Appaloosans and the Buffalos. But the way Spectral Slash said it, it sounded like there was a legitimate danger. Temperament had mentioned conflict with neighboring cities and the griffons, Twilight recalled.

“Well, we had the luck to... not run into anypony on our way here.”

“Anypony? Don't go around saying that too much.”

“Pardon me?”

“Sheesh, you must have come from far away if you seriously don't know what I'm talking about. I mean, I personally don't care, but I see the logic behind it.”

“The logic behind what?”

“Well, tensions between the races are bad enough without us throwing racial slurs around.”

Now Twilight was thoroughly confused. “What?”

“'Anypony' is politically incorrect. There are other sentient creatures besides the pony race. Just because they look different or act differently doesn't mean they're less intelligent. Though,” Slash said, taking another sip of her drink, “it does seem to make them think that they have a right to fight with us. But we're trying to be the better being by at least remaining respectful. Just say anybody or anyone or somebody or someone around here, you'll cause less trouble that way.”

“I'm sorry, I didn't know.”

“Hey, no worries. You haven't touched your drink yet, I notice. Have a sip, relax a bit, there's plenty of time to talk.”

Twilight grumbled to herself, thinking that actually, there wasn't much time. This was supposed to be a simple recovery mission. But she took a sip anyway, so as to not offend her informant.

She gagged as she tasted the drink. “Wha-this is supposed to be cider!”

“Did Fox give you something different?” Slash leaned over, sniffing the mug. “No, that's cider alright. What were you expecting?”

“It's gone bad! He allowed it to ferment!”

“Gone bad? What, you-hahaha! You thought it was going to be apple juice?” Spectral Slash slammed the table with her hoof, laughing to tears. “Oh my goodness, you're a riot. What'd you say your name was again?”

“Twilight Sparkle.”

“Well, Twilight Sparkle, Moon Pool runs a little bit differently than your 'Ponyville'. Around here, any non-water beverage is fermented. It creates alcohol, which allows us to forget our problems, which is necessary considering how many we have.”

“Why would anyone want to drink anything flammable? Doesn't it mess with your mind?”

“Well, anything's flammable if you get it hot enough. But yeah, some tend to over-drink. Most become pretty useless after a couple of glasses. I only get migraines.”

“But if it's hurting you, why do you drink it?”

Slash shrugged. “Habit, I suppose. And sometimes you just need a distraction from the world. So, uh, I can take you to see my acquaintance now if you want. Your friends can stay here and finish eating if you really are in a rush.”

Twilight looked around the table at her friends. Spike was staring off into the distance, lost in thought and not really paying attention. Applejack had been frowning at her cup for the last ten minutes or so; she had noticed it was fermented earlier and was pondering this atrocious waste of good cider and whether or not she could bring herself to drink it. Fluttershy had a sip before anyone had said anything, and put it down quietly so she wouldn't offend anyone, and was now nibbling at one of the plates of hay fries. Rarity was taking lady-like sips of her cider, trying to decide whether or not she liked it, and Rainbow and Pinkie were having a drinking contest to see who could down their mug the fastest.

“Will anyone give them trouble?”

“Not now that they've seen you're with me.”

Twilight stood up. “Alright everypon-er, everybody. Spectral Slash is going to take me to someBODY who can help us. Are you alright waiting here?”

After getting affirmatives from each of the ponies and one dragon, Spectral Slash held out a hoof towards the door. While the two ponies walked through the crowd, Twilight finally let her curiosity get the better of her.

“What are those goggles on your head for?” The object in question were three green-tinged lenses inset in a black frame and secured to Slash's head by a black strap.

“Oh these? Nightvision goggles. Allow me to see at night.”

“What kind of spells are put on those? And why all the gear?” Twilight asked, looking at the utility belt and dark suit.

“Spells?” Spectral Slash stopped on the doorstep of the bar, the chill wind blowing her monochrome mane, emphasizing her stern look. “I don't think you've been honest with me Twilight Sparkle. Anyone would understand basic electronics. A 'I'm from far away' isn't going to cut it. Where are you really from? You can trust me.”

Twilight bit her lip. Slash was her only true ally here. Her one link to completing her mission, her one link to saving Luna. Her one link to proving that she was strong.

Twilight sighed. “Slash, I need your help. I haven't even told my friends what I think is happening.” They continued walking forward, Twilight subconsciously following Slash as she led her through the town. “I come from a different world.”

Slash looked over in surprise, but made no comment. “I actually believe that this world is a reflection of mine,” Twilight continued. “Both literally and metaphorically. My world is peaceful, kind, and bright, whereas I've felt and heard nothing but fear and whispers of war and darkness. The friend I'm looking for doesn't belong here, and neither do we. You've shown me kindness in this dark time, and I have to thank you for that.”

Slash gave a smile. “Thanks Twilight. You've put my mind at ease. Now I know I'll be delivering the right target.”

Twilight looked around in confusion. Spectral Slash had led her into an alleyway, and had moved between her and the open street, her once comforting form foreboding and oppressive. “What are you doing?” Demanded Twilight.

Spectral Slash grinned darkly. “Only my job.” She sped forward with terrifying speed, and everything went dark.

Chapter 14: Reflections and Revelations

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CHAPTER 14: Reflections and Revelations

Twilight struggled to open her eyes. She felt groggy, as if she had just woken up from a late night of studying. What had happened?

She started awake as she remembered. Spectral Slash had betrayed her. And she had left her friends. Where were they now? Were they safe?

For that matter, was she?

She peered around the room she was in. A single light hung from the ceiling, causing such a contrast that she couldn't see beyond the radius of illumination, the deep shadows taunting her. The floor, as much as she could see, was cold and harsh concrete. She was sitting in a chair, her front legs pulled back and restrained by thick cords, and her hind legs tied to the chair in a similar manner.

So, it was a foalnapping. She closed her eyes in concentration. Her horn sputtered and sparked, but didn't engage. They had drained her energy pool. She frowned with a dark anger. That was one of the first laws of magic. You never took another's power. Slash had some questions to answer.

But wait. Spectral Slash wasn't a unicorn. Somepony –wait, somebody– No. Why did she even care what Spectral Slash thought anymore? But the fact still remained that it wasn't Spectral Slash who had drained her magic. She couldn't have; she was a pegasus. Others must have been involved.

Who wanted her? And why? She thought back over her time here in The Land of the Lost, as the Metaspectre had called it. She had only really met four ponies. The stallion who gave them the cloaks, (Which, Twilight noted, she was still wearing,) the blacksmith Temperament, the bartender and Spectral Slash. She had only told her purpose in the realm to the bartender and Spectral Slash, but she had been with Slash the entire time, so the bartender couldn't have hired Slash, and Slash had blatantly said she was working for somepony else.

Somepony must have known they were coming. It was the only logical explanation. But who? And why? What did they have against her? Against the rest of the Elements?

She started once more. The Elements. She had placed hers in her saddlebag as they had been traveling. Could her captors be after the Elements of Harmony? She looked around once more, craning her neck as far behind her as she could. Nothing. Her saddlebags, and everything inside of them, were nowhere to be seen. So, the lovingly named 'big crown thingy' was gone, and no chance of help from the energy inside. She'd have to get out through physical means.

She struggled against her bonds, but they were done tight. Whoever had tied her was a professional. Keeping at it would probably only chafe her. She looked up again, squinting against the light, which seemed brighter and almost harsh now. “Hello?” She called out. Thankfully, she noted, they hadn't gagged her. There was always some silver lining.

Her voice echoed for a moment, and then faded into nothing. The outburst made her realize just how quiet it was in here. The more she thought about it, the more irritated she felt. The silence was everywhere, pressing in on her. She could hear her heart beat, her own breath. It was maddening.

Time passed. How long she sat there, she had no way of knowing. She hummed songs to herself to distract her from her predicament and the silence. “Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake...” She whispered quietly, remembering a time when everything was simple. She only had a couple people to worry about in her childhood. Her family, her sitter, and herself.

But she wouldn't trade her new life for her old one. Things were more difficult, of course, and sometimes she found herself in predicaments like this, but in the end, it was worth it. The looks of joy and happiness between her friends and those she helped were priceless.

Now if only she could get out of this stupid room so she could affirm her friends were safe.

Twilight flicked her ears. After so much silence it was impossible to miss. Somepony had entered the room. Almost silent hoofsteps stalked towards her. Twilight peered towards the sound coming directly in front of her.

From the shadows melted a familiar pink form. Relief flooded over Twilight. “Oh Pinkie! Listen, you have to untie me. Have you seen the others?”

Pinkie's chest heaved with silent laughter, her still straightened hair amplifying the motion around her downcast face. “Twilight, Twilight, Twilight... For being the smartest pony I know, you can be pretty dense at times.”

Twilight pulled back. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing is as you know it.” Pinkie raised her head and looked Twilight square in the eye. Those bright blue eyes were joyless. Cold. Calculating. Not the Pinkie she knew.

“Who are you? What have you done with Pinkie?”

“Can you figure it out? You've met me before. Briefly.”

Twilight racked her brain. “When we threw you, or rather Pinkie, a surprise birthday party. She had the same hair. A similar demeanor. Are you Pinkie's Hyde?”

“A good comparison, but not quite. But you are correct about the timing. Why was she acting that way? Do you recall?”

“She thought we were giving her a farewell party. That we were kicking her out of the group. It was a misunderstanding, of course.”

“What was she feeling at the time? Sum it up in one word.”

Twilight thought for a moment. Finally, the emotion rose to her consciousness.

“Despair. She felt Despair.”

The dark pony in front of her held out her hooves. “Congratulations. You've named me.”

“Your name is Despair?”

“That was a hyperbole, of course. My name is Pinkamina Diane.”

“But... that's Pinkie's full name, right?”

“Wrong. She is, and always has been, simply Pinkie Pie.”

“I don't follow.”

“Use your brain, Twilight. You've been blessed with a good one. The pieces lie before you. Pick them up.”

Pinkamina sat down, watching Twilight stoically. Twilight tried to ignore her as she racked her mind. This Pinkamina Diane. She had introduced herself as Despair. A word only whispered in tales of great heroes of old. Back in Reality, worries were resolved with speed. There wasn't time for despair. There was only time for...

Laughter.

That was it. Pinkamina Diane was, in some way, a physical reflection of Pinkie Pie. The reflection of Pinkie's element, Laughter, wasn't the absence of the action. It was the absence of the joy. Despair. A fear for tomorrow.

But, if Pinkamina was a physical reflection of Pinkie, it stood to reason that other physical reflections might exist. Thinking back, Twilight realized that past all the grime and sweat, Temperament shared a startling resemblance to Rarity. The purple mane, the white though soot-stained coat, the three-diamond cutie mark, a seemingly random symbol for a lowly blacksmith.

Rarity was the Element of Generosity. The reflection must be Avarice. Yes. That was it. Temperament had seemed rather off-put by their request, as if she didn't want to help them despite it being a simple question. Then she went and cheated them out of some money. And now, she realized that Temperament had started to greet Pinkie, or rather Pinkamina, as if she recognized her. But she had stopped as if she remembered something, or saw something that cut her off. And then Temperament had directed them to Spectral Slash.

Ah. Spectral Slash. It was then Twilight began to see this world for what it was; a mirror to Reality. But she had been thrown off the trail by Slash's outgoing demeanor. She had seemed friendly, helpful, almost like an old friend. But it went with her Element. The reflection of Loyalty, Rainbow's Element, was Betrayal. It had all been a setup. An elaborate scheme. Which had ended...

Here. Twilight looked up. “You're us. In some way, you're a twisted form of our mentality, our body, our Element.”

Pinkamina clapped her hooves, the condescension pouring out of her in waves. “Oh, very good. Very good. But why? What do we want? Where is Pinkie? Can you figure that out?”

Twilight frowned. “No,” she admitted. “I don't know where Pinkie is. Spectral Slash and Rainbow Dash inhabit separate bodies, but you and Pinkie seem to be one. And I don't know why you'd foalnap me. We've done nothing to harm you or whatever position you have here. I'm innocent. Please, let me go. I know Pinkie's in there somewhere. Listen to me!”

The blue eyes returned nothing. “You are innocent. And that's why we need you.”

Pinkamina stood to her hooves, and got right up into Twilight's face. “Look at me. Look at me and tell me honestly. Is Pinkie here?”

Twilight almost flinched at the intensity of her stare. She searched the irises for a single spark, a single fleck of her friend, the pony that was everypony's light. A beacon in dark times.

But no. There was only the very darkness that her friend strove to dispel.

“She's not there.”

“You know why? Because this world is meant to be a separation from yours. But we both know Pinkie. Boundaries don't apply to her. One time, before you ever met her, she wandered into this world. Our Reality, your Forgotten Realm. The separated personalities met, and in a moment of coincidence and perhaps fate, the conditions were perfect. She and I merged into a single body. But her innocent mind couldn't handle the horrors I've seen, the horrors you've yet to even begin to taste. She remained completely separate from me. Our only union was in body. Yet I remained the stronger personality. I maintained my consciousness when she jumped back to the other world. She forgot everything. I remembered all.”

Pinkamina pulled back, and began circling Twilight hungrily, her voice rising in pitch and distress. “What I saw in your world was a torture more pure than any I've employed. A heaven, a paradise, that I could only feel through another's eyes. I shared her joy, felt the ghost of the peace there. And I wanted it. Inevitably, the fates pulled me back to my world, Pinkie once again shutting down to avoid the terrors she couldn't understand. I saw what had once been my reality, a fact that simply had to be dealt with, and realized it was wrong. This world is a cruel joke. Each and every sentient being here has a dual personality in your world, who gets to enjoy the beauty that we're paying for. We're the ones who deserve it, but we don't even have the comfort of death. We can die again and again, only to be reborn, cursed with eternal life until our counterparts finally pass on in peace. Only then do we get rest. At the end of a pointless struggle, an eternal struggle for power, in the hopes that we can forge some good out of this world, this garbage dump of your wonderful Princess Celestia.”

Twilight's anger and indignation rose to a boiling point. “It's not our fault! I'm sorry for you, but you can't blame it on us!”

“No?” Pinkamina once more drew face to face with Twilight, with those eyes... Those eyes drawing out the last hope Twilight had. “You're wrong, Twilight. You see, that's the most delicious part of our problems. Celestia, the Alicorn of Mercy, created this world. She gave us Hell so you could experience Heaven. Your Princess, your Goddess of Comfort, is our Goddess of Pain. And the best part?

“Her lies are crumbling around her. The worlds will be merged once more, and there's nothing she nor you can do about it."

Chapter 15: Interrogation and Induction

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CHAPTER 15: Interrogation and Induction

Celestia pulled back from her viewing port in confusion and frustration. “I need to talk to Twilight. Explain my actions to her. Perhaps save her. But what do these alternate personalities have to do with the Metaspectre? When I first agreed to restrain myself from interfering... I never thought...”

The Doctor walked over, placing a comforting hoof over her. “It's alright. You would cause more harm than good going after her. Have faith in her and her friends.”

Celestia sighed. “Of course, you're right, Doctor. But I feel so helpless here. Like when I had to... had to stop Luna. I couldn't get through to her. I can't get to Twilight, when I've always been there for her.”

“She's strong, and she trusts you. She'll be okay.”

Celestia lowered her head. “That's what I thought when Luna first started talking to him...

***

“So why me? Why now, of all times?”

“The simplest explanation is that you're close to the Princess and that it was convenient. But beyond that, we're bound by the rules of this world. The Forgotten Realm was made to contain what were anciently called the Atrocities. The pain and experiences and beings here cannot leave without outside help.”

“Well then just ask! If you want to escape this world, we can help you. There's no need for bitterness or backstabbing.”

Pinkamina stopped moving, looking at the ground once more. Finally emotion filled her eyes. Sadness. “That's just it, Twilight Sparkle. I actually expected you'd offer, but the problem is, as much as I want to, I cannot accept it. This world is a counter-weight to yours. While good can visit and leave as they wish, if the darkness were to leave, it would unbalance the world. Light can stand against and repel darkness, but darkness cannot live in a world of light.” She looked up again, determination setting in. “So we have to pull you down to our level. The way it was meant to be.”

Twilight frowned. “I honestly feel sorry for you, and wouldn't wish your existence on anypony, but isn't the reason these two worlds exist because that's how it's meant to be?”

“Not quite. I'm not certain precisely why, but your Princess split the worlds only about a thousand years ago. Before that, each creature was built the way nature intended. A union of dark and light, the stronger one taking control and each influencing those around them to become decided.”

“So how did all of this start? You said that Pinkie walked into your realm, but we'd have seen her if she was gone so often, wouldn't we?”

“Another point I'm glad you brought up. You see, there was a time, long ago, when magic was free and ubiquitous. All races could control pure magic. That included pegasi, earth ponies, even griffons and zebras. Unicorns were, and always have been naturally better, of course, but the potential was there for all. That attribute, unrestrained magic, was pushed into the Forgotten Realm by your Princess as well. I can only assume she thought it would be easier to control a single magic wielding race.

“It seems,” Pinkamina continued, “That merging the personalities causes a natural release of energy. And a re-awakening to the potential of old. When Pinkie and I merged to become the being before you, Pinkamina Diane Pie, we gained insight into the workings of magic. Our minds were opened up to the school of Spatial Distortion, which Pinkie uses with a vengeance despite not knowing the origins of her powers. It's the exact reason why she can seemingly defy physics in your world. It's because she can. Reality can be bent by our wills. A wasted power in Reality, only for cheap jokes and the casual convenience.”

Twilight suddenly had a flash of inspiration. She remembered something that still bothered her to this day. “You share Pinkie's body. Do you know what Pinkie sense is?”

Pinkamina looked behind herself, to where she had entered the room. “Well, we have time to kill, I suppose. Pinkie sense actually is me.”

“How?”

“It's a long process getting a consciousness that isn't even aware of your existence to trust you. So I did what I could. I used our shared power to sense disturbances around us, and would warn her about them. I'm not completely useless when Pinkie's in your world. I still technically have control over some of the brain. So I give subconscious commands, which manifest as seemingly random twitches. She began to put the pieces together and realized that they were prophecies of future events she simply wasn't paying attention to. She slowly became trained to trust me, the guiding voice in the back of her head. I tried too soon to take full control, however. She was stronger than I thought. Even with the optimal conditions, she still refused to believe that you were betraying her. Your friendship really is strong, isn't it?”

“Yes. Yes it is. And if you're unwilling to accept our help, then I'm sorry, but you're working against us. We'll take you on. Friendship is stronger than hate.”

“Oh, we don't hate you. We fight willingly because we have to. And I hope you're right, for your sake.”

“Because,” said another startling voice, “Friendship is all you will have here.”

Twilight's mind almost shut down. She had known this was coming. But she had refused to believe it.

“Hello, Twilight. Allow me to introduce myself. I am your ambition.”

The pony that walked up had an air of confidence and a hint of danger. Her eyes were glaring and demanded attention. One glare towards Pinkamina made her shrink back into the shadows.

“I feel I must clarify some of Pinkamina's words. She likes being a bit dramatic.”

Twilight shook her head. “No. No. You can't-”

“Can't what? Be you? Did it ever cross your mind that perhaps you're my reflection? Here you are, as usual, in a problem only at the Princesses' decree. Never questioning authority. Never once using your intelligence to think for yourself. There's a difference between being learned and being smart. And that difference is me.

“However, I'm not here to argue semantics with you. I'm here to tell you your purpose here. Pinkamina briefly mentioned the Atrocities. Allow me to elaborate. Pain. Blood. Famine. War. Plague. Death. Meaningless to you now, these words will become just as much of a reality to you as they are to us. Why? Not because we're sadistic. Because it's necessary. The Elements created this world, and are thus the key out of it. And now that you're the Elements, we need you and your friends to break the barrier, freeing us, and thus allowing us the peace we deserve.”

“But don't you realize? If you merge the worlds, Reality will no longer be a paradise! You'll have nothing to gain from it!”

“There, you are wrong. From the union of Chaos and Law comes the ever-discerning eye of Neutrality. And from Neutrality and dispassion comes progression. You cannot have progression without strife. Proven by the technological and scientific superiority of our world to yours.”

Twilight's reflection telekinetically whipped out a knife, which gleamed cruelly in the half-light. Twilight gulped in fear. If what these ponies were telling her was true, what she understood as pain was only the tip of the iceberg, like the cold she had experienced when she first left Reality...

But what worried Twilight more than the soon coming pain was that she saw herself in this aggressor. Were she in her position, she might have acted the same. She imagined knowing nothing but injustice all her life. Of course she would be frustrated. Perhaps scared. Definitely defiant. Now that she accepted the reality of Reflections, she had to accept the fact that this creature, like it or not, could have been her.

“Twilight Sparkle. Understand this; by experiencing the Atrocities, you become both their servant and their master. You will have a full understanding, but if you ever return to your world, the Atrocities will follow. Going back now, you'd reintroduce true sensation. And that alone would start a leak that would eventually become a torrent. The only way to progress is to go forward; to delve so deeply into this world that you are reborn by it.

“Only then will you be worthy to call yourself Me.”

She lashed out with the knife.

Twilight sat motionless after the initial recoil. It wasn't that she didn't feel the pain. Oh. She felt it alright. But nothing, nothing could have prepared her. To say it burned was an understatement. To say it hurt was laughable. There was no way to explain it to herself, to her senses. Twilight shut her eyes in agony, and a new Twilight opened them with understanding.

She gasped for air, tears streaming down her face. Still no sound came out. She couldn't think. She couldn't hear. She could only feel. The pain. The pain she had been missing. Her body convulsed, trying to find someway to relieve the sheer sensation. There. Were. No. Words.

Her reflection held up the knife, looking over it pensively. Scarlet, thick liquid dripped lethargically to the ground, quiet spatters the only noise in the room. “Pain. Blood.” The words echoed with power. Now Twilight understood the true meaning of those seemingly innocent words. The dark pony looked at Twilight with an air of indifference. “Greetings, Miss Sparkle. My name is Lustrous Revolt. And how glorious it will be.”

The knife dropped to the floor, clattering and spreading even more crimson. Lustrous Revolt turned away, and left without another word.

Chapter 16: Reunion

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CHAPTER 16: Reunion

Twilight woke up in a dark room. She had lost consciousness soon after... after her reflection, Lustrous Revolt left. As her eyes adjusted to her surroundings, she saw she was in a prison cell of some sort. A barred window let in a small beam of moonlight. Twilight picked herself up. The pain had numbed to a dull throb.

Across the room, a glint of light caught her eye. A mirror. In the land of mirrors. Whether these were standard prison decoration or whether they had placed it there deliberately, she didn't know. But she had to see her condition. She stepped up to the glass, stoically examining her face like a biologist might look over a plant. There was a deep slash, in the exact same place her 'future self' had it during her time travel incident, though it had healed long ago. The same liquid she had seen earlier had caked along her cheek, and it seemed like nopony had bothered to clean it.

Blood, Lustrous Revolt had called it. She grimaced at the thought of that name, and the pony behind it. The name itself went against Twilight's mentality. The name was, well, revolting. She reached a hoof up to her cheek, and pressed lightly. A bolt of pain shot through her face, and she collapsed in shock. Her body still hadn't adjusted to this new sensation yet. She stood up once more, on wobbly legs. Already in her time here, she had lost some of the brightness in her eyes. And her innocence.

Blood, as she had known it before, was just a metaphor for lineage and royalty. A perfect example was Prince Blueblood. But could this be where the comparisons had come from? It seemed to flow through her, and the gash had brought it to the surface. But now something didn't make sense. She had heard her own heart beat before. She understood the concept of blood, and how it helped her body. But never once before did she question where it was when she got cut. For serious, unrecoverable injuries, ponies would 'Blink', or pass on to the next life, their bodies becoming energy and being reabsorbed into the earth. For lesser injuries, all that was needed was a bit of bed-rest or babying of the wound. Sometimes they wouldn't even feel it after five seconds or so. There wasn't a lot of middle ground.

Could this be what had been missing? What Eclipse felt was wrong with Reality? Though, could she blame Celestia? She would never wish what she had experienced on anypony else. Which frustrated her further. Lustrous Revolt was right. There was no way she could pull out of the Land of the Lost now. Not if it meant bringing true pain to Equestria.

Twilight explored her cell in the almost-darkness. There. A door. She knocked on it. “Hello? Is anypony there?”

A slot at eye-level slid open. Brilliant green eyes held Twilight's gaze. “Ah, good, you're awake. Hold on.” The viewport shut, and there was a rustling on the other side, then a jangle of keys. The door swung inward, making Twilight step back to avoid getting hit. Her liberator was an orange pony with a blond mane, a black fedora, and some sort of metal rod pointed threateningly at her. Telekinetically, Twilight noticed, though the mare was an earth pony.

“Alright, get outta there.” Her voice was heavily accented with a southern Manehatten dialect, the same Twilight had heard on the stallion who gave them the cloaks earlier. “You can join your friends with the rest of the prisoners.”

Twilight's heart rose. Her friends were safe! Well, somewhat. Apparently they were in the same boat she was. But at least they were alive!

As Twilight complied, she got a glance at the pony's Cutie Mark. Three apples. So this was Applejack's reflection. But she was using magic to carry her weapon, like Pinkamina had said was possible. That was something that needed further study. The pony pushed Twilight down the narrow corridor, which was lined with other doors which Twilight could only assume led to more cells.

The reflection opened the door at the end of the hallway, and pushed Twilight through it. She staggered out into the open air, blinking in the artificial light. After her eyes adjusted to the shock, she saw that she was in a compound of some sort. There were high walls made of chain-link fence with nasty looking barbed wire on the top, the half-moon highlighting the wicked points. Towers were positioned at each corner of the compound, which had the same long metal rods her jailer carried, mounted onto the frames of the towers. The compound itself, despite its size, was deserted besides Twilight herself and Applejack's reflection. There were several wooden buildings in the middle, which Twilight could only assume was where she was being led.

“Keep moving. I haven't got all day.”

As they walked, Twilight could feel the penetrating stare of one of the guards in the tower. She looked up and was surprised to see a blond maned, gray pegasus. Ditzy? But no. This one was wearing an eyepatch. It couldn't have been her. But a reflection? Could the oracle of the natural plane have a reflection?

They arrived at the first of the cabins. “You'll be sleeping here. Might as well make yourself comfortable. You'll be here for quite some time.”

Twilight stepped in, deciding to keep her mouth shut. She had so many unanswered questions, but for some reason she felt she didn't want to be on the receiving end of that rod.

The door slammed behind her, and it once again it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. From the darkness peered several... griffons. They scowled darkly at her.

“Um... heheh. Hello.”

One of the griffons stalked over, looking Twilight up and down with a menacing stare. “So. They're capturing more of their own kind now are they?”

“Uh... yes?”

The griffon sniffed, with a hint of disdain. “Well, if you're on their bad side, you're fine in my book.” He flicked his tail to one of his brethren. “Take her to the other ponies. They said they were looking for someone. This could be her.”

Twilight was lead away through the building, which had meager sleeping arrangements. Really just boards attached to the walls by chains. Definitely uncomfortable looking, and rather barbaric Twilight thought.

“...Well, ah just feel like we can't wait here for her. Sure, they have us locked up tight, but it just seems wrong lettin' time slip by when we don't even know if she's safe.”

Once more, Twilight's heart leaped. She knew that drawl from anywhere. She turned the corner, and sure enough, there were her six—five friends conversing quietly. Pinkamina, and thus Pinkie was missing, Twilight noted. Spike saw her first.

“Twilight! You're safe!” He jumped up and latched onto Twilight's neck, hugging her tightly. The griffon that had guided her stepped away, leaving them in peace. The other ponies jumped up as well, and she was overwhelmed by a stream of questions and endearing remarks.

Finally, one rose above the other. “Oh Twilight! Your cheek!”

“It's... it's nothing.”

“No it isn't, Twilight.” Rarity's voice was heavy, shaking almost. She lit up her horn, which seemed strained, as if they had drained her energy as well. But it provided just enough light for Twilight to see.

Each of her friends had slashes across their cheeks. Though the blood had dried, the sight was more painful than the memory of the way she got hers.

“They... they couldn't have!” Twilight was infuriated. “Spike! Rarity! Applejack! Rainbow! Oh, Fluttershy, I'm so sorry you had to endure that! How dare they! What happened? How much do you know?”

The others went silent. “Well...” Applejack began. “All we know is a pony walked in who looked just like you. Ah mean, none of us thought it was, but she was so serious, and looked the same...”

Twilight smiled sadly. “I have some explaining to do, don't I? I don't know how much you've picked up, but this world is a reflection to ours. It seems that every event, every being, every concept has an alternate, but not quite opposite version in this, the Forgotten Realm. From what I heard from my captors, this world was made by Princess Celestia, I can only assume to keep these evils away from ponykind. This is the true Tartarus. Now, the problem is that from their perspective, the reflections are justified in fighting back. They claim that because they've been through the troubles, they're the ones that deserve to have the joy. They consider our world a paradise.”

Applejack frowned. “But it's not like our world is perfect, is it?”

“Well, that's just it. To us, it might not be, but to them, by comparison, it is. Think about it. Sure, ponies might be annoying or egotistical every now and then, like Trixie and Gilda, but nopony's truly evil. Well, if they are, we take them down, like Discord and Nightmare Moon, but even Nightmare Moon had Luna deep down inside, and Discord, as frustrating as he was, he didn't actually harm anypony, not this last time around anyway. But compared to this,” she said, holding up a hoof to her cut, “All of our troubles are nothing. And from what they said, we've only begun to experience this world.”

She sighed. “I don't know what to think. I sympathize with our reflections. They're afraid. Hurt. Discouraged. But then they take it out on us. If it were just me, maybe. But I can't allow myself to even begin to agree with them if they're hurting you guys.”

Rainbow scowled. “We'll just have to fight against them. They're not on our side, so we'll have to work for ourselves. Nopony else is going to. We'll find a way to get out of this compound, then get Luna, and get out.”

Twilight took a deep breath. “There's a slight problem with than plan, Rainbow. Apparently, if we return to Reality, we'll pull these experiences, true Pain and Blood with us. They're called the Atrocities, and since, according to my reflection, this world was built with the Elements of Harmony, the problems placed there can be taken out with them as well. And seeing as we're the physical vessels for the Elements...”

The group went silent.

“Well that stinks.”

“Tell me about it. So, where are we exactly?”

“Well, dear, we're still in Moon Pool, just on the outskirts. When you didn't return for a bit, we decided to go exploring a bit more. We found Spectral Slash, who said she'd come to get us. She led us into a dark room and several ponies jumped us, and we each woke up in separate rooms.”

“Then,” said Fluttershy, her voice shaking, “your, um, reflection attacked us. Then we were brought here.”

“It could be worse, ah suppose,” said Applejack, trying to lift their spirits. “At least they let us stick together, and this isn't exactly a dungeon. And these other prisoners, the griffons, are at least cordial if a bit distant.”

“They did take our Elements though, Twilight,” reported Rainbow. “Besides what we have right here, we don't have any tools to help us escape.”

Twilight smiled. “We can worry about that later. Right now, I'm just happy to see my friends.” They joined together in a group hug, their shared troubles melting away at the warmth of their bonds. They sat like that for a couple minutes, not wanting to end the moment.

Finally, Twilight pulled away. All good things come to an end. But so did the bad. “There's not much we can do until our situation changes somewhat. I don't think they put us in here to rot. They're trying to show us something, trying to get us to think differently. We just don't know how yet.”

A new voice came from behind them. “I don't believe it. Is it really you, Rainbow Dash?”

The friends whipped around. In the shadows was a griffon, who had managed to enter undetected. Rainbow jumped over her friends and stood defiantly against the visitor. “Yeah, and what's it to you? Here to hurt us?”

The griffon stepped forward, her face bright and full of joy. “No, of course not. Don't you recognize me? It's me, Gilda!”

Chapter 17: Revived Alliances

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CHAPTER 17: Revived Alliances

The doors of the castle flew open, the heavy, detailed oak silent except for the slight breeze they caused. A shadow of a stallion stepped across the threshold, the white flames of his eyes the only light in the hallway. After regarding the darkness for a few moments, he looked over his shoulder his smoky mane whipping and finally trailing softly from the motion. Behind him stood an odd mixture of strength and pity. Luna was resisting his mind spells very well. She refused to give into his influence.

Peace, Mare of the Night. We mean you no harm. But sometimes truth can only be whispered in the darkest of places. The truth of the shadows is sometimes just as bright the fire of the home. Even when your moon is dark, its presence is felt by the sea. A light shaded still burns just as brightly. It need only be uncovered.

The truth is in your mind. We must remove the blinding.

He tugged at the mental bonds, pulling her after him. They traveled in silence, only her hoofsteps resounding down the corridor. Eventually, they arrived at the center of the castle. A long, dark red carpet led to a throne long abandoned, though recently occupied.

“Thael, good to see you again. I see the mission went well?”

At the risk of sounding cliché and overconfident, all is as planned, Gareth.

“Good, good.” Gareth rose from the throne. “Ah, Luna my dear. Finally come to join me? Oh, right, you can't really answer right now. You should stop smoking,” he said, pointing to the trail leading from the Goddess to the Metaspectre.

“I only wish I had a greater claw in this. Or a paw,” he said, holding up each. “Strengthening the Elements was fun, but I feel like I'm missing out on a lot of potential chaos.”

Your time will come soon enough, Lord of Disharmony.

“I have to thank you for all of this. Being trapped in here has been so boring. When the world is already in complete chaos, adding more just isn't fulfilling. Times were so much better when the worlds were merged. And I wasn't trapped in stone. Hey! Celestia!” he called. “Isn't it absolutely delicious? I'm within arm's length of your lost sister, and all you can do is watch. Oh, wait, hold on.” He placed a large silly hat on the princess, and summoned a false mustache as well. “Hahaha! Seriously, I don't know why you didn't do anything like this when I was frozen.”

Pardon me, Gareth, but there are more important matters we must attend to before the Elements arrive.

“Oh, just call me Discord. Everypony else does.”

Only because they're afraid of you.

“You're no fun at all.”

We shall see.

***

“Gilda?” asked Rainbow incredulously. “What are you doing here? I thought you went home after the party.”

“Party? What party? Dash, I haven't seen you since flight camp!”

Rainbow stepped back. “But... I... you were there. I understand if you want to forget it. We both made mistakes, and maybe I made more than you. I should have tried harder to make you feel welcomed. Pinkie really didn't intend any harm, and I was a bit of a jerk. Gilda, I want to apolo-”

Gilda grabbed Rainbow by the shoulders. “As nice as it is to see you, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Unless... no, maybe I do.” She looked around. “Listen, it's late, and I'd rather explain everything than be cut off prematurely. If the warden comes around, it won't be good for any of us.”

Rainbow frowned. “Alright, now I think I'm confused.”

“I'm sorry I can't explain any further.” She looked over her shoulder, the fear in her eyes apparent. “I'll find you tomorrow, but go to sleep for now. Trust me on this.”

She bowed to the other ponies. “If you're friends of Rainbow's, you're friends of mine. Sorry to run.” She left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

“Well, she seems to have changed,” Fluttershy commented.

“Before any of us go any further, let's step back for a moment,” began Twilight. “Why in the world would Gilda be here? Why is she so friendly? Sure, it might be Gilda's reflection, but there are two problems with that. The first is that she is friendly. So far, the only friendly pony in the Forgotten Realm betrayed us all. Secondly, she did know you, Rainbow, but if she were Gilda's reflection, she would know Spectral Slash, not you.”

“I dunno, Twilight,” Rainbow sighed, wings drooping. “She seemed like the real deal. I mean, the Gilda back in Reality that you met did seem a little different than the one I knew back at flight camp. Like, maybe she had a bad week or something. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, but she kept it up. The thing is, when either of us became angry at flight camp, we'd just call the other one out for it and we'd make up almost instantly. That's why we were such good friends. With what I've learned here, I'd be more willing to believe this is the real Gilda than the one I had to send away. It pained me, but she just didn't seem right. Especially when she didn't return.”

“I don't trust this, Rainbow. They're playing mind games with us.”

“But if she is the real Gilda,” Applejack added, “we need as many allies as we can get. However she got here, it was probably before us. Maybe she knows things about this world that could help us. Like where Luna might be.”

“We shouldn't be distracted by anything. We need to get out of here as soon as possible and pick up Luna's trail again. Why would Gilda know about the Metaspectre's hiding place when she's in here with us?”

“Twilight, dear, be reasonable. At the very least we should hear her out.”

Twilight sighed. She was out voiced. But every time she had been trusting of late, it had come at a price. “Alright. We'll listen to what she has to say. What are we going to do about sleeping arrangements?”

“All they gave us are these little boards. There should be enough for all of us, but it's not going to be a comfortable night.” Spike jumped up on the nearest 'bed,' which squeaked in protest.

“Well, we can worry and complain about what we don't have, or we can make due.” Applejack climbed onto one of the other boards, settling in. “Let's just sleep. Everything will make more sense in the morning.”


As predicted, the ponies woke up a bit more sore than usual. Nothing prepared them for their wake up call.

“ATTENTION! YOU HAVE THREE SECONDS TO GET UP AND GET OUT OR I'LL MAKE GOOD USE OF THE WHIP! IT'S NOT JUST FOR SHOW!”

The ponies leaped out of their beds before they even knew what was happening. A very cross pastel yellow pegasus stood before them, her pink hair crammed under a thick helmet and her eyes glaring angrily from underneath. Two stern guards attended her.

“Um... who are you?” Twilight asked.

“INSUBORDINATION! SPEAKING OUT OF TURN!” She cracked the short leather crop in the air, the noise making the still drowsy ponies recoil in shock. “But since you're new I'll let it slide! I am Sergeant Shuddercry, warden of the Moon Pool Prisoner of War camp and head of the Moon Pool militia! As far as you're concerned, I am your God! If I tell you to drop to the ground, you do. If I tell you to stab your friend...”

She got right up into Twilight's face, the crop tracing Twilight's cut. “So help me you better.” Her whisper was more frightening than her yelling.

“Now you stop right there.” Fluttershy stood resolutely, defiance pouring out of her in waves.

Shuddercry gave a dark smile. “Oh ho ho.” She turned from Twilight, flicking the whip across the wound as she did, making Twilight drop as the once subdued pain returned.

“I don't care who you say you are. You do not threaten my friends. And you DEFINITELY do not hurt them.”

“Good to see my reflection has a little bit of spine. Misplaced courage though.” Shuddercry sniffed with disdain. “Too bad Lustrous Revolt wants you relatively unharmed. Were you any other prisoner that would have earned you a beating.” She turned in place. “Learn your place well. You're not revered guests simply because you share a startling resemblance to me and my acquaintances. I will keep my camp in line. You're free to wander the compound, socialize with the other prisoners, and participate in some of the projects we have. You come back to the barracks at curfew, and you stay at least 10 feet away from the fences at all times. My guards are ordered to shoot should you go any further.”

She began walking away, then stopped as she had another thought. “Stay out of trouble and nothing bad will come to you. Well, not from my hoof anyway. Any whisper of rebellion from any of the other prisoners must be reported. We will reward you if you do.”

“So that's it?” asked Applejack. “What about meals?”

The Sergeant gave a snort of derision. “Who said anything about food?”

The door slammed shut with a bang.

Chapter 18: Exchange

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CHAPTER 18: Exchange

“So, we've got a couple new recruits, Sergeant?”

“Yup. And the most important ones we've had thus far.”

“Are these the ponies from that other world?”

“Hawkeye, how do you know every whisper in this camp? That's supposed to be confidential.”

“It's my job, sir.”

“And you do great at it. I just hope your lips are as tight as your eyepatch.”

“Not a word from me.”

The sergeant jumped from the tower, catching herself with her wings before landing in the compound, several griffons scattering, fearing a beating. Hawkeye traced the trigger of her rifle with her hoof, her all seeing eye catching every movement in the camp.

Including an overly excited griffon heading over to one of the buildings. Hope was the easiest emotion to catch in the sea of broken souls. She'd have to keep a watch on this one.


The door burst open, just as Fluttershy had been reaching for it. She jumped back in shock.

“Oh, ever so sorry,” apologized Gilda. “I didn't want to keep you waiting. And to be completely honest, I couldn't wait myself.”

“So... this camp.” Rarity looked down at the crude, dusty floor. “How is it?”

“Depends on what aspect you're talking about. Where do you guys want to talk?”

“Is there anywhere private?”

“Not except the isolation cells they were keeping you in, and we don't want to end up there. There's always somebody listening in here. We don't have anything to fear from the other griffons, as I'll explain, and the Sergeant and her guards have heard it all before. As long as we're not openly plotting an escape, they won't even care. Maybe I'll show you around?”

Twilight shrugged. “Might as well get to know this place.”

The friends filed out of the building into the harsh winter sun. It was cold outside, but having donned the all important cloaks, only their faces felt the chill breeze. Another day gone. Less than two weeks before the Metaspectre's promised time was up. And now they were trapped here for Celestia knew how long.

Though, thinking about it, she probably didn't.


As they began walking around the compound, the griffons gave the ponies some odd stares, but upon seeing that Gilda was with the group, didn't confront them. As far as Twilight could see, they were the only ponies imprisoned here, the guards the only other equines in sight. Beyond the walls lay the city of Moon Pool, but with angle prevented any view into the actual streets. And a large net over the camp prevented any fliers from getting a better vantage point. Or escaping. There was only one way in, and one way out. Through the concrete building, solitary confinement, as Gilda called it.

As they walked, Gilda began pouring out her history.

“Where do I begin? There's been so much to talk about but nobody to tell it to. Well, I'll start from your perspective. You met a griffon who you thought was me?”

“Well, yeah, she sounded like you and even looked like you. With what we know now, we'd think it was your reflection, but she was in Reality, and that's before we knew about any of this.”

“How exactly did she act?”

Rainbow gave a quick summary of everything the Gilda in Reality had done, the Gilda currently present frowning at each negative point. After she told of how the grumpy griffon had stormed out of the party, Gilda sighed and dropped her head. “Really, I'm disappointed anyone pretending to be me would act in such as way. Proves she just wasn't even trying.”

“Do you know who it was, if it wasn't you?”

“I think I do. I was being completely honest when I said I hadn't seen you since Flight Camp, Dash. In fact, I had been preparing to come visit you when it happened.”

“When what happened, exactly?” asked Twilight. Despite her initial mistrust, she was just as interested as everypony else as to what Gilda had to say.

“When the griffon population flip-flopped.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Well, that's just it. Even we don't know the full story yet. But from what we've been able to gather, this world used to have alternate versions of ourselves. And these alternate versions, or Offshoots, as we call them, somehow became aware of our world and tried to enter it. Doing so pushed the true griffons into this world. It happened in the blink of an eye. We immediately felt something was wrong, but we couldn't place it.

“We were in the same buildings. They just looked run down. We were having the same conversations, with the same friends, but suddenly everything was darker. We eventually held a meeting, but none of us could agree on what happened. It wasn't until a group of ponies attacked us that it became clear just how different our world had become.

“We initially greeted them as friends, wondering why such a large group would come visiting from so far. But they began striking us down. The devastation... the terror... the pain... So many fell that day. Later we found out they were just after our food. Our predecessors were terrible neighbors, apparently.

“They mistook us for the Offshoots. Once we surrendered and were able to explain our situation to them, they treated us even worse. They took everything we had, and burned our homes. Tried to make us fearful. But that's not the griffon way. This world awoke something in our blood. We became hating, bitter, and violent creatures. We struck back. Much to our surprise, our fallen brethren joined us. This world would not let us die. Not permanently. So we fought that much harder.

“After a while, we began to realize what we had become. We remembered this was not how we were supposed to be. We remembered that we came from a better world. Why had we fallen so far? We redirected our efforts into discovering the cause of our animal-like behavior, and to find a way back home. Of course, now that we had continued the blood feud that the Offshoots had started, we were constantly plagued by attacks and violence. Through it all, we were able to find several key revelations that gave us hope. Firstly, that magic flowed through us, and that we could control it as any unicorn in Equestria. Secondly, that the griffons who had lived here earlier had indeed found a way into Reality, and lastly, that they were not happy there. Through newly invented divining methods, we could see into our old world. It was a bittersweet torture, seeing what we were missing. Remembering it's what we deserved, not this endless struggle for power. But it allowed us to view our doppelgangers.

“It seemed they didn't exactly fit in their new world. They were just as harried as we were. None of their neighbors understood them. They had connections, friendships even, that they couldn't carry on. They didn't know how. So they began cutting them off. I can only assume that's what my Offshoot did. But that just made them feel worse. They were just as alone in the land of promise as they were in the land of cruelty.

“Better yet, it seems they couldn't fully experience the joys there. They had hints of the good, just enough to make them want it, but their minds were simply not made to comprehend joy. To not understand the sweetness of a cake. To not know the touch of true love. They saw it around them, in the now alienated ponies. But they could never have it themselves. It seems the method they used was lacking something.

“From what we've gathered from our intelligence network, that something is you, The Elements. And the ponies of Moon Pool are fully aware of it. Actually, they were the ones who first attacked us. And they want out of here just of badly as we do. Of course, we can't let them into Equestria. Even put there correctly, I don't think their bloodlust could be sated. I don't think they could ever live in the presence of the light as long as the darkness remained. Not unless they were in between. A balance between the darkness and the light. But that would be a torture of its own. Knowing both pain and relief. It would make any joy sweeter, any pain that much more bitter. Any merged being would be a being of extremes.

“But the ponies of Moon Pool, led by what I now realize are your Offshoots, don't seem to care. They think that any joy is better than none, and I can't say I blame them. But their methods are frightening. As I'm certain you're now well aware.”

“Wow.” Twilight stopped walking. Here she had been, thinking that what the friends had experienced had been terrible. Here the griffons had been here for quite some time, feeling Blood and Pain day in and day out...

“How long has it been since the flip-flop?”

“Actually, it's been just about a year and a half. Coming up in just under two weeks.”

“And why do they keep you here?”

“Honestly, because it's easier than just killing us. They just let us starve to death.”

“Starve to death?” Suddenly Shuddercry's words made more sense.

“As long as we're here, we're more or less incapacitated. They drain our energy pools, use us as leverage, mentally and verbally abuse us, and in general give a show of dominance. Not that it does a lot of good. Eventually, we die off one by one and are reincarnated, ready to fight again. And though we're not proud of it, we've begun doing the same to their forces. It just makes more sense than letting the same ponies come each day to kill and capture more of us. They seem driven, these ponies, to prevent our happiness as much as possible. They're jealous any time we laugh or cry with one another. Because our bonds are stronger than theirs could ever be. They fight either out of fear or ambition. We fight for survival.”

One of the passing guards spit at Gilda who took it stoically. “Yeah and a good day to you too.”

“Is that their plan? To starve us to death?” asked Fluttershy.

“I don't think so. You're necessary for their plans. We're expendable.”

Gilda stopped suddenly, and Twilight looked up to see why. The Sergeant was standing before them, her whip at the ready.

“Alright,” she began, looking quite bored and perhaps even annoyed. “Some of my associates want to take some of you around town, for whatever reason. I don't have a say in this, but apparently it's 'take your reflection to work day'. Trust me, we're more than qualified to handle you, so don't try any funny business. You'll be traveling with your assigned babysitter, and you'll do exactly as they say. Come with me.”

The group walked back towards the concrete building, feeling the eyes of the guards trailing them all the way. Gilda stayed back after giving Rainbow a quick farewell. She didn't think it wise to push the Sergeant's good nature with any sentiment. They passed into the building, Twilight welcoming the temporary warmth, and out the other side. There were the five reflections, Pinkamina among them.

“Alright, Fluttershy, is it? You'll be helping me here at the camp today. You don't get to go out. The rest of you keep moving.”

The ponies stepped forward, looking each of their reflections resolutely in the eye. The reflections, true to their name, returned the glare, Pinkamina smiling coyly from the side.

As they parted ways, Twilight began questioning this pony she had begun to despise. “So, Lustrous Revolt, I suppose I should thank you for not attacking me right now. What's the plan today? Bring me to a banquet and make me smell it? Make me beg for a slice of cake?”

“Of course not.” Lustrous Revolt looked back, ignoring Twilight's hardly hidden sarcasm. “That's more of Pinkamina's style. She's the interrogator. You get to meet my benefactor.”

Twilight frowned. “I thought you were running this charade?”

Lustrous gave a laugh devoid of joy. “Of course not. We're all pawns to the Gods. Perhaps one day though. No, you get to learn just how Moon Pool got its name.”

“There's a lake that reflects the moon? Seems obvious enough.”

“Think about what you just said.”

Chapter 19: A Day with Darkness (Part 1)

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CHAPTER 19: A Day with the Darkness (Part 1)

“Good heavens, this place is filthy.”

Temperament looked back at Rarity, then around the smithy. “Not really. This is actually pretty good all things considered. I cleaned it, like, three weeks ago.”

“Three weeks?!” Rarity squealed. She leaped off the floor onto a nearby table. “And I've been stepping in it? Oh, it'll take so long to clean this mud and soot off.”

“Why even bother? You'll just get dirty again later.

“Why bother? Why bother? Have you heard of hygiene? Of being presentable?”

“I think you forget where you are. You don't need to look fancy for anyone. They couldn't care less about what you look like as long as you do as you're supposed to. But let's get off this topic, it's not why we're here. I'm here to teach you a lesson.”

“And what's that supposed to mean? If you even dare to lay a hoof on me, I'll have you know that I can handle myself despite my ladylike appearances.”

“What? My goodness, how thick are you? If I wanted to imply that I was going to hurt you, I would have said 'I'm going to beat you up.' No use beating around the bush, pardon the pun. Just get over here and bear with me. I'd have left you in the camp if Lustrous didn't want me to talk to you.

Rarity gave a sigh and made several complaints just loud enough to be heard, but finally relented when Temperament didn't seem to hear.

“Today, you're going to learn how to forge a sword.”

“Really? That's what we're here for? But it's so garish. Not really my style.”

“I'm called Temperament for two reasons. Firstly because I'm a blacksmith, and I temper metal. Secondly because I can keep my emotions under control. But you're sure pushing the right buttons. Just sit down and shut up.”

Rarity sat, pouting. Looked like her usual tactic of putting on a show wasn't going to help here.

“Do you understand how this works? Why it's even necessary to heat up the metal?”

“It makes it soft enough to bend into the right shape, correct?”

“Partially, but it goes further than that.” Temperament levitated the coins she had sharked out of the Reality ponies earlier. “This is refined gold.” She lifted a rather dirty rock that had gold streaks through it. “This is gold ore. Now, how do you suppose the gold gets from the rock to the coin?”

Rarity thought for a moment. “Well, I suppose it might work like gemstones. You just dig around for a bit and then pick them up out of the ground?”

She flinched as one of the coins struck her in the forehead.

“No. Maybe that's how it works where you come from, but around here you have to rip the metals and gems out of the earth, as was intended by nature. She doesn't like giving up anything to you. And that's a fact you better get used to, because it's how it'll work once the worlds are merged.”

Temperament turned and picked up a large mallet, shattering the rock with a crushing blow. She hit again and again until after some time the rock was pulverized into dust, the gold in flecks throughout.

“So what, you pick them out of it now? That must take forever.”

“That's exactly why we don't.” Temperament scooped up the gold infused powder into a stone bowl, which she placed in the embers of the forge. She pumped the bellows, and the coals roared to life, the heat making Rarity retreat a step or two.

“Just to make the process go faster, I'll throw in some of this.” Temperament took some sort of white powder and threw it into the fire, which burned even brighter and hotter.

She wiped some sweat off of her brow, turning to Rarity. “The thing is, the rock itself is valuable. But the purified gold is worth even more. Why is that? It's because of what it's been through. It's been stripped away from all the extra weight, all the useless impurities that distract you from the real value. Only by putting it through a trial by fire can it be purified and reach its full potential.”

She reached in with some tongs, pulling the bowl out. Inside lay nothing but the molten gold, which gleamed in the morning light. Rarity was fascinated.

“I thought all a blacksmith did was get sweaty and smell bad!”

“Well, you must have seen some of their finished work before.” Temperament grabbed a nearby dagger, and held it up for Rarity to see. “Look at it. Feel the weight, the balance, the sophistication in such a small tool. The power to hurt, yet also the power to protect. Don't you dare tell me that's not beautiful.”

Rarity looked at herself in the reflection of the flawless blade. On one side of the ridge running down the center, she could see the cut caused by Lustrous Revolt, with the memories of the pain associated. On the other was her usual beautiful self. But on both sides, the eyes had lost some of their usual glimmer, and had been replaced with a greater knowledge.

“It is... it is rather beautiful isn't it?” She managed to croak out. It had finally hit her. This wasn't some game. Not another grand old adventure that she'd return from unscarred. Literally, judging by the cut.

“Now, by comparison, look at this blade. Compare it to the other.”

Rarity held them side by side. “I see no difference.”

“That's the point. On the outside, they look exactly the same. But on the inside...” Temperament grabbed the second blade from Rarity's magical grasp and slashed towards the fashionable unicorn. Rarity, acting on instinct alone, parried with a slash of her own. The blades met with a resounding clang, and Temperament's cracked and broke at the point of impact.

“You... you attacked me!”

Temperament gave a coy smile. “If you avoid trials and ignore your imperfections, you'll be just like that blade. Brittle and weak. You'll crack under any pressure. But if you embrace the pain, not reveling in it but growing stronger instead, realizing at some point you will be pulled out of the metaphorical fire, you will become not only useful but desirable.” She held up the shattered dagger. “This was made by my younger sister, who isn't much of a smith as you can see.” She held up the second, strong dagger. “This was made by me, just before I came to pick you up. They look identical, to the point where some might get them mixed up. The only difference is a master's touch.”

Temperament gave a smile. A warm, true smile. “Would you like to try making one of your own?”

Rarity grinned. Maybe her reflection wasn't so bad after all. “Of course.”

“I'll have to charge for materials.”

***

“...And that's pretty much the whole camp. It's not much to look at but it doesn't need to be, does it? It's not like the prisoners are paying us to make it a high class hotel.”

Fluttershy remained silent, as she had the entire tour.

Shuddercry waved a hoof in dismissal. “Might as well be talking to a wall. I liked you better when you were feisty.”

A sudden commotion came from one of the barracks. One of the guards hauled out a griffon, throwing him to the ground and pulling his rifle on him. The rest of the griffons around the camp gathered to watch, Gilda pulling up behind Fluttershy.

“Where'd you get this?” The guard demanded, levitating a small tool. Wire cutters.

The griffon said nothing, looking at the guard with no emotion. Not defiance, not fear, nothing.

Shuddercry grinned. “Alright, finally something worthwhile.” She led Fluttershy over to the conflict.

The guard threw the cutters into the ground where they stuck with a dull thud, and picked up the griffon by the scruff of his neck. “Answer me!” After receiving no reply, the guard scoffed in disgust, and dropped the griffon once again.

“What's the trouble private?”

The guard snapped to attention as he saw his superior. “Shuddercry, sir! The prisoner was found in possession of a pair of wire cutters, near one of the fences. His intent was clear, sir, but it seemed he was spooked before I had time to approach him, and he returned to his bunk. I caught up with him before he had time to hide the cutters again and brought him outside, sir.”

“Very well. Stand down private.”

“Yessir.”

Shuddercry stepped forward, her eyes peering darkly from underneath her helmet. “Come with me, filth.”

Within a minute they were in one of the cement buildings. Fluttershy felt oppressed in here. It was instinct for pegasi to keep more than one exit open. It's what allowed them to live in the olden days before the princesses brought peace to Equestria. But in this dark room, the same one Twilight had described, there was one way in and only one way out. And that one way out was protected by two serious looking guards. Fluttershy felt like she was between a rock and a hard place. Her reflection being the hard place.

“What am I to do with you?” Shuddercry asked the Griffon. He made no indication that he heard anything. “Usually the penalty for attempted escape is a good beating, but the possession of wire cutters complicates the issue. That merits death.”

She strode around the griffon, looking him over coolly. “But if I kill him, he might become a martyr for the rest of the prisoners. A standard to rally around in rebellion, though it might also further subdue them. But if I show mercy, they could just as easily lose their fear and respect in me. I have to run a tight camp or else the entire thing will fall apart. ”

She turned to Fluttershy. “What do you think I should do?”

Fluttershy looked down at the ground. What could she say? She was just as much of a prisoner as this griffon was. She had no authority to demand that Shuddercry show kindness, nor would it help her case to ask. Shuddercry already thought her weak. Perhaps she was right. She was powerless to help.

No. She wouldn't be powerless anymore. She had to at least try.

“Let him go.”

“Let him go? Why should I?”

“If you were in his position, wouldn't you try to run? You don't feed them, they have the constant threat of pain, and they're simply trying to fight for survival. Have a heart. He's just desperate.”

“Nevertheless, the law has been broken. And the law demands justice. He knew that if he tried to run and was caught, there would be consequences. As did any cohorts he may have had in the matter. Our prisoners in their camps understand and live by the same rules.”

“Be the better person! Kindness never goes unrewarded.”

“Oh, of course not. Around here it usually means you'll get your rear kicked. Well, you helped me make up my mind. He gets the beating.”

Shuddercry struck out, the crack of her whip echoing around the darkness. The griffon recoiled, but stood strong. The red gash shone against his white feathers, but his eyes shone stronger. Not a peep escaped his beak.

Again Shuddercry struck. Then again.

Fluttershy had seen enough. “Stop! Stop hurting him!” The memory of her own single cut still was fresh in her mind, and each crack in the air might as well have landed on her.

“Well, somebody's got to pay for the crime.” Shuddercry said, not even giving a glance back. “Hey, griffon, maybe one of your friends could take the beating instead? No? I thought not. He seems perfectly fine to me, Fluttershy. You just sit tight. We'll be done in a moment.”

Fluttershy was in tears now. “Don't hurt him,” she begged. “He doesn't deserve it!”

Shuddercry spun unexpectedly, glowering at Fluttershy. “BUT HE DOES! HE AND EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE GRIFFONS DESERVES A PAINFUL, TORTUROUS DEATH! I HAVE SEEN MY COMRADES, THE CLOSEST PONIES I COULD COME TO CALL FRIENDS, FALL AT THESE VERMIN'S CLAWS!” She struck the griffon again. “MY LIFE IS NOTHING BUT A CONSTANT STRUGGLE.” Shuddercry paced back and forth, glaring at the ground.

“You asked if I would try to escape, if I were in his position...” Shuddercry whispered. She locked Fluttershy's eyes. “I am in the same position. This world is nothing but a prison for us reflections. And the Griffons might as well be our wardens. They fight constantly to prevent us from entering a paradise, the world of promise that we deserve. The freedom from our troubles. So yes, I would try to escape. And I am. In the end, whether this griffon lives or dies means squat. The same goes for each and every one of us here in this Forgotten Realm. Because there is no progression here. We're caught in a state of limbo, an eternal struggle for power betwixt the cities and the races. While you 'Reality' ponies rest on a throne of blessings paid for by us.”

She stepped back, pointing at the weakened griffon with her whip. “Fluttershy, I've just thought of a way you can save him. You ask that he be shown mercy. Yet he broke the terms of conflict, and so the price must be paid. If not him, then who? Perhaps you?”

Fluttershy stumbled backwards. “What, what do you mean?”

“I mean you can take his place. We release him back into the camp, heck, maybe back into his city. But you'll take the beating. Could you do that? Pay the price of another's sins?”

“I...”

“Could you allow yourself to be hurt for another when you yourself are completely innocent?” The whip struck the air again.

Fluttershy swallowed. The pain. That cut. It flared even now, just at the memory.

“Would you give up your life for his?”

Fluttershy looked desperately at the griffon. His eyes met hers, full of sorrow and yet the tiniest spark of hope.

“I... I...” Fluttershy dropped the gaze. “I can't.”

Shuddercry let out a sadistic smile. “Then watch. And know this is your decision.”

The whip rose once more, striking and striking and striking as Fluttershy wept. There was no other noise. The griffon gave out no cry. Gave no objection. Only his eyes spoke. His eyes, which were now void of hope, and quickly enough, life.

Shuddercry wiped some sweat off her brow. “Maybe I should have used something that would have ended it faster, but then there's no satisfaction.” She helped Fluttershy stand, who pulled away from her instantly.

“You... you monster.”

Shuddercry raised a brow. “Perhaps I am. But, when you're throwing insults around, always make sure to check the mirror first. After all, I am your reflection. We have a lot more in common than just appearance.”

She opened the door, and herded Fluttershy out. The guards stepped forward to retrieve the lifeless body of the griffon.

They stepped out of the cold darkness into the colder light of the camp. Shuddercry paused for a moment, then turned to Fluttershy. “Tell me, why is it so wrong for us reflections to hunger for the blessings of your world? Just as you didn't deserve the beating, you don't deserve the joy that we've taken the beating for.”

She pushed Fluttershy forward into the arms of Gilda, who had waited for news of her comrade. “Perhaps someday you'll understand Fluttershy. Someday you'll have a spine. Until then, try to stay out of my sight.” Shuddercry stepped back inside, slamming the door for emphasis.

Gilda helped Fluttershy to her hooves. She lifted Fluttershy's chin with a gentle touch. “Hey, at least you got her on a good day.”

Chapter 20: A Day with Darkness (Part 2)

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Chapter 20: A Day with Darkness (Part 2)

“So...where are we headed?” Rainbow had held her tongue for as long as possible, but they had passed so many interesting things, she felt she had to break the silence, even if it was with the one that had betrayed her and her friends.

“To the pub, first off. I need another drink. Then the Colosseum.”

“The what now?”

“Hush. You'll see soon enough. In the mean time, try to stick to the shadows.”

Rainbow frowned. “Why?”

“Though most of the ponies in this town are aware of the other world, it's better to lay low. They'd either become overzealous and act rashly, ruining our plans, or they'd attack you in jealousy. Either way, the result wouldn't be desirable for you.”

They finally reached the pub, where the bartender didn't have to do more than glance before he began pouring a glass for Spectral Slash. It seemed she was a frequent flier here, so to speak.

They sat down at the table Slash had occupied earlier. Rainbow noted that though there were so many ponies here that some were standing, nobody even approached this table.

Rainbow looked around the room. Nopony-body...whatever, made eye contact with her. The other patrons, who were also looking around the room in boredom, refused to look in that corner, some even going as far as to turn all the way around before continuing their scrutinizing scan.

“Why isn't anyone looking over here?”

Spectral Slash took a sip of her drink without revealing her eyes under her hood. “It's because they're afraid of me.”

“They are?” Rainbow looked her reflection over. Despite what she had done to her friends earlier, Rainbow still felt somewhat safe around her. And yet the blade attached to her forehoof, lying ready in the shadows, the metal armor tracing the front of her wings, which spread as if they were daring for action, the way her eyes darted around the room, drinking in every detail, her ears flicking ever so slightly as she caught the conversations...The now monochrome mane and coat, blending her into the shadows, her suit removing any defining lines and her goggles furthering the almost spider-like appearance...Rainbow could see why they were afraid of her. But it must have been more than just that.

“Why do they fear you?”

Slash put down her cup and sighed. She turned to Dash, her magenta eyes the only highlight of color, and therefore that much more alluring. “It's because they know what I am. They've seen my work. I destroy our enemies from the inside. I'm the head a team of elite assassins, the Thunderbolts. We strike with the force of thunder, and are gone before the clap sounds.”

She snorted with a wry smile. “Sorry, I've become used to throwing that catchphrase around. But as I was saying, I'm hired by the town to sabotage the forces working against us, sometimes from within our own town. I've had to pull the politically disgruntled out of their homes and bring them to judgment. I've had to publicly kill people while they were unarmed because of vague threats that the higher authorities thought were enough to condemn them. How could anybody trust me, much less like me if there's the constant fear of betrayal from me?” She turned to Rainbow Dash. “You don't even know that this isn't another elaborate setup. I could just be getting you to trust me so I can stab you in the back later.”

She sighed once again. “The others want to merge the worlds so they can take what they believe is theirs. What they deserve. I know I don't deserve it. The others prepare themselves so they can overpower you reality ponies once we merge, but honestly, I'd be content to whither away in your light. You're everything I wish I could be. Loyal, honest, kind, loved...all I am is respected. But that's not even self-respectable. What an irony.

“No, I'd be great with blipping out of existence if it meant I could have peace with myself. But until then I do what I have to do to survive.” She chugged the rest of her mug, and stood up. “This was more of a pit stop than anything. We'll get going to the real destination.” They walked out of the pub, Slash throwing a spur to the bartender. “That's for next time as well.”

They walked once more, their hooves crunching the light snow beneath them, leaving an identical pair of imprints behind them. Would anybody come along and think it was the same pony passing over twice, Rainbow wondered. Would it even matter if they did? Or would the lightly falling snow cover their tracks before even they had time to return? Would they even return the same way? Rainbow began to feel very self conscious about the fleetingness of life.

Rainbow herself had always been one for the spotlight. She loved it when other ponies paid attention to her. Slash, on the other hoof was possibly even more well known than Rainbow was. Yet not only did Slash not enjoy her fame, but cursed it. Twilight had said that the reflections were, at the core, the same as each of the friends. Just put through different trials. So how could this pony, grown out of the same seed of personality, be so radically different? The very thing that Rainbow craved, fame and perhaps even worship, was the only thing Slash really had, and yet all Slash wanted, Rainbow was forced to admit, was the only thing Rainbow really had. Friends.

Despite all her efforts, her amazing feats and competitions won, it was never enough. Rainbow bit her lip. How could she go back to Equestria in good conscience now? She'd never voice it to anypony else, but her one drive in life seemed so vain now, when there was an entire race here who just wanted the ability to sleep at night without fear of attack.

“We're here.”

Rainbow was pulled out of her thoughts by her doppelgänger's voice. They
stood in front of a massive, circular, stone building, built in a style very similar to the Cloudosseum in Cloudsdale. Slash had called it the Colosseum, Rainbow recalled. So some sort of sport must be held here. Sure enough, a swell of cheering rose from the building as distant clanging ensued.

Spectral Slash led Dash through several dark hallways, before the corridors opened up into a central arena with seats all around. Hundreds of ponies cheered and yelled towards the floor of the arena, where two ponies were locked in combat. This was obviously the main attraction here in Moon Pool.

“Let's find a seat.” Spectral Slash pulled her hood further past her eyes, and clambered up the steps with Rainbow close behind. They found two isolated seats on the very top row, giving them a great view of the arena and the rest of the crowd.

“What are they doing down there?” Rainbow asked, leaning over the railing. “They're not actually fighting are they?”

“Actually, they are. And that's what I've come to show you. Those two ponies down there are good friends, even here in the Forgotten Realm. I believe they're named Lyra and Bon-Bon in your world. But life is so hard here, they're willing to literally kill each other over a few spurs.”

“They'll be reborn though, right? That's how this world works.”

“Sure, but how close can anyone's relationship get if you're killing one another? Perhaps even more so because they return to life. That isn't friendship. That's rivalry. Something you and Applejack learned a bit about.”

The cheering rose as Bon-Bon's reflection preformed an amazing counter attack, striking with a quick upwards slash of her short sword. Rainbow covered her mouth in horror as Lyra's reflection's ear was sheared off, flopping uselessly into the dirt.

Spectral Slash spread a hoof across the crowd, which yelled as Lyra's reflection slashed forward with a spear. “These ponies, who have known almost nothing but fighting their entire lives, watch more of it to forget their own troubles. But what they don't realize is that, in the end...”

Lyra's reflection pulled out of the jab at the last second, expertly redirecting the spearhead directly into her friend's neck, a red geyser confirming the hit. Rainbow gasped in shock once more.

“Fighting is meaningless. Sheer force never changed anyone's mind. It might subdue them, it might make them go lick their wounds in shame, but vengeance will always be on their mind.”

Slash stood up, as Bon-Bon's reflection fell, a faint shadow over her paling face falling from the dripping spear held in victory, as the crowd and the excitement rose.

“Heh, just look at us. Animals. We deserve our fate here. We deserve to drown in the blood we spill, gorging our empty stomachs on the flesh of our friends and enemies. It's all we've managed to do with this world. We use the excuse of the Atrocities, the warring clans and cities that don't see as we do, our terrible punishment bestowed by a merciless God. But in truth, the Atrocities are us. Our refusal to see that, in any situation, we could make a difference.”

She looked at Rainbow, her eyes sad and full of longing. “So I use my Element of Betrayal to betray the darkness within. To betray this world. To betray myself. Dash, you have to save us.”


A short time later, the two ponies were walking back to the pub. Slash said she wanted another drink, and Rainbow wasn't too keen on watching more blood be spilled. They took a different route than before, after Slash said something about being followed.

Rainbow looked up as her stomach growled. She had forgotten just how long it had been since she had eaten. It had been bothering her all day, she realized, but she had been ignoring it, due to the circumstances. But now, right there in front of her, was an apple stand. The stallion who had lent them the cloaks was standing behind it, but he was distracted at the moment...

In a split second, Rainbow grabbed one of the apples and tucked it under her wing, pressing the cold fruit against her body. It wasn't really stealing, she decided. She intended to pay the stallion back for the cloaks, so she'd just pay him extra for the apple. Yes, that was it. Totally fine.

But no...

She began turning back towards the stand to return the apple, her conscience getting the better of her. She stopped when she remembered Gilda.

Perhaps it was justified if she stole it for her. Gilda hadn't eaten in who knew how long, and despite her cheery appearance, Rainbow had noticed she was very thin. She frowned with determination. Gilda was oppressed by that cruel, that...brutal reflection of Fluttershy, Shuddercry. If there was a single pony or griffon who deserved this apple more than Gilda, Rainbow couldn't think of it.

She tightened her grip on the apple. Just one. It wouldn't be missed.

Spectral Slash looked back. “You coming, Dash?”

Rainbow nodded. “I'll be right with you.” She trotted after Slash, her hooves falling perfectly into place with her reflection's prints.

Chapter 21: A Day with Darkness (Part 3)

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Chapter 21: A Day with Darkness (Part 3)

The light flared on, making Applejack recoil as she adjusted to the unexpected brightness. Her reflection walked over and sat down on the opposite side of the short table, leaning back in the chair.

“So.”

Applejack flicked her ear in the uncomfortable silence. “Um, so what's that there tool you have?”

The reflection lifted the metal rod she'd been bossing Twilight around with before. “This? It's a rifle. Gun, firearm, whatever you want to call it.”

“What's it used for?”

“Killing griffons. And the occasional pony.”

Applejack stopped talking. After all, how could you respond to that?

After a few more minutes of silence, in which Applejack grew quite fidgety, her reflection finally spoke up.

“You seem like a nice enough pony, Applejack. You're a farmer, right?”

“Yes'm. Ah own an apple orchard.”

“As do I. And you use it to feed the town?”

“That's right.”

“Well, at least we have that in common. You'd do anything to protect your family? Even give up your own life?”

Applejack responded without hesitation. “Of course.”

The pony took off her fedora and smiled tiredly. “Good.”

She placed the hat on the table, allowing her mane to fall around her neck as some of the weight on her mind was relieved. “Finally, I have someone to talk to. I'm Jackie. Simple as that. I'm the sole provider for the food here in Moon Pool. My land's the only arable land around. My family also takes care of the kids around here, so they're protected from attacks. Despite all the hatred between us and the griffons and the other cities, nobody stoops low enough to attack the children or the food sources. We at least respect the need for life to continue. Especially when there is so little food.”

“Ah heard whispers of there being a food shortage?”

“Food shortage doesn't begin to describe it. It's nothing short of a Famine.”

“Is that why you don't feed the prisoners?”

“It's a large part of it. We don't even have enough to feed ourselves.”

“Really? 'Cause ah mean, we were able to buy some drinks at the pub, so there must be some outside source of food.”

“Well, yes and no. It's unreliable and they charge quite a bit. Most can't afford the drinks you had, except on special occasions. Then there's Spectral Slash, who I swear is the pony that keeps the pub in business. When I say sole provider, I mean that I'm the only one that's dependable and fair.”

Applejack held up a hoof. “Now, ah don't want to come off as attackin' or nothin', but I've been doing some thinkin'. You're my reflection, and we already learned this fella of yours, Spectral Slash, is the Element of Betrayal. And Pinkamina is the Element of Despair. So, me being the Element of Honesty, you'd probably be Dishonesty, right?”

“Deceit, actually.”

“So are you just leadin' me on? Makin' me think you're nice when it's really a big scam?”

“The Elements aren't as simple as you might think. Not that I'm insulting your intelligence. After all, you can study all you want, but if you don't know how to apply it, are you really smart at all? Allow me to give you a different perspective.

“We reflections have been watching your world for some time, with mixed feelings. More than anything, I was surprised.”

“Surprised? How so?”

“Well, for being the Element of Honesty, you do an awful lot of lying.”

Applejack stood up and banged a hoof on the table. “Hey! I only do what's necessary. Everypony knows I'm honest in my business dealings.”

“And that's about as far as it goes. Just a moment, I think I gathered some notes...” Jackie lifted a pad of paper which she set next to her hat. “Alright, so the most obvious time was when Pinkamina was attempting an aggressive takeover on Pinkie. You and your friends planned that surprise party, and you had the misfortune of taking the brunt of her mistrust. Now, I understand you were bound to secrecy, yet you still blatantly lied to a direct question.”

She held up a hoof as Applejack began justifying herself. “Let me finish. The thing is, it's not just you. Fluttershy, for being Kindness, has a tendency to lose it every now and then, doesn't she? I even heard Shuddercry admitting she was impressed with how she attacked -Pinkie and Rarity, correct?- after she got that assertiveness training. Then there's Pinkie Pie. Perhaps she's a special case due to being a mixed personality, but Pinkamina strongly says she has no control over Pinkie. Pinkie, though she usually makes it up to them in the end, often makes people more frustrated, annoyed, and sometimes even angrier than they would have been if she'd stayed out of it all together. That Donkey that moved to Ponyville, for example. For being the Element of Laughter, she caused an awful lot of hassle. Then that experience with the cake for the contest on the train...Really? Could any sort of laughter come from wild accusations about criminal activities? And she seemed awfully willing to attack her friends in the matter too.”

She shook her mane again as she finished. “I'm not saying you or your friends are terrible people. Far from it, you're actually quite wonderful. But it seems to me that your Elements, rather than being a rule of what you are and do, are what you need to learn to uphold. You have the tendency for Honesty, and it's pretty obvious when you're lying. And though you don't prefer it, you still don't have any real qualms about lying, or rather, avoiding the truth. How was cherry picking, by the way?”

Applejack swallowed. “Well, uh, I guess you got me there. But I had my reasons, didn't I? Sure, I might tell the occasional white lie or dance around subjects, but don't everybody?”

“Nobody does anything, good or bad, without their reasons. The evil are completely justified from their point of view. That's why court systems try to get to know the crime, not the person. Because if they got to know the person fully, understanding every bit of their history and trials, they'd go free every time.

“Now, on the flip side, Applejack, you have a talent for getting people to be Honest with you. Twilight was blunt with you when she let you know you needed help harvesting your orchard. Your younger sister trusts you completely, and spills all her troubles to you.

“The same idea holds true for the other Elements. Rarity, being Generosity, is still business savvy. It's not like she goes broke because she gives everything away. Perhaps even more so because people are generous to her. Your dragon friend, Spike, was willing to give his prize ruby when she asked for it, and for another, perhaps more trivial example, Rarity used her charm to beguile that colt out of his asparagus.

“Twilight? She's the Element of Magic, and there's no doubt she's good at it. But she still needs to learn its borders. Her Want It Need It Spell is a prime example. Her fail-proof spell when the Lord of Chaos arrived? She needed to learn that there is no such thing as fail-proof. Beyond that, she's still learning the true extent of Magic's synonym. Friendship. I could go on, but I'll leave you something to think about.”

“Well, ah guess ah see what you're sayin',” said Applejack, lowering her head as she took this in. “Does this apply to you reflections too?”

“Oh, of course. Spreading Despair only causes it to come back to yourself. The same with Betrayal, Brutality, Avarice, and Destruction. Deceit? Debatable. But there you go. Perhaps I'm deceiving myself. The master lier lies best to herself.”

She stepped around the table to Applejack, donning her Fedora on the way. “Come with me. Big Mike should be coming back soon from market.”

“Big Mike?” Applejack laughed. “Ah bet ah can guess whose reflection that is.”

Jackie chuckled. “Yeah, I'll bet you can. He lent you the cloak you're wearing earlier.”

“Ah knew he looked familiar!”

They walked out of the barn, if you could call it that. It was more like the solitary confinement buildings at the prisoner camp. Low to the ground and imposing. “You produce the apples here,” Applejack began. “And everybody needs what you have, even more so than where I come from. So why the weapon? Why the secure buildings, if the other towns don't attack?”

Jackie frowned as they continued walking. “That's where my Element of Deceit comes in. Everybody in town knows, or thinks they know, that I'm just as cruel as the Sergeant herself. It's only because I have to be. Some ponies get pretty desperate to fill their bellies. Sometimes we have to put them out of their misery, as an example to any others who might be foolish enough to mess with the order we have set up.

“After all,” she sighed, “If a single being threatens the system, no matter how innocent or good their intent, they must be taken down. Because the complacency of the masses is more desired than the well being of the masses. That's the greatest Deceit of all. The idea that anything is ever as it first seems, and that anything ever is perfect.

“After all, those in control are only pony.”

***

Pinkamina Diane stood alone, a flickering street lamp her only company. It was growing late, after all, and most had returned to their homes. Nobody had noticed her, as usual. She was a misfit, even before she had merged with Pinkie. She was confused, lost, and hurt. She pawed at the ground, pushing the snow aside to reveal the frozen earth. Even now, the master plan was in motion. Someday she'd have the peace she desired.

But there was no joy at the thought. No excitement. She knew this plan would fail. The other reflections were blind. Only she knew the truth. She had no control over Pinkie. And the moment she gained it, if she ever did, she would no longer be Pinkamina. She'd be a defiled creature. Neither light nor dark, tainted by the cruelty of the Forgotten and tortured at the memory of the happiness that once was.


Pinkamina shut her eyes, concentrating. The air around her shimmered like the road underneath her might on a summer's day, so far distant now in the darkness of winter. After a momentary flash, she was gone.


Pinkie opened her eyes. She stood outside Sugar Cube corner, the light inside alluring and welcoming. She bounced inside, wondering where her friends were, throwing up the snow as she went. She was quickly distracted, however, by the warm smell of freshly baked cupcakes which greeted her entrance. One sat on the counter, a small tradition of sacrifice the Cakes had started to appease their babysitter's appetite. She bounded over, taking a deep breath of the fragrant baked good. She picked it up, readying herself to take a monstrous bite.


Pinkamina opened her eyes. She stood alone, the street light greeting her return, flickering out for the last time now that it no longer had to worry about the lost friend. Pinkamina looked down at her hoof, which held a small pink confection. So startling bright against the snow, against this world of shadow. She held it, lost for a moment in just the sheer color. It seemed a shame to consume it.

She took a tentative bite. Nothing.

She couldn't taste it. Just as Pinkie was not made to understand her troubles, she was not made to understand the true pleasures of reality. They could only understand through each other.

She trembled. Whether with anger or sorrow, not even she knew. She had to get out of here. This world. This fight. Somehow, she had to escape. But unlike so many others, she actually had a way to.


Pinkie blinked in confusion. She had been trying to take a bite of her cupcake, yes, but she didn't remember taking this one. With a shrug, she popped the cupcake in anyway.

She grinned as she took in the flavor. The Cakes had done it again. She savored every morsel, rather than pigging out as she usually did. Chills ran up her spine from the sweetness, and she giggled at the sensation.

It was a Pinkie Sense she had only felt a couple of times before. The sensation of bliss.

Chapter 22: The Moon Pool

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Chapter 22: The Moon Pool

Twilight and Lustrous Revolt crested the hill, revealing the core of the city. As Twilight had predicted, a glistening pool rested in the small valley. The rays of the setting sun failed to pierce the blackness of the small lake, giving the place an ominous feeling. The water sank into darkness, no life apparent in what should have been an oasis in the depths of winter. Despite the pool's stillness, there was not a single shard of ice on its surface, and the snow line stopped a good five feet away from the water's edge.

As they got closer, Twilight could see her literal reflection in the water just as easily as any in mirror, though it looked a bit eerie in the fading light.. She turned to Lustrous Revolt, who was waiting expectantly.

“It's a pretty pond, sure, but I don't see what it's got to do with this whole charade of yours.”

“Patience, Twilight. Must everything be answered instantly? The best revelations take both time and an understanding of events that came before.”

“What are we waiting for, then?”

“For the moon to rise.”

“Oh, I get it. So it'll be the accurately named Moon Pool rather than the 'Dark Lake in a Sunset Pool'. Yeah, I guess that doesn't have the same ring to it.”

“Please, hold your sarcasm. It goes beyond that, of course.”

Twilight sat in a dark acceptance. Lustrous Revolt was a monster, and their resemblance just made Twilight hate her more. She had attacked Twilight's friends with no provocation. Twilight understood, perhaps, their position and desire to get out of here, but that did not excuse their hostility.

The moon rose slowly as the world darkened, the stars popping into existence as the sun's glory no longer drowned them out. The pool in front of them caught the light from above so perfectly that Twilight experienced a moment of vertigo and had to plant her hooves firmly into the ground to reassure herself she was still on the earth.

“Nobody likes change...”

Twilight turned to her reflection, who had been silent for almost an entire hour now. “Excuse me?”

“Nobody likes change happening around them because it causes change inside.” Revolt looked over to Twilight, her face unreadable. “The Twilight that entered this world is already dead. And what you are now will be long gone by the time you leave. It's what we have to do to survive. We adapt, or we perish. But just as nobody thinks they're going to die, most people cannot accept that their current mindset will die as well.

“Those who do, however, become the strongest. They're the ones who rise to power. They're the ones who change the rules of war, of life, of happiness. Those who are willing to let themselves die are the ones who become Gods.”

Twilight raised a brow. “Rather poetic.”

“I thought you might like it.”

“I'm not certain I do. But it's definitely something to think about.”

“Isn't that enough, at times? The thinkers are the most dangerous. They take calculated risks rather than jumping blindly into danger. Because of that, they usually come out on top. After all, by thinking you learn to adapt. You learn to learn, so to speak. If you don't take the time to ponder your trials and experiences, gathering plans and knowledge for future troubles, then what was the point of having the experiences in the first place? What was that quote? 'Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.' Yes. So, let's learn just a bit of history about the Forgotten Realm.”

As she spoke, the moon reached the crest of its ascent, the bright orb reflected perfectly in the dead center of the lake. The stars around it seemed to grow brighter as they greeted its presence.

“Remember that book you read that lead you to your friends? The one with the prophecies of Nightmare Moon's return? 'The Stars will aide in her escape', it said. Didn't that ever strike you as odd?”

“I didn't think much of it at the time. The method didn't matter. Only that a threat to Equestria was about to rise.”

“Oh, but the method does matter. Why would a passive force release the greatest darkness known to your world? They wouldn't, now, would they?”

“Well, the stars are part of the night sky, so maybe they belong to Luna?”

“If Luna, being incarcerated, had the ability to release herself, she would have done it a lot earlier, wouldn't you think? No, there has to be another party involved. It couldn't have been Celestia either. Though Celestia wanted her true sister back, she didn't want to face Nightmare Moon first. After all, she did run off when Luna returned.”

“Hey! She was doing what she thought was best!”

“For who?”

“It made Luna realize her mistake, made me love my friends, and brought peace back to Equestria! So...for everypony!”

“Still blinding yourself? After all this time? After everything you've experienced?”

Twilight growled. “Celestia did nothing wrong!”

“Of course not. She uses fools like you to do her dirty work so she remains pure. She tricks others into making mistakes so they come back to her, begging for mercy, which she so gladly gives, when all it takes is an outside perspective to realize she's the one causing the problems in the first place.”

“You're lying.”

“Am I? Let's look at the facts. You almost brought ruin on your town when you lost control of yourself and your magic. You had to find something good to report to your oh-so-wise mentor.”

“I recognize what I did as wrong, but I've moved on from such foolishness.”

“Alright, let's look at some of the others. The recent Changeling attack on Canterlot. The Queen's plan wasn't exactly fool-proof or even well thought out. But it almost worked, didn't it? Because Celestia couldn't see what was under her nose, because it was and is held in the air in unwarranted pride.

“Discord's return? Ha. She kept his 'body' on display, a testament to her vanity. She thought she was safe. 'I thought the spell we cast would keep him contained forever', she said. 'That chamber is protected by a powerful spell that only I can break! This doesn't make sense!'” Lustrous' tone was mocking and bitter.

“Those are some pretty critical mistakes for her to make. Then what does she do? She throws you into the middle of it all, sending you letters in the hopes that it will spur you into action, because she can't face you herself in times of distress. She puts on a pretty face when it's needed, but you're the ones that keep the realm safe. And still you worry yourself every time she makes an appearance, hoping that she will deem your meager offers as sufficient.”

“Stop right there. You've crossed the line.” Twilight felt anger welling up in her heart. It didn't matter what this lying shadow was saying. “The Princess is amazing! She saves Equestria from forces like you! Once I may have felt pity, but now I know this is where you and all the other reflections belong! I'm done listening.” She got up and began walking away.

With a flash of light, she was blasted back, skidding through the snow until she lay at the water's edge. Lustrous Revolt stood over her, calm yet menacing. “No, you're not.”

Twilight jumped back to her hooves, her horn flaring up weakly. She had recovered just enough magic for one blast.

“Better make it count,” Lustrous sneered.

The frustration inside of Twilight came to a boiling point. She focused, the blast of radiance striking Lustrous Revolt dead on, throwing her a good twenty feet. Twilight panted, the anger inside her not yet sated. She trotted over to the fallen body of her reflection, towering over it with indignation. “You do not insult the Princess.”

Lustrous coughed. “You would've made a better Element of Loyalty than Rainbow Dash. So willing to blindly follow orders.”

Twilight had had enough. She brought her hoof down on her reflection, again and again and again. “You've hurt me! You've hurt my friends! Your plan, your twisted web of darkness is over! I will not cooperate!”

Lustrous took the blows, laughing weakly as the crimson fluid began to pour out of the gashes, dyeing the snow around her in the pale light.

“But you are...”

Twilight stopped in shock. She looked at her hooves, now soaked in blood, at the broken body beneath her, so similar in appearance that she couldn't deny that she saw herself. The same Cutie Mark, the same mane, the same coat, all of them soiled by the cuts and blood, the blood that drenched her, the blood... the blood that she brought.

Twilight turned and heaved up the contents of her already empty stomach. She stumbled and fell on her side. What had she done? She... she...


Lustrous Revolt struggled to her legs, stepping over to Twilight. “Now perhaps you'll listen to what I have to say. What-” She stopped to cough up some blood, which she spit to the side. “What you just experienced isn't new. This area was avoided for a very long time because of this pool. Something darker than even we used to be comfortable with lies within. These waters radiate Vengeance.”

She lay down next to Twilight, both of them recovering from the physical shock. Twilight began tearing up. She had lost control. She gave a heaving sob. It was true, she hated Revolt for what she had done, but Twilight's counter attack went beyond just disabling. She had attacked an unarmed opponent simply because of a couple of words. It didn't matter if there was another force helping her along the path; she had chosen to go along with it.

After Revolt had recovered her breath for a moment, she continued, now whispering as she was lost in her memories, while Twilight gathered her composure.

“Any minor annoyance is blown out of proportion, and for a long while it made this town weak, disjointed, and composed of factions. But when I arrived here almost a year and a half ago, I unified this city under a banner of purpose. I had knowledge brought from our ruined capitol city. There was a way out. A way into your world. But then something strange happened.

“We were gathered here, finishing our discussion, when the moon reached its peak on the Summer Solstice. A beam of light shot up from the water into the heavens, and before our eyes, four orbs of light rose around the beam. The beam ripped open space itself, and we had a peek into Reality. How beautiful it was. It made our decision that much more solidified. We needed to escape. It was not only our right, it was our duty.

“We watched the orbs rise through the rift, wondering what it could all mean. Those orbs, I later realized, were pure energy, magic in its refined form. The 'stars' you saw must have been the very orbs I witnessed rising from the lake.”

Twilight sniffed, determined to remain in control now. “Why? What's in the lake? And why did it want to help Nightmare Moon escape?”

Revolt shuffled until she was resting her head on her hooves, the reflected moonlight shining off of her eyes. “That's just it. We just don't know. There's an intelligence in the lake, there's no denying that. It gives me visions, occasionally. Of how to win battles. How to crush our enemies. It can communicate through emotions and feelings, but it cannot speak. When you hear it, it feels restrained, like there's a lot of power in there, but it can't get out. I brought you down here to speak with it. And now that you've paid a tribute of blood, you've got its attention. Look.”

Twilight turned her head towards the Pool. The water was slightly agitated, churning slightly like a pot being brought to a boil. The stars surrounding the moon glimmered brighter than before, pulsing with their faint light. She looked up to the sky, where the same image met her wondering eye.

Lustrous Revolt stood to her hooves. “Come with me, Twilight. Let us wash the blood off our hooves.”

Twilight, for once, followed her reflection without a word. They stepped down to the water's edge, Revolt limping all the way. Twilight hesitated at the water's edge. The water seemed to reach forward, as if it were trying to pull her in. Revolt stepped in until the water was just touching her belly. “Come in, Twilight. Nothing will happen unless you let it.”

Twilight shook her head. She was crazy for listening to this shade of a pony. She was crazy for even considering this. But she needed answers, and it looked like the only way she'd get them was by playing along. She stepped into the pitch-black water as well, expecting the cold she had felt when she first stepped into the forgotten realm. But the water was comfortably warm. As she stepped, Twilight felt the blood on her hooves pull away into the depths of the lake, and could see that Revolt's wounds were closing as she stood in the water. Twilight pulled up next to her, watching the reflected light swirl around her from the movement.

“Why is the water so dark?”

“The darkest place in the world is the inside of a mirror. An entity that returns all light given has none of its own. This Pool is just that. A mirror in the world of mirrors. Can you feel it, Twilight? The energy inside?”

She could. The water felt...vibrant. Alive, almost. Like a shiver.

“Place your face in the water. It's the only way to communicate with what's inside.”

Twilight frowned. Once again, she had the thought of turning back, but could she really, after she'd come so far? Before she could question herself any further, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and submerged her face.

Her mind was touched by a mess of impressions, which finally clarified into one. She was welcome here.

What are you? She thought.

The images rearranged themselves into a picture of a lost foal. Alone.

Why are you alone?

A picture of a hoof reaching out to another in friendship. Then a blade, which slashed forward. Betrayal.

From whom?

A brilliant orb of light, bringing life to the world. Yet the light also burned, made ponies suffer in the desert, and blinded any who looked at it. The sun. Celestia.

What happened?

The same anger Twilight had felt while attacking Revolt returned. Then clarity. A scene of Celestia staring down Nightmare Moon appeared. Celestia had the Elements of Harmony in careful orbit around her, and Nightmare Moon was wounded and bleeding, Twilight was surprised to note.

Celestia mouthed something to the mare of darkness; there wasn't any sound attached to the motion. Nightmare Moon spat something back, standing to her legs in defiance, despite the obvious pain. The Elements activated around Celestia, the chromatic aura firing towards Nightmare, entangling her. A new burst of emotions popped into Twilight's mind. Terror, fear, pain, and even regret. Through the swirling torrent of a Rainbow could be seen the bent figure of Nightmare Moon, mouthing words that even in the silence Twilight knew.

Stop. Don't. Her eyes flew open, returning from their dragon slitted pupils to Luna's natural state. The eyes begged for mercy. Then the light enveloped them, and the Nightmare burned.

Twilight pulled out of the water, gasping for breath. Had she just seen what she thought she saw?

“Yes.” Lustrous Revolt was watching Twilight. “Celestia didn't just banish her sister. She killed her.”

Chapter 23: A Slippery Slope

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Chapter 23: A Slippery Slope

“That isn't possible! I saw Luna only a couple of days ago!”

“Yes, you did. Currently, she's alive and well. Alicorns are immortal, but I suppose you wouldn't necessarily know that, seeing as the Princess burned all the books on the subject. Yes, Alicorns cannot die, at least not without consent. If they could, we could hardly call them Gods, now could we? But no, what Celestia did still counts as murder. She destroyed Nightmare Moon's –and therefore, Luna's– body. Her consciousness, her soul, if you will, was sent back to her creation. The moon. There she waited, a half-being, alive yet disconnected, just as trapped in her magnum opus as any prison, tortured a thousand years until the intelligence in the lake saved her, gave her the energy she had been denied, so she could rebuild her body from scratch, molecule by molecule. A terribly painful experience. This is the 'banishment' your Princess made you believe.”

“How do I know what I saw was real? That it isn't made up?” Twilight refused to believe what she had just seen until she had facts to prove it. She wasn't just about to throw away her trust in Celestia because a vengeful darkness and Lustrous Revolt told her to.

“Because what you just saw was a memory bubble. And memory bubbles don't lie.”

“Memory bubble? What's a memory bubble?” Twilight looked back down at the water, which was still churning softly.

“Ghosts of past events, contained in a perpetual energy field. They're created when something happens that's so emotionally upsetting or changing that the subject of the event can't fully comprehend it at the time. It allows them to revisit it later. They used to be all over Equestria, but they were caught in the whirlwind of banishment. After all, reliving memories can sometimes be painful.”

“Can just anybody use them?”

Lustrous Revolt shook her head. “Only the parties directly involved with the events, their descendants, or those that the universe deem necessary can see the bubbles. There's one for you, if you want to know that my words are true.”

“Well, where is it?”

“Concentrate, for a moment. Think of one event that changed you life forever.”

“When I got my cutie mark, I suppose.”

Revolt couldn't help but give a snort of laughter. “Sorry, every time I hear that, it's just so funny.”

“What, 'cutie mark'? You have one. What do you call them?”

“Merit marks, though they really don't have much function or meaning beyond identification in this world. It's not like Shuddercry's butterflies are a good show of her personality. After all, you Reality ponies are the ones earning them. We actually have them at birth. Your special talents are fore-ordained, it seems.”

Twilight frowned for a moment at that concept, then a thought popped into her head. “If you have been watching my travels in Reality, you must know about the Cutie Mark Crusaders. The three fillies trying to find their special talent? If you have them at birth, and their reflections are running around here somewhere, does that mean you've seen what their cutie marks will be?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“..That's it? Not going to tell me?”

“And allow you to ruin their moment of self-discovery? Never. Just focus on the memory.”

Twilight rolled her eyes, then shut them in concentration. She thought about the day she earned her cutie mark. The fear and anxiety of taking the examination, the support from her parents, and ultimately the joy still fresh in her mind as Celestia accepted her as her own pupil, and the cutie mark sealing the deal.

“You may now open your eyes.”

Twilight did as she was told, her mouth agape with wonder at what she saw. A ball of brilliance hovered in front of her, tendrils of light writhing from the center mass.

“You can recall memories at any time, provided they made enough of an impact to form a memory bubble. All you have to do is concentrate like you just did, and then step into the field. The best part, however? You can simulate different paths of the past. When you enter a memory bubble, if you take an active stance in it, you can see how the past would have changed had you acted differently. That is the memory bubble's greatest curse. The knowledge of what could have been. Some go mad, realizing they could have prevented terrible tragedies if they had acted ever so slightly. But that's life, isn't it? Well, I suppose you're only now figuring that out, but the point remains true. For now, step into the field.”

Twilight stepped forward, wondering exactly how this would work. She felt an external force take control of her sight, which almost made her jump back in fright. After a moment, she found herself in a misty void that looked very similar to the Natural Plane that the Oracle kept watch over.

“Perhaps that's because that is exactly what it is.”

“Bright Eyes! Have I left the Forgotten Realm?”

“No, this is only a projection of your mind. Only I can see you. Celestia and the Doctor still track your progress, and give their support. But it's part of the duties of the Oracle. I keep track of, organize, and can visit any memory bubbles.”

“Lustrous Revolt just told me that only those involved in the events could enter memory bubbles.”

“And those the universe deems necessary. The Oracle needs the ability so she can guide the path of the world. It's actually how I got my cutie mark. Or merit mark. Whichever you prefer.”

Twilight glanced at Bright Eye's flank. “Bubbles? Ah, I get it. Bubbles! Memory bubbles. But how did you discover it in Reality, when the memory bubbles are only in the Forgotten Realm? How did-”

She was silenced as the usually ditsy mare raised a hoof for silence. “Are you here to interrogate me, or to get a greater understanding of Equestria's history?”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“It's quite alright, but I would recommend staying focused on the mission at hoof.”

“It is a rather important one.” Lustrous Revolt had appeared silently behind Twilight.

“Now how are you here?”

“'The individuals involved'. After all the technicalities, you and I are the same pony.”

“I suppose...Derpy? Do the memory bubbles truly not lie?”

“They do not. They're tied directly into the time flow. What you saw in the lake was real.”

“Hmm. Alright. How do we get started?”

“Allow your mind to wander back into the memory, and the Plane will morph around you.”

Twilight did as she was told. The mist swirled and formed walls, ceilings and floors. Shades of beings faded into existence, until they were as vivid and real as the Oracle next to her. Shaking in place as she waited for her name to be called was the unsure filly Twilight, her dad with a comforting hoof over her shoulder. The examiners sat in their seats, making notes and discussing quietly the previous examinee's performance.

“Halt.” Revolt's voice was commanding and authoritative. The memory ponies stopped in mid motion, trapped in time. “Twilight, was there any particular reason you picked this memory?”

“Well, it's when I get my cutie mark, and that's a special day for anypony. But...it's also the day that I first truly met Princess Celestia.”

“Really? That's rather interesting. Forward.”

The ponies reanimated, moving a bit quicker than was physically possible as Revolt accelerated the memory. Before Twilight's eyes, her past self tried everything she could to open Spike's egg. Current Twilight's heart welled up in a combination of pity and pride. Then came the acceptance she could do no more, and finally, the Sonic Rainboom. Her horn flared up, her eyes glowed with a celestial power... Twilight frowned as she remembered being encased in the magical aura. Now that she looked at it from an outside angle, she wondered where all that excess power came from. She tried to remember. It wasn't directly from her natural energy stores. When she was that age, she barely had enough to levitate a book for a minute.

Nor was it the Sonic Rainboom itself. The radiant, colorful energy was high in the sky and was simply inaccessible to her untrained childhood self. Twilight looked around the room as the events continued. There were no nearby power sources, no gems to draw from... Now this was very interesting. As far as she could guess, her young self had somehow managed to tap into an unknown and extremely potent energy source. As she remembered the energy that flowed through her that day, coming from seemingly everywhere, Twilight remembered where she had felt a similar power. The Elements of Harmony. But that didn't make any sense either! The Elements wouldn't be re-discovered for a good number of years. This required further investigation, and now that she could apparently pull this memory out any time she needed it, she made a mental note to explore further, when Revolt wasn't around. Twilight didn't need her learning about any potential advantage she could have over her.

“Here we are. Halt.”

The scene froze again, just as Celestia stepped into the room. Twilight smiled softly at the sight of her mentor, even if she was but a memory. Twilight had only been gone a few days, and she already missed her influence. Despite everything that had happened and what Revolt said, she wished she had her direct guidance.

“Twilight, I must ask... see anything different or strange about your mentor right now?”

Twilight looked Celestia over. She looked much the same as she had three days ago. Age didn't tend to show on Alicorns. Twilight shrugged. “I don't see much of a difference.”

“No? Alright, let's go back, and follow her this time. Back!”

The memory went in reverse, Celestia stepping back out of the room and Twilight's parents returning to their non-plant bodies. Revolt led the way through the exit. After a flight of stairs or two, they were standing in the street. “Stop!”

Celestia was walking with her usual patrol of guards, looking a bit more tired than usual, as if she had something pressing heavily on her mind. “Continue!”

A flash of light and burst of sound emitted from the building as the young Twilight accelerated the newborn and yet unnamed Spike's growth. The guards looked up with shock and concern, whereas Celestia only looked on with resignation.

“Princess! We'll go check it out! You two, come with me!” yelled the captain of Celestia's guard.

“That won't be necessary.”

“Princess?”

“Thank you for your help today, gentlemen. You are dismissed.”

“I'm sorry, your majesty, but I don't exactly thin-”

“You are dismissed, captain. That is an order.”

“...Of course, your majesty.”

The guards backed away, as Celestia re-entered the building.

Something was off. Not even Twilight could deny it. “Should we follow her?”

“No need. You know what happens next in there. Let's listen to the guards for a moment.”

“Sir, I know it's not my place, but has the Princess lost it?”

“You're right private, it isn't your place. But... that was unusual. In my twenty years as captain, she's never done anything like that. I don't know what's happening, but whatever is up there is either of great importance or danger. Who knows? Maybe both. Why else would she keep secrets from her guards? Now, I don't want any of us speaking of this further. If the Princess tells us anything about it, so be it. Otherwise I swear you to secrecy.”

“My...my sister is up there.”

All heads, present and past whipped to look at the new voice. Twilight couldn't believe it. But now it made sense. Shining Armor had been on Celestia's guard for about a month before Twilight got her cutie mark, and had unfortunately been on duty when Twilight had her exam, so he couldn't attend to give her moral support. She had been bitter with him for a little while, but forgave him as she always did. But now she couldn't help but remember his reaction when he told her what had happened that day.

The memory bubble swirled around her as she inadvertently changed the scene to later that day. The Sparkles were at home, having a home cooked meal in celebration of Twilight's big day as the star student of Celestia, and the earning of her cutie mark.

Twilight was recounting what had happened to Shining Armor, giving animated descriptions of each uncontrollable blast of magic, apologizing to her parents when she got to the point of their transformation. They shook their heads, letting her know all was forgiven, and urged her to continue.

“...and then Princess Celestia herself walked in!”

“Really?” Shining Armor forced a smile, his insincerity now apparent with Twilight's knowledge, though nopony had caught it at the time. To be sure, he was happy for his sister, there was no doubt, but like Twilight was beginning to see, he knew there was something more to Twilight herself and her relationship with Celestia than just student and teacher.

“Yeah! And she walked up and placed a hoof on me, and it brought me back to my senses! I was pretty relieved, actually, because I didn't know how to stop.” The young filly giggled with excitement. “She said she'd teach me how to control my powers though, so maybe someday I can be just as good as you!”

“That'd be wonderful Twilight.” Armor's eyes glazed over as he was lost in thought, wondering what it all meant. The filly Twilight caught the look, which was why the current Twilight remembered this moment at all.

“You okay, BBBFF?”

“Huh? Oh, of course Twilight. I'm happy for you. You'll do great, I promise. After all, you are my little sister.” He smiled again, genuinely this time, as he decided to forget his unanswered questions. He trusted the Princess, after all. She knew what she was doing.

The memory faded, and they found themselves back in the misty void. Twilight looked to the ground in thought. “What is so special about me?”

Revolt shrugged. “You heard the guards. You're extremely important and dangerous. Celestia needed to keep an eye on you. She needed people she trusted watching you. So she made Shining Armor eternally loyal to her, promoting him to captain of the guard not three weeks later. She kept you nearby during all of your waking hours, teaching you and guiding your magical ability for her purposes. Then she called in Princess Cadence, the only Alicorn to come into being during her reign of lies, to watch over you. After all, who better to keep a potential enemy in check than the Goddess of Love?”

“Potential...potential enemy? Is that what she thinks of me as?”

“Certainly. Powerful ally too, but it's better to prepare for the worst.”

Bright Eyes stepped forward. “I must leave you now, and you should be getting back to your mission Twilight. I will meet you again shortly.”

The mist darkened until Twilight could see no more. Then she felt her hooves once again on rocky ground, the cool air far more chill than the Natural Plane. She opened her eyes, and found herself back at the Moon Pool.

Lustrous Revolt nodded in arrogant victory. “Even if you cannot accept that Celestia is cruel, you cannot deny that her actions are in question.”

Twilight shook her head. “It's so much to take in. I wish I could speak with her.”

“And have her blind you again with that lying tongue of hers? No, it's better this way. The decisions you make will be yours.”

“What now? Are you going to take me back to the prison?”

“Soon enough. I thought you might like another word with the intelligence in the waters.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “What else could it tell me? That Celestia actually killed my parents too? I've been living with Changelings this entire time?”

“Probably not. You never know though.” Lustrous Revolt stuck her head in the water, and her body went stiff. Not an air bubble escaped. Twilight raised a brow. Had she looked like that? She looked around. She could run right now. While Revolt was distracted. There'd be nothing stopping her.

But yes, there would be something stopping her. Her friends. She couldn't leave them, and her escape might cause harsher punishment on them. It would be extremely difficult to rescue her friends from the reflections' clutches, and they wouldn't learn anything more. But she still had to remain focused on the core objective; save Luna from the Metaspectre. In less than two weeks. On the Winter Solstice.

Yes, as long as she stayed focused.

She plunged her head into the water. Then the water swelled and pulled her struggling form to the depths.

Chapter 24: Restoration

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Chapter 24: Restoration

A small shadow flitted between the buildings. Slitted irises shifted quickly, ensuring the path was clear before the next jump. After ducking under a porch, the shade allowed himself a deep chuckle.

He had done it! Spike pumped his fist in victory. During the confusion of the reflection switch up, he had been forgotten. Again. Now that he had escaped, however, he could put it to good use. He'd do a little information gathering for Twilight. He was still her number one assistant, and it was what she would want.

Spike looked at the street from his hidden vantage point. Nothing in either direction. He looked up, making certain there were no tricky pegasi out to get him. Clear there too. He leaped across the road, rolling on the other side. He didn't have many opportunities to show it, but young dragons were actually quite agile. Something about this place opened his natural instincts.

The little dragon paused on the other side, realizing he had no idea where he was going. He had to have a plan of attack. He didn't have a map, and though this place reflected Ponyville, it was still different enough he didn't know where he was. Time to climb.

He leaped up at the wall, trying to scramble up it with his claws. The stone stood strong, however, and he couldn't get a good grip. He looked at the building behind him. Much of the same. But wait...

Quick mental calculations told him yes, he could make it. He leaped up at the nearest wall again, this time pushing off towards the other wall, continuing the pattern until he reached the top of the building. Spike looked down the way he came, almost falling over.

“Woah.”

Even he was surprised. That was definitely more than his usual ability. But he felt great. Why did he ride Twilight around all the time? He should practice this more often.

Spike turned around, surveying the town now that he had a good angle on it. He could guess what some of the buildings were, based on their approximate distance from one another. “There's Temperament's blacksmith, which reflects Rarity's Boutique, so the library would be over...” He traced the horizon with an outstretched claw. “There.”

A tall, stone tower with steps running around the exterior rose above the town, a good landmark by anyone's standards. He considered his options. Well, he could go along the ground, which had more hiding places and was a good deal safer, or...

He grinned and dashed forward, his instincts taking over once more as he cleared the roof and landed on the adjacent building, losing no momentum as he rolled back into a run. How had he been missing this all these years? This was amazing, far better than-

He skidded to a halt right before the next rooftop.

No. These were the same thoughts he had begun to have when let his hoarding instinct get the best of him. Was this another aspect of his more animal side? One better kept under lock and key? He couldn't risk losing it now, not while his pony friends were scattered around the town. With a sigh, he slid off the roof into a snowdrift. He shook the powder off his head.

“Maybe later, Spike. But for now, though, we'll keep you walking like a good, civilized dragon.”

He passed through the rest of the town without much trouble, encountering only a few reflected ponies along the way, which were easy enough to avoid in the fading light. The moon was about to rise, and seeing as it was still a bit away from a full moon, his return trip would be even easier. Who knew? Maybe he'd be able to get back without anybody even noticing he was missing.

Spike finally arrived at what had to be Moon Pool's library, which was much larger in person. It stretched up as high as any tower in Canterlot, but seemed even taller here with only one story cottages to compare to. He stepped up to the front door, preparing to knock. ...No!– what was he doing? He'd never been officially dismissed, so he was an escaped convict. It'd be a terrible waste of all his secrecy thus far if he just waltzed up to the library like it was his own. Though, he remembered, Lustrous Revolt was with Twilight. Unless she had taken her here, she'd probably be out. Better to be safe than sorry though. He turned to the left instead, following the stairs up the side of the tower to the rooftop. He made his way slowly, realizing a fall from this height would be dangerous, and that the steps were especially icy.

He ascended the last step, onto a small ring of a roof covered by a blanket of snow. Good thing he was equipped to handle such a situation. He gave a huff of fire, which turned the air above the snow into an inferno. The snow melted into a small pool of water, revealing in a trap door in the center of the roof. Just what he had hoped to find.

He lifted it carefully, ensuring that none of the water –which was already re-freezing– dripped in. He dropped himself silently into the library, descending another set of stairs, which was only dimly lit by the occasional torch. He made his way down, tracing the wall with his back as he kept to the shadows as much as possible. He spent an awful lot of time in libraries, he realized with a small smile. Maybe he should try something new when he returned home. Sewing, perhaps. Then he'd have something to show Rarity, or even better, get her help with.

After he got about a quarter of the way down, the wall turned into book shelves, while the stairs were intersected by a wooden floor that circled the tower. The stairs then continued downward onto another, wider level. Spike could only assume that it continued like that until it reached the ground. Twilight would love a place like this, full of so many dusty old tomes.

He was here for information, he reminded himself. Well, what was he looking for? Twilight always raved about the stories she was reading, and how the heroes would find exactly what they were looking for just before the bad guys arrived. With no better plan, he left it up to fate, wandering the bookshelves until something caught his eye.

He murmured the names of the titles as he walked by. Some were foreign and strange, while others were perhaps too familiar.

“The Astronomical Astronomer's Almanac to All things Astronomy? Spike pulled the book down from the shelf. He frowned as he began thumbing through it. The inside of the cover was scorched and on page seventy three was the juice spill he also hadn't told Twilight about. There was no doubt about it; this was the exact copy he had accidentally burned the evening before Twilight met Aloysius, though every page was still intact. What was it doing here?

creak

Spike whipped around. Something else was in the tower. He clutched the book to his chest, spines quivering as he listened with bated breath. There. A slight movement of air. Spike stepped further into the shadows.

Something flew past his head, and he ducked in fright, letting out a small cry. So much for secrecy. He jumped out, brandishing the book as a shield. “Stay back! I know how to take care of myself!”

He stumbled as the book was wrenched out of his grasp by the unseen enemy. A loud thump sounded behind him. Spike recovered, jumping to his feet, preparing for the worst. The Astronomer's had been reshelved.

“Who are you? Show yourself!” A screech next to his ear answered. Spike found himself face to face with a wyvern, a sub-category of dragon, the stage in between the infantile stage and adulthood. They often couldn't speak unless they had been taught like Spike had, but could understand the common language well enough.

“Hey there little guy.” Spike looked the fellow draconian over. Though his build implied he was older, this winged newcomer was a bit smaller than Spike, closer to Aloysius' size. “What are you doing here?”

The wyvern gave a condescending look.

“Oh, yeah. I suppose I'm the one who needs to explain. I'm Spike. I'm uh...” he thought for a moment. Should he really reveal his plans to this small cousin of his? If he didn't, it might raise the alarm, and if he did, it just might help him. “I'm looking for information about this place for my friend. Especially about reflections and perhaps a map.”

The wyvern lifted into the air and flew down the stairs. Spike ran after him, watching the wings with some jealousy. A screech announced their arrival at ground floor. A large map dominated the center of the room, markers placed all over it like some sort of board game. Oddly enough, there was a small rectangular box of sand on there as well. The wyvern flew over to it, and began clawing at it with his hind legs. Spike stepped over, looking at his work. Thorn, the sand read.

“Your name is Thorn?”

Thorn nodded vigorously. He gestured with his wings from Spike to himself.


“We're...”

Thorn went back to the sand, working quickly. A crude but recognizable drawing of a mirror appeared.

“...Reflections?” Spike laughed. “But we look nothing alike! Sure, we have the same color scheme, but your body build is totally different. At least the ponies looked the same.”

Thorn shook his head. He flew to one of the shelves, grabbing a book labeled simply as Dragons. He dropped it in front of Spike with nimble dexterity. Spike flipped through the pages until Thorn stopped him. “The differences between wyverns and core dragons. Alright.”

He skimmed through the text as quickly as possible. It seemed that dragons, being magical creatures, had two forms of growth. There was natural growth through time, in which wings and proper fire breath would develop as well as intelligence, and there was a secondary growth pattern based on the need for survival and instinct. This growth stunted intellectual growth but greatly improved strength and ferocity.

“This explains everything! So that's why I almost destroyed Ponyville when I got greedy. But how does this make us reflections?”

Thorn pointed out the word survival in the text.

Spike frowned for a moment as he tried to pick up on the vague hint. Then it hit him. “So...you're me...if I had gone through all that happens here in this world? You grew wings because it was necessary for survival? Then why are you smaller?”

Thorn turned the page. Spike began reading. “If food is scarce and predators are at large, a dragon's growth may be stunted. In turn this makes them more mischievous and greater fliers, as they must rely on their agility rather than strength...Where'd you get this information? We don't have anything on dragons in Equestria.”

Back to the sandbox. “The..library...of...the...lost. Every bit of lost information comes here?”

Thorn nodded. Spike was impressed. “No wonder this library's so big. Heck, if I had a place to store all the things I've lost around the house, heh.”

He was grabbed by a thought. “Do you happen to have a book called A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology?”

Thorn flew off again, going up several levels. Spike waited, tapping his foot impatiently. If he got this book, it'd make the entire trip, heck, the visit into the Forgotten Realm worthwhile.

The book fell from the heavens, landing in front of Spike with a thump. “Ohoho yes!” He picked it up, about to tear it open, wondering what could be so important. But no, he'd give Twilight the luxury of reading it first. Then she'd be in his debt forever.

He looked at Thorn, who was watching him expectantly. “So, uh...can I check this book out of the library? I have a friend who would love to read it. The one I mentioned earlier.”

Thorn nodded, but held up a claw. He jumped over onto Spike's shoulder.

“Oh, I see how it is. You have to come with me, to make sure the book's safe?”

Thorn's head bobbed once more.

Spike grinned. As long as he got what he wanted. “Alright then, let's go. Might as well use the front door now.”

They stepped out into the snow bound streets, Thorn locking the door behind them as a precaution. The draft from the door knocked an unnoticed paper from the table onto the floor. A short, simple list of instructions.

Bring the book. Keep them blind.

-Lustrous Revolt

Chapter 25: Offering

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Chapter 25: Offering

Twilight struggled for breath as the living waters pulled her down. It couldn't end here. It just couldn't. But she just wasn't strong enough. She felt the air in her lungs finally failing her. Her thoughts turned to her friends. Would they even know what became of her?

Her chest heaved involuntarily. She screamed mentally, watching the bubbles escape. The next breath would be water. And then only a few minutes later she would Blink. She closed her eyes as she prepared for the worst.

When she could hold her breath no longer, Twilight gasped in desperation and yelled in fear.

Wait.

She was yelling. That meant she could breathe. Twilight opened her eyes. She was surrounded by nothing but darkness. She couldn't see, but she was alive. She took another breath, the liquid filling her lungs but causing no harm. She chuckled nervously. Heck, she'd take breathing over eyesight any day.

As she recovered from her adrenaline rush, Twilight got her mind back in order. She needed to find out where she exactly she was, and beyond that, why.

“I apologize for the unsettling journey. It's the only way we could talk.”

Twilight flipped around at the sound of the commanding yet polite voice. There was nothing there.

“You won't see me. I have no body, not since Celestia destroyed it. Good; here comes your reflection.”

Lustrous Revolt landed softly next to Twilight, barely visible in the almost blackness. Though, with such low visibility, Twilight acknowledged she easily might just be imagining what she was seeing.

“Intelligence of the Moon Pool?” Revolt began, “You've never brought me here before. Why now?”

“What I'm about to say has to be heard by both of you, or rather, the whole you. Both sides of Twilight. Each of you has been extraordinarily gifted with magic from a young age. Twilight, you felt it first the day you got your Cutie Mark. You were connected with a strange power that allowed you the power to perform great feats without any training. You've trained to control your actions since then, but you've never experienced the same power without the aide of the Elements of Harmony. Revolt, you've worked to find that power with mixed results. I am here to offer you both a chance to fully unlock your potential.”

“You'll want something in return, I assume?”

“Of course, Miss Sparkle. Nothing good in life is free. You know my disdain towards Celestia, but I also know that you care for her. I'll simply ask that you help me recover some...belongings of mine.”

“Sounds ominous.”

“It is. Celestia tied the worst of the worst in here with me. As Revolt was able to surmise, I released the four stars that you saw in Reality. In doing so, I lost almost all of my power, but it was a sacrifice that I was willing to make. It had some unforeseen consequences, however. The four energies were tied to the four strongest Atrocities, and my abandonment of them threw them abroad. Four ideas that you're beginning to understand. Famine. War. Plague. Death. Bringing them back to me would be beneficial for all, as a matter of fact. By restraining them once more, you'll end up saving this realm from its troubles. But to have any control over them, you'll have to experience them for yourselves. It's a terrible cost, but it's why I promise such a great reward. You would become all powerful. Equal, if not superior, to the Alicorns.”

“Why should I agree to help you? Celestia stuck you in here, and she must have had a pretty good reason to do so.”

She felt a prick of anger from the void around her. Then it settled back into calm. “You'll experience them either way. I offer recompense for a necessary and predestined evil.”

Twilight shook her head. “I'm not going to make any promises. You're a smooth talker, but that just makes me trust you less.”

Lustrous Revolt stepped into the conversation. “Intelligence, I will do what I can to recover the Atrocities. But I must know. What is your name?”

“My name? It's been a long time since anybody cared about that. Almost a thousand years to the day. Seren. My name is Seren.”

“Tell me, Seren, why were you banished to this world with the rest of us?”

“Because I loved.” There was a wave of depression and acceptance, quickly reigned in by stoicism and determination. “I will see you again, when you are ready.”

The water tugged at Twilight, pulling her up to the surface. She took a deep breath of air, real air, flinging her mane out of her eyes, droplets of the living water rejoining the indiscernible mass.

Lustrous Revolt surfaced besides her as well. After a moment's respite, she stepped out of the water, indicating for Twilight to follow with a flick of her tail. “Well, that wasn't quite what I expected.”

They walked all the way back to the prisoner camp, the silence only occasionally interrupted by growls of hunger from Twilight's stomach. It had been so long since she'd had a good meal. The last time she ate was that half of a muffin in the Natural Plane. Thinking back on it, she regretted not finishing it. Stupid Metaspectre, distracting her from her food. She had to find something to eat. She passed a measly looking branch that at any other time she wouldn't have looked twice at. Just maybe she could stomach it.

“Hey!” Twilight stopped with the branch in her mouth, mid chew. Lustrous Revolt was frowning at her. “Two things; one, prisoners aren't allowed to eat anything. Secondly, that's poisonous. Most plants around here are.”

Twilight spit out the branch immediately, less out of deference to Revolt's rules and more in horror at the prospect of digesting a poisonous plant while she was already starving. “Why would you allow poisonous plants to grow around your town?”

“We're too busy with other things to pull up every weed that sprouts. Besides, everybody knows to not eat whatever happens to be in front of them without knowing exactly what it is. Keep moving.”


In short time they were back in the compound.

“Your friends should have arrived here before you.”

“What happens now?”

“You go meet with each other. Tell what you learned, since you don't have Celestia to report to. Besides that, get used to your quarters. Sadly, experiencing Famine isn't quite as easy as, say, Pain or Blood. I would apologize but there's no need to be fake on either side, is there?”

“What can I expect from it?” Twilight paused for a moment before asking the next question. “Is there anything I can do to comfort my friends?”

“What to expect? Pain. Pain racking your entire body. Desperation and Fear mixed in with that. Famine is Hopelessness. A final acceptance that there will be no better tomorrow. To be honest, the only thing you could do to comfort your friends is to lie. Lie, and tell them that all will be well.”

Lustrous Revolt turned out of the camp, locking the gate behind her. Twilight walked to the sleeping quarters, refusing to give Revolt the pleasure of seeing the defeat in her eyes. Nor would she allow her friends to see it. She sniffed quietly, composing herself before stepping into the small building. To her surprise, everypony was there, except for Spike. It had been so quiet that despite Revolt's assurance that the other ponies had already arrived, she found it hard to believe that these bedraggled ponies were her normally chatty friends. Each had a vague look, hardly even recognizing her presence.

They weren't her normally chatty friends, Twilight realized. Like her, they had changed.

“Hello, everypony.”

“Everyone.” All heads turned to Rainbow Dash who had answered mechanically. She lifted her head, her eyes pulling back to reality. Or rather, the reality they now lived in.

“Uh, I mean...it doesn't really matter Twilight. Good to see you again. How was your day?”

“Where to begin?” Twilight lay down, tucking her hooves underneath herself. “But I imagine that things were just as bad for each of you.”

“Well, we'd already gone over our stories before you got here,” Applejack interjected, “but we'll tell them again.”

“Temperament taught me how to forge a sword, and that trials are what make us strong. She was more kind than her first impression suggested, but she was still rough around the edges, and perhaps a bit rude. But I have nothing to complain about,” Rarity admitted with a sigh. “I cannot pretend my day was horrible, compared to the others.”

“Ah was introduced to Jackie, who seems just as heavily pressed by this world as we are. She has to provide food for everybody around here, and times are especially tough. She explained that their actions are out of out of necessity rather than any twisted pleasure. It's a matter of survival for them. She saw me off pretty quickly when her older brother, Big Mike, the stallion who gave us the cloaks, showed up. Apparently something big came up.”

“I...” Fluttershy began. She choked on a wave of emotion. “That...terrible...evil...” she spat, before she began sobbing uncontrollably.

Applejack laid a comforting hoof on her back. “It's alright Fluttershy. Ah'll explain to Twilight. Shuddercry showed her around the camp, but that's not the problem. Shuddercry dealt with a griffon who had tried to escape, and she turned it into a twisted game with Fluttershy. Made it seem as if her decision to kill the griffon was Fluttershy's choice, not hers. A cowardly and sick-minded move. And if I get the chance to speak to her anytime soon, she'll be gettin' a mouthful of my back right hoof, ah'll tell you what.”

Twilight opened her mouth, about to tell Applejack off for making threats of violence. She closed it once again as she recognized that the threats were completely justified. “Well, how about you Rainbow?”

“Spectral Slash brought me back to the pub, told me the troubles of her life, especially about how nobody can trust her because of her job, and how she'd love nothing more than to just have a friend. Even if it meant that I become the controlling personality when the worlds merge.”

“She was probably just trying to make you let down your guard.”

“Don't you think I've thought of that?!” snapped Rainbow Dash. The others recoiled in shock, even Fluttershy growing silent at the outburst.

Rainbow stood up and began pacing around, the tension in her body quite visible. “That's just it Twilight. I don't know who to trust anymore. Some of our reflections are definitely working against us. But some sound like they could be possible allies. You know we need as many as we can get right now. I heard the desperation in her voice. I saw the longing in her eyes. If she was faking it, she's a better actor than Rarity.” Rainbow stopped, pounding her hoof in frustration. She looked at Twilight, the same longing and desperation she had just described mirrored in her magenta soul gates.

“And I stole this!”

She extended one of her wings, revealing a bright red apple.

Twilight's stomach fired up at the sight, and her mouth began salivating in spite of her new anger towards Rainbow. “You stole an apple? Were you really that short sighted?”

“It wasn't for me! It was before I heard about the food situation around Moon Pool. There was a stack of apples, I didn't think one would go missing. I took it for Gilda. She seems so strong, when we seem so weak. But I know her. She'd do anything to make others feel better. She has to be starving. She's been here for a couple of weeks now. I...I can't let her die. I can't lose her again. So I did what I could. What I had to do.”

The door swung open, and Gilda stepped in with a smile on her face. “Word's going around that somebody stole an apple. That should keep your pesky reflections off our backs for a little bit.”

She glanced around. “Why the long faces? We'll be able to breathe easier while they're distracted looking for the idiot who– ” Her eyes fell on Rainbow's outstretched wing and the shining contraband.

“Well horseapples.”

Chapter 26: Discovery

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Chapter 26: Discovery

Gilda shook her head in disbelief. “It was you, Dash?” She closed the door quietly behind her.

“I wasn't going to steal it. Well, I was, for myself, before I remembered you. I got it for you, knowing you must be hungrier than I've ever been or could even imagine.”

“You're better than this. I mean, we're all hungry, but that's no reason to steal, even if our captors are criminals themselves. If we drop to their level, they'll beat us with experience. Lord Gareth this complicates things.”

“I know! I recognize it was a mistake now. But I had no way of knowing it would cause such a big deal at the time . We can just give it back, right?”

“No. No, that's just it. During any other time, perhaps. But this Famine has used up all the food stores. Due to necessity, stealing food has become one of the higher crimes. It's punishable by death.”

“But if you're killed, you'll just come back to life, right?” interrupted Applejack.

“Not quite. It's possible to make death more permanent, and, though the method is a bit troublesome and costly, they're not afraid to use it. They reserve it for war criminals and those they need to make examples of.”

They sat in silence for a moment, Rainbow lowering her head in shame while Gilda watched her with both understanding and irritation. “Rainbow, I'm glad you were thinking of me, but now we're trapped in a really bad place. At any moment they could step through the door and somebody's going to have to take the punishment.”

The door swung open at that moment, and everyone's hearts leaped in terror. Spike shut the door behind him, looking to each of the friends with concern. “Did I interrupt something?”

“Hush Spike, get in here. We need secrecy...who's your friend?” Twilight asked, worrying she might have just compromised their meeting.

“This is Thorn, my reflection. I met him at the library when I was snooping around. Turns out if you had let me get in more scuffles as I was growing up I could have my wings by now.”

“Is Thorn, uh...a friend?”

“As far as I can tell. He seems pretty cool. Oh, and I almost forgot.” Spike paused for dramatic effect, not realizing the severity of the situation he had walked into. “I got you this.”

He held out the book he had been holding behind his back.

“Spike, I'm sorry, but we don't have much tim–” Twilight cut off as she saw the title. “You didn't.”

“I did!” Thorn gave a squawk of protest. “Alright, he helped. It was in the local library, the Library of The Lost. All lost information from Reality ends up there.”

Twilight picked up the long sought book, A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology. Just when she had given up ever finding the elusive title, here it was. She sighed, putting her curiosity, and the book, aside for later. “Thanks Spike. I'm grateful for this, I really am, but Rainbow's put us in a bit of a pickle.”

“Oh? What'd you do this time?”

“I stole an apple, which is punishable by death, apparently.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah. I'm truly sorry about this, all of you. Hindsight's twenty-twenty, right?”

“Still doesn't change the fact that what's happened has happened.” Gilda looked to each of the ponies. “But we shouldn't worry about it either. We can't change the past, so let's work with the present.”

“What are our options?”

“First would be to return the apple immediately and beg mercy. They might give it to you. But I wouldn't count on it. I've been here too long. Shuddercry is only reigned in while the others are around. If you gave her an excuse to hurt you Dash, she'd take it. Secondly would be to hide it, eat it, give completely into the crime and hope that somehow you escape their investigation. But they'll make the connections pretty soon, and it'd be terrible to become guilty of the crime you're blamed for. Lastly, you could have somebody else take the fall for you. Blame it on some other unfortunate sap.”

“Never. I'll take the beating before anyone else will.”

Gilda smiled tiredly. “There's the Dash I know. Well, we'll just have to deal with it as it comes. You and I think better on our feet anyways. Might as well use this time to read that new book of yours, Twilight. It's better than stressing over something we've lost control of.”

Twilight looked at Thorn in her peripheral vision. He was Spike's reflection, which probably meant he was working for Lustrous Revolt, and he already knew quite a few compromising facts about the friends. Seeing as Rainbow's problem was no longer secret, it was only a matter of time before the other reflections knew, if he was indeed working towards their destruction. But he had helped Spike bring the book. He could just as easily be here to help. What could she do? Ask him to leave? That'd likely only cause more problems. There wasn't anything to do, except act as if he wasn't there.

Seeing the troubles come to a somewhat satisfying conclusion, Twilight prepared to open the book, grasping the cover in her recovering telekinetic field. She breathed out heavily. Here it was. She shook her head. It'd be in direct opposition to Celestia's will if she opened this book. Celestia had tried to rid the world of whatever was in here. She had judged that its contents were not for anypony's eyes.

You know what though, Twilight decided, Celestia's judgment hasn't always been the most sound. The anger festering in this realm was proof enough of that. Celestia deserved the benefit of the doubt, but Twilight couldn't live with that doubt any longer. She threw the book open, and began reading aloud.

“Alicorns. What magnificent beings. The pony race in its purest form. This manifest was written to reveal their inner workings and source of their glory. A brief account of the history of the first Alicorns is given by consent and for understanding's sake. The contents of this book are meant for the betterment of all sentient creatures of Equestria and the world beyond. The knowledge inside is powerful, and the most precious I've collected. To use it for dark purposes will only lead to destruction of self.

-Quicksilver, co-authored and overseen by Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.”

“Quite the introduction. I didn't know the Princesses helped write a book.”

“Neither did I, Rarity. Hush.

“First and foremost, it must be mentioned that the position of Alicorn comes with duty. Alicorns are protectors, mediators, and comforters. Those who have risen to become Gods but have then rejected these most fundamental of maxims have all been lost, either defeated by the righteous or consumed by their own lust for power.”

Twilight looked over what she had just read once again. “Risen to become Gods? Alicorns aren't born?” She flipped quickly through the book, looking for some sort of heading that would answer some of her newfound questions.

“The Ascension Process. Becoming an Alicorn seems largely caused by the whims of fate, though proper preparation will increase the likelihood of survival. There are three key aspects of the ascension process. First and foremost, the Alicorn-to-be must be so fixated on a single concept, idea, or feeling that they embody it more than any other being. Our wise ruler Princess Celestia represents Mercy, for example, while Princess Luna represents Justice. This fixation can only come, it seems, from a traumatic event that rebirths the pony in the aftermath. Secondly, after the fixation is acquired, an influx of power or arcane energy must engulf the candidate. Recorded examples are from otherwise deadly lightning strikes, chemical and crystalline explosions, concentrated attacks from other Alicorns and in the case of our Princesses, the mysterious Elements of Harmony.

“After the power surge is acquired, it triggers a hallucinogenic dream that from an outside perspective seems almost instantaneous, but some have reported spending the mental equivalent of weeks in the dream. The dream puts the rising Alicorn through a series of trials and visions that force them to fully recognize who they are. Faults and strengths, the truths they've refused to believe rise to acknowledgment and the lies they have told themselves are cast aside. In the culmination of this dream, the candidate must announce to themselves and the world the fixation they are to represent. If they cannot admit it to themselves or they simply are not fixated, their body will lose control of the potent energy and it will destroy them. If however, they manage to harness the energy correctly, the physiological change occurs. They become, in body, an Alicorn, though they've yet to complete the ascension.

“The final step is to form the Alicorn's Creation. This serves as both the source of their power and the physical tie to their soul. This connection to their soul is what makes Alicorns immortal. As long as their Creation remains intact, an Alicorn cannot be killed without consent. Their physical body may be stripped away, but their soul will live on, passively gaining energy until it has enough to reform its body.”

Twilight looked up to her friends, who, for the first time after one of her long readings, were still quite alert and watching her. “This makes so much sense. If, as Lustrous Revolt claimed, Celestia really did kill Luna, the 'banishment' was Nightmare Moon returning to her Creation to rebuild her body.”

“Celestia? Kill Luna?”

Twilight smacked her forehead. She had forgotten to tell the others her story. She gave a quick recap of what had happened on her day out, then returned her attention to the book, flipping through the few pages she had just read. “This really is powerful information, and it's strange I'd finally get to read it right after this Seren tells me he could unlock my potential. I can see why Celestia wouldn't want this in the wrong hooves.”

She frowned. “Though, she sent it here, to the Forgotten Realm. I'd say that's right into the wrong hooves. She wouldn't be so shortsighted. She really is a good ruler, despite a few mistakes, and she's anything but foolish. She must have known about the dark personalities, and could she really allow the possibility of dark Alicorns rising?”

“You read that if the information is used for dark purposes, that the Alicorns created from it always die out,” Fluttershy sniffed. “Killed by their ambition or by the righteous.”

“There's a first time for everything. If a single dark Alicorn survived, it could change the entire balance of the system.” Twilight shut the book. “That's enough for now. I can only handle so much speculation before I become a nervous wreck. We'll have to keep the book secret and read more later. We don't want it confiscated.” She looked to Thorn, who returned her gaze. He scratched the back of his neck with his hind leg, his disinterest blatant.

Twilight stood up, stretching her legs. Where to hide the book? Ideally, she'd want to keep it on her at all times, but without her confiscated saddlebags that wouldn't be too easy. Besides, even if the reflections had let her keep them, the addition of the large, bulky tome would attract unwanted attention. She might be able to set up a teleport gateway between herself and a safe hiding spot. The link, like the homeostasis shield, however, would be a drain on her already weakened system. And the reflections would be quite adamant about keeping her magic reserves low. No, that wouldn't work either.

Inspiration struck her, many pieces of a puzzle she'd been mulling over falling into place. She might be subject to the rules of this world, but that didn't mean she had to be restrained by them. “Gilda, how exactly does the resurrection field work in the Forgotten Realm?”

“Once we die, through whatever means, we're reborn at exactly midnight the next day. Usually it's where we fell, but the residents here figured out long ago how to tether our souls to specific locations. Typically, we'd rise back at our base of operations, but war isn't kind. Once we've been captured, they keep us in these camps, where they allow us to starve to death. But death is even less of a relief than usual. Our souls are restrained by the magical barriers around the camp, and so we are stuck in a perpetual loop of starvation and death.” She laughed nervously. “Sorry, I guess that answered a bit more than you want to know, but it's what I think of every day.”

“So, tethering your souls...how exactly do you do it?”

“It's not going to help you very much to tether to the camp.”

“I have something else in mind.”

“Well, it takes a bit of concentration. The main idea is to create a false memory of home that ingrains itself into your mind. Any number of methods would technically work, but the one that most people have success with is to imagine their spirits leaving their body and finding peace and comfort wherever they're attempting to tether to. You have to create the feelings of home away from home, in a world where those feelings don't exist.”

“Alright. Midnight's coming up, so I'm going to try something crazy. I'm not quite certain what exactly will happen, but it's the only choice I have.”

Twilight closed her eyes in concentration. She cleared her mind of all thought, until she could perfectly imagine herself sitting, exactly as she was, on the hard wooden floor. She did as Gilda had described, imagining a translucent Twilight step out of her motionless body. The soul stepped forward and picked up the book. She looked it over for a moment. The beautiful blue binding with silver lettering, that old book smell that spoke of her childhood, and the weight that older books seemed to have which let you know it held secrets patiently waiting to be discovered. Twilight held the book tight to herself, right over her heart. She poured in all the emotions that had almost been choked out of life by this world into the embrace. Serenity, pure inexpressible joy, protection, and finally, unadulterated love. The consciousness driving the imagined scene felt the weight of her troubles disappear. The living Twilight gave a sigh of peace as her soul stepped back inside, then shuddered and opened her eyes.

Her friends were watching her with a combination of fright and awe.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No, you just...you actually managed to separate your soul. We could see it, Twilight. We could see you.” Rarity was looking her friend over with wonderment

Twilight blinked. She had not been expecting that. But if it served its purpose, it didn't matter. “Quick Spike, burn the book.”

“Burn the book!?” yelled more than a couple of her friends.

“But Twilight, it's not like the scrolls. It hasn't been prepared with the proper spells. And I don't think the Princess could receive transdimensional letters anyways. Not that you'd want to send a book to her that she destroyed anyway, but...”

“Just do it Spike. Call it a hunch, but I know this will work.”

“Twilight, I've never heard of objects being reborn.” Gilda touched the book with an outstretched claw, tracing the binding.

“And I hadn't heard of a library that captures all lost information. Sounds awfully similar to the resurrection field, if you ask me. Just do it Spike.”

“Don't get mad at me later when it doesn't work.” He took a deep breath, hesitating for just a moment before he incinerated the text with a careful, steady stream of wicked hot fire.

Twilight nodded. “We'll see how that worked at midnight. At least for now, it's hidden.”

Just in time. Fluttershy squealed with fear next to the window, all heads turning to her. “Some of our reflections are coming. And they don't look too happy!”

Rainbow panicked, trotting in place as she searched for somewhere to hide. There wasn't anywhere, of course. The prisoner's sleeping areas had been designed like that. “Gilda! What do I do?”

“I'm sorry Dash. You'll never forgive me.”

“What are you talking about? I know this was all my fault.”

“That's exactly why I'm willing to take the blame.” Gilda rushed forward and grabbed the apple from Rainbow Dash, taking a hearty bite from it.

“Gilda?! What are you doing?”

The door burst open on the scene, a furious Jackie leading Shuddercry and Spectral Slash. Gilda waved towards them, took another bite, then wiped her mouth of the fragrant juices. “Oh, sorry.” She held the contraband out to the dumbstruck doppelgängers. “Did you want some?”

Chapter 27: Relapse

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Chapter 27: Relapse

“I'm just trying to understand why you'd go through all this trouble if you just wanted to show me something.”

With your sister breathing down your neck, this was the only way we could ensure that the decision you will soon make will be yours alone.

Luna glanced at the waiting memory bubble. The more the Metaspectre spoke with her, the more she began to trust it, despite its methods and reputation.

She couldn't, however, get over her mistrust of the Lord of Chaos, who was lounging nearby with a bowl of nachos. “Must you crunch those so loudly?” Luna asked, cringing at the boorish behavior.

“If you don't like it go clog your ears with that shiny bubble thing.”

Come now Gareth. Show some respect for the lady.

“I'm just teasing.” Discord got up and gave Luna a good-hearted nudge. She stepped away coldly.

“What are you doing here, Discord? Celestia and I evidently trapped you in this world when you were encased in stone, and you must have gained power as you became more forgotten. Is that why this world's such a mess? Because you're ruining it? Out of petty revenge because we beat you not once, but twice?”

“Oh no, no, of course not. I am but a humble pawn in the grand scheme of things.” He put a claw to his lip in thought. “No, I think I like the knight more, it's unpredictable and always jumps in when you least expect it. A bit more powerful, but not as direct as the queen.” Discord shook his hand to dismiss the thought. “The point is, I'm only here because it's more interesting than anything else I could be doing. Or I suppose I should say anything I'm allowed to be doing. No, this is your show.”

“Well, if you're not ruling this world, who is? You, Devil?”

We always remain in the shadows. We place those who rule into power, when it's necessary, but we have no need to assume direct control.

“Don't you see it, pretty little Princess? Did Celestia take out a bit more than just your memories when she messed with your brain? No, neither of us rule here. Nobody does. That's the problem. The ruler of the Forgotten Realm left about a year and a half ago.”

“Who was it?”

“You of course. Who else?”

***

The reflections stood in shock. Finally, Jackie recovered and jumped forward, hitting the rest of the apple out of Gilda's grasp. “What do you think you're doing?!”

Gilda stood resolutely. “Exactly what it looks like.”

“How did you even get it? You've been in here the whole time.”

“I told these ponies to try to grab some food for me while you took them around.” Rainbow opened her mouth to protest but a subtle flare of wings from Gilda told her to stand down. “I”m the mastermind here, they just did what they were told.”

“How could you be so...so shortsighted? So directly in rebellion? Do you not understand the consequences? You didn't even try to hide it!”

“Well, I could have thrown it somewhere, but you'd have found it easily enough. You ponies designed it well. We could have gotten the dragon to burn it, but the smell would have tipped you off immediately. If I just held it and returned it to you, I'd still get punished, so I thought I might as well be guilty of the crime I was inevitably going to pay for. Plus, I hadn't eaten in so long and it looked wonderful. That, and I was done taking your garbage. I think all the griffons are. You better not press your luck with us.”

“Brave words from a caged bird. Absolutely meaningless.” Shuddercry stepped forward, glancing at the whip dangling over her back. “I would kill you now, but there are better ways to teach you and the rest of the griffons a lesson.” She retrieved a pair of cuffs and a collar, restraining the willing Gilda as her friends watched on in horror. Shuddercry then dragged her out the door, into the compound. Several prisoner griffons were already hanging around, and they ran to gather the rest. Shuddercry waited patiently until every griffon in the camp had gathered.

“One of you has made the foolish decision to steal food from us. Each rule has consequences attached. You all know what's to happen to her. She will be executed at noon, by beheading, with a spell treated blade. Her body will not rise again. Let this be a lesson to each of you. Stand up in rebellion, and you can only fall.”

Spectral Slash slunk over to Rainbow. “Why?” she whispered. “Why would she take the blame for your mistake?”

“I don't... We've always been the best of friends, but I never thought she would do something like this. She... she really cares.”

Slash shook her head. “If you were truly Loyalty, you'd run over there and take the blame yourself.” She stepped away, allowing Dash to struggle under the weight of her consciousness alone.

Shuddercry finished up her speech, and led the chained Gilda directly through the camp towards solitary confinement. The griffons watched without emotion. The ponies sat in shock, knowing no words of anger or comfort could help Rainbow Dash now.

Rainbow finally relented to the storm of thoughts and feelings raging through her mind. With a cry of anguish, she dropped to the ground, weeping bitterly. “What do I do? WHAT DO I DO?! Oh Celestia!” She hit the cold, hard ground in the vain hope it would give her answers. “No. No. No. She can't. I can't. Over an apple. A single apple. Why did she have to eat it? Heh, Gilda was never the type to take abuse lying down.” She managed a laugh, full of desperation. “She's being lead away, to her death, because of me. Why am I here? HOW CAN I ALLOW MYSELF TO SIT, WHILE SHE TAKES THE BLAME?” She jumped to her hooves and sped over to her friend, knocking over a few guards along the way. The rest of the reality ponies followed after her.

Twilight felt tears coming to her eyes. She wanted to stop Rainbow, to let Gilda take the fall. Of course she couldn't. Rainbow would never forgive her. Nor would the Element of Loyalty forgive herself.

Shuddercry turned her head towards the commotion, a combination of fear and wonder lighting on her face as Rainbow Dash took her down. Shuddercry looked up in confusion and anger. “What do you think you're doing?”

“You have the wrong culprit. I stole the apple on my own accord with a full knowledge of the crime. I cannot see another take the punishment meant for me. I admit to it all. Let her go. She's just being an idiot.”

“Dash...”

“Shut up Gilda! You've covered my rear too many times now! I have to take responsibility for my mistake.”

Shuddercry kicked Dash off of her. “Well, I appreciate your fire, but you're out of line. The physical assault alone earns you a beating and two weeks in Solitary. But you're saying you'd take her place on the block?”

“Yes. I don't agree with you, your plans, or your rules, but if somebody must be punished it's going to be me.”

Shuddercry gave a small chuckle. “You have a slight problem with that plan of yours. Perhaps she didn't steal the apple, but she still ate it, and then proceeded to impede justice. She spoke out of line, and was part of a conspiracy against the citizens of Moon Pool. All those crimes add up to a death sentence. Really, all you've done is added yourself to the chopping block next to her. All in the name of friendship. Sickening.” Shuddercry motioned towards one of the nearby guards. “Hawkeye, restrain this one as well.”

The eye-patched Pegasus flew off and returned in short order with another collar and length of chain. Twilight stepped forward, holding out her hoof in a silent plea. Rainbow stood stock still as the cold metal clamped around her neck. “I'd rather go down with my friend than live with the knowledge that she did for me.” She turned to the rest of the Elements. “I'm sorry. But I have to be Loyal to myself first.”

Shuddercry rolled her eyes and pulled the two condemned away. Jackie stood in front of the Reality ponies. “They'll be killed tomorrow at noon, in the town square. I'm sorry it has to be this way.”

“Does it?” asked Applejack quietly. “Does it really?”

“It's the only way-”

“Is it?”

“Yes! Things work differently where you come from. We understand that. We wish it could be like that. But this land is a land of Justice. If the law is broken, the hammer will fall. There's no other way to keep the delicate peace within our own walls, a safe haven from the outside world. If we give anyone an inch of rope, they hang themselves with it.”

Applejack subconsciously touched her throat at the shocking and visual metaphor. “So what happens now?”

“Now?” Jackie sighed. “I can probably get you five out of here to watch the execution. Not that I'd call it a favor, but it's the best I can do right now. Shuddercry's got them under a tight key in solitary, and as much as I like you guys, I'm not going to go backstabbing my own team.” She sighed. “Get some rest. Tomorrow's going to be a busy day.”

{---}

The ponies shuffled back to their quarters, not a word passing between them. Pinkie had been a noticeable hole in their group since they got here, and now Dash was going to be ripped violently away. What could be done? Twilight felt absolutely powerless. She had always taken it upon herself to be the protector of the friends, but just when she was truly needed she could do nothing. She thought back to her nightmare of a few days ago. Was it prophetic? Was she to watch all of her friends fall around her? Unable to help them, would she watch them each pass away?

Twilight dropped to her haunches and rested her head on her forelegs, allowing herself to be lost in her thoughts. She needed strength in a world that only tore her down. But where to find it? Her consciousness expanded as she began to feel the life force of everything around her. The steadily beating drums of her remaining friend's hearts. The few withered plants around the compound struggling to survive. They reminded Twilight so much of her predicament. They were just trying to make ends meet, pushing through what was likely a worthless endeavor. She smiled lightly at the thought. Had she really been beaten down so far that she was sympathizing with a weed?

She pulled her attention even further out. The world was an ocean of energy, the seemingly random patterns of nature conflicting yet synchronizing with the forced patterns of civilization. It was all a part of a bigger picture, somehow. She was only seeing the pieces right now. So where did they fit? Her experiences in Reality, her experiences here? Was it law that dictated Rainbow's death, or was it coincidence? A carefully laid out plan, or the roll of the dice?

It didn't matter, Twilight decided. Regardless of the cause, Rainbow's life was at stake. And Twilight's actions would not be coincidental.

A loud crack resounded next to Twilight. She was pulled out of her thoughts with a start, ready to flee from the sudden intrusion. Next to her lay the reincarnated book on alicorns. Twilight looked towards the window. Certainly enough, the moon was high in the sky and her friends were still asleep, despite the noise. It must be around midnight; Twilight had lost track of time during her meditation. She grabbed at it, desperate to prove to herself it was real. She had done it.

Not so powerless now, eh?

The purple unicorn flipped it open. She had only twelve hours before the execution. She was going to make every second count. They were the only ones Dash had left.

Chapter 28: Upheaval

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Chapter 28: Upheaval

“Keep moving.”

Twilight grunted in discomfort as the guard rammed into her side. She and the rest of her friends were being led to Moon Pool's town center for the public execution. Apparently Jackie had come through. Twilight, after reading the rest of the night and not sleeping for a moment, had instructed Spike to burn the book once more. She missed the comfort it brought. Something about holding old books felt safe. But the time for preparation and comfort had passed. She had done what she needed. Now was the time for action.

Well, maybe not yet. Soon.

The friends were shuffled into a crowd of ponies gathered at the base of a wooden platform, the prison camp guards watching them closely to ensure they didn't sneak away in the sea of faces. Not that they really could, being chained up as they were.

“Citizens of Moon Pool! Too long have the Griffons worked against our glorious revolution!” The crowd cheered in agreement. Shuddercry tossed her head in arrogance, her pink hair barely moving from the motion, being cramped in the ever-present helmet. “Today we will have a moment of vengeance. This filth, this prisoner of ours, corrupted one of our kin. She created a griffon sympathizer.”

The crowd erupted into boos. Twilight shook her head. These ponies were so blind.

“They plotted in the darkness and stole an apple from us! Each of us will go to bed hungrier because of them!”

“Kill them!”

“Make them pay!”

“But of course! That's what we're here for, isn't it?” Shuddercry gestured behind her, where Pinkamina emerged from the shadows, lifting a humming ax. Her steps were heavy and meaningful, and the crowd silenced immediately.

“Now, the prisoners will have their last words.”

Gilda walked forward, her face resolute and calm. “Your threats against my people are as fruitless as a breeze against an oak. While you fight for conquest, we fight for survival. The righteous will always prevail.” She bowed and stepped backwards, leaving a dark air over the crowd.

Next Rainbow Dash stepped forward, her face streaked with tears, though none flowed now. “All I can say is I'm sorry. Am I sorry I stole the apple? Yes. But it goes beyond that. I'm sorry you live in a world where fighting is the only option. I'm sorry you're in a conflict that neither side truly wishes for. I'm sorry that you've known nothing but pain your entire lives. Most of all,” she said, deliberately lingering over each of her friend's faces, “I'm sorry for disappointing you.”

Pinkamina shuffled her grip on the ax.

Lustrous Revolt took the stage as Dash returned to Gilda's side. “Citizens, let us honor and respect their courage. If one can never find some admirable trait in their foe, they are a fool. But let us remember the law and why it is in place. Without order comes chaos. And with chaos comes destruction. Destruction of civilization, of self, of what makes us all intelligent creatures. We are separated from the animals by the thinnest of lines. And when that line is broken, we must sever ties from those who would make us thoughtless beasts. From those that would make us weak.”

Lustrous raised a hoof, holding it in place. Two guards forced Gilda and Dash to kneel. The enchanted blade rose over Dash's neck, the tension in the air as real as the weight of the ax. The entire crowd leaned forward in anticipation, and Twilight whispered a silent prayer. If they didn't arrive now, there was no hope for either of the two friends.

One of the guards next to Twilight, Hawkeye, flicked her ear. She looked up to the sky in horror and shock. “They're coming.” She jumped into the air, allowing her wings to catch her as she shouted towards the stage. “Lustrous Revolt! The griffons are attacking!”

Twilight let a sly smile creep over her face as the crowd looked up in bewilderment and to the several hundred griffons steadily growing larger. Time seemed to freeze around her. Nopony moved. The blade hung in a careful balance. Lustrous Revolt's careful look of disinterest had morphed into one of disbelief. Then the clock ticked.

“Hawkeye! How could you not see it coming sooner?! This is your job!”

“I--”

“We don't have time for excuses! Everyone! Prepare for battle!”

The crowd scattered in all directions, only the two guards with the Reality ponies remaining. They were quickly herded towards the stage. Lustrous Revolt scowled at Twilight. “Neither of them are off the hook. You will be taken back to the camp until we're finished with this. Guards, escort them back, then join me for battle.” Lustrous Revolt turned and galloped off.

Once more the ponies were jostled into line and led away. Pinkamina was left alone between the two condemned, who were watching her carefully. She still had the ax lifted in the air in indecision, the tension in her forelegs causing them to shake.

Pinkamina sniffled quietly. “Here comes our judgment. We lie to ourselves, believing we're ever in control. Even the powers that be aren't. Even they must play by the rules.”

She dropped the heavy burden of death, a calm overtaking her face. “I cannot carry on any further. This world doesn't need me. Not now. Not yet. It just needs a little brightness. A little...

“Laughter.”

She dropped to a kneel, mirroring the old friends. She lowered her head, as if in prayer. They sat for a moment, in the calm before the storm, as the city around them held its breath in anticipation.

With an audible pomf the pink pony's hair returned to its familiar poofyness. The brightness in her eyes had returned, and already a grin was creeping over her face. She turned to Dash first, then Gilda. “Hey guys! What's going on? Why are you chained up?”

{- - -}

Twilight walked with bated breath. Were the guards watching her closely, they would have seen the tension in her body. Their eyes were too preoccupied with the sky, however. The griffons would reach Moon Pool in less than a minute, and anyone out in the open could be a target.

It was the perfect setup. Who would expect an attack from the side when one was already coming from above?

“Ooof!” The guard grunted out in pain as he was knocked to the ground by two purple and green blurs. Twilight reacted instantly, taking down the other with a swift kick to the head. Any other time she'd feel horrible about physically hurting another pony, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

Spike and Thorn managed to pin the other guard to the ground. “Heh, perhaps being forgotten isn't always the worst thing. Didn't think the little guy would cause any problems, did you?”

Spike tossed the key the guard had been carrying, and Twilight busied herself with freeing the friends of the shackles that had been slowing them down. They had just enough time to cuff the terrified guard to a nearby post before the first griffons arrived. Shouts and screeches sounded from the other end of the city. They'd have to be careful traveling through here, as the griffons wouldn't take the time to know friend from foe, especially as their doppelgängers were notorious war criminals.

The group ran through the city, keeping to the alleyways where they would have the most cover and where the least fighting could be expected. In short enough time they had returned to the town square, but Rainbow Dash and Gilda were nowhere to be seen.

Neither was any blood, Twilight was relieved to note.

“Should we look for them?” asked Rarity.

Twilight shook her head. “We'll find them later! If they're still captured, they're still captured. If they're free, it would be almost impossible to find them in this mess. It's more important now that we get our gear and get out of the way of this conflict!”

“Well, where'd they keep our stuff, once they took it from us? None of us have seen it since before Lustrous Revolt introduced us to Blood and Pain.”

“Well, my reflection's got a lot in common with me. And if I know anything about myself, I like to keep important objects close to home.”

“The Library of the Lost, then?”

“Oh yes, Spike. It's time for us to check out.”

“...Leave the jokes to me.”

{- - -}

The unlikely trio of a griffon and two ponies jumped from alleyway to alleyway. “What's the plan, G?” asked Rainbow, looking over her shoulder at Pinkie, who seemed awfully chipper and oblivious to the whole scenario.

“You two are safe as long as you're with me, from the griffons anyway. We need to find out who's in charge of this attack so we can ask them for help, and see if we can get the rest of you guys out of harm's way.”

“So how do we get there?”

“That's just it. The ponies of Moon Pool have gotten very good at ground-to-air combat, so flying's out of the question.” Looking at Pinkie, she added, “not that it ever was an option. We'll have to travel along the rooftops, but that will be plenty dangerous in its own right.”

“...Oooor we could just walk, right?”

Gilda sighed. “Listen, Pinkie, a lot of things that are happening are just not going to make sense to you right now. Just try to stick close, and don't approach anyone but us.”

“Alrighty. Oh, and Gilda, I have to apologize for letting you leave Ponyville unhappy that one time. I'm glad you seem happier now.”

“Uh... yeah, Pinkie. It's alright. You're cool.”

Pinkie beamed at the compliment.

The trio made their way onto the rooftops and began running towards the center of the griffon strike force. Thankfully, the buildings in their chosen path were close enough together that leaping from one to another was possible without much difficulty. Up here, the griffons and pegasi were locked in deadly dogfights, shouts and cries of pain echoing through the air. Pinkie watched in fascination. “I don't get it. Are they fighting?”

“Yes,” huffed Gilda.

“Why?”

“It's complicated, Pinkie. Just keep running!” shouted Dash.

As they jumped over one of the alleyways, a loud cry was heard overhead. A white pegasus grabbed his chest in pain, the added weight of the spear throwing off his balance. He plummeted to the earth, collapsing in a sickening heap directly in front of Pinkie, loud cracks sounding as bones crunched under the force. Pinkie stopped in shock as a spatter of blood from the impact struck her across the face.

“Wha– Dashie? What happened to him?”

Rainbow ran back and pushed Pinkie forward. “The same thing that might happen to us if we don't stay moving!”

“But Dash! We have to help him!”

“He's dead Pinkie! We can't do anything!”

“D-dead?”

“And he'd have killed us if he weren't distracted by the griffons. The ponies here aren't trying to help us. Now move!”

Pinkie began galloping again, her face still locked in disbelief. It hurt Dash to see her good friend like this, but there wasn't time to console her. Rainbow grimaced in determination. They'd get through this. They had to.

The friends managed to get through the worst of the fighting, avoiding the hoof-to-claw combat on the ground and dodging any falling objects or bodies from above as they came. Finally, they got to the front line of the griffon offensive. Several griffon elite swooped down to confront the two ponies.

“Wait!” cried Gilda. “These two are on our side. It's me, Lieutenant Gilda. We've managed to escape from the prisoner camp and have to speak with whoever's in charge of this strike.”

The griffon soldiers looked to one another. “Commander Glenn? He's already gone into battle. He's looking for the leader of the Moon Pool ponies, Lustrous Revolt. It's critical we take her out before the fighting gets too intense. She decimated our forces last time.”

“Yeah, I was in charge of that blunder, thanks for reminding me.”

“Sorry Lieutenant.”

“Did the Commander say where he was going?”

“To the Library, Revolt's base of command. I'm just laughing we got so close before they detected us. We sure caught them with their pants down.”

“That's because they were busy attempting to execute me. Thank you.”

Gilda turned towards the library. “We have to get there before he does. If he mistakenly finds Twilight instead of Lustrous Revolt, he'll kill her before she can explain herself.” She took off running once more, the pink earth pony and sky-blue pegasus in close pursuit.

{- - -}

Twilight shot into the library, horn sputtering weakly. Despite her weakened state, it was a good idea to be prepared. Nobody greeted her nor attempted to attack her, which she took as a good sign. She quickly ushered in the rest of her group, looking into the streets. So far, no sign of anyone else, friend or foe. But that could change any moment. After they all filed in, she shut the door and locked it, whirling around to face the refugees. “Alright, we have to do this as quickly as possible. Search every nook and cranny of this place for our saddlebags and the Elements of Harmony. They have to be here. We can't use them until we hook up back with Rainbow Dash and somehow rip Pinkie out of that shadow of hers, but it's better to have the possibility. Look for anything else that might be helpful as well. Wherever we're going, we'll be walking for quite some time. Now get moving!”

The friends split up without a word, hoofsteps clattering in all directions as they raided the library. Twilight busied herself on the main floor, looking over the map that Spike had seen when he had retrieved the book. Tiny flags were placed over cities and small stacks of plastic chips were near each. There was some sort of purpose, but Twilight couldn't quite figure it out. All she knew was that she needed a map and that she didn't particularly care about preserving Lustrous Revolt's carefully laid out plans. She grabbed the whole map in her telekinetic field, ripping it out from under the pieces, which clattered to the table and surrounding floor. Twilight rolled up the map just as Spike called to her from upstairs. “I found Lustrous' room, Twilight, and our bags are here.”

Twilight ascended the stairs and stepped into the room Spike had spoken from. Thorn was perched on the head of a simple bed with stark white covers, Sure enough, at the foot of the bed rested the six saddlebags. Some were open as if they had been rummaged through, but it looked like nothing had been misplaced. “Awesome, Spike.” She picked up her bag and set it in place on her back, happy to feel the familiar weight once more.

“Hmm... Hey Twilight, there's something else over here you might want to see.”

Twilight walked over, looking at the folder in Spike's hands. “What is it?”

Spike spread out the contents on a nearby desk, revealing a set of pictures and paper-clipped notes. There was one for each of the Reality ponies, and another for each of the Forgotten ponies. It looked pretty interesting, but it was too much to go over now.

“We'll take it with us.” Twilight scooped up everything and put them in her bag, then instructed Spike to carry the rest of the bags downstairs. She then stepped out of the room, ready to go check on Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy, when she heard a loud thump from the door downstairs. Somebody was attempting to get in. She waited quietly at the top of the stairs, ears straining for any further clues. Faint voices were heard on the other side, in some sort of heated discussion.

Then, with a terrible blast that shook books out of their shelves, the door exploded inwards. A loud voice boomed from the now larger entrance. “Lustrous Revolt! Come meet your fate, war criminal!”

“Is that Commander Glenn?”

“You better believe it!” A tall, muscular griffon stepped over the rubble, his blind left eye still seeming the pierce the relative darkness. He turned towards Twilight's voice, his good eye piercing looking over her form. “Come quietly or pick up your arms!”

“What are you talking about? I'm the one who called out for the griffons! My friends and I were held captive at the prisoner camp here!”

“Likely story, but your form doesn't lie, Revolt. Besides, the one who communed with us knew something only a fellow griffon could know. This is another one of your dirty tricks!”

“But I-”

“Stalling won't save you!” Commander Glenn rushed, claws outstretched. Twilight reacted on instinct, sliding down the stairs underneath him and kicking upwards. Glenn's momentum kept him moving up the stairs before he rolled back down several of the steps. He got to his legs once more, shaking off the pain. Twilight ran down to the center area where the attendant guards were waiting with wicked smiles.

Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy appeared in the stairwell. “What the hay is going on down there?”

“More conspirators? The infamous Shuddercry, joined by Jackie and Temperament, who feed and arm those who slaughter us mercilessly. It will be a pleasure killing you myself.”

The griffon jumped towards the group, his guards close behind. Twilight flared up her horn and expended the last of her energy with a hastily cast magical shield. The griffons hit the physical barrier and fell.

“I'M NOT LUSTROUS REVOLT!”

“Though you did a pretty great job of keeping them occupied while I got here.”

All heads turned towards the entrance where the mentioned pony stood darkly.

“But how? There can't be two of you unless the ponies from the other world have leaked through!”

“They have. That will give you something to think about until you return.” With four quick magical blasts, the wounded griffons were dealt with and done.

Lustrous stretched her neck casually. “Good to see you made it alright. It's nice to know you're just as predictable as I thought.”

Twilight sighed. “I don't think you understand just how sick I am of seeing you.”

“The feelings mutual. Now, you'll do as I say or else I'll be forced to introduce Death a bit sooner than planned. Return with me, without a fuss, to the prisoner camp. Leave your bags.”

“If you think that's going to work, you're not just evil, you're stupid.”

“I fully expect it not to. But if I don't give you the chance then my actions won't be justified.”

“We're not going back.”

“So be it. You chose this.” Lustrous Revolt stomped her hooves into the ground, a gust of wind picking up and lifting her off of the ground. She prepared an attack, while Twilight gather her friends behind her in protection.

“Woah! Two Twilights?!”

Lustrous Revolt turned to look at the three newcomers. She physically drew back in shock. “Pinkamina? You're...”

“Pinkamina? Silly, that's what my family calls me. To friends and strangers I'm just Pinkie Pie!”

“And you two escaped.”

Twilight motioned for Rainbow and Gilda to come near her as quickly as possible while Lustrous Revolt was still undecided. Gilda literally grabbed Pinkie and dropped her behind Twilight. Gilda looked at the fallen body of her comrades, then to Twilight for an explanation. Twilight pointed at the pony floating in front of them.

Lustrous shook her head. “It doesn't matter. Unforeseen complications, that's all. To be expected. Planned for.” The determined smile set back in. “Look at all of you standing before me. What a ragtag bunch of misfits. And so you cower in fear. As you very well should. However, I digress. This is going far longer than I expected it to, and there's an invasion to turn back.”

She closed her eyes and began chanting in an archaic language. “Quick girls!” Twilight yelled. “Get the Elements while we have a chance!” The ponies rustled through their saddlebags, quickly donning their respective Element as the physical energy in the room began to rise from the arcane buildup. Twilight activated the Element of Magic, forcing what was usually a natural process. As she and the other ponies began to rise into the air, she pressed through the energy flow, pulling it with her rather than being pulled by it. She turned to look at her reflection through burning Celestia eyes. How odd it was, how poetic, almost. Two almost exact ponies. One surrounded by friends. The other standing alone.

Twilight allowed herself to be filled with the potent energy of the Elements, feeling the pressure rise inside. She channeled the power, ready to unleash the fury towards the pony she now hated more than any other. She concentrated, directing the flow, and...

She dropped to the floor, hearing her friends fall around her as well. Twilight looked up in confusion. What had happened?

A screech from above confirmed her fears. Thorn had snatched the crown right off of Twilight's head just before the release, causing the built up energy to dissipate around the room. As a matter of fact, Twilight felt her energy stores refilled to the brim. She grinned. Lustrous Revolt's plan had backfired. She–

No. No, it couldn't be. Thorn dropped the crown from the high height he had climbed to. Twilight saw what was happening. The attack had never been intended for Twilight, nor any of her friends. After all, what good would it do? They'd only rise again.

Revolt had tricked them into using the Element's power to destroy itself. What Twilight had received from the backflow of energy was only a fraction of what was released. The vast majority had gone straight to Lustrous Revolt, and therefore her attack.

The blinding beam shot forward from the orb held in Lustrous' hooves. It hit the Element of Magic dead on, superheating the metal. Finally, after giving much resistance, the Element buckled under the attack, the ornate gemstone bursting into a hundred brightly colored shards that embedded themselves into anything they touched.

Lustrous Revolt dropped to the ground. She raised her head slowly, her vanity almost overpowering, and her sneer condemning. “Did you think you stood a chance against the Element of Destruction? What a pity.”

Chapter 29: Retribution

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Chapter 29: Retribution

“Of course we can stand against you! Element or not, Harmony will always overcome Dissonance. We have the record to prove it.”

“Do you? Let's think about that for a moment, shall we?” Lustrous looked around the room, still floating from her arcane preparations. “I'm in no rush to get you back to the prison, and the citizens of Moon Pool should have no trouble handling the pesky griffons, now that their leader is out of commission.

Lustrous Revolt coughed, continuing her monologue as Twilight racked her brains for a plan. “You've overpowered a confused and weakened Goddess. Hardly even a challenge. Your life was most in danger by the physical heights between you and her than her works of darkness. You've outsmarted a few dumb animals who were looking at you as breakfast and nothing more. You conquered Discord, which I'll admit is impressive, but his fall was too easy. We've felt his presence in this world; he's still a threat. If anything, I think you helped him. Then there's the changeling army. They were scattered abroad, and I don't think I need remind you that it was not by your hoof. So your 'record' of victories is somewhat laughable.”

Twilight glanced at Gilda, who was stalking around to Lustrous' blind spot. Gilda was moving so slowly Twilight had only now seen it. She had to buy time and keep Lustrous Revolt occupied. “You're forgetting this most recent one.”

Lustrous' arrogant smile dropped in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“I was able to contact the griffons and get them here before the execution.”

“That was you?” Lustrous let out a disbelieving scoff. “Impossible. Their arrival was coincidence.”

Twilight shook her head. “Not impossible. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. I'm certain you've heard of Telepathy?”

“Mental communication, yes. I certainly hope you don't mean to imply you achieved it?”

“Oh, much more than that.” Twilight smiled. Lustrous was on the defense now. “I was able to create a network bigger than any ever recorded.”

“Explain yourself.”

“All in good time. I've listened to you babble, allow me a turn.” It was nice to see Lustrous squirm. And as long as she was squirming, she'd hopefully forget her plans to harm the friends.

Twilight began pacing for dramatic effect, drawing Lustrous' attention away from the encroaching griffon in her peripheral vision. “You see, when the Metaspectre spoke to us in Reality, I realized two things about telepathy. First, telepathy can be focused on an individual, or sent to anypony within range. Secondly, though telepathy is traditionally only achieved by the grandmasters of magic –and even then it requires massive concentration– the Metaspectre seemed to be having absolutely no trouble with it. I thought on that for a while, and realized it must have gone beyond just being a strong magic user.” In truth, the revelation had come when Twilight had reviewed the book on alicorns the night before. A key phrase that changed Twilight's perspective on magic. Revealing it might be foolish, but if the friends didn't get out of here, now, their struggle thus far would be pointless. Twilight took a deep breath and continued.

“The power of magic does not come from the strength of an individual, but a complex chain of relationships. Even the alicorns must draw power from their creations. An individual can only do so much; even the most trained sorcerer has distractions. By contacting a single griffon in the camp, I was able to start a chain reaction, asking each griffon to cry out in prayer. It created a telepathic pulse so powerful that every griffon within a hundred miles heard it. This attack is no accident. It's a rescue mission.”

“Some rescue mission. Their leaders lie dead on the floor.”

“Yet they're not defeated. Out there, the fighting rages on. Their commanders aren't the only thing driving them. Their will to live, to thrive, is greater than any commander's battle cry. They're united in purpose. All my life I've relied on my own power. And I've definitely grown stronger because of it. Yet I've always been my strongest when I'm standing with others. It's why we were able to defeat our foes, despite what you say. And it's exactly why we'll beat you now. You are alone. And trust me, I know what that's like. Not fun. You have your associates in this world, but where are they now? Don't you see? Even if you return us to the prison camp, we've still won. Pinkie's here, which means Pinkamina has given up. Our friendship finally overpowered her. And I hear several other of our reflections are at the tipping point as well. Your plan is crumbling around you.”

Lustrous Revolt snarled in anger. “You wear my patience thin. I stand alone because I am strong enough to do so. I do not weaken myself with friendships because all they do is distract you from your goals and sap precious resources. One day, Twilight Sparkle, sooner than you realize, you will have to make a choice. A choice to save yourself or to save the friends you've relied on so much. We'll see how strong you are then. In the mean time, I wouldn't count on such childish methods to save yourself.”

It took Twilight a moment to realize what her reflection meant. Lustrous whipped around to stare at Gilda, who was poised to pounce onto the imposing and long-winded enemy. “Down kitty. Don't give me an excuse to kill you. Execution's not my thing, but I'll do whatever is necessary to see my plans through.”

Gilda was lifted into the air in a magenta telekinetic aura, placed softly next to Dash. Twilight sighed. Of course Lustrous had noticed. It would have been too easy.

“Now, are you going to march with me back to the prison like good little ponies? I need to clean up this battle and then the blood on my floors.”

“The time for falsities has passed, Revolt.”

Lustrous frowned darkly. “You want me to be direct? Fine.”

She reached out a hoof, eyes glowing with arcane power, an arc of light shooting from the point. Each of the friends bent over in pain as the attack hit them, pure sensation coursing through their bodies. “You need not be conscious for the trip back. If I happen to kill a few of you, so be it.”

Twilight couldn't see straight. The spell was unlike any she'd experienced. It had no purpose but to cause pain in its most basic form. Every nerve was firing at once, and her brain couldn't make sense of it all. She felt herself being overloaded, the darkness around her vision closing in. She couldn't go back to the prison. She couldn't lose now. Most importantly, she couldn't watch her friends get hurt any longer.

But the pain clouded her mind. She couldn't think properly. The spark. The spark of friendship. It had worked with Nightmare Moon. Twilight tried to remember all the hard times the friends had pressed through. The shards of the shattered Element scattered around the room shuddered, but her plea wasn't enough to repair such catastrophic damage. Twilight cringed as another wave of pain racked her body, causing strange and brilliant colors to flash across her field of vision.

A shield. Twilight's magic had been recharged, thanks to the Element's back draft. She tried to throw up a barrier, but it fizzled out before it came into being. Revolt's attack was too strong, and Twilight was simply too disoriented.

Twilight dropped to the ground, her saddlebag spilling off of her as her frenzied mind tried to comprehend her situation. Her friends had already fallen. It was just like her nightmare. They were going to Blink, because of her. Because she wasn't strong enough. Her gaze fell on her toppled saddlebag. The humming crystal from the Metaspectre's altar taunted her with its dark and peaceful void. The end was near, it seemed to say. Twilight slowly closed her eyes in defeat, immersing herself in the exquisite agony. She had failed.

No.

Not this time. The end was near, but not for her.

Sudden clarity flooded Twilight's mind as adrenaline flooded her bloodstream. She jumped to her feet, her instinct-driven body impervious to the deadly arcs tracing her body.

Revolt turned her attention to this new development, confusion and fear overtaking her smug look. “What?! Impossible!”

Twilight couldn't hear her dark double's words. Her thoughts were not intelligent, nor were they civilized. She had given into the most basic of instincts; survival. In one fluid motion she ripped the crystal out of her bag, leaped into the air and pressed it into Lustrous Revolt's attack. The world seemed to hang in a careful balance for a moment, all going silent except for a barely audible 'clink' as the crystalline surface pressed against the terrified pony's hoof.

Then the library exploded.

As did the rest of the town. The crystal collapsed upon its own mass, compacting with a sickening crunch. The massive amounts of energy trapped inside were let out in a single ring of sheer power. Everything caught in its path was vaporized in the glorious aura. Fights-in-progress around the city were frozen then annihilated, griffon and pony slaughtered alike. The heat melted the snow for miles around and instantly incinerated the sparse plant life. A flash brighter than midday blinded the surrounding fauna that was fortunate enough to escape the blast. Then came the fire raining from the heavens, an odd peace settling on the valley.

Far away, a smile lit upon a dark face.

Boom.

The Metaspectre turned his attention back to Luna. Yes, everything is coming together nicely.

{- - -}

Twilight groaned in confusion. It was snowing, she noticed, as she struggled to lift her eyes open. She stuck out her tongue to catch one of the flakes. In disgust she spit it out immediately. That wasn't snow. It tasted like ash.

Twilight struggled to her hooves, her head swimming and begging her to lay back down. She stood resolutely, forcing her eyes to focus. She blinked a couple of times to assure herself what she was seeing was real. There was not a building in sight. She stood at the center of massive smoldering crater, the platform she and the unconscious Elements were lying on the only untouched ground as far as she could see in the thick smog. The sun tried vainly to illuminate the destruction, but only managed to cast a faint and eerie light over the wasteland. With horror Twilight realized the ash cloud above her was her work. There was an unnatural silence over the land. There was not a sound besides her panicked breathing. She had killed. Not just Lustrous Revolt. Not just her captors. Every. Living. Soul.

She ran over to her friends, ignoring her own pain. Each was breathing, she saw with relief. But all had burns tainting their coats. Spike and Gilda fared a little better in that department, though they were just as unconscious as the rest.

Twilight fell to her haunches, her chest heaving. She didn't know what to feel. Her friends were safe. But at the cost of an entire city. At the cost of her allies come to save her. At the cost of transforming her into a mass-murderer.

Before, she hadn't known if she were strong enough to save her friends. Now she knew she wasn't. She sobbed in terror in the calm of the storm, a wind far above powered by remnant energy driving even more ash into the air, blotting the sun out completely. The world went dark.

Chapter 30: The Fortune Tellers and the Harbinger

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Chapter 30: The Fortune Tellers and the Harbinger

In the mists of the natural plane, Bright Eyes was meditating as the Sun Goddess fretted behind her.

“How could I have let this happen? The Metaspectre knew exactly what it was doing. It's been in control all along. I should never have allowed Twilight and her friends to enter the Land of the Lost. It's so much worse than I remembered. Is that because I chose to forget, or because of my neglect?”

Bright Eyes rolled her eyes and gave a sigh of exasperation. As calm as she tried to be, Celestia's understandable anxiety was taking its toll. “Princess, the choice is in the past. There's nothing more you can do about it.”

“Yet I must reflect upon it. The wrong choices I've made haunt my every waking moment.”

“They weren't wrong.”

Celestia stopped her pacing, staring into Bright Eyes' back, begging for an answer. “Of course they were. They've made things worse than they were before.”

Bright Eyes turned. “Celestia, you're missing the big picture. Every sentient being has the gift of choice. I speak of fore-ordination and predestination, but I seem to have confused you. You see, it's not that you are guaranteed to make a decision one way or the other when faced with any situation. Based on previous decisions, some choices will be far more likely than others, but you truly have a choice up until the moment that the choice becomes action, or the lack thereof. At that moment, whatever has been done was fate.”

“I don't fully understand.”

“It's a paradox. Allow me to take an extreme example. Twilight Sparkle has been wounded. You have the choice of healing her instantly, with no cost to you whatsoever, or to kill her.”

“What kind of options are those?”

“Answer. Which would you choose?”

“To heal her, of course.”

“You're given the decision again. What now?”

“Heal her.”

“Once more.”

“You're running me around in circles.”

“Celestia, dispel the blinders you've put on yourself. Apply the lesson to each of the choices you made in your life. Think back to when you were forced to banish Luna.”

“I'd rather not.”

“Face the past. You're the one that likes dwelling on it. You are back in your former throne room, once the pinnacle of order, mercy, and justice. You have thousands of subjects who count on you to make the difficult decisions they couldn't. Your sister stands before you, threatening to kill. Not just you, but everything you and she once worked for. Peace. Love. The ability to choose. Tell me, do you allow her to live, knowing she'll slaughter countless innocents?”

“As much as it pains me, I cannot.”

“You're given the decision again. What now?”

“I... I kill her. For the greater good.”

“Once more.”

“I have to let her die, and my self respect with her. Because I am bound to help those who cannot help themselves.”

“Now do you understand? Each choice we make is indeed a choice. But they're also meant to happen. Such is the paradox of the universe; the illusion and truth of choice. You were meant to let Twilight and her friends into the depths of despair. They were meant to discover for themselves the true horrors that you fight against. Luna is meant to remember who she is, so she can be given the ability to choose, truly choose, without outside influence, which side she serves. Everything will turn out for the better, but change is never easy. Just carry on.”

Celestia dropped her head. “Thank you oracle. Your words are comforting.”

“I only speak the truth.” Bright Eyes returned to her meditation, listening to the countless voices echoing through the time stream. Her ears flicked as one in particular caught her mind. She concentrated, ignoring the other cries for her attention.

“Hawkeye?” she said with surprise. She stood, murmuring arcane phrases as her eyes began glowing. Celestia stepped over.

“Who's Hawkeye?”

“My... reflection, I suppose you could call her. From the Land of the Lost. The oracle is somewhat of a special case. I am a neutral force, yet the universe saw fit to provide me with additional windows to either world. My light reflection in Reality is known as Derpy Hooves the Courier Mare, and my dark reflection in the Forgotten Realm is known as Hawkeye the All-Sight. Somewhat of a joke, because she lost her left eye permanently at an early age in her life, but the name's fitting, more than the mortals realize.”

With a burst of light, the mist around the singularity Bright Eyes had just created dispersed with a hiss, Hawkeye blinked, taking in her surroundings in a reserved manner. Upon seeing Bright Eyes, she snapped to attention. “Oracle, I'm afraid I have bad news.”

“Beyond being dead?”

“It's the cause of death.”

Celestia watched carefully, not sure how to react in this change of events. This was the first time she'd seen a dark reflection in the flesh since the split of the worlds. Hawkeye continued. “I've been watching Twilight and her friends as instructed, ensuring no true harm came to them. But my future sight has failed me. We've taken an alternate timeline.”

Bright Eyes rose a brow. “How so?”

Hawkeye turned to the viewing port Celestia and the Oracle had been using to watch the Elements' progress. “The images you're receiving are false. Twilight was supposed to see the picture of her friends she put in the saddlebag and summon the strength within to overpower her reflection, as you've seen. Instead, she drew on the power of a crystal she stole from the Metaspectre's altar. I don't know how it's escaped our attention.”

Bright Eyes walked over to the projected images, where Twilight and her friends were leading a small band of wounded griffons, the escaped prisoners, against a countless army. The Elements lit up and the group ripped through their opposition with righteous indignation. But according to Hawkeye, whom she trusted completely –which was only logical seeing as they could read each other's conscious thoughts– this was wrong. “What happened?”

“Twilight released a portion of the energy of the crystal, decimating Moon Pool and its populace, barely managing to protect her group. The entirety of the griffon army has been culled, and nothing remains of the city. I haven't yet locked onto the new timeline, and I won't be able to until I rebirth. They're walking blind in there.”

Celestia interrupted. “We no longer have a guarantee of their safety?”

Hawkeye turned to address the worried Princess. “No Princess, none whatsoever. Somebody intervened and I think we all know who.”

“Well, it was a group effort.”

The trio whipped around, Celestia gasping in shock as she saw a foe she had thought defeated, twice, standing before her once again. “Discord!”

“Celestia! Celestia Celestia Celestia! It's terribly repetitive to start a conversation with my name every time you see me.”

Celestia closed her eyes, breathing to calm herself. She recognized that getting worked up would help no one. “Alright then, what are you here for?”

“Eh, for fun mostly, to be completely honest. It's a wonderful plan Thael has cooked up, but it takes so long to execute. I suppose it's why he's in charge and I'm just a team player. I simply don't have the patience.”

Hawkeye stepped forward. “Excuse me everyone, I see a need for Derpy quite soon, so I'll be right back.” Her single eye lit up, familiar arcane whisperings directing the magic flow around her. She disappeared with a flash.

Discord continued without skipping a beat. “I'm her because I really just like watching you squirm, Celestia. No! Not like that, sheesh.”

“Shut up.”

“Not a laugh? Ever? Celestia, when are you going to learn that's all I want from you?”

“When are you going to learn some funny jokes?”

“Ooh! Right to the heart!” Discord grabbed his chest melodramatically, “Alright, fine. You tell me what kind of joke you like, and I'll tell you what will happen next to Twilight and her little friends.”

Celestia sighed. It wasn't like she had much other choice. “I like jokes that remind of the good times that have passed, without a laugh at another's expense. No laugh is worth causing another pain.”

Discord tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Well, I suppose that's the problem, isn't it? I simply don't have any material to work with there. I never really had good times in the past. My life has been pretty terrible, I'll have you know. I laugh because it's the only thing that keeps me going.

He slid over to Celestia's side, wrapping an arm around her neck. It took all of Celestia's willpower to not throw him off. “Well, you kept your side of the bargain Celestia. I'll tell you what's happening right now. Twilight's friends are waking up, recovering from the blast that made your student a killer. Their eyes are wide with shock at the devastation around them. They're going to have to pick themselves up and carry on. After all, it's only a matter of time before the two armies reappear, and neither side will be too understanding of the little accident. They'll walk blindly, the map they stole only providing more questions for them. Where do they go? Where has Luna disappeared to? What is the safest route?”

He snorted, trying to hold back a laugh as he continued. “The joke, of course, is there is no safe route. The map doesn't tell them the natural horrors that await them. It does not tell them the monsters and assassins that wait around every corner. Nor does it tell them of the increasing pressures upon civilization. Twilight just destroyed the only food source for the entire city's population. All semblance of control will disappear. The fighting will become desperate. The Famine, so much worse. And eventually everything will collapse. It will be each pony against the world. The effect will be felt in more than just that city, of course. It will spread over the land like a plague. Anarchy. Rioting. Disillusionment, and most importantly...

“Chaos,” he whispered. He grinned darkly, while Celestia looked resolutely forward. “And the best part?” he continued. “All of what I said is conjecture. But it will happen. After all, chaos theory is the only catch-all explanation. The theory that any order will always, without fail, lead to chaos. Because no matter how righteous the intent of any system, someone will disagree.”

He took a few steps away, placing his arms behind his back as he fondly regarded the shifting mist around them. “Change is the only true beauty in this world.”

“When did you change?”

Discord started, looking back to Celestia. “I beg your pardon?”

“You once supported everything I stand for. You were loved by thousands, and you brought a unique light to the world that even I admired. Why did you throw it all away?”

Discord drew up his lip in a sneer. “Because I realized the cost of Order.” He grimaced darkly, something obviously weighing on his mind. “Do you truly want to hear my tale, Celestia? From my viewpoint? It might make you feel sorry for me. And we wouldn't want that.”

“I'll try my best to continue hating you.”

Discord rose a brow. “Was that a joke? That was a joke, wasn't it?”

A bright flash sparked between the two ancients, the two copies of the recently silent blond pegasus jumping into being. Hawkeye nodded to Bright Eyes. “I managed to retrieve Derpy.”

The wall-eyed pony looked around the group, grinning happily. “Hiya! How is everyone today?”

Bright Eyes stepped forward. “Greetings, Ditzy. You haven't been responding to my mental calls lately.”

“It's not my fault! The Doctor says there's something wrong with the barriers between the worlds! He told me to tell you to adjust the psi-on-ic fre-quen-cy ten degrees lower.”

“Is that where he's been off to?”

“Yeah, he's trying to figure out what it all means right now, conducting experiments and whatnot. You know how he is, coming and going whenever he pleases. Um, is that all?”

“No, Ditzy, I'm afraid we have matters of greater importance than dropped calls. We need to use your Past Sight to review Discord's history.” Bright Eyes bowed towards the Draconequus. “With your permission, of course. I'm simply anticipating your answer. Thankfully, Hawkeye's a bit better about updating me with her Future Sight.”

“Oh certainly, go right ahead.”

“Do I have to? His story's sad. Can't we pick a happier one? Like the heroic tale of Copper Band the adventurer?”

“I'm sorry, but it has to be Discord's story.”

“Aww...”

“While you're watching my bitter history, Celestia, I better return before Thael realizes I'm missing. And Celestia, don't think this means I'm suddenly friendly or anything.”

“Of course not, Discord.”

“After all, we all need enemies. We are empty if we don't have them. That's why some find them... and others make them.”

Discord raised his griffon claw in the air, his body beginning to glow as it was pulled out of the dimension. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you one last thing. You remember the Beholders, don't you? One of the ancient races of Equestria?”

“Yes, they all died out in the Chaos War you started.”

“Well, it turns out they didn't actually die. They were just... forgotten.”

With yet another flash of light, the Lord of Chaos was gone, only an echoing chuckle and a dark worry indicating he had ever been there at all.

Chapter 31: Relocation

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Chapter 31: Relocation

The pathetic ponies marched through the smoldering earth, completely silent. Pinkie was wide-eyed as she tried to make sense of this alien experience, but not even she spoke. Something about the air around them and the realization that an entire city had been silenced instantaneously made the idea of breaking the quiet abominable.

So Twilight was left to her thoughts once more. She had no idea where she was leading her friends. Though her map she had taken had survived the blast, her attack had destroyed any major landmarks. She could only guide them based off of the position of the sun, but that could only give them an estimate. And where to go, regardless? She had no idea where the Metaspectre had taken Luna. She didn't know how any of the cities marked on the map would react to their little troupe marching in. Nor did she want to guess blindly.

Twilight shook her head in anguish. She was unqualified to lead. She had allowed herself to lose control once again. Celestia had been right to reprimand her when she had enchanted Miss Smarty-Pants. But once again, Twilight had forgotten her lesson. There wasn't any other way to look at it. The citizens of Moon Pool were cruel, but they were simply desperate. Their deaths weren't justified. Twilight had allowed herself to fall to their level, acting on instinct rather than logical thought. To say nothing of the Griffon saviors. She had to redeem herself somehow. But what was done was done. The only way forward, she hated to admit, was to carry on.

The group ascended a gentle slope that overlooked the former Moon Pool. The dark lake itself stood untouched, the only hint that civilization might ever have resided in the barren wasteland. The remnant energy from the blast made the air heavy with magic. Twilight felt like she could perform just about any spell she'd ever heard of, but what would be the point? She turned to face the group.

“Well,” she managed to croak out. Her throat was dry and her voice sounded out of out of place and far louder than she had intended. “We have a map, but no leads. We're starving, but we have no food. If the citizens of Moon Pool manage to return from that attack, we'll be hunted more than ever. And I have the feeling that they won't be trying to capture us alive.” Twilight shook her head in frustration. “Well, I managed to get us out of one mess and right into another.”

Then, swallowing her pride, the purple mare continued, turning to the stern griffon. “And Gilda, I apologize for dragging your people into this. And for killing them.”

“We fight to free ourselves, and you guys are the best bet we have for a better life. I don't speak for all the griffons, but it's likely most of them would be willing to die again if it meant giving you a fighting chance. It wasn't your fault.”

“Actually it was.”

Gilda didn't respond.

Twilight returned her attention to the rest of the group, shrugging her shoulders. “Honestly, I have no idea where to go from here. Obviously we still have our main objective of saving Luna. If we give up on that, everything we've done has been both a waste of time and a failure. But we have to be concerned about our immediate survival. If we can't save ourselves, how can we expect to save anypony else?”

“We need to think like The Metaspectre. If we get inside his head, then we'll know where to go.”

“A fair point, Applejack, but its movements seem to be illogical.” Rarity coughed, then continued. “Or at the very least they seem to be the result of a fevered mind. What does it gain from stealing away Luna? It doesn't seem to want to dethrone Celestia, nor enslave Equestria. It has as much power as it could possibly hope for, but it still acts against us.”

“Could it be doing it simply for the heck of it? For fun?”

“I don't know Rainbow, a creature like that doesn't seem to have a sense of fun.” Twilight looked around at her friends. She was just as stumped as they were. “I suppose the only way we could really know its intent would be to ask it.”

Gilda spoke up now, reaching into Twilight's saddlebag for the map. “One thing we can be sure of, at least from what you've told me, is that the Metaspectre likes being dramatic. It won't be in some small settlement or just hiding out in the woods. It either has a lair of sorts or else it's moving around. My guess?” She pointed a claw to a large city pounded into the side of a tall mountain. The city of Windark, obviously Canterlot's reflection.

“Windark was largely destroyed and abandoned about a year and a half ago, in the last conflict between the Offshoot griffons and the Forgotten ponies. After the battle, the griffons found a way into Reality and Moon Pool was unified. This is, of course, around the time that the being in the lake released the four Elder Atrocities, and when Nightmare Moon entered Reality, to be defeated by you six. If there's anywhere the Metaspectre would put on a show, it'd be there. To rise from ashes of Canterlot's reflection is poetically just and his business wouldn't be disturbed there. The trouble, however, what's between here– ” she said, pointing out Moon Pool with a claw. Twilight realized the map was out date, seeing as the town was no longer there. “...And there.”

“That's a lot of walking,” Spike commented, looking it over.

“To say nothing of lack of supplies and the dangers that lie in between.” Gilda stretched her neck. “There are two ways to go about this. You'll either have to avoid civilization or the wildlife. And honestly, you'll have a better chance with the monsters that nature created than the ones that war created. That being said, you guys should probably head out as soon as possible. You only have until midnight before confused and frustrated ponies will try to track you down.”

“'You guys?'” asked Rainbow. “Are you not coming, Gilda?”

The griffon shook her head. “I'm sorry, but it's for the best. I'd just be another mouth to feed. You'll move faster with a smaller group, even if it's only smaller by one. You're only as fast as your slowest party member. Besides, I have to let the griffons know that the mission was successful. We saved you. Now we have to save the rest of the prisoners and retreat. And no offense to Commander Glenn, but I think he needs my help.”

Twilight bit her lip. As much as she wanted a strong fighter in case their travels ever required physical force, Gilda's logic was sound. “Very well, Gilda. I only wish there was more I could do to help you and the rest of the griffons.”

“Help us by winning this war. Go find your princess and set things right.” She saluted the friends. “It was a pleasure working with you. May the Gods smile upon your travels.”

Twilight bowed low to the ground. She had found a true friend in Gilda.

Rainbow ran up and hugged. “I can't believe I have to leave you again after I thought I'd lost you.”

“Don't worry about me. There will be a day when we will fly carefree in Reality, but there is still work to do. I'll be fine.” Gilda look at Rainbow seriously, understanding passing between them. Rainbow stepped back to join the others.

With a quick glance at the clearing sky, Twilight oriented herself to the map, nodded, and set off towards Windark. Gilda watched them disappear into the smog, swallowing in fear. Whether for herself or for them, she couldn't decide. Once they were gone from view, Gilda flopped to the ground, allowing her starvation and wounds to overtake her. She lay there, breathing heavily. It had taken all of her willpower to put on that happy face for her friends. They had been an answer to her prayers. Just when she had given up, they arrived and gave her the one thing she could not give herself. Hope. She gave a pained smile at the thought. Gilda reached her left claw forward, looking it over carefully. She knew what she had to do. Anyone who said they weren't afraid of death was lying, even in this twisted world. But it had to be done. She would be worthless in this state.

Gilda took a deep breath, steeling herself. She frowned in concentration. She lashed at her own throat and she instinctively choked on the already flowing crimson. Her mind flared with panic and pain, but she forced those thoughts into submission. It would all be over soon enough, she told herself, even as her mind was failing her.

Sure enough, it was. Her body stopped moving, the pool of red reflecting her relieved and peaceful face. The wind stopped, and all was quiet over the charred earth.

{- - -}

“...Three, two, one.”

With a flash, a book materialized and fell to the ground, throwing up a small poof of powder snow. Twilight cradled the tome in her magic, placing it into her bag and upon closing it, looked back the way they had come. The lightly falling snow was already filling their tracks, but how long would it keep their pursuers away?

Twilight dropped her head for a moment, then turned back to her friends. They were panting heavily, standing around the small clearing. Twilight had been making them march through the snowy countryside the entire day to give them as much of a head start as possible. Midnight had just passed. That meant, at this moment, the battle would be resuming at the remnants of Moon Pool. The griffons would hold the reflections off just long enough to regroup and retreat. Then in the aftermath, Lustrous Revolt and the others would begin hunting them down. And Twilight had a feeling they wouldn't ask questions this time around.

“Come on girls, we need to keep moving.”

Spike held up a weary hand. “Twilight. We need a rest.”

“We don't have time to rest. Come on, get up!” She stepped over and nudged the little dragon.

Applejack rose to her hooves. “Listen, Twilight. We can't keep moving. Even Ah'm tired. Just look at everypony else.”

Rainbow tried her best to look strong, but though she was built for speed and used to traveling long distances, the now over-powering hunger had sapped her usual perkiness. Fluttershy was silent, holding her aching stomach and shaking softly. Rarity avoided everyone's gaze, a dark aura telling the others it wasn't a good idea to press her.

Pinkie looked at Twilight expectantly, somber and her eyes missing their usual brilliance. She had been mostly quiet throughout the trip, but every time she spoke it was to ask questions that it hurt to answer.

“Twilight? Where are we?”

“Why does the snow feel funny?”

“Why can't I feel my hooves?”

“What happened to that city we were in?”

“Rainbow, why does this scratch feel... so... augh! What is this stuff!? It was coming out of the griffons too!”

After some time, Twilight had lost it, feeling her own confusion and anxiety come to a boil. “I don't have all the answers Pinkie! We were tricked. This world wasn't meant to be experienced. We are literally in Tartarus, and I can't protect all of you. I don't even know if I can protect myself!”

Pinkie hadn't spoken since then. Twilight looked at her group with pity, realizing that she didn't look any better. She sighed. “I don't know what to do anymore. We need to stay ahead of them. But I don't want to kill us doing it.”

Rainbow gave up her façade of bravery and strength and instead flopped to her side. “Twilight, we need food. There's no two ways to look at it. Applejack, didn't you have some in your bags?”

“Had is right. When they took our stuff they kept the food and left everything else.”

Twilight pondered her options. “This forest we're in seems lively enough, but I doubt much of it's edible. And the plants are different enough, I'm not certain I could be sure whether or not they're poisonous. And I doubt that anything edible grows much in the winter. They don't even in Equestria. What I wouldn't give for a field guide.”

Twilight pulled out the dark crystal from the Metaspectre's altar. It still hummed with energy, though not as powerfully or as urgently as before. Even it seemed lethargic in the bitter winter cold.

“I might be able to summon food, but there are several problems with that. I'd either have to teleport it from elsewhere, but I'd need a target and besides, it'd be taking it from somepony else. I could conjure it, but true materialization requires a massive amount of energy.”

“I thought you materialized things all the time? Like that door you slammed on me when I was telling you to not be afraid of sharing your talents? Like you shouldn't be now?”

“No, Spike, that was an illusion. I had been studying tricks the mind can play on itself that day. Your brain interpreted it as real, and the magic did the rest, only opening the door because you believed it could be opened. I could materialize illusion apples, for example, and though we'd be able to taste them, and our bodies would think we're full it'd do nothing to actually help us in the long run. It'd boost our metabolism and then where would we be? Getting hungrier faster.”

“You said there's 'true materialization' though, right?” Fluttershy's eyes were begging for good news.

Sadly, Twilight wasn't certain she could give it. “Yes, but there's a problem with it. Matter is essentially condensed energy. To make a real apple appear, right here and right now, would certainly drain my entire energy pool. I'm not certain just how many this crystal could make, but it wouldn't be enough to satisfy us, that I'm sure of. Maybe before I exploded most of the energy in it, but not now. Magic is more about using what you're given rather than getting what you don't have.”

Rarity jumped to her hooves, stormed over, and ripped Twilight's map out of her bag. With a huff, she looked it over, daggers shooting out of her eyes.

“There. We're going there tomorrow. I don't care what Gilda says, but a beeline to this 'Windark' is going to kill us. We need to get food from somewhere, even if it means we have to hurt a few ponies.”

“Rarity, consider-”

“No, Twilight. In the land of robbers and thieves, we'll have to be robbers and thieves. It's the only way to survive. This decision has not come easily, but I've had plenty of time to think on it. If we don't take care of ourselves, nopony will.”

Twilight looked at the city Rarity had pointed to. Stonehill. Within a day's walking distance, Twilight had to admit it did look far more tempting than the week or so between Moon Pool and Windark. She frowned at the thought. Back in Reality, it wasn't much more than five hours from Ponyville to Canterlot, but in the Forgotten Realm it seemed that distances were warped and stretched. As far as she could tell, they were still in the reflection of the Everfree forest. After an entire day of travel.

She sighed, rolling up the map. “Alright, I'll consider it. I agree, we can't carry on like this. I'll get a fire started, and we'll sleep here tonight. I'm certain everything will be clearer in the morning.”


Much later into the night, the light of the fire had died down into nothing but ashes, the ponies sleeping fitfully on the grass the fire had helped dry. The crystal in Twilight's bag shuddered as it detected the presence of its master.

The ashes stirred as the dark shadow stepped by, pulling into the smoke-formed body, darkening it further. He came to rest standing over Twilight. My dear girl... Peace calm your troubled mind. This is one night you need not worry.

Thael bent over Twilight's ear, closing his flaming eyes. Twilight stirred underneath him, opening her eyes wearily. “Huh. No stars tonight...” she mumbled. A sense of calm overtook her. She closed her eyes once more, falling into a deep sleep. The ponies around her settled as well.

Yes. That is correct. The psionic whisper was thoughtful. There are no stars tonight.

Chapter 32: Stalking Shadows

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Chapter 32: Stalking Shadows

Twilight blinked in the morning light, feeling surprisingly well rested. She lifted her head, stretching as she glanced around the clearing. Her friends were stirring as well, some sort of common force waking them simultaneously.

As the others wiped the sleepiness from their eyes, Twilight dumped some snow on the already extinguished fire. If they were going to be followed, as she expected they would, she might as well make it as difficult as possible for her pursuers. After finishing the simple task, Twilight stretched her legs out, yawning loudly. She felt good. Better than she had in a long time. She turned to her friends, who were waiting expectantly.

“You know what girls? I feel like today's going to be a good day.”

They set out on that fresh note, chatting and giggling in the early morning light. Their hunger was forgotten in the relief of their escape from Moon Pool. Yes, Twilight realized, that was it. They were happy to be free.

The group slowly grew quiet as they carried on, each becoming lost in their thought. Part way through the morning, Pinkie spoke up, having been muttering to herself for some time. “I'm going to sing a song, if that's alright.”

Rainbow automatically opened her mouth to object, but after a moment, closed it silently. “Go ahead, Pinkie Pie.”

Pinkie began a melancholy melody, yet her voice remained cheerful. The words were heavy and filled with experience.

When days grow long, and wearily you plod

When shadow falls, and thru flames you've trod

Just close your eyes, allow time to bide

Sometimes the light must come from inside

Legions fall, and tyrants will rise

But recall that the angels have eyes

You shall not fail, for one truth is just;

Good shall prevail, in love put your trust

The cruel are not loved, and that's why they fight

The evil are not so, they've just lost the light

Raise up your voice, give breath to the right

With kindness kill, the future make bright.

Her voice trailed off. The sorrowful yet hopeful tone lingered over the winter air.

Twilight turned to look at her friend, who wore a tired smile. “Pinkie... are you alright?”

“Better than I've ever been, Twilight. But it comes at a price. I feel my innocence slipping away. She gave me control, but I'm becoming more like Pinkamina. Soon, I don't think you'll be able to distinguish between us. And shortly after, neither will we.”

“I'm sorry, Pinkie.”

“Thanks, but I don't know if I am.” She shook her head. “I'm sorry to have dampened the mood. I just needed to get that off my chest.” She grinned more genuinely. “We can sing a different song, if you guys want.”

Pinkie led the group in a chorus of a foalhood nursery rhyme, a silly tune about a clumsy pegasus chasing a lost balloon for a friend. Twilight mused silently, as the rest of the group sang along. Pinkie was changing, there was no doubt about it. How soon before the transformation into a truly merged personality was complete? Would the same happen to any of her other friends? Could it happen to her?

Twilight shuddered at the thought. She couldn't fathom merging with Lustrous Revolt.

At last the friends crested the forest that had been obscuring their view for quite some time. Before them rose a jagged mountain with shining buildings clustered around the top. Twilight checked her map once more. This was it. Stonehill. Twilight glanced at the surrounding area. Nothing but clear, snow-covered fields surrounding the base of the ascent. She was painfully aware of how visible they would be if they approached now. They needed to keep moving, to escape their pursuers, but if they ran blindly they could easily get in more trouble.

“Alright girls, we've learned from our mistake last time. We'll watch the city before we approach, waiting for nightfall. We need supplies, especially food, that's the first priority. The second priority is to collect any information we can about Canterlot's reflection, Windark. We should be in and out of here as quickly as possible. Stick together, and don't separate for any reason. We'll leave as soon as the sun sets.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Applejack began gathering firewood. Twilight shook her head.

“We won't be able to have a fire. Not until we know that the ponies that live in Stonehill are friendly.

The friends milled around close to the edge of the forest, Fluttershy uncovering the earth and contemplating the cold unforgiving soil. Rainbow Dash found a sturdy tree branch and began napping. Rarity and Applejack wondered how things were back in Equestria, and how their siblings were fairing.

“Ah'm certain Sweetie Belle's having the time of her life. She loves having sleepovers at Sweet Apple Acres.”

“Yes, but, and no offense to you or your family, I worry she's forgetting how to act like a lady.”

“It's good for little ponies to play in the dirt every now and then.”

Pinkie sat next to Twilight, the two of them in a silent vigil, watching the bright city. Every now and then Twilight could catch glimpses of movement that betrayed life. But overall, it seemed quiet. Nopony flew in or out of the city, no noise escaped, and to Twilight, it just felt... wrong. She didn't quite know what to think of it. But they had to try. As much as she tried to ignore it, she had to face the facts. Her hunger was now a constant, sharp ache. The others had been great about not complaining, but Twilight found herself wincing occasionally. It simply couldn't continue. They needed food, and soon. Before they were too weak.

Night fell, and the group stole across the fields. The moon was high in the sky and growing ever closer to its full majesty, but luck smiled upon the friends. A thick cloud cover blocked most of its light; the plan could continue.

Once upon the winding path leading up the mountain, Twilight motioned for absolute silence. The ponies complied. Spike sat atop of Twilight's back, helping to guide her through the dark with his natural nightvision. Eventually, the gateway of the city came into view. It was a tall, dark arch with runes running up and down the columns. Twilight couldn't quite make them out in the low light, and she wasn't certain she'd be able to decipher them in the bright of day. They looked old, like something she'd see in a forgotten tome in Canterlot's library.

Twilight looked at what she could see of the streets from her vantage point. All the lights were out, and there wasn't a soul in sight. It felt unnatural, as if the city had been deserted quickly, yet there wasn't any sign of a struggle. Twilight motioned for her friends to join her. “We'll circle around to see what we can find. Remember, stay close, and stay quiet.”

“I really wish we could just knock on a door or something...”

“I do too, Fluttershy. But things are different here. We can't take any chances. Follow me girls.”

The slunk around the perimeter of the wall enclosing the city, which had frustrated much of Twilight's earlier observation. Now that she was here, however, there wasn't much to see. Just more houses, formed out of the same stone the wall was made out of, which in turn was made out of the mountain's limestone. Besides them, there didn't seem to be anypony around. Hoofprints along the streets proved that there had been activity since the last snowfall, but each home was just as deserted as the ones on the street had been. Once they had explored a few streets with similar results, Twilight decided to push her luck. She drew close to one of the houses that stood a distance away from the main streets, and tested the door. It swung open, apparently unlocked. Twilight stepped inside, motioning for her friends to stand guard.

The inside was barren, yet lived in. There were basic cooking supplies in the kitchen and a few books on the table. It wasn't the fanciest home, but it had everything it needed to be comfortable, except ponies. Twilight climbed quietly up the stairs, Spike following fearfully behind her. The dark hallway the two were led to offered no hints. Twilight carefully opened the door, a sharp creak betraying her presence. She winced, but no sound came from inside in reply. She opened it the rest of the way. The room appeared to be a nursery of some kind. A few stuffed toys were strewn about, as if a foal had been playing in here and been taken away for a walk. Twilight tapped her hoof to her chin. Something wasn't adding up.

She stepped forward, cracking something on the ground. Spike picked it up and Twilight cast a small illumination spell. It was a picture frame with a picture of a happy pegasus family.

The rest of the rooms gave little more evidence. Twilight trotted back downstairs and outside. Her friends were nowhere to be seen. Twilight growled softly in frustration and worry.

A small snowball plopped into the ground next to her. Twilight looked up, and could just make out a collection of shadows near the wall. Another snowball dropped soared across the ground, landing in almost the same place. Twilight ran over to the source of the artillery, both relieved and annoyed. “Why did you guys run off?” she hissed.

Rarity, who had signaled Twilight, clapped a hoof over Twilight's mouth. “We're not alone.”

The white unicorn pointed between the buildings. A street over, a silhouetted shape was peering into the darkness. It strode heavily and deliberately towards them, yet it seemed to be having trouble walking. It pushed its legs through the snow rather than lifting them, and now that Twilight was aware of its presence, she could hear a low, drawn out groan.

“What do we do?” whispered Rainbow almost wordlessly.

Twilight quickly came up with several plans, weighing their cost and benefits. She didn't want to reveal their position too early, nor did she want to harm a potential ally. But if she didn't act quickly, they might lose the advantage.

The creature came close, and Twilight could tell its form was definitely equine. Two side appendages told her this was a pegasus, but once again, she could feel something was wrong. A rank odor overcame her... rotting flesh.

Twilight felt her mind expand as a new forgotten sensation was pushed into her already vast collection of thoughts. The memory of decay, of decomposition. Twilight knew that whatever this was, it wasn't benign. The time to act had come.

She lit up her horn so she could get a good look at her assailant. The creature reacted by raising its groan into an airy wail, the combined sight and sound making Twilight locked up in shock and fear.

Spike lifted a shaking claw, pointing it to the agitated abomination. “A... Z-z-ombie?!”

Chapter 33: Leaking Light

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Chapter 33: Leaking Light

The pegasus zombie snarled at the huddled ponies, putrid, yellow spittle flinging from its slack jaw. It lunged towards them, the murderous intent clear in its unfocused eyes. A loud crack echoed over the empty grounds as Applejack caught the attacker with a well timed kick from her hind legs. The kick, strong enough to knock even the least ripe apples out of a tree, was more than enough to get the job done.

The gruesomely decapitated corpse dropped where it stood, and moved no more. Spike stepped over to it, his eyes full of wonder. “That...that was awesome! Twilight! Zombies are real! I told you so! Ha!”

“This is not a laughing matter, Spike! We might be able to handle one zombie, maybe twenty, maybe more, but there comes a point where they could prove a real danger to us! Besides, that used to be a living pony. We shouldn't gloat over its terrible fate. Whoever reanimated it was preventing their rest. Or, in this world, I suppose their true reanimation? Augh, just when I was getting used to The Forgotten Realm, it has to ruin everything. It seems the resurrection spell has some loopholes.” She shook her head. She would have to ponder the mysteries of this world later. “I'm voting we leave, now. In my stories, where there's one zombie, there are always more. There are other towns, and getting food is not worth becoming food. Not yet.”

Applejack was wiping her hoof in the snow, trying to clean off the gruesome mess. “Twilight's right. We can't risk it.”

“A zombie infestation would explain why the village is gone,” Rainbow pointed out.

“How observant, Dash. Not to be rude, but that's not usually your strong point.”

Dash grinned at Rarity. “Well, you know I've been reading a lot lately. Once I learned that foreshadowing was a thing, I paid more attention to the clues left in around. Minor details that seem inconsequential at the time become everything later. But yes, I agree. I'm not usually one to run from a fight, but we should know what we're up against. Everypony head towards the gate, and I'll keep watch above. If anything comes your way, I'll let you know.”

The nimble pegasus shot off into the air, her bright colors muted in the night, despite the bright moon. The others began running towards the entrance, all thoughts of stealth forgotten. Almost immediately, there came a cry from above. “How did we miss them?! They're everywhere! Keep running! It's your only chance!”

Twilight looked around herself as they ran. Rainbow was right. The undead had remained so still she had mistaken them for snow-covered rocks. But now that the first zombie had alerted the group, the others were stirring from their slumber, the snow falling from their forms. They were all pegasi, Twilight noted. And, despite being shambling monsters, they still had enough coordination to fly.

Rainbow gave a battle cry from above, but Twilight didn't have time to look up. One of the zombies was rushing towards her, flapping its wings to dash madly towards her, growling deeply. Twilight shot a blast of energy, using the same spell she had in the Canterlot crystal caves. It was one of the first spells Celestia had taught her. Celestia had pounded into Twilight's mind that it was only to be used in dire circumstances.

Twilight never thought she'd have to use it; after all, she'd never been much for violence. She simply clenched her teeth as she continued through the cloud of gore. Yup, she'd come quite some way.

The gate was blocked, dozens of soulless eyes daring the friends to continue. It was strange, seeing these creatures that had obviously known civilization. The corpses seemed fresh, though it might have been the snow preserving them. Their coats were still brightly colored and relatively well kept, and some of their cutie, or rather, merit marks, were discernible. Despite this, the now familiar air of death hung around them, and Twilight had no doubts that diplomacy was not an option.

“Girls! We have to fight! Prepare yourselves!”

The horde surged forward, and Twilight found herself immediately surrounded. Because her attackers lacked any form of restraint or fear, Twilight had to focus all of her skills on simply avoiding their strikes.

In the fury of battle, she couldn't keep track of her allies. She'd see an occasional glimpse of Rarity's magic, or hear Fluttershy's shrill and angry cries. Twilight dropped to her stomach, lashing out with all four hooves, knocking over her oppressors. “Ah!” Twilight didn't have time to look, but she knew she had been hit. She forced the pain to the back of her mind. She rolled, and tossed the offender into several other zombies. She didn't know if she'd have time to recover before the next one came down.

With a loud crack, Pinkie appeared before her, eyes glowing. She moved her forehooves purposefully, and the zombies stopped in their tracks. The air around them shimmered like a hot road on a summer's day, and with a sickening crunch and another, even louder crack, their bodies collapsed on themselves.

Twilight jumped to her hooves, throwing her own attacks into the fray. “How did you-”

“I think it's Pinkamina doing it. It's very instinctive. The Spatial Distortion we gained from merging can be used as a weapon, it seems.” She gave a sad smile. “If I had known this earlier maybe I could have protected the group more, rather than being a dead weight.”

“Hey, you're helping now.”

Pinkie nodded, and left Twilight to herself. Within a few seconds, the path was cleared, though Twilight could see more undead running and flying towards them. “We need to leave now!” She lead the charge back down the mountain side, only sensing the danger in the split second before she hit it.

It was some sort of energy field, similar in purpose to the one surrounding the Metaspectre's orb. Protection, or more sinisterly, containment. Twilight shook her still throbbing head. They were trapped.

“We might be able to fly over it!” Rainbow dropped to the ground. Twilight was shocked to see her covered in scratches. Obviously the zombies didn't play fair in the air. “Fluttershy and I can pick you guys up, one at a time.”

“There's not enough time. We only have seconds, and anypony left behind would have to fend for themselves. Pinkie, you can teleport now, right?”

“I'm sorry, Twilight, I'm not practiced enough to take others with me. Not even Pinkamina is. Can't you teleport, Twilight?”

“I can, but I don't want to accidentally harm any you. My concentration is way off. Stupid wall. I could teleport us 40 feet in the air or even further into the city.”

“Then we fight.” Applejack looked resolutely towards the growing crowd. It seemed the city went quite a bit further back than they had thought. There were easily hundreds, and no end was in sight.

Twilight gulped. “It seems we do.”

The horde swelled, and it became clear the entire city had been inflicted with the curse. But even as Twilight tensed up, they didn't get any closer than ten feet. There was a semi-circle around the friends, as if the zombies were held off by an invisible wall of their own. Suddenly, all at once, the mob silenced. Every unfocused eye was forward, but no noise escaped their mouths. Twilight tensed up. Something was happening.

It took Twilight a moment to recognize it, but there was a glowing light behind the oppressive force. It grew steadily brighter as it made its way through the crowd. Finally, the light pushed its way through the front lines of the undead. Twilight blinked against the illumination, and her eyes teared up at the harsh light.

The glowing form halted in front of the defiant ponies. After a brief pause, an echoing, blasting voice addressed them.

“WHY HAVE YOU COME HERE?”

Twilight stepped forward. She didn't know what this thing was, but it was her only hope to escape without a fight. “We're travelers passing through. We were looking for food.”

“A STRANGE THING, TO APPROACH UNDER THE CLOAK OF NIGHT. YOU INTENDED TO ROB THIS PLACE.”

“Of course not! We just didn't want to run blindly into danger. The last city we visited treated us horribly.”

“BECAUSE YOU WERE A THREAT.” The light shuddered, and Twilight felt a wave of confusion coming from it. It seemed unsure of its words, of its situation. But then it immediately cut off the emotional leak, and stood, or rather, floated resolutely once again.

Twilight cocked her head. “Well, no, we weren't a threat, they treated us badly because... well...” she racked her brains furiously. From the beginning, she felt like they had been singled out because they were different, but now that she thought about it...

“I MAKE NO MISTAKE WITH MY JUDGEMENT. THE WEAK ARE IGNORED, AND NOT WORTH THE ATTENTION OF OTHERS. ONLY THE STRONG ARE NOTICED. SUCH AS I. I AM STRONG. TELL ME, WHY ARE YOU HERE?”

“Like I said, we were looking for food.”

“YOU MISUNDERSTAND THE QUESTION. I MEAN TO ASK WHY YOU ARE IN THIS WORLD. YOU ARE FOREIGN, THAT MUCH IS CERTAIN.”

“We're looking for a friend.”

“THAT'S NOT IT. A MASK YOU FOOL EVEN YOURSELF WITH. YOU'VE COME TO PROVE SOMETHING. TO THE WORLD. TO YOURSELF. THAT YOU ARE STRONG. THAT YOU ARE WORTH NOTICING.”

Twilight raised her head. “Who are you, then? Are these creatures yours?”

Again came the wave of indecision, of faltering resolve. “I AM LIGHT. THESE ARE MY CHILDREN AND MY PEOPLE. WE WILL SAVE THIS WORLD.”

“Uh huh. Well, that's a noble goal.” Twilight forced a grin. She wasn't certain what was happening here, but frankly, she didn't want any part of it. “We're terribly sorry to have disturbed you, so we'll just leave now.”

“YOU KNOW AS WELL AS I DO THAT THAT IS NOT AN OPTION.”

Twilight sighed. At least she had tried. “Listen, you, we might not be from around here, but I promise we can handle ourselves.”

“ALL THE MORE REASON TO TAKE CARE OF YOU NOW. NO THREAT CAN REMAIN STANDING. PERHAPS YOU WILL SEE LIGHT AFTER YOUR DEATH.”

The light disappeared with a bang, leaving the area dark once more. The leash restraining the zombies was removed, and Twilight felt herself, still blinded and disoriented, besieged once more by writhing and cold flesh.

The sudden change of events, and the horror and instinct following, awoke something inside of the terrified pony.. Twilight felt her mind step outside of her body, and she could see herself as if from another pony's point of view. The zombies immediately surrounding her autonomous body were thrown back by a visible shockwave. Twilight's eyes flew open, glowing with the same glory of the Elements. Her body rose into the air, her fore-hooves glowing with a fiery pink aura.

Words began flowing from Twilight's mouth. There was no direct translation; it seemed the words, whatever they were, conveyed pure emotion and thought. The disembodied consciousness recognized where she had experienced these before; in the Moon Pool, and the thoughts that the being inside expressed.

Twilight waved a hoof over the writhing mass, a whisper as calm and peaceful as a mother trying to comfort her child after a terrible nightmare. The air grew heavy, and the lightly falling snowflakes... stopped. As did the rest of the world. Friends and foes alike paused.

The whispering grew more fevered, and the dark mare's eyes narrowed in concentration. A chill wind flew through the crowd, despite the immobile air. To the displaced Twilight's wonder, the zombies fell apart. Limbs and chunks fell off in a hauntingly beautiful way. The flesh melted off the bones and turned to dust, and the bones cracked, then proceeded dug themselves into the earth. Shimmering orbs of light hung where each attacker had once stood, the only movement in the paused plane.

The whispers stopped. A single phrase fell, casually, like a dismissal. The orbs vaporized, their energy filling the air and dispersing like a gas. Twilight felt her consciousness pulling back into her body, even as she dropped back to the earth, her eyes losing their glory. Her friends reanimated, some still in mid-swing, only to find that their target had disappeared, seemingly instantaneously.

The being that had greeted them appeared once more, obviously agitated. “I HAVE UNDERESTIMATED YOU. I MUST TAKE CARE OF YOU MYSELF.” It moved forward, pressing the friends against the energy barrier, which crackled hungrily, as if daring them to try to cross it. Twilight willed her body to activate as it just had. She tried to remember some of the whispers, but she found her tongue tripping over the foreign words. She tried to access her stored energies. Certainly they were there, but she couldn't pull nearly enough energy for what she had just seen. Which begged the question. What had she done? And why couldn't she do it now? Twilight growled in frustration. Sometimes, it would be nice to have answers instead of questions. Especially when she was being faced by an angry, buzzing, over-excited light bulb.


“You know what?! STOP!” Twilight was done running.

The advancing entity halted.

Twilight marched forward. “Step aside. We're moving through, and if you try to stop us, you'll see just how much you underestimated us.” It was a total bluff, but it seemed to be working. Again, the overwhelming feeling of confusion came from the shining form.

“I...THIS IS WRONG. I WILL LET YOU GO, IF YOU CAN HELP ME.”

Twilight quietly let out the breath she had been holding. “Very well. What do you need help with?”

“MY LIFE IS A FOG. I DON'T REMEMBER HOW LONG I'VE BEEN HERE. MY PEOPLE TRIED TO ATTACK ME, SO I CALMED THEM... BUT IT WAS SO LONG AGO. I DON'T REMEMBER WHO I AM, ANYMORE. I AM LOST.”

Twilight stepped forward. “If you're looking for answers, why did you attack us?”

“I AM AFRAID. LIKE AN ANIMAL.”

“Of us?”

“OF MYSELF.”

Twilight looked to her friends. They merely shrugged. They had no idea what it was talking about, nor how to react. Twilight continued.

“What's your name?”

The aura didn't answer for a moment. It hung silently, still illuminating the deep night. Then came the quiet answer. “I was called Lux.”

The brightness dimmed, and a true shape was given to the mass. To Twilight's surprise, a unicorn stood before them. Her mane was still a writhing mass of energy, her body still shone with glory, and her eyes were leaking power, but it was obviously a shaking and scared mare.

Lux continued speaking, her voice no longer projecting, no longer pretentious, no longer demanding. “You... you have to help me. It's been so long... I know my purpose has been frustrated, but I can't remember what it was.” She stopped talking, then looked sternly towards the purple mare. “But I do remember you...”

Twilight stepped forward, aware that it could be a trick, but she could sense the sincerity of the plea. “What can I do to help?”

“You have to fix what has happened here. Those walls aren't your prison, they're my safeguards. I hold the city in stasis. I've declared myself an enemy to its inhabitants, that much I remember, yet I only do so to protect myself and my people.”

Twilight looked around. They stood alone. “Which people?”

“My servants. You met them.”

“The zombies? But Twilight killed them, didn't she? Ow!” Rainbow Dash received a swift kick from Applejack as answer.

Lux shuddered, as if from the cold. “My people need me. I am their protector. They cannot die as long as I stand. But they do not understand why I act as I do.”

Twilight's eyes widened in understanding. “You put the city in a time-lock. A bubble, independent of the outside world. Time has no meaning here, is that correct? Your people aren't dead, but neither are they alive. And you, you're in some sort of flux yourself, aren't you?”

Lux turned suddenly, looking deeper into the city. “It's reverting.”

Twilight looked as well. Up in the sky, the heavens worked in reverse. The moon set where it rose, and the sun burned once again, peeking over the horizon. Time had reversed.

“What's happening, Lux?”

There wasn't an answer. Twilight looked to her side, but the unicorn was gone. In confusion, Twilight spun around. She was in the middle of a crowd of milling ponies, non of them familiar. And, to her horror, her friends were missing.

Chapter 34: Stoning the Prophets

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Chapter 34: Stoning the Prophets

Twilight's heart rate shot up. She took a couple of deep breaths, trying to keep herself calm. She backtracked the events that had just transpired, grasping for some meaning behind this. There wasn't any immediate danger; as far as she could tell, this is what the city would have normally looked like, if there weren't zombies inhabiting it. Now Stonehill looked much like Moon Pool had when they first arrived; dreary, but not dangerous. There were an unusual amount of pegasi, she noted. Unicorns and earth ponies were definitely in the minority, only one or two of each for every twenty pegasi.

The frustrated mare sighed. What was she doing here? Was it her fate to be interrupted every step she took towards completing her mission? Well, she was done being subtle. Time had obviously reversed, somehow, or else this was an illusion. She strode towards one of the vendors in the city. “Pardon me, sir, but what day is it? I've been out of town for quite some time lost track of the days.”

“It's the sixteenth.”

Twilight nodded her thanks, and walked away. The sixteenth. That meant in this reality, there were only five days until the Solstice. The one she had come from, however, only had four, after midnight had passed, just before the time reversal. She had been put back a day, if the vendor was correct. Time reversals didn't happen without reason, she knew. To get out of it, she only had to find why she was here, complete whatever inane mission the universe had decreed she should undertake, and then she could return to the actual task at hand, and find her friends. She knew she was only trying to convince herself it was that easy, but it was better than despairing.

Her purple ear flicked as she heard a commotion coming from a couple streets over. When she went to investigate, she groaned at what she saw. A familiar unicorn was on a stage in the center of a small crowd, with a shimmering and perfectly maintained light blue coat and an even lighter blueish-white mane. But her physical appearance wasn't the most memorable part of the pony, nor was it her determined and haughty countenance, nor was it even her matching wizard's hat and cloak.

No, it was her voice. How could Twilight ever forget it?

“Listen to me, unbelieving ponies! The end is nigh, and without your adherence to Lux's plan, all of your loved ones will be lost to the coming darkness!”

Yes, it seemed Lux was Trixie's reflection. Twilight hadn't recognized it before, as Lux's shimmering aura had covered up the more definitive features, and her echoing voice hadn't sounded quite the same. She pushed into the crowd, trying to get a better view.

Lux patrolled her stage dramatically, not pausing to take a breath as she continued her doom and gloom speech. “I have seen it in a vision! This very night, a terrible fate will fall on this city. Homes will reduce to ashes and lives will be lost! Unless you pledge to help me fight against it!”

The crowed booed. One voice rose above the others. “You've been saying this for days! Nothing's happened! The other cities have their own problems, and they won't march on us for our measly supplies!”

“This is no mortal threat!” Lux replied. “A dark creature awakes, one forgotten by time, but not by the gods! A lich, a necromancer, a performer of the darkest arts, will come and claim the citizens of this city for their army” The crowd roared again.

“Get off the stage! Go home!”

“What a bunch of garbage! Nobody can see the future! You're only causing trouble for yourself, and annoying us!”

“You should check your hat! I think the tightness is cutting off circulation to your brain!”

The crowd laughed in approval.

“Lux asks nothing from you but to defend your own home! I am a revelator of truth, and my sole purpose is to cause that you might live and have peace!”

“Peace? In this land? Now I know you've lost some brain cells. We've been at war for hundreds of years! The only peace I get is walking these streets without anybody yelling lies in my direction!”

Twilight could feel the mob's anger growing around her. She felt herself being pulled into the emotions. It was like Flim and Flam's sales pitch all over again. She shook herself out of it, and strode to the front of the crowd. “Lux! I must speak with you!”

Lux looked surprised. “Speak with me? Say what you must.”

“It's a private matter.”

“I do not make my dealings private, so all others may know I am an honest pony.”

One of the ponies on the front row scoffed. “That's a laugh!”

Lux frowned darkly. “I'm sorry, good unicorn, but if you have something to say, say it here and now.”

Twilight shook her head, unamused. So this is how it was going to be. She jumped onto the stage. “Alright, this is going to sound crazy. Ahem. I have been traveling for many days, and arrived at your town tonight.”

“Tonight? Don't you mean last night?” asked a member of the crowd.

“No. I said exactly as I meant it. I arrived tonight, in the future, just a bit before midnight. I seem to have been pulled into some sort of causality loop, and let me tell you what; every single one of you becomes a zombie. I know, because I was attacked, and have some wounds to show it.” She turned a leg towards the crowd, showing where she had been bit. “I don't even know the whole story, but I honestly want to get back to my timeline, and though I learned you can't change the past a while back, maybe this will be different. Can you please just trust her, for the next eighteen hours or so?”

The crowd was silent for a good five seconds. Then it erupted in laughter. “Look at these two unicorns! Thinking they're so high and mighty! I think the magic's gone to their head!”

“Come on, the 'Honest and Humble' Lux, tell us the truth. You hired this pony, didn't you?”

“I've had enough of these chuckleheads. I'm heading home.”

The crowd began to disperse, ponies tossing their heads in derision and laughter, some throwing disparaging comments towards the two ponies on stage.

Twilight just looked tired and unamused.

Lux stepped closer to Twilight now that the crowd had left, so she could speak without yelling. “Is what you said the truth, or is this a clever trick to ruin my benevolent warnings?”

“It's true all the way through.”

“Hm. So you say that the citizens become zombies?”

“That's right. Every single one of them, as far as I could tell, except you.”

Lux looked at Twilight very seriously. Their eyes locked, and Twilight began to grow uncomfortable in the blue unicorn's gaze, but she couldn't look away. Lux finally nodded. “What you say is the truth, or at the very least, you are convinced of it. If so, then my warnings fall on deaf ears. Tell me, what happened?”

Twilight explained everything that occurred in Stonehill as she and her friends had approached, explored, and eventually fought their way through it. Lux listened, not speaking up once, until Twilight was finished. When she had, Lux looked concerned, but not surprised.

“I am worried for my future self's sake, but now I have yet another confirmation that my gods do not lie.”

“You mentioned them earlier, when you were talking to the crowd. Who are they?”

“An ancient race that lived here long before, but has since gone into hiding, who have taken notes on the mortal events in the world, and have the power to see into the future, not by any divining, but by such a perfect understanding of how ponies think and the world around them, that they cannot err in their predictions. They, in turn, worship a higher god, whose name I know not. I think they pulled you into the past to learn something, though I cannot say what it is.”

“You don't think they brought me to help you?”

Lux shook her head. “I wouldn't be so naïve. I have no reason to believe you're from a condemned timeline, and thus the events you've witnessed will come to pass, no matter how unpleasant they are. But your arrival here is no accident.”

“Nothing seems to be, nowadays.”

“We live in strange times. Though, you come from far way, correct?”

“Closer than you'd think. But I couldn't agree more.”

Lux turned. “Would you like to meet the gods?”

Twilight started. “Can I?”

“If you have an open mind and a listening ear. The ponies in this town don't have the patience, but I think you might.”

“Lead the way.”

Lux jumped off the stage and began winding through the crowd. After Twilight followed, the stage folded itself back into a wagon, which blended into the background subtly. The two of them were heading towards the back of the city, and into the mountain. Eventually the sky was replaced by a stony ceiling, carved with intricate, archaic flowing text.

“This is old Stonehill. Most citizens avoid this area, believing that dark forces are at work here. They are afraid of what they do not know. They hear whispers of the past, and condemn them as deceiving spirits. This is where I come to seek guidance.”

They stood before a long, flat stone, which came to their knees. Runes were trailing around the circumference, their meaning escaping Twilight's grasp. “So what do I do to contact them?”

“You must make a blood sacrifice. This isn't to appease them like the animalistic ancients, but rather a means to an end. They are eager to make contact, but they were sealed off from this area long ago. The life energy in the blood powers this stone, which opens a rift that allows them to speak for a short time.”

Twilight nodded. Her bleeding from the earlier fight had largely stopped, but she had learned it didn't take much to start it up again, if you needed to. She rubbed a hoof against one of the scratches, breaking off the clotted blood until the bright liquid flowed again. “How much do I need?”

“Enough to make a small pool about the size of a coin. They told me this after I had accidentally bled out about a pint, unknowingly activating their forgotten line into the mortal world.”

“It sounds like there's a story behind that.” Twilight watched the red trails gathering at the tip of her hoof. It was strange, she thought, that not two weeks ago she had been frightened and disgusted by blood, but now it was just another biological process.

“Well, yes, actually. When I was younger, I was brash and bold. A traveling magician, if you can believe it.”

Twilight hid a smile as Lux continued, getting lost in thought.

“At first, I stuck to tricks I could reproduce, sleights-of-hoof and the like, using my natural born ability of discernment to aid me in engaging the crowd. If they didn't like one kind of trick, I'd move onto another. There was always something I could surprise them with. Every crowd cheered, eventually. It made me feel great. Why, it even made me feel powerful. But in the end, I was still Lux, whether or not I remembered it. Then, one day, I lost it. The crowd wasn't responding. They weren't pleased with my usual tricks. Understand, I survived only on the meager earnings I gained from my performances. If I didn't get a few coins, I simply wouldn't eat that night. And fear is perhaps the greatest motivator of all. The most blind, the most foolish, but the strongest.

“I began telling lies about my abilities. I told them I was stronger than I was. And once I told one, it became easier to tell another. Every fantasy of mine, every childhood dream was being told as truth, and after a while, I began to believe them myself. My act soon cast aside the humble and harmless deceptions and replaced them with outrageous and easily broken lies, but I seemed so confident about them that nobody questioned me. I earned more money than I had in my entire life. I lost sight of who I was, but one day, I was finally liberated from my own mind.

“Everything came to a boiling point in a town not too far from here. I grew cocky, and challenged the audience to best me in any way they could. Rather than better them through skill, I shamed them with misdirection. I turned their abilities against them, until they slunk back into the crowd. It seemed like it would be another profitable day until another unicorn, cloaked and keeping to the shadows, stepped onto the stage. She challenged me to a duel, slandering my name for all to see. She struck through every lie I had told, and where the truth had once protected me, it now stung more than the pains of hunger I used to know.

“Even then, I wanted nothing more than to back down, and admit my lies to the crowd. Instead of learning new skills and actually becoming a better performer, I had been riding on my success for months. But my pride got the better of me. I confidently accepted the challenge, and the duel began. I held my own for some time, but it soon became apparent the challenger was the superior spell caster. I realized she had been bred for warfare, and she soon struck me down. Wounded and pained, she made me swear to never return to her city again, in front of the crowd that now hungered for my blood. It was then I knew her. Lustrous Revolt.”

Twilight looked up in shock. Lux was staring intently at her. “I know you bear a resemblance to her. So much so, my heart stopped in fear when I first saw you. But your voice carries hope, not anger. Now I must ask, are you from the Land of Promise?”

Twilight staunched her bleeding. “Yes, actually. And your story is hauntingly close to one I experienced.”

“But on the reflected side, I'm sure. If you are the one they've been talking about, it's an honor being in your presence.”

Twilight looked down. “What happened after she attacked you?”

“I had to leave. There was no other choice. She swore death on me if I so much as looked back. I had unknowingly insulted her friends –if you could call them such– with my challenges. So I kept walking, with no food, no warmth, and no magic, until I found this city. Nobody wanted to house a wounded unicorn, knowing that danger might be on my tail and fully aware that I would just be another mouth to feed. And so, I walked to the back of the city, where all was quiet and still, and I lay down on the stone in despair and and defeat. All I wanted was rest. Instead, I was granted a vision. Terrifying and awe-inspiring, it reignited my love for truth, and I became a prophet, casting aside the lies that tainted my once honest occupation. And until I have fulfilled my duty, I shall continue warning the people of this town. Even if they don't listen to me, they deserve the chance.”

“Until you fulfill your duty? What duty is that? To whom?”

“The inherent duty that comes with knowing truth. To spread it, and to never let it lie in the dark, no matter the cost. It is my penance for allowing myself to fall.”

Twilight sat for a moment, thinking on Lux's words. Was Trixie like this, deep down? Was Trixie still just blinded by her own words, or was she truly as nasty as she remembered? The small red pool offered no answers, not yet anyways.

“How do I activate it?”

“Pose a question to the stone. My question in my time of trial was simple and heartfelt. A humble 'why'.”

Twilight lifted her head, one question boiling up from the hundreds of others she had. “What is my purpose here?”

The runes glowed, and the blood began spinning around the edge of the stone like a centrifuge. The stone shimmered, then the texture melted away into a pool of darkness. For a moment, Twilight didn't see anything. Then a large, gleaming reptillian eye blinked. Twilight recoiled in horror, as the form grew clear. Other, snaking, twisting eyes turned towards her, each as piercing as the first. Long, gleaming spikes of teeth lined a mouth that grinned cruelly. But the voice was the most shocking of all. Despite the growling and terrifying form, a clear, kind, intelligent voice entered her mind.

We've been expecting you. Welcome, All-Sight.

Twilight gasped as she was pulled forward, and with the sound of shifting stone, the portal disappeared. Lux blinked softly, looking confused for a moment and then turned away, stepping back into the city without looking back.

Chapter 35: The Eye of the Beholder

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Chapter 35: The Eye of the Beholder

Twilight caught herself as she fell into the darkness. She found herself surrounded by ten or so more of these... floating eyeball creatures, each about eight feet tall. With one accord, they bowed in mid air.

Hail the All-Sight, the Ever-Seek, the Great Mother.

Twilight drew up her hoof in confusion and some fear, then put it down as she gained her composure. “What is this? Are you the gods Lux told me about?”

We are the ones she spoke of, yes. The creature that she had first seen seemed to be addressing her, while the others were looking away. Well, each had at least one of their many eyes trained on her, but the large center pupils seemed distracted by unseen entities. But she over-praises us. We are a fallen race, and though someday we might rise from the ashes, now we rest, and fulfill our name.

“What name is that?”

We are the Beholders. And for now, your servants.

“You know, I'd appreciate some warning before I get pulled through another portal. It's been happening a lot lately.”

My sincerest apologies, but there simply wasn't time to explain. You may leave this place at any moment, just let any of us know when you wish to return. You had questions, though? All can be answered in due time.

The other beholders nodded –or perhaps more accurately– bowed once more, before floating off down the surrounding tunnels, some of them even flying vertically into shafts above. Twilight and her beholder guide stood alone.

“Why do you keep it so dark?”

Our race is accustomed to it, and we don't get many visitors. I can make a light for you, if you'd wish.

“No, that's alright.” With her fears about these creatures averted, she found the darkness comforting. “As long as I don't trip on anything, I should be fine.”

The beholder turned away, several of its stalk eyes remaining on twilight as it lead her through the tunnels. The air was cold, but not unpleasantly so. Down the many tunnels, Twilight would occasionally catch a glimpse of one of the other beholders. She still shuddered at the layers of teeth, which would catch whatever light there was, causing a stark and chilling contrast. Twilight coughed. “Excuse me for saying so, but your race is frightening in appearance.”

The psionic laugh was accompanied by a physical one, which was much deeper. Well, there was once a time when we were the dominant race in Equestria. Carnivorous, vicious, and bloodthirsty. Much of the world was at the time. But as time has changed your world, it has changed us. I won't lie, we're frightening because we are meant to be. But we wish you no harm, besides what harm may come from recognizing destiny.

They came to a round door, which had many layered, aperture-like plates with a symbolic eye in the center. The beholder nodded silently, and Twilight stepped forward carefully. She tapped the eye softly, and the door opened, the plates retracting around the circumference counter-clockwise. The gateway lead to a spacious room, with high ceilings, illuminated by softly glowing torches lining the room. Three beholders stood, or rather, levitated in the center, facing each other. From Twilight's angle, she could see that their center eyes were milky white, and obviously blinded. The other stalks seemed to retain some vision, but they weren't as active as the others she had seen.

They still creeped her out.

“Who are they?”

The elder mages. They have given up their sight to access the potent magic in this world. Each of our eyes is tied into natural energies and have different abilities, and most importantly, our core eyes are tied into neutralizing the magic of others. This was critical when we reigned above, as it stopped other races from challenging us. But to prevent others from using magic weakens our own. The mages gave up their sight and their anti-magic, and have indeed could be revered as gods by most mortals. And these mages are the ones that will answer your questions. It was an honor guiding you, All-Sight. The beholder turned to leave.

“Wait! What's your name?”

Then one I usually give to mortals is The Eternal Hunger, but to my Great Mother I am honored to give you my true name, Kulttrippse.

Twilight played with the foreign sounds for a moment. “Kulttrippse, could you stay? It'd be nice to have somebody to talk to during the down moments.”

In all honesty, I don't think there will be any, but I will do as you ask.

Twilight approached the three mages, not wanting to interrupt whatever they were doing, but desperately curious. Thankfully, before she got too close, they turned to face her.

The All-Sight. The Ever-Seek. The Great Mother.

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

The largest blinded beholder floated a few inches closer. It has been revealed to us what you shall become. They are titles of honor and worship. You will see more than the Million Eyes ever could. You will never rest in your search for knowledge, and you will create this world, and thus us.

Twilight rose a brow and grinned, but quickly stopped when she realized it wasn't joking. “Me? I'm just a simple unicorn, trying to make my way from day to day without getting me or my friends killed.”

Great Mother, you must remove these earthly bonds you have placed upon yourself. You've experienced tastes of your true power throughout your life, and you're getting to a point where it will be hard to retain control in your mortal frame. You must ascend.

Twilight took a deep breath. “So what you're telling me is...”

You must take your place among the Gods.

Twilight almost laughed once again.

Please, don't hold back your emotions in fear of offending us. There is nothing you could do to do so.

“Are you sure you don't have the wrong pony?”

We have discussed it for eons. There is no alternate interpretation, and I am honored to be in your presence.

“But a pony? A Goddess of the beholders?”

We thought it strange as well, and some were actually enraged and disgusted, but your origins do not hinder what you will become. You are the Goddess of all life on this planet, including your own.

Twilight took a deep breath. She could wrap her head around the idea of paradoxes, but one applying so directly to her, and on such a large scale, well, she found it hard to believe.

“I'm flattered, but I still think there must be a mistake.”

We will not press the issue any further. We are not here to convince you, unless that is your wish, only to state the facts.

“Fair enough.” Twilight thought for a moment. “So, tell me. Since you have such great sight,” she paused for a moment, realizing she might have accidentally made an offensive joke, but upon receiving a literally blank stare she continued, “why am I here? In this reality, I mean. I came from this evening, and was suddenly pulled back.”

Fate had a guiding push in it, All-Sight, as it has been since you began your journey, and long before that as well. But to be more scientific about it, you were pulled in because your dormant form detected, and hungered, for power. When you engaged the Metaspectre's power to eliminate your enemies, it began, but did not complete the ascension process. Be aware that any surge of power will set you on the path that you cannot turn away from. And, if you're not ready, it will destroy you.

“Here's a thought. If, as you say, I'm destined to become a Goddess, or an Alicorn, I suppose, isn't it true I cannot fail?”

Time is a mysterious thing. Until you have actually accomplished the task, you have no guarantee of success, despite the fact that even now you watch yourself. Your ascended form only exists because of all the fractured timelines, one managed to make it. And if it's not you, there will be another. You could die at any time, or turn back, or side with darkness, and this world would deviate from the one true timeline that all must eventually follow. The others end only in the Void.

“Oh. So, no free rides then?”

No free rides. But as to why you're here, now, for immediate concerns, I believe I can elaborate. Yes, your mortal frame strives to better itself, but you have a lesson to learn: the dangers of the ascension process. The unicorn you met, Lux, will ascend tonight. The shimmering form you met was her in a state of flux. You see, reflections cannot ascend. A warning which applies to you. If you allow the process to begin before you merge with Lustrous Revolt, you will end up as Lux has. She would be dead were it not for the time shudder she invoked at the last moment.

Twilight blinked rapidly. “You... I have to merge with Lustrous Revolt?”

An unpleasant thing, to be certain, but necessary nonetheless. And you must understand, Ever-Seek, that without finding your other half, you will not be able to progress in knowledge or power, and you will need both if you are to defend your friends.

A different, booming voice entered Twilight's mind. IS SHE HERE?

You speak, Great One? Yes, she has arrived, as foretold.

THEN MY REST COMES SOON. BRING HER TO ME.

Kulttrippse drew up next to Twilight. The Hive Tyrant speaks. He has been plagued with visions of the past for many years, and they are of great importance. He is also in a great deal of pain, and largely keeps himself shut off from our mental links so we will not suffer as well.

“Your people seem very bent on helping each other.”

Wisdom came with time and seclusion. We shook off our chains of ignorance and our xenophobic behaviors. Being banished to the deepest crevice of the forgotten realm made us rethink some things. We realized that rather than working endlessly for self interest, sacrifice of time and self benefited the common good. There is no higher honor.

The mages lead the way to another door, which opened in the same manner. The new room was smaller than the first, but more impressive than the first. A massive beholder, even more fear-inducing than the others, floated in the center of the room, which was bowl shaped, leading to the center. Archaic runes snaked around the walls, drawing larger runes and each glowing with power. The large beholder, or, Hive Tyrant, had all of its eyes focused on Twilight. She could understand now why the others had refrained from doing the same. She felt very small and quite unsettled.

Great mother. The booming voice had quieted now that she had entered the room. I have had a vision, a constant vision the haunts my waking moments and sleep alike. It is a vision of the true enemy you will face. A being of great power, but far more importantly, great cunning. You will be tested as you never have before, but you have never had a more important task. You must best this enemy, or else corruption will strangle your heart and all you hold dear.

“Who is this enemy?”

You've met him. Seren, the intelligence in the Moon Pool. More notably, the Alicorn of Vengeance, wielding the power of the Stars. And, Great Mother, the murderer of your teacher.

Chapter 36: Bide

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Chapter 35: Bide

The ever-brightening moon watched over a barren, gray wasteland. The world seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for some critical moment. Silence fell, and all was still.

Then, all at once, the plane was filled with life. Simultaneous flashes of light deposited ponies and griffons alike, each confused and disoriented. One acted faster than the rest. Off to the side of the dispersed crowd, Lustrous Revolt dug her hooves into the ashy earth, focusing intently. A short psionic pulse echoed across the battlefield. Kill all in your way. Then to me.

Fights began breaking out once again, slowly at first as neighbors realized they were enemies, then quickly as the slowest caught on. Lustrous Revolt marched from what had once been her library towards the center of the conflict. Any griffon foolish enough to get close to her was vaporized without a second glance. In the skies above, a wicked blur flitted around the battlefield, griffons dropping wherever it paused. Gunfire filled the air, as well as the occasional cry of terror. Absolutely wonderful, but a waste of time. There were more important things to be done.

With a whoosh, Temperament materialized next to her. Intricate yet beautiful armor adorned her, streaked with blood and ash. A longsword hung at her side in her telekinetic grasp. She stabbed it into the ground, and nodded to Lustrous. “So. I take it your meeting didn't go well?”

“Hahaha, shut up. She had a source of power I wasn't expecting. Its signal was very different than traditional arcane ones.”

“Don't make the same mistake again, then.”

“I intend not to. Like I said, shut up.”

A shadow of a pegasus dropped in front of them, breathing heavily. “The skies should be clear for a couple of minutes. We should head out soon.”

“As soon as the others get here.”

An overconfident griffon nearby leaped towards Spectral Slash, who rolled sideways, catching the griffon's stomach with her bladed wings as it jumped over. The griffon cried out in anguish as its innards spilled out, and was quickly silenced. Spectral Slash stuck out her tongue in disgust, shaking her head.

Two more ponies joined the other three, the orange earth pony wielding a submachine gun and the yellow pegasus grasping a small, bloodstained knife in her mouth. The knife slipped out of her mouth and into a telekinetic grasp, eye glowing. “Where's Pinkamina?”

“She lost her resolve. She allowed the Reality pony to get the best of her.”

“Bah. What a weakling. When we find her, she'll get what she deserves.”

“We have no time to lose.” Lustrous Revolt turned, thinking about where their quarry would have been most likely to go. They'd need food, and they didn't know about the abbey. Stonehill would be the most logical destination. “We'll stop at dawn. Until then, keep up the pace.” The group stormed off through the battle. Griffons occasionally attempted to strike at them, thinking they had an easy, distracted target. All were dealt with swiftly. They finally burst free from the conflict, and rushed into the night.

Nearby, the Moon Pool churned, untouched by the earlier magical blast. The water seemed to be struggling against itself, as if it were attempting to rise to the distant moon. It rested for a moment, then gave a great heave. The water crashed upon the shoreline, the black water tainting the exposed earth. Each droplet resisted gravity's pull, seeming to pull at the loose pebbles, but all were finally reclaimed. The water settled moodily. The stars above twinkled brightly, as if mocking the attempted escape. And all the while the moon watched thoughtfully.

{- - -}

Lux paced feverishly. That unicorn had been gone for quite some time. She had expected the gods to maybe talk to her for ten minutes or so. Not several hours. Something must have happened.

More importantly, something bad was going to happen soon, and Lux was still unsure how to act. The sun had set, and the moon marked midnight's approach. And yet, the largely nocturnal citizens of Stonehill continued to mill about, still heedless to her warnings. And that unicorn was still missing.

Lux realized she had never asked for her name. She only knew her as some strange, benevolent alternate version of Lustrous Revolt. And, apparently, a dear conversational friend of the gods.

Lux galloped back to the stone altar. There were only minutes before the predicted event. She had been visiting the altar about hourly earlier in the day, but had increased the frequency of her worried check-ins. Still nothing. The stone remained silent and immobile. She sighed. She had to know.

She picked up a sharp rock next to the altar, and cut a small incision into her leg, allowing the blood to drip. The pool remained stationary, no matter how hard she willed it.

She frowned softly. This had never happened before. They had always come when she called. Maybe she needed more blood. She deepened the wound, a steady flow now pouring out.

She watched for some time. No, something else was wrong. This was more than enough blood. She staunched the bleeding and sat, puzzling. What was she to do? With this knowledge she had, she couldn't sit and do nothing, but regardless of what she did, the event would happen anyway. The only difference was whether or not she was prepared. She needed to be strong for the upcoming event.

With a soft breath, she closed her eyes, focusing on her inner mind. Her energy reserve was more than enough for most spells, but she might need more power. There weren't any good power sources nearby, except...

She blinked her eyes open, looking towards the stone. The runes beckoned. Lux leaned over them, feeling the inherent energy they expressed. There was something tantalizing about how they whispered to her. Reality slowed around her. She couldn't take her eyes off of the runes. They were all she knew.

She traced their twists and turns with her hoof. She hadn't noticed it before, but the letters responded to her presence. She paused of a moment, words coming to her mind.

“Siln'ta.”

The runes pulsed red in response. Her heart pounded, and her mind swam. In the back of her mind, something told her to retreat. But the lure was much stronger.

“Nou'soon.”

A humming sound filled the air, like a crystal goblet that had just been struck by a spoon. The dormant energy in the rock was brought to the surface. So close, and so thick, she could almost grab it. She stopped for a moment, confused. Why had she wanted power again?

To protect her people. Yes, that was it. But this power promised so much more. Whispers joined the humming. They reminded Lux of all the cruelties the citizens of Moon Pool had done towards her. They breathed of her potential, questioning why she had been held back so long by those who refused to hear her words?

Truth wasn't meant for the hard-hearted. They chose to be blinded by their lies, and so in their lies they would remain, and burn.

“Sko-kal!”

The stone altar cracked, collapsing upon itself as if it had been hit by a massive hammer. The runes pulled themselves off the surface, and began orbiting around Lux, who had lifted off of the ground. She gasped in shock and pain, her eyes igniting with white fire. Then, all emotion was drained from her features. She hung there for several minute, limbs limp.

Finally, a soft, warm smile came over her face. “I am Truth.”

The excess power around her pulled into her body, filling it with light. Then, a confused look took her face. “No, something's wrong... I can't...” Her confusion was replaced by horror.

“They'll all die. Unless I save them. From me. I was blinded from the true meaning of the prophecy. It was a warning about me. All along, I was the danger. I am not whole.”

She bent over in pain once again, and a burst of glory erupted from her form. From the secluded cave, she could hear cries of anguish from the unfortunate bystanders as the first anti-matter wave hit them. Lux held her hooves in front of her face, pondering what she had just done, and was about to do. Which was worse, she wondered? The plague, or the cure?

Lux began moving her excess energy. She had to make this right. She had destroyed her only communication with the gods, and had certainly taken on more than she was ready for. If she didn't handle this now, there was no guarantee of safety. And, with her expanded consciousness, she knew that if she let go of the power she was now being consumed by, there would be no rebirth. Not for her, nor for her victims.

Another wave burst from the harried unicorn. This one, intentional, yet just as deadly. A mercy kill. The world went silent. She formed some of the power into a spike of sorts, driving it into the ground. A tingling field of energy began pouring from it. She sighed. She would be at the mercy of fate. Until another broke the chain, she would, sadly, become a permanently lost soul. She cursed silently. All because she couldn't see what, in retrospect, should have been blindingly obvious.

It seemed Truth would remain restrained for some time more.

The heavens began moving backwards.

{- - -}

A single breath fell from the huntress' lips as she stalked her prey. The rabbit sniffed around the bushes, not ten feet away. The huntress stepped forward until she was just behind the fluffy victim, so close she could see individual hairs shiver from its shallow breaths. Sensing the presence, the rabbit craned its head upwards. After a moment, it lost interest and bounded a few feet away.

It was too easy. It almost felt like cheating.

But hunger doesn't remember honor.

The huntress bounded forward, and grabbed the rabbit by the scruff of its neck. She chuckled as she shed her disguise. The rabbit squealed in terror and struggled to break free from the firm grasp, as it realized what it had thought was a harmless and peaceful doe was actually a terrible predator.

A score of chittering shadows melted from the surrounding trees. Their reflective blue eyes were cold and unfeeling. They surrounded the huntress, who stood calmly and quietly.

“It's time to feed, my children. I kept it fresh.”

She set the rabbit down. Completely surrounded and scared witless, it didn't move, even as the shadows jumped forward and sunk their wickedly sharp teeth into it. Its cries of pain were soon silenced, and were replaced by slurping.

The huntress smiled a half smile. It wasn't enough to sustain them, but it was a start. After a few more kills, their strength would be enough to challenge larger prey. Then this world would know fear once more. How convenient it was that the essence of love had a more abundant counterpart in this world. Blood. In some ways, she preferred it. There was no need for subtlety. Only enough trickery to get close. Then it was all over. Sustainability was the only problem.

The shadows finished feeding, looking up to their leader, seemingly begging for more.

“Stay here, stay silent. I'll call you when I find more.” The huntresses' jagged horn flared up with green energy. Similarly colored flames engulfed her body, leaving behind a slender and graceful doe once again. She bounded off into the forest, dark plans swirling through her mind.

Hatred burned in her heart, reminding her of the pain of solitude. She remembered all who had ever wronged her. The bullies of her childhood, her forgetful parents, the stallion who had promised all and given nothing... and of course, him.

The dark one she could never forget. The one she could not forgive, but nor could she blame. The only one she could not touch.

The Metaspectre. She spat his name out as she ran.

Through him she had gained everything she wanted, only to realize her life hadn't become as perfect as she had imagined it would. But still, she was forced to admit,she got what she had bargained for.

The huntress slowed as she realized where she had been subconsciously heading. Again, she spat in anger. The abbey. The wonderful stronghold against the hatred of this world. Just another Canterlot to defeat in her quest for power. And this time, she wouldn't make the same mistakes.

She turned and bounded away. As confident as she was that she would eventually be the abbey's downfall, she wasn't foolish enough to stick around to see if the Restorers were on patrol.

Later.

There would always be later.

Patience was needed. Patience got kills.

Once again, she slowed as she came across another creature. The buck turned and smiled. “Hey, I haven't seen you around before. What's your name?”

“Lily.” Chrysalis smiled genuinely behind her organic mask, though for a very different reason than the buck inferred.

Oh yes. Patience got kills.

Chapter 37: Revision

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Chapter 37: Revision

“You're telling me that Celestia will die? She's killed by the intelligence in the Moon Pool, Seren? But where does he fit into the equation? I hardly know him!” This was heavy news for Twilight, and she still wasn't a hundred percent convinced the Beholders were always correct, but they seemed sincere, and that worried her.

He is a victim of other's mistakes, lead steadily down the path of destruction. But that was long ago. His actions are now his alone, and he needs no additional persuasion from the darkness. He was close to your princesses, and indeed, a dear friend.

“They've never mentioned him to me before, have they?”

No, they haven't. Many efforts have been made to bury the truth, but it will not remain in the shadows forever. The Tyrant's ten eyes glowed, and a shifting, glowing orb was birthed from its brain.

A memory bubble. The one that has plagued me. The vision of Seren's origin.

Twilight stepped forward, once again fascinated with the odd beauty of the memory gate hovering before her. “Can I see it?”

No, the time is not right. The memory bubble does not recognize you as its intended recipient, yet. It awaits your ascension. But now it will be in the right hooves. Be warned, Great Mother. What lies inside is not what you seek. It is not an excuse to hate him, but indeed, a reason to empathize. But without understanding whom you're fighting, your quest will not be just. Take the memory, and it will open to you when the time is right.

“So... how do I pick it up?”

You may condense it into a physical form, if you wish. Ensure it is not damaged.

Twilight probed the orb with her magic. It seemed resistant to her presence, though not hostile. She began applying pressure around its surface, and it yielded slowly. When she had finished, a small golden orb, not larger than a nut, hung in midair. She plucked it out of its stasis and placed it in her saddlebag.

When you believe the time is right, pull at it gently, and the bubble will expand to its natural form.

Twilight bowed. “Thank you, kind sir.”

The gratitude is mine.

“What can I do to prevent Celestia's death?”

Well, that's the paradox. Our foreknowledge tells us she will die. As you have learned, to fight the future can make it happen in the first place. But apathy and inaction can do the same. Continue as you would, and look for loopholes. She will die, yes, but can her soul live on? Regardless, you will lose an ally in your time of need, and most importantly, you must prepare yourself to stand alone. Ah, yes, I almost forgot. I have another memory bubble for you, and for this one, the time is right. Another energy field appeared between them.

This knowledge is not critical to your mission, but may illuminate new paths of thought that can aid you.

“Whose is this?”

The Lord of Chaos.

“Who? You mean Discord?”

“You called?”

Twilight almost jumped out of her skin. Towering over her was the devil himself, so to speak. He seemed mostly disinterested, his eyes missing their usual mischievous gleam.

“Yes, hello, Twilight Sparkle. You're about to see what makes me tick. Celestia's reviewing it right now, as a matter of fact. I have no motivation in allowing you to know my deep dark secrets, though I will admit I'm curious to see how you'll react.” With a yawn, he stepped forward to the memory, reaching into it and rummaging around as if he were searching for an object from a box. He pulled out, holding a frilly pink book labeled 'Diary'.

Discord materialized a glitter pen and flipped to the last page, pausing for a moment before jotting down a few notes. He tapped his pen against the page a few times as if he was thinking, then, finished, he tossed the book back into the bubble and turned back to Twilight, as if expecting something from her.

“So... you're here.”

“Indeed I am, Miss Sparkle.”

They stood, looking at each other for a few moments, the beholders watching the two of them silently.

“I've asked this a couple of times now, Discord.” Twilight's voice was completely neutral, and non-accusatory. “What do you want?”

Discord smiled lightly. “Ah, I've been waiting for this moment. No anger, no inherent distrust. I simply want people to see as I do, whether or not they agree. And now, you'll have the chance to.”

He held out an arm. Twilight, after a moment's hesitation, reached out a hoof. Discord clasped it, and shook it firmly. “Twilight, you and I have a lot more in common than you think. I think you now realize I'm not truly evil. I'm just trying to make my way in the world with what I'm given.”

He released his grasp. “I'm Chaos. Clean, pure, and neutral. I favor nobody but myself. So, if you make an effort and make it worth my while, you might have a friend, when all others have failed.”

He disappeared with a flash.

Twilight smiled softly. As much as she had once despised the trickster, now that he wasn't a threat, she found him amusing.

May I suggest, All-Sight, that you return to your friends so they may review the memory as well?

“Can I?”

As we have stated, you may leave whenever you wish. We would love for you to stay, but it will not be the best use of your time.

“What of Lux? Of the time shudder?”

She cannot be saved until the worlds are merged. The voice cut off suddenly, and the Tyrant drew back sharply. Ironically, he had been trying to hide the implications of what he had just said, but his reaction was what made Twilight realize that something was amiss.

“Was that a statement of fact, or a prediction?”

Ever-Seek, I apologize. It was a slip of the synapses. I will answer all you demand, but the less you know, the better.

Twilight nodded. “It was worth a shot. I suppose I'll head back now.” As she condensed the memory, the Tyrant spoke.

Very well. As you go, remember that your actions will decide the fate of this world, and more importantly, they will decide just who you will become. We shall forever watch, All-Sight.

The beholder mages drew around the pensive pony. Kulttripse bowed before her, an odd motion involving his entire body. Twilight bowed in return. “Thank you, all of you. It's nice to find I have some friends.”

Those who live in behalf of the light will find they are never truly alone. But sometimes, you must take the first action.

This world is for the brave and righteous. Or the ambitious.

The world began to warp around her as the mages completed their spell. The lights seemed to be racing away from her while she remained still. Eventually, the lights became so distant she couldn't see them at all. Twilight became aware that she couldn't breathe. Just as she began to panic, her sight was restored and sensation came back to her form. She was standing in the snow, outside once again.

Her friends stood around her, looking at her expectantly. Twilight beamed. “You're all safe!”

Rarity cocked her head. “Why wouldn't we be, dear?”

“I...” Twilight looked around herself. She was back in Stonehill, but all signs of the recent battle were gone. Lux's trapped soul was nowhere to be seen. “I was taken somewhere else, in a different time line. I met these monstrous creatures, but they were extremely helpful and informative. And I met Trixie's reflection. We just fought her, right?”

Applejack shook her head. “We just came into the town about a minute ago. We just asked you what the plan was.”

It took Twilight a moment to take this information in. “But it seemed so real...” Suddenly, light came to her eyes as she remembered. She flung open her saddlebags and retrieved the two small, golden orbs. Pinkie stepped forward, her eyes widening in recognition.

“Memory bubbles? But whose? And why?”

“The memory bubbles belong to Discord and Seren. We need to experience what they have if we want to know how to fight them.”

Rainbow Dash got closer, poking at one of the levitating balls. “Seren?”

“The being in the Moon Pool, the one that fuels their hatred. The creatures told me he would be the one to kill Celestia.”

“So we take him out first?”

“They didn't seem to think it was possible, but we have to try.”

“This isn't going to be a boring history lesson, is it?”

“I don't think so. Let's make sure the area is safe, and then we'll stop for the night and watch these.”

A quick look around confirmed that they were alone. The buildings were just as abandoned as Twilight remembered them, but despite her watchful eyes and paranoia, no undead reared to meet her. As the others built their camp and attempted to build a fire, Twilight wandered further into the city. As she neared the back, she felt a growing sense of dread. She flickered her ears nervously. It wasn't danger, but there was something dark here. The dark, large cave didn't reflect the light from her horn, and made it feel that much larger. Eventually, she found the altar. It was broken and lopsided, and whispering could be heard in the air around it. Something had happened here, and whatever it was, it meant Twilight couldn't contact the beholders, at least not directly. After a minute or two, Twilight had to leave. The dread made her skittish, and she couldn't think straight.

She was relieved to find that the further she walked, the more calm she became. By the time she got back to her friends, who had successfully made a fire, she was already relaxed. The others nodded acknowledgment to her presence, though they were to tired and thoughtful to say anything.

After they had sat for a while, Twilight brought out the condensed memory bubbles.

“Which one are we going to watch first? Seren's?”

“We'll try, but I was told the time wasn't right yet. The memory bubble might reject our presence.”

“But we're allowed to watch Discord's history?”

“Actually, he appeared in person and told me it was alright.”

Fluttershy frowned. “What's he doing here? I thought he was turned to stone.”

“And then we promptly forgot him, as did the rest of Equestria. His mind was pulled here, and because he was strong enough, he rebuilt his body. While he wasn't allowed to return to reality, he could run free in this world. Or at least, that's my theory.”

“Let's get to it. There's no reason to wait. Besides, we need sleep, so we might as well get it over with.”

Twilight nodded to Rainbow. She placed Discord's memory on the ground, and focused her power into it. It grew in size and decreased in density until what had once been a solid returned to its almost gaseous field-state. The field engulfed the fire, making it reflect and refract in a strange yet beautiful way. The snow caught the light and the whole area seemed to glow with a celestial aura.

“Alright, girls, follow my lead.”

Twilight plunged her head into the edge of the bubble, and as her eyesight faded, she saw the others do the same. A voice entered her mind. Discord's. Greetings to any and all who may be listening. My name is Discord. May my story serve as a warning, and may I be forgiven for what I have done.

Chapter 38: The Voice of Change

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Chapter 38: The Voice of Change

Twilight's vision returned. She was in the center of a grand city, whose tall buildings were carved out of white stone. She had heard this place described before. It was the griffon capital, Skygate, which was so well built it didn't seem like it had changed in the thousand plus years. She grinned, glad that she had the chance to see it for herself, even if she wasn't physically there. She glanced around expectantly. She was alone, besides a few griffons strolling about. It seemed each pony would be experiencing this memory on their own.

Her gaze was naturally pulled towards a specific griffon couple walking by. They looked very happy, laughing and chatting and nuzzling each other lovingly. It made Twilight's heart melt. They drew close enough to hear, so Twilight began listening intently.

“...Oh Gareth, must you go to that lecture of yours? We could just keep walking.”

“Of course, dearest. Our nation needs to be given a wakeup call. Everbody's afraid of the Equestrians. I think they're getting their feathers ruffled over nothing. But I promise, as soon as it's over, we'll have a nice dinner. Wherever you want to go.”

The female griffon sighed. “Alright. I'll be in the crowd. Look for me.”

Gareth winked. “I won't be able to take my eye off of you.”

The couple turned into a doorway. The sign next to it announced a lecture to be given by Gareth Goldheart, M.D. Twilight cocked her head. She had heard the name before, but she couldn't recall where. She walked inside as she mulled it over.

The building housed a dimly lit, yet lavish, auditorium. It was rather sophisticated, Twilight thought, considering this memory took place a thousand years ago. The room would give the best musical halls in Canterlot a run for their money. The seats looked plush and comfortable, and the stage was built from dark and flawless wood. Twilight took a seat as quietly and cautiously as possible, before remembering that unless she directly intervened, her presence would not disturb the memory projections. She was left to her thoughts as the crowd began piling in. Gareth stood on the side of the stage, looking over some last minute notes, mumbling to himself.

Twilight watched the crowd of griffons. Most were well groomed and had an air of aristocracy, though there were a few who entered who were painfully out of place. They, like Twilight, tried to make themselves invisible in the crowd, hanging to the side as the upper class griffons took the better seats. Twilight wasn't sure what to make of the situation. There was some apparent inequality, and nobody seemed to think anything of it. And, after looking around, Twilight realized she still didn't know what this memory had to do with Discord. Had she taken the wrong path? Followed the wrong griffons? A quiet lecture hall did not seem like the kind of place she'd find the past form of the Lord of Chaos.

She looked over the smiling, kind-looking griffon in front of her. No, it couldn't be...

Gareth stepped to the podium. The minimal chatter died off immediately. “My fellow brothers and sisters,” he began, “we live in a time of fear and whisperings. It is perpetrated by warmongering politicians who seek to build their wealth on the blood and tears of the masses. I am not here to tell you that we won't go to war, for indeed, if we do not act, that is exactly what will happen. I am here to tell you that war is unnecessary. Look around you, at the fair city in which we live. It has never been brighter, and this is because of the free trade we enjoy. If we cut off our ties to Equestria, we will feel the pain for generations. And for what? A few measly miles of desert?”

Gareth stepped away from the podium, and began pacing very slowly, taking a step about every two seconds. He pointed towards a row of particularly well kept griffons. “My fellow members of parliament, remember my warnings four years ago. The brash actions taken then caused the problem we have now. We must remember that the decisions made in our discussion halls will affect reality. Unlike some choices, which seem so far away and perhaps even abstract, voting whether or not we go to war tomorrow will decide the fate of the young men and women of this country. This is their land to inherit. Will we give them a scorched battlefield? An endless graveyard?”

Twilight was leaning forward in her chair. She had never heard that there were tensions between the Griffon Kingdom and Equestria. What was Gareth talking about?

“The Equestrians do not want to go to war. I have spoken to some of their common citizens and diplomats, and the resounding answer is that if a fight can be avoided, it should be. But rest assured, their army will be ready to meet us if we make the first strike. Remember that the wise warrior does not seek out conflicts, but ends them swiftly when they are brought to light. Let us not be hasty when words can solve what the sword cannot. As a practicing doctor, I have seen the results of our battles in a far more intimate way than will ever be seen in our court rooms. And may I say, that I hope you never have to experience what I have.

“Have you heard the weeping of a mother who has lost their child to petty politics? Has your heart been torn by the muffled cries of pain and protest as a limb is amputated? A barbaric procedure that was the only option because our troops' medical supplies are insufficient? The now lame young father struggles to make a living, as the institution that caused him to lose his leg has deemed him unnecessary, and taken him from the pay roll. Is this justice? To thank the brave, who follow the orders of the blind because it is their duty, by throwing them to the poor houses, their sacrifices forgotten as another young, unassuming soul takes their place, not fully aware of what horrors await him?

“If this is justice, then may I be locked away, for I will not follow the corrupt law that supports such a foolish society.”

He continued speaking for quite some time. Twilight was fascinated by his words. She picked up bits and pieces of the story behind the conflict; it seemed border patrols several years back had exchanged a few callous words, and it escalated into a fight. One of the members of the Equestria patrol had been killed. The Equestrians had demanded that the griffons be tried in their courts, but the griffons insisted that the actual conflict had happened on their land, and thus the griffons should be tried in their own courts. The Equestrians were outraged, and the griffon kingdom had found their borders a bit smaller as the Equestrians expanded their border by a few miles. As Gareth had pointed out, it was only a few miles of the long desert that acted as a buffer between the two kingdoms, but it had been enough to keep tensions high. They seemed to be coming to a boiling point, with the griffon kingdom demanding that their land be returned. What confused Twilight the most was how illogical Equestria was acting. Surely Celestia would have mediated such a conflict...

She drew a quick breath as she remembered. If this was Discord's story, and Luna and Celestia's reign came after Discord's, then the two alicorn sisters must not be the current rulers of Equestria. Who was it then?

After some time, the lecture was wrapping up. “Remember, my fellow citizens, if we do not act wisely, our land will be thrown into eternal chaos. And that is something we cannot allow. When you vote, vote for order, peace, and the progression of all sentient beings. Thank you.”

The crowd rose with one accord. There was quite a bit of clapping, which tapered off quickly, but nobody spoke. In silence, the crowd dispersed out the doors. Gareth's wife, along with the invisible Twilight, were the only ones left in the room as Gareth picked up his few supplies. Twilight walked to the front, waiting for something else to happen. The lecture had been interesting, certainly, but she still wasn't sure why Discord had chosen to show it to her. She smiled quietly as she realized that the rest of her friends would have to sit through it as well. She could only imagine how Rainbow would handle it.

“You did wonderfully.” Gareth's wife put a loving arm around her husband.

Gareth smiled. “Thank you, Gilda. I only hope the nation will make the right decision.”

Twilight shook her head violently in shock. Gilda? Gareth's wife was named Gilda? It had to be a coincidence.

The couple stepped out into the street. Twilight followed them closely. The memory shifted around her, apparently jumping to a later moment. The couple stepped into a building that was almost certainly their home. It was almost dark outside, so Twilight assumed the two would soon go to the promised dinner, and were returning to prepare for the night. With a start, Twilight realized that the setting sun wasn't the sun she knew. It was composed of many far smaller orbs, joined closely together. She knew from the Hearth's Warming Eve pageant that the Unicorns had controlled the sun and moon before the princesses' reign, but it seemed like they were different celestial bodies entirely. She turned to the moon, which was beginning to rise. Sure enough, it was a similar situation. It was composed of many parts, and at best it was an approximation of the moon she knew. After a moment longer pondering this revelation, Twilight stepped inside.

The home was modest. Beautiful, yet not over-done. There were a few connected rooms, each with the necessities and not much else. Gareth had stepped over to a desk in what was obviously a study, and was pouring over a few papers. He didn't seem to be doing anything that was immediately interesting, so Twilight followed 'Gilda' upstairs. Another force seemed to be puling her as well. It was a feeling Twilight had grown used to. Fate.

Gilda stepped into the bedroom. She craned her neck, stretching out the pain of sitting still for so long. With a yawn, she stepped over to the bedroom's mirror. She grabbed a brush and began tiding her feathers. Suddenly, her eyes grew wide with fear, and the brush dropped and clattered on the dresser. She let out a chilling scream. Twilight whipped around, just in time to see a shadow dash forward, grasp the unfortunate wife's throat, and plunge a flash of steel into her neck. The resulting spray of blood caught Twilight off guard. Her coat was stained with the now all-too-familiar liquid, and she rammed a hoof over her mouth to stifle a scream of her own.

The assassin lowered the body quietly, but he had already betrayed his presence. The door slammed open and Gareth shot into the room. His eyes darted over the scene, his mouth agape. “Gilda...” he whispered.

The assassin retracted his blade, and stood calmly to face Gareth. The sanguine pool grew larger over the slick wood floor. Gareth pulled his left hand to his face, not comprehending the warm sensation of the blood trailing down his arm. The room grew cold, and time seemed to slow. The assassin chuckled from behind the black fabric of his mask.“You wouldn't want to miss your dinner date with your wife, would you? Come Gareth, I'll help you on your way.”

Chapter 39: Mutation

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Chapter 39: Mutation

The killer leaped forward, blade whistling through the air. Gareth acted instinctively, side stepping and jumping across the air, using his wings to catch himself. His hand scrambled over a nearby table, picking up a blunt letter opener. He brandished it defensively, tears welling up in his eyes. “Your soul will have no place in the planes for what you have done. She was innocent. She was pure.”

“Please, Gareth. She lost her innocence the moment she fell in love with you.”

“Who is behind that mask? Who is so cowardly? Gotre? Gilran?”

“Nobody so public. I'm simply taking the action that many others feel is necessary. We must go to war. Don't you see? It's not about the land, it's about our place in the world. If we allow the Equestrians to stomp all over us, it's only a matter of time before we become one of the slave races. Can you imagine the mighty griffon living in the same quarters as the cows? The sheep? The pigs? The Equestrians don't want to keep peace with us. They proved that the moment they took our land. They're trying to provoke us.”

“If that's true, then why fall for their trap?! Why act as they would expect us to? They were only reacting to the unlawful decision to try those griffons in our court. I personally visited the site of the battle, and I know for a fact the battle was on their land. We were the instigators.”

“The official report said-”

“To the hells with the official report! Who do you think made it?! It wasn't the one I handed over!”

The assassin gritted his teeth from behind his bandanna. “You're blind, Gareth. The time for peaceful action is over. As are your poisoning words.”

He rushed forward once more. Gareth parried with the letter opener, but was caught off guard by a slash from the other hand. The assassin's talons ripped out several feathers, and the three gashes began bleeding, a stark contrast to the perfect white around them.

Gareth growled in fury. He reared, putting his weight on his hind legs. His unarmed hand began glowing with light. Twilight realized with a start that he was using magic. No matter how often it happened, she was always caught off guard by non-unicorns casting spells.

The assassin drew back cautiously, but Gareth moved the glowing hand over his wounds. His skin stitched itself together, and once again, he was ready to fight. He was a doctor, Twilight remembered. Of course he'd have some sort of healing magic up his sleeve, if it were available to him.

The griffons began circling, waiting for the other to strike first. Finally, the assassin lunged, and Gareth began to side step. The assassin adjusted, and Gareth moved back into the path of the original trajectory, catching the murderer off guard. Gareth grabbed his opponent's arm, and pulled himself close. With a grunt, he jabbed the dull blade into his stomach. The assassin's eyes went wide. Not a killing blow, to be sure, but it was enough pain that it made him drop his blade, which Gareth quickly recovered. The second, sharper blade joined the first, and the assassin slumped to the ground, senses overloaded.

Once Gareth was sure his life wasn't in immediate danger, he ran over to his wife. He picked her up, crading her close. “Gilda, please be alive.” But as a doctor, he knew. Tearfully, he activated his magic once again, healing her wound and clearing away the blood. He set her down carefully, closing her unseeing eyes with a light sob. He turned back to the decommissioned assailant, who was trying unsuccessfully to pull the blades from his gut. Gareth grabbed him by his chest and shook him violently. “You killed her. You and all you fools who don't understand. I'm only trying to help you.”

The wounded griffon reached a weakened hand up, grasping Gareth's arm. “We don't want your help. That should be clear.”

Gareth's face contorted in sorrowful rage. “Nobody does.” He dropped the griffon, who let out an airy grunt. “My life has been devoted to helping others. I heal all who ask, many free of charge, but only one in ten comes back to thank me. I warn against actions that would cause pain, but so many rebel.” He turned his head towards the unseeing heavens. “I devote my life to the greater good, and I am harmed continuously. And the only way I made it through anything was with the support of the one person who cared.” A dark aura came over him. Gareth's glare made even Twilight cringe. “And now, you've taken her from me.”

He hefted the killer up once more, leaning him against the wall. “What was once used to heal shall now be used to destroy.” He ripped the daggers out, eliciting a cry of pain. “This government will fall. Mark my words.” He stabbed the daggers into the griffon's arms, pinning him in place. Tears and blood flowed alike.

“You'll need a messenger. Leave me alive!”

“Your body will be message enough.”

Gareth's hand glowed once more. The light was no longer white, and instead, red pulsating energy surrounded his outstretched claw. The killer, identity still hidden and all confidence gone, was begging profusely. “Please, don't! Don't!”

Gareth paused for just a moment. Then he plunged the hand into the griffon's stomach wounds. The magic seeped in, the reverse of the healing process Gareth had used on himself. Skin tore itself apart as if it were formed of repulsed magnets. The cries echoed across the night, as the griffon's midsection detached itself violently from its owner. It dropped to the floor with a meaty thunk, the killer still gasping, barely holding onto consciousness and life.

Gareth turned away silently, his face completely stoic. There was no pleasure, nor any anger. He stepped to his wife. He bowed his head silently, as if in prayer, then left the room.

The scene changed. Twilight found herself in some sort of circular meeting hall. It was completely silent, though the griffon at the podium was mouthing words and the griffons in the crowd seemed to be responding. Discord's voice entered her mind. As you may guessed by now, I, Discord, am Gareth. My failure to attend the meeting the next day allowed the corrupt to sway the minds of the timid. The vote went through. The griffon kingdom was to go to war with Equestria.

The scene changed once again. A group of griffons were running after one, who Twilight recognized as Gareth. After the discovery of the scene in my former home, I became a wanted man. Those who had sent the assassin still wanted my head, and those select few who still followed the law demanded that I be given a trial for what I had done. But I didn't care. The law meant nothing to me, as the law had allowed my wife to be killed.

Twilight's eyesight faded, the returned once more. Gareth was alone in a dark library. He was sitting with his back to a bookshelf, crying quietly. Twilight stepped over. He was holding a small picture of his wife. “Oh gods, what I have done?” He dropped the photo, which fluttered to the ground next to him. “What am I about to do?”

His left hand glowed with the same red aura. With a single claw, he traced a line around his left arm, at the shoulder. He gritted his teeth, though despite his attempts, whimpers of agony slipped through. Twilight's jaw dropped in confusion, disgust, and respect. It took an incredible amount of willpower, she was sure. But why?

Gareth's right arm flopped helplessly to the ground. His face tear-stricken and distraught, he cauterized the wound with another spell. He picked up his former arm, giggling in despair. “Well, when nobody else is around to give you a hand, you have to arm yourself...” His light laughter trailed off into sobs.

He placed the severed limb on the ground in front of him. He traced a circle around it with some of the blood that had fallen. It was then that Twilight saw the book that lay next to him. Transmutation: Sacrifice and Return. Her eyes widened with understanding.

Gareth bowed his head gently, closing his eyes. “With this sacrifice of blood, I invite the powers that be to recognize my devotion. Bless my quest to be quick, and my will to be unbreakable. Let me see the way to the return of my beloved.”

The arm glowed with white light. It vaporized, the light collapsing to the ground like a pile of sand. Even from where she stood, barred by the passage of time, Twilight could feel the power of the material. Gareth placed his other and into the pile, eyes still closed in concentration. The light pulled into the tips of his talons, disappearing into his body.

Gareth leaned back, sighing deeply. He had the slightest hint of a smile. He held the stump of his arm gently. “Gilda, I'll make things right. You'll see.” His form and the world around him began shifting, as if everything were moving at incredible speeds. After some time, Gareth reappeared. He was in a cave of some sort, hunched over the ground. Twilight stepped around, and found he was busying himself with some sort of arcane circle. It was like nothing Twilight had seen before. The glowing lines twisted and turned upon themselves, several prominent lines tracing a large triangle. In the center of the graphic lay the corpse of a manticore.

Gareth stepped back, a lightly maniacal glint in his eyes. He seemed giddy, almost. He held out his one left arm, head bowed as before. An arc of power struck the corpse. The circle glowed, and an odd humming filled the air. The maticore's body lifted into the air, the light from the circle pulling into the body. It pulsed with the energy, a ring of light emitting with each pulse. Then, just before Twilight was sure something was going to happen, the energy shorted, and the body dropped with a heavy thump.

“No! No, this can't be right!” Gareth rushed forward, grabbing the body. He checked for a pulse. “Nothing.” He murmured to himself quietly, pacing furiously. “I need more power. There's not enough. Perhaps it's the wrong surrogate? Or perhaps there's not enough primer?” He continued pacing. “Hm. Yes, that must be it. I haven't invested enough of myself. I have to prepare.”

He knelt to the manticore, activating the red magic once more. He traced circumference of its arm with a single claw. The arm dropped off meatily, and Gareth picked it up, holding where his other arm would be. “It's messy, but it'll have to do.” With a good deal of dexterity, he balanced the severed arm on his leg, and opened his own wound, wincing only once. The way prepared, he pressed the mismatching arm against his body, and with a flourish of his hand, it stitched itself to his body.

He paused for a moment, then raised his new arm experimentally. He flexed its fingers, before nodding to himself in satisfaction. “Well, I guess I'm closer to two-thirds of a lion at this point. Hm, maybe I'll work on growing out a mane.”

He sat for a moment. “If Gilda was here, she would have laughed.” He scowled for a moment, then returned to pacing, limply slightly on his new leg. “Perhaps the method itself is at fault. It was purely theoretical, after all. Not many griffons devote themselves to magic. Very few would dare press the boundaries of the art. Perhaps I'll have to go to Equestria. No, no, not yet. Not until I've exhausted all of my options here. Even if it costs me every single one of my limbs, I'll figure this out.”

The scene shot forward again, and when it stopped, a new circle was in place, but Gareth wasn't in sight. Twilight heard a grunt coming from behind her. She turned around, where she saw Gareth pulling a small, deceased dragon into the cave. As he came more into the light, she saw he had held to his promise. Both of his wings had been replaced, one draconian, and the other still avian, though it was now blue. One of his back legs had been replaced by a hoofed leg of some sort, possibly a goat, or a deer. Twilight grimaced as she wondered how Gareth's victims had met their demise. There was no doubt in her mind now. She was watching the creation of a monster. A monster whose name was his passion. Discord.

Gareth finally managed to get the dragon to the circle. The dragon, though small, was still large enough to hang out of the circle. Gareth frowned. “No, that won't do.” He reared onto his hind legs, lifting his maticore arm. The dragon's body began to lift ever so slightly off of the ground. After a moment, it dropped back.

“Ugh, I do need to practice with this arm more. No time, though.” He switched his power to his familiar griffon arm, and with a good deal of expertise, the dragon was adjusted into a position where it just barely managed to fit into the runic circle.

Before anything could ruin his setup, Gareth activated the ritual process once more. The dragon's corpse, like the manticore's had earlier, began lifting into the air. This time, however, the body began to morph. Twilight's mouth fell. Despite the misgivings she had about the morality of the process and the stability of Gareth's mind, she had to admit this was an impressive feat.

Before her eyes, the dragon's wings sprouted brown feathers, their leathery covering shriveling up. The tail shrunk dramatically, sprouting fur. A beak began growing out of the dragon's face, and the spikes trailing its spine were replaced with feathers. Gareth wrung his hands in anticipation. The transforming creature began to breathe. Twilight felt herself leaning forward.

The still transforming creature's eyes flew open. After a moment's disorientation, they fixated on Gareth. “Is... is that you?”

“Dearest! It's me! Gareth!”

“What's happening?”

“You were killed by cowards, so I'm returning you to life. We can be together again. It's been so hard for me. You were my light.” Tears crept to his eyes, but they had a very different meaning than the others had.

The forming Gilda was confused, for obvious reasons, but a smile crept over her face. “Gareth, I feel... happy. Oh Gareth, my love!” She strained to reach for him, but she couldn't gain any traction in the air.

“Hold on, the transformation's almost complete. Just stay calm.”

Gilda nodded. The two just looked at each other quietly, smiles on each. Gareth stepped forward, reaching out to touch his lost wife. Then, without warning, the spell began to fail. The lights on the circle flickered.

Gareth's eyes went wide. “No! NO! I have done everything correct! I triple checked!”

“Gareth, what's wrong?” Gilda's voice was full of fear.

“We're so close... Gilda, something's gone wrong with the spell. If I can sustain it for just a minute more, we'll be together again.”

“Gareth, you said I was killed?” Her voice shook, but was full of resolve.

“Yes, but that doesn't matter anymore.”

“Gareth, listen to me. My life isn't worth you wasting yours. If this goes wrong-”

“It won't!”

“-If it goes wrong, give up. Carry on with your life. Make the world a better place.”

“That's what I'm trying to do!”

“The loss of your honor is not worth my life. When we married, we said we'd die for each other. I've already died for you. Don't let them win. If my death convinces you to forget your ideals, they got everything they wanted.”

“Don't say that, we're almost finished! There's no need for goodbyes!”

“I'm sorry, Gareth. I love you.”

The spell finally broke. The transformation undid itself quickly, and before Gareth's unbelieving eyes, his wife was ripped from him once more.

Gareth simply sat there for a good five minutes. Then, without warning, he let out a scream. The scream spoke of the agony in his heart, the pain in his mind. He slammed his fists into the ground, shattering the earth around him.

He just shook his head. He stepped towards the dragon's body, and almost casually severed its hind leg. With no emotion, he did the same to his remaining hind griffon leg, sacrificed it for magic, and then attached the dragon's leg. He paused for a moment, looking at the failed attempt. He then left the cave, and didn't turn back.

I lost my will to live that day. My wife, in the most loving way possible, had told me to forget her. That only made me more obsessed. And without regard for my life, I became the most dangerous being in the land. The world would soon tremble as a testament to this fact. I would become a God. A God of everything the world had taught me. Pain, anger, and most of all, betrayal.

Chapter 40: Tipping Point

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Chapter 40: Tipping Point

Celestia shook her head, clearing her mind of the vision she had just. “Hm. I guess I can understand why Discord acted the way he did. I was right for not killing him, I think, but I'm still not entirely sure it was the right choice. Unlike Luna, he didn't change after his banishment.”

One of the oracles stepped forward. “It was the choice you made, Princess. It has happened, and thus, it was meant to be.”

“I suppose so.” She sighed gently. “Well, I guess it will be some time before Twilight and her friends return, won't it? I shouldn't abandon the kingdom any longer, though I wish I could watch all of their progress. Thank you oracles.”

“Of course,” they answered in unison.

“Farewell, Doctor.” The Doctor nodded absentmindedly in return.

Celestia opened a rift, leading back to her throne room. She stepped through without hesitation. Her guards turned to look at her. “Princess Celestia, you've returned!” The guard on duty seemed relieved, though he tried to hide it behind a professional and stoic face.

“Yes, I have. I apologize for my absence, but it was necessary. Has everything gone well?”

“There has been... a disturbance in Ponyville. We managed to take care of it under Shining Armor's supervision, so we chose not to trouble you until you returned.”

“What happened?”

“A strange phenomenon. A couple of days ago, a tear appeared in the sky, dropping a building's worth of books in the spot where Twilight's library once was. We managed to gather them all and retrieve the few that the citizens had picked up. We've stored them in the unused wing of the castle, should you wish to examine them.”

“I think I would like to, thank you.”

“Of course, Princess. We are here to serve.”

Princess Celestia, upon seeing that there were no other concerns demanding her immediate attention, made her way towards the mentioned books. It did seem a bit strange that books would rain from the sky, but she was glad nothing more dangerous had escaped her notice.

She found the first of the recently-filled rooms. A guard saluted her as she passed by. Her eyes passed over the spines of the books, somewhat distracted by the events she had just seen. With a start, her subconscious alerted her there was something worth her attention. She did a double-take. She lowered her brow in concern. She pulled the book off the shelf, flipping through it quickly. Her throat caught in fear. Had any of the guards read these? Shining Armor? Had the guards missed a book?

She placed the book back on the shelf, continuing down the aisle. The Phylactery, Engines and Transportation, Firearms, Equestrian Biology, Theories of Economics, The Prince...

She got to the end of the shelf. There it was. A Study of Alicorns. Celestia sat down quietly. She picked up the infamous book with her hooves, drawing it close. She opened it, and in a whisper, began to read aloud.

“Alicorns. What magnificent beings. The pony race in its purest form. This manifest was written to reveal their inner workings and source of their glory. A brief account of the history of the first alicorns is given by consent and for understanding's sake. The contents of this book are meant for the betterment of all sentient creatures of Equestria and the world beyond. The knowledge inside is powerful, and the most precious I've collected. To use it for dark purposes will only lead to destruction of self.

-Quicksilver, co-authored and overseen by Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.”

Her voice trembled as she closed the book. A flood of memories filled her mind. Like the Forgotten Realm, they refused to be filed away, never to be seen again. They demanded to see the light of day once more. Each pony that had been mentioned in the introduction had fallen. Celestia knew that she lacked her former glory. She could not blind herself as she had her kingdom. These books were proof her plan was unraveling. She gave a silent prayer that she could be forgiven for the evil she had done, and would do, for the greater good. But as a goddess herself, who could she pray to?

{- - -}

When her vision cleared, Twilight found herself standing in front of the dark altar of the Metaspectre. The humming of the crystals made her step back in preparation, but when she realized that she wasn't drawn to them as she had been in reality, she stood her ground.

With all hope exhausted, and every other path frustratingly futile, I turned to my last resort. Even in my addled, desperate state, I knew how foolish it was. I turned to the Devil himself.

Gareth stood in front of altar. His mismatched body arched over it, looking over the Metaspectre's orbs with both awe and fear. There was a manic glare in his eye. If he hadn't lost control of his mental faculties yet, Twilight feared he was on the brink.

The orbs glowed brightly, then lifted into the air slowly. With a gust of powerful wind, the Metaspectre's body formed around its soul. Twilight was surprised to see it didn't look like a pony. It seemed to be a shadow of Gareth's form; it was decidedly a draconequus. Thael looked Gareth over quietly.

Go home, Gareth. No good will come out of a deal made in desperation.

Gareth shook his head violently. “If you know my name, you know my plight. You can't turn me away.”

No, not by my own rules. But I warn strongly against this. I will be fair, but all of my lent power comes at a price.

“Oh, of course. I learned the lesson that true power comes only with sacrifice long ago. Heh, can't you see me? Why, the only part of me that's part of my original body is my left arm. I even sacrificed my head in pursuit of my goal! Quite the experience, completing a ritual without an attached brain. I've tried everything, and I mean EVERYTHING else.”

You haven't tried letting go of her.

“NO!” Gareth slammed his fists into the altar. Thael didn't flinch. “No. I can't. She was my entire life. Don't you see? If I let go of her, I have nothing else to live for.”

I see your mind is made up. Very well. What is it that you desire?

“Power over death. I want the knowledge of resurrection magic.”

The price is steep for a knowledge so valuable and dangerous. The conditions are such; I will grant you the knowledge of the steps and the pure arcane power required for the ritual if you initiate total war between Equestria and your own people.

“He, no stress for me. I have no love for either of them. Maybe once for my kingdom, but it took away all I held dear. Maybe once for Equestria, but loving them didn't save her. How should I go about it? I'd be jailed on sight if I return to my own country, and the citizens of Equestria wouldn't accept a monster such as myself.”

A small black shard broke off of a nearby crystal. Thael levitated it towards his side. Quickly, deflect this.

“Wha-”

The shard flew forward with shocking speed, splitting up into many as it neared Gareth. The swarm of sharp slivers certainly would cause traumatic physical damage if Gareth didn't react quickly.

Working on instinct alone, Gareth lifted his griffon arm, encasing it in an arcane aura. With a flash, each of the shards was turned into a grain of rice. They lost momentum, and fell into a materialized bowl.

“What was that? Are you trying to kill me?”

Remember, we're trading for resurrection magic. Even if you had failed, I could have brought you back. More important than your physical well being, however, I see you've been practicing your magic.

“Yeah, well, there's not much else to do when you're alone and an outcast.”

What was that particular spell?

“One of my own creation. I haven't named it yet, but while destroying my own body, I realized that all matter is energy. It took me a while, but I managed to find a way to cause that energy to manifest itself differently.”

So, you've created a matter-shifting spell?

“Yeah, it's actually really useful. I can literally feed myself with the sweat of my brow, if I need to.”

Interesting. Have you tried it on living creatures?

“Not yet.”

I imagine shape shifting would be quite helpful to your quest. To emphasize his point, Thael changed from his draconequus form to his more familiar pony form.

Gareth's eyes widened with understanding. “Ah, now you're thinking. I'll have to come up with some sort of identity to go with my new body, though. Somebody who people would trust, but also respect.”

Infiltration, then?

“You said start a war, not emulate one, right? I can't just go on a killing spree?”

Infiltration then.

{- - -}

With a howl of winter wind, the door flew open to the castle of the ruling Equestrians. The guards quickly shut it behind the visitor, who payed them no heed as he continued forward. Twilight was taken aback. She was obviously looking at Star Swirl the Bearded. There was no mistaking his classical robe, nor his white beard. But what was he doing here, in Discord's memory? She had been under the impression that he hadn't come to power until after the Princesses' reign. And, of course, the Princesses hadn't risen to power until Discord's defeat.

Many of her ideas about history had proven to be misconceptions already, however. With a shrug, Twilight had to accept that perhaps she just didn't know, and instead of worrying, just wait to see where the memory took her.

She followed closely behind Starswirl, looking him over with some awe. This was a pony she had looked up to since she had first heard of his abilities. He looked so thoughtful, so perceiving, so purposeful.

The two of them neared large double doors that Twilight recognized as the entrance to a throne room. It was then that Twilight realized that this wasn't castle in Canterlot, nor was it the Everfree Forest's. She glanced out the window. Something about the surrounding landscape seemed familiar. The placement of the hills, the dip just a small distance from the cliff... If she wasn't mistaken, the castle would be in ponyville somewhere. A long time ago, to be sure. None of the foliage was familiar. She tilted her head in concentration. Then it hit her. If she triangulated the landmarks, then...

This castle, and specifically, the throne room, was where her library had once stood.

She took a couple of steps back, wondering what it could mean. She looked back to Starswirl, who had continued on, oblivious to Twilight's pause. She ran to catch up with him. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but she felt something else was at play here.

Starswirl threw open the doors confidently. He strode forward along the velvet carpet, until he was standing before two thrones. He gave a short, curt bow. “Your Highnesses, I bring news from the north. It seems the griffons are beginning to militarize.”

Twilight jumped forward in excitement, forgetting where she was. “Prince Terra and Princess Awyr! Oh, I've only read about you in history books! And there was so little available. What happened to you two?”

Twilight was suddenly very aware of three pairs of eyes focused on her.

“Do we know you?”

Starswirl eyed her over darkly. “How did you get in past the guards?”

Twilight's mouth gaped open. “Oh. Whoops. I guess I forgot you can change the playback if you interrupt the flow.”

“The playback of what?” Starswirl drew closer, looking her over intently.

“A memory bubble. Sorry for the interruption! Rewind!”

She had just enough time to see recognition flicker on Starswirl's face before the memory obeyed her command. “...to militarize.”

“You're certain of this?”

“Have I been wrong yet, my Princess?”

Princess Awyr shook her head softly. “No, not yet. Starswirl, I thank you for everything you've done. You've helped us keep the kingdom together for so long now. Why, without you, I'm not certain we would have survived last winter.”

“It was nothing, my leige.”

Prince Terra rose. “Nothing my hindquarters. If it weren't for you and your brilliant Omniomorphic spell, the kingdom would have starved. Your ability to shapeshift the rocks into life-saving food makes you the hero of the nation.”

“I do it only for the greater good.”

“Pause!” Twilight yelled. Each of the ponies froze in place. Twilight paced in a circle while she took in this new information. She gave a slight frown, trying to remember if she had heard right. “Rewind!” She let it go for only a moment.

“...brilliant Omniomorphic spell, the kingdom-”

“Pause!”

Twilight shook her head, disbelieving. “Omnio. OMNIO. Not amnio. All-forming. Not earth-forming. This changes everything.” Twilight looked at Starswirl once again. It was understandable that she had misinterpreted. Old Equestrian was somewhat hard to read, and the author of the particular book Twilight had first read about Starswirl in had particularly terrible handwriting. The A's and the O's looked pretty much the same. But this moved Starswirl up from the already impressive pioneer of magic to a peer of the Alicorns.

Which brought up another point. She turned to the monarchs. Neither of them were Alicorns. They weren't even the same species. Terra was an earth pony and Awyr was a pegasus. Both paragons of their respective races, but once again there was a misstep in history. All the illustrations she'd seen of them marked them as Alicorns. Was this before they had ascended? Or had they never become Alicorns in the first place? And where were Celestia and Luna in all of this? Luna had implied she knew Starswirl personally, when she had visted Ponyville on Nightmare Night. And if Luna had known Starswirl, it stood to reason that Celestia would have as well.

Twilight knew she was missing something. Something critical about Terra and Awyr. How had their reign ended? She groaned as she tried to remember. She was so flustered she couldn't concentrate. She took a deep breath. There was still more to see. “Resume.”

“...would have starved. Your ability to shapeshift the rocks into life-saving food makes you the hero of the nation.”

“I do it only for the greater good.”

“Which makes you that much more of a hero. Thank you, Starswirl, for another fine service.”

“My lord, what shall we do about the griffons?”

“Nothing. If we make a show of force, it will only escalate the conflict. We'll be ready for them, but only if they strike first.”

Starswirl's face flickered with emotion, before he bowed gracefully. “Of course, my liege. I take my leave.”

He turned, and walked out of the throne room. Twilight followed quickly, up several stairwells and finally, into a bedroom. It was simple, though comfortable. A bed, a hooflocker, and a small closet. Starswirl stepped in, closed the blinds, and blew out the lone candle. Twilight was blinded by the sudden darkness. Before her eyes had time to adjust, there was quick flash of light, which blinded her in its own way. When she recovered, she saw a golden orb, no bigger than her front hoof. It spun slowly, deliberately. Out of nothingness flew in six smaller, satellite orbs. The collective gave off a gentle glow, but there was undeniable power behind them.

Greetings, Gareth.

Twilight's eyes turned to Starswirl. No. It couldn't be.

“Don't mock me. You know my plan failed.” With a burst of light and dancing stars, Starswirl transformed into the monster named Discord.

It's still salvageable. The Equestrians are too kind hearted. We warned you about this.

“Then what do I do?”

Take a more direct path. You know of love potions, of course?

“Hey, I'm not going to marry Awyr, if that's what you're implying! I wouldn't mind offing her dolt of a husband though.”

We imply no such thing. In fact, it would be for the couple themselves.

Discord frowned. “Isn't the problem that they love each other too much?”

Yes, and the solution is the fact that they don't love each other enough.

“I don't follow.”

Twilight did. Now she remembered what she had been forgetting about the monarchs. It hadn't mentioned them by name, but the book of potions that the Cutie Mark Crusaders had borrowed mentioned a Prince and Princess who had been slipped a love poison. She couldn't remember all of the rest, just something about chaos and a dragon.

She looked once again at Discord, though she wasn't certain he had taken that name yet. Well, if there was another part-dragon that embodied Chaos, she knew nothing of him.

Too much of a good thing is still too much of a good thing. If you increase the potency of the potion, they'll forget the kingdom and ignore any action you take.

“See, what I don't understand, if you come up with these ideas, and you're the one who wants the kingdom to fall, why don't you just do it yourself, and just save me the trouble?”

Everything we do is for a purpose. It must be you who takes this path. Sometimes, the means are the end.

“If you're going to speak in riddles, at least make them rhyme.”

We save the rhyming for the zebras.

“Give it a try, at least.”

Our purpose is hidden, just do as you're bidden.

Discord smiled slyly.“Was that a joke? I think I'm rubbing off on you.”

Or being alive for countless thousands of years means you can take a breather every now and then.

“Come on, there are plenty of rhymes for 'then'.”

Something, something, hen.

“Now you're getting it.” Discord flashed back into the wise, bearded sorcerer. “I'll go look into the overpowered potion.”

Are you sure you want to go through with this?

Starswirl paused midstep. “I keep asking myself the same thing. But I've already come so far. I can't turn back now.” Starswirl paused for a moment more, then he determinedly put his hoof down, stepping forward once again. “I can't let my wife go.”

Then we shall wait for your return, whether it be on the tail of your victory, or your fall.

Chapter 41: Collapse

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Chapter 41: Collapse

“Starswirl, sir!”

“Yes?” The disguised Gareth was turned away from the guard, concentrated on a piece of parchment.

“Something seems to be wrong with the Prince and Princess!”

Starswirl put down his parchment, looking very concerned. “What's happened?”

“I'm not fully sure, but they're unresponsive. I fear it's some sort of spell.”

“Take me to them.”

The two of them took off running, their hoofsteps echoing off of the stone staircase. They made their way to the throne room, not pausing to acknowledge any of the other passersby. They burst into the spacious room, where a large patrol of guards was ready to meet them. When they saw who it was, they stepped aside. Starswirl trotted up to the royal couple. “Princess! Prince! Are you alright?”

As reported, the two did not respond. They seemed fine, physically. They were breathing, blinking, their ears twitched, and all-in-all, they were alive. They were staring intently into each other's eyes. Starswirl frowned, and put a hoof forward to break their eye contact. The royals reacted immediately, letting out audible protests and shifting quickly until they could see each other once more. The same reaction was met on the second and third attempt, until finally, Prince Terra pushed Starswirl aside with quite a bit of force. Starswirl tumbled down a couple of stairs, and Twilight could see the dark smile Gareth hid from the rest of the crowd.

Starswirl got up and dusted himself off. “It appears they've been hexed.”

Some of the guards gasped, while a couple of others simply nodded curtly.

“It looks like Griffon magic. Probably an overpowered love potion. You know how they are with their aphrodisiacs. Never thought they'd use one as a weapon.”

“A weapon, sir?”

“The spell has effectively neutralized these two until we find who administered the potion and ask them just how much of a dose they used. Breaking the spell without full knowledge of its strength could easily kill them both. Did anybody see the perpetrator?”

He looked over the guards. None said anything. Then, his eyes opened wide with surprise. “There he is! Chase after him!”

The guards turned to look, then took off towards the fleeing creature. It was an illusion; Twilight could feel the magical energy leaking off of it. Had the guards stopped to think for a moment, they would have felt it as well, but in the heat of the moment, and the with the need for somebody to blame, caution was forgotten. Interestingly, Gareth had designed its image after the assassin whom he had killed. The illusion ran down the hall and out the front doors. The guards followed suit.

With the guards gone, Gareth turned to the royals. “Nothing personal.” Princess Awyr sighed contentedly. Prince Terra did the same in return.

Gareth pulled down his pointed hat, signature bells jangling. “Time to go start a war. Don't hold up, you two lovebirds.”


With the now familiar transition, Twilight found herself hovering high above a battlefield. Griffon forces beat relentlessly against the Equestrian army, but the Equestrians held firm.

“Fire!”

Around Starswirl, mages drew back energy bows, firing magical bolts at the airborne forces trying to flank the infantry. Clouds of dislodged feathers trailed the falling bodies, which crumpled in unseemly and gruesome heaps upon impact. It was then that Twilight remembered; this was before the Forgotten Realm had been split. Each life lost, on both sides, was permanent. Her stomach gave a lurch. She had almost grown accustomed to fighting, but when the stakes were so high... was that really what the reflections wanted? To merge the worlds so their actions would be permanent?

“Cover me!”

Starswirl ran forward. He stopped in the middle of the fallen bodies, and began archaic murmurings. A red transmutation circle faded into being, each of the bodies at a different vertex in the drawings. One of the griffon above saw what he was doing, and rushed to attack. The infantry backed up to guard Starswirl. The griffon hissed, pulling out of its dive, knowing it could do nothing.

Twilight watched the spell with concern. It wasn't just forbidden, it was inequestrian. Blood magic was certainly one of the most powerful schools of magic, but the very nature of it spread corruption more quickly than it prevented it. Something like the portal she had opened was borderline, and acceptable in dire circumstances, but using the bodies of the fallen to fuel more death was dishonorable.

The soldiers didn't seem to care.

Twilight paused. The books she read that had forbidden the practice made a lot more sense, now that she had learned there were actually bodies to use the power on.

Starswirl's voice rose as he finished the spell. The bodies around him disappeared in a flash of fire. The arcane lines in the transmutation circle glowed brightly, the energy trapped and drawn to the target.

Starswirl began laughing quietly. He rose into the air, his form glowing with the sapped power. He turned his attention to the griffon forces. “Igbu! Soleno! Sa'laska!”

A fireball flew from his form, directly into the front lines of the griffon force. The intense heat ignited the very oxygen in the air upon impact, simultaneously suffocating and incinerating the enemy. Some of those who had been unfortunate enough to not meet a swift end ran out of formation in a blind panic, only to meet the prepared Equestrian infantry. The magical bombardment continued, and within a minute the griffon forces were scattered and retreating.

The force marched forward, methodically picking off the survivors. Starswirl surveyed the battlefield with satisfaction. He turned to the waiting commander. “You can handle the rest from here. I have an appointment to keep.”

He disappeared with a flash. Twilight felt her mind pulled through the teleport. She found herself at the edge of a forest, amongst an even larger group of griffons than the one she had just left. She looked around quickly for Starswirl, but he wasn't to be seen.

There was, however, a large, muscular griffon who seemed to be in charge. “The Equestrians have taken the bait. Let's not let our allies' sacrifice go to waste. CHARGE!” The forces surged forward with a uproar. Their target was an unguarded and unprepared town. The ponies looked up to see the source of the noise, and yelled in terror. The griffon front-runners leaped with predatory precision, breaking necks and tearing skin with ease, children and adults alike. The blood rage begun, the griffon's calls turned into incoherent screeches. A squad flew overhead, cutting, spotting runners and cutting them off. There could be no call for backup.

Buildings went up in flame as incendiary grenades were tossed through windows, torching anypony who thought they'd escape notice by hiding. The 'battle' was over quickly. Bodies were gathered and feasted upon in ritualistic fervor.

The looted goods were gathered together, counted, and split equally. “Hit 'em where it counts. Without this trade route, the Equestrians will fall within a month.”

“Yeah, but that's only if we keep them at bay. We'd be fine one versus one, but that mage of theirs, what's his name? Skytwist the mustached? He's ripping through our forces.”

“All it will take is one of us to destroy him.” The muscular commander intercepted the conversation. “If but one griffon claw gets his throat...” The commander made a slicing sound. “That's the end of their advantage.”

“Should we send in assassins?”

“I'll bring it up with the council, but I wouldn't be surprised if they agree. You guys can handle the rest, yes?”

“Of course, commander.”


There was another teleport, and Twilight followed once more. The griffon was standing on a stone path in a dark forest, stretching his neck. With a casual snap of his fingers, his body flashed into Discord's, or rather, Gareth's. He whistled a cheerful tune as he strolled up the stairs in front of him.

A shadowy figure was waiting for him at the top. How did your efforts go?

“Do you ask because you don't know or you want me to say it?”

Yes.

“Ah, ambiguity. Well, I've done as you've asked. War has begun. All it took was a little push. Soon enough, one of the griffons will assassinate 'Starswirl the Bearded' and the griffon commander will fall in battle. Then I can be done with the entire business.”

So, you wish to claim your reward?

“I've done as I was told, yes?”

Indeed, you have fulfilled your side of the bargain.

“Then yes, I want my reward. Give me the knowledge of and the power to perform a resurrection ritual.”

Come with me.

The Metaspectre turned away, walking across the plateau. Discord and the shade Twilight followed.

Thael stepped behind the altar. He placed a hand into his chest, pulling out the seven glowing orbs that constituted his soul. He placed them back into the grooves on the altar.

Stand at the base of the altar.

Gareth did as he was told.

Gareth, I bestow upon you a fraction of my power. The Metaspectre retrieved a black sword, whose blade was almost certainly the same material that the altar and towering crystals behind it were made of. With a pass of Thael's hand, the blade was pulled free of its hilt, and then ripped apart at a sub-atomic level. The condensed energy greatly overpowered the humming of the crystals and the ambient noise of the forest, but Thael's voice remained as calm and controlled as ever.

This power is yours to use or to abuse. It can either create or destroy, and it provides the gateway to your lost wife.

Thael gestured outwards with both hands. A simple, square mirror materialized, big enough for two normal sized creatures to stand on. Take this.

“A mirror?”

Yes, a mirror. Nothing special about it. No special properties, besides its dimensions. Go to a solitary place, place it on the ground facing the heavens. Look into the mirror, and meditate about the one you've lost. Everything about them; good and bad. Try to create an image so real, and so dear, you'd do anything to have them again. Then pour your energy into the mirror, and if the spirit is willing, a rip will appear to the spirit world, and they will come through, the energy you've expended forming their renewed body. But if they are not willing, the energy will reflect back into you, and you'll simply have lost time.

“That's it?”

That's it.

“Why don't more people know about it? Use its power?”

It demands total dedication and a steel resolve. Many don't have it, so it's been written off as a false lead. And those who succeed are often more concerned about their renewed relationship than scientific discovery. The sake of science isn't enough of a motivation.

“Hm. So... I'm free to go?”

Indeed. You don't have to speak to me ever again, unless you wish. You have been given your power, as you have carried out your part of the bargain. I wish you luck in your endeavors.

“Thank you.”

No, thank you.

With that, Gareth walked away. At the base of the stairs, he stepped off of the path, trudging through the undergrowth. Twilight prodded his thoughts, to see what he was thinking. She was surprised to find that besides simple reactions like “branch, side step. Root, step over,” there wasn't much going on. He was keeping his mind blank.

About ten minutes of traveling later, which happened very quickly for Twilight, he reached a clearing, dimly lit by the moon and the stars above. With some hesitation, he placed the mirror on a particularly flat piece of ground, taking care to remove the little pebbles underneath it.

He stood on the mirror, mismatched feet unsteady at first. He did not yet, however, look into the mirror, instead allowing his eyes to wander along the treeline.

“Do you remember, dearest? How we used to laugh together? How we talked about the future? How we hadn't a care in the world, knowing, somehow, that everything would turn out for the best? Funny thing about fate. Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can come together. I hope we're about to move on into better times. I'm not certain how much more I could take, without you.”

He took a deep breath, reading the required power. He tried to look at the mirror, but he was obviously struggling to face his fears. With a surge of willpower, he stared himself down. He recoiled in disgust. “Is... is this what I've become?”

He held out his hands, still glowing in the magical aura. “Deep down, I knew, but this...” He clenched his fists. “This is a body my dearest Gilda could never love. I can change my form, but deep down, this is what I am. More importantly, I'll always have the mind that caused me to do this. I've been so selfish this whole time. She told me to forget, but I couldn't. Despite all my power, I'm more weak now than I was when I was nothing more than a doctor. At least I could save lives. I fear I only remember how to end them.”

He chuckled quietly, falling to his knees, the aura of defeat almost tangible. The prepared magic fizzled out as his body shook with emotion. “Why do I still live? Why me, and not her? She did nothing wrong. It should have been me. It should have been me!” He stood suddenly, smashing the mirror with the force of his movement. He stared at the shining, shattered shards, eyes full of awe and a tinge of malice. “Seven years bad luck, right? Well, who says it has to be me? I'll finish what I've started. Start a war? I'll take the throne. They'll know my pain. All shall be subject to Gareth's -no, that's not who I am anymore- to Discord's whim. Change will be the only constant. The world needs to be mixed up, for to live as it has would doom more to my fate. The loss of what they hold dear because somebody else thought their views were worth another's personal freedom.”

A calm, collected smile grew across his face, and despite his monstrous features, he looked almost peaceful. “Out of chaos comes order. Chaos can not last forever, for eventually it will run out of fuel. I know this is a suicide mission. But whoever can overthrow me will be righteous, and have the divine right to rule. I will not allow myself to be defeated by the power-hungry, but my soul stands no chance against the lawful protectors.”

Once more he turned to the shattered mirror. “You know what dear? Sometimes good things do fall apart so better things can come together. I'll see you someday.” He bowed his head solemnly, then turned from the clearing without another word, whistling a quiet, cheerful tune.

Chapter 42: Renewal

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Chapter 42: Renewal

And so, I claimed the throne as my own, subjecting all to my plan. I was cruel and selfish, tyrannical and whimsical. It was an empty rule, with no constants. A few tried to rise against me, but they were as corrupt as I. Time passed, factions rose and fell, but everything turned out as hoped. Two beautiful, good hearted unicorns rose with the strength of justice and mercifully allowed my continued existence, though I deserved nothing less than obliteration. They'll never know it, but I owe my life to them, because just before they overthrew me, I had lost my hope. I had almost given up.

Since then, I've done what I could to benefit the whole, though my actions might seem contrary to those who don't know my greater purpose. Sometimes things need to be shaken up, or indeed, fall apart. And somebody's got to be the demolitionist.

On to the great beyond. I do not know what my place will be in the upcoming events, but I place no blame on what happened on the Metaspectre, or, the devil, as he's called. Because he was my savior. Perhaps like all of us, he has been mislabeled? I am Discord... no. I am Gareth. And I am at peace.

Twilight was kicked out of the memory. She fell onto her haunches, her body reacting instinctively to the strictly mental force. All around her, her friends did the same. The memory field sprung back, the golden orb bouncing to the floor.

After the tired unicorn recovered, Twilight placed the memory back into her saddlebag. She looked at her friends around the dark cave. All stayed silent, but their looks told enough.

With only a nod, they began settling down for the night. If she had been keeping track of time correctly, when they awoke in the morning, there would only be three days left before the solstice. Three days to recover Luna from the Metaspectre. So much had happened since they first came. They had a duty to Celestia to see the job through, but Twilight couldn't help but wonder if their task was still important. Split personalities and a dark god waiting to be released certainly sounded a little more pressing. Luna could handle herself, couldn't she?

Twilight's thoughts buzzed for a while until they were so many that they became white noise. She felt herself drifting off, but before she lost consciousness, one thought rose above the rest.

“What is my purpose?” she whispered quietly. Her eyes slowly shut.

{- - -}

“Why would Celestia hide this from me?”

I dare not give a definite answer, but it seems likely she was trying to protect you.

Luna stopped pacing and frowned at the Metaspectre. “From whom? Not Seren, of course. We were close. He'd never harm me.”

From yourself, I'd imagine.

“Does she not trust me to control myself?”

I fear my fulfillment of your wish might have jinxed that.

“You only gave me the willpower to do what I had wanted to do for quite some time. I see now that had I the strength, I would have acted as you influenced me to do.”

Then her fears are reasonable?

“No, the problem is not that I lack resolve, but that I have too much. I cannot be swayed by distracting things such as mercy or tolerance.”

What about love?

“Yes, yes, that did cause me to overstep my bounds. It was with good intent, though, I swear! I threatened eternal night as an ultimatum, to force a compromise, but I got sucked into the conflict and allowed myself to lose control. I'm a better mare now, yet the core problem still remains. Perhaps it's even worsened, since she's split the worlds. Justice is not just about condemning the criminals, but rewarding the good. A full day's pay for a full day's work. The people of this realm, despite their crimes, deserve all of the pay. They have done all the work, putting up with the refuse of our world. Celestia has effectively shoved the problems into the closet. They must be addressed and then dealt with, and the balance restored. You cannot condemn a bad person for being bad in a bad world, nor can you praise a good person for being good in a good world, unless they had knowledge of the other. We must have a merged world of both light and dark or else Justice cannot hold.”

Luna sighed. “Celestia was trying her best, of course, but she made a grave mistake and she's let it go on for far too long.” She drew up her lip in resolve. “Thael, thank you for showing me the light. I am willing to do what I must to help.” She bowed softly.

Thael bowed in return. No, thank you, my princess. Welcome back.

“I am glad to be back, my friend.”

{- - -}

Twilight was pulled out of her, well, twilight sleep, by a quiet chittering noise. Her ear flicked instinctively, her eyes still shut. If it wasn't important, she didn't particularly feel like getting up. The group wasn't supposed to be awake for a couple of hours, and she needed all the sleep she could get. She sighed deeply. The chittering stopped. After about a minute of silence, Twilight felt herself falling asleep once more.

A jolt shot through her mind, pulling her back from the brink of sleep. It took her a moment to realize she had been bit, in the neck. She reared up with all of her strength, dislodging whatever had bit her. Now wide awake, she cast a quick and uncontrolled illumination spell. The flash of light hit every edge of the cave in blinding illumination. Twelve voices hissed in unison. Twilight stepped back in fear. Changelings, in their natural form. It looked like nothing more than a scouting party, but that was terrible in its own right. Scouts stayed close to the main group.

Twilight gently touched the two bleeding holes on her neck. They were pretty deep, though certainly not fatal. They had been trying to drink her blood, it seemed. One of the changeling's teeth was proof of that. But why? They fed off of love, not...

Twilight came to her senses. “Everybody up! We're in danger!”

Those who hadn't already been stirred by the flash and the hissing jumped up, having been conditioned enough by the past to know to jump immediately into action when they heard that tone of voice.

The changelings wasted no time with their diminishing advantage. They leaped in unison, each pony immediately beset by two changelings each. All semblance of control was lost, as each pony fought for themselves. Spike rushed to Twilight's side, once again underestimated. As one of the changelings lashed forward to bite Twilight, Spike intercepted it, breathing a full blast of green flame into its open maw. It dropped to the ground, the acrid smell of burning flesh filling the air. It struggled along the ground in agony for a few moments, before curling into a fetal position, whimpering pathetically.

The second changeling stepped back, analyzing the scene for a moment before transforming into Twilight, who had seen this coming from a mile away. Spike laughed. “Nice try.” He leaped forward, claws bared. The changeling sidestepped his attack, and tackled Twilight. It didn't seem directly intent on hurting her, but rather on getting the two of them mixed up. As they tumbled, the changeling grabbed Twilight, and forced her head down onto its neck. Twilight didn't give much resistance, as she had been expecting it to bite her. Her bite, aided by the changeling's magic, resulted in puncture wounds identical to her own. Twilight pushed it off in disgust, both at the act and the taste now in her mouth.

Spike turned around. “Wow, for real?” He smacked his hand to his face, dragging it down slowly in impatience.

“Spike, help me take her out!”

“No, Spike, go save our friends!”

Spike looked between the two of them. “Either way, helping the others will be good for us.” He turned and ran off to go assist Applejack, who was doing what she could to help Rainbow Dash in a three-way aerial battle against herself.

Twilight faced down her changeling. “Just what is going on here?”

The changeling smiled. “Oh, we were in the neighborhood and decided to stop in for a friendly visit and some liquid refreshment.”

Twilight stuck out her tongue. Her voice sounded so saccharine coming from the changeling. “Why are the changelings drinking blood now?”

“This may come as a surprise, but we have been all of our lives. It was only once we entered your world that the word for the physical blood was lost. So we had to feed on the closest substitute your world offered. The abstract concept of love. The victims look the same after a feeding, however.”

“What are you doing here now?”

“Chrysalis seeks revenge.”

“So why isn't she in the real world, trying to overthrow Celestia once again?”

“Real world? This IS the real world! Yours is the fake. As fake as the bodies we changelings put on to take it from you. But no, it's not Celestia she's after. She's one of the contributing factors. It's not even you. She's after a bigger prize. She wants a refund from the Devil.”

Twilight began stepping to the side, aware that the changeling had been trying to circle around for a better opportunity to attack. She needed as much information as she could get, and so this conversation needed to continue. “The Devil? You mean, The Metaspectre?”

“Indeed I do. Curse him!” The changeling spat after saying Thael's title, trying to clear the awful taste it left.

“What do you have against him? It makes sense that Chrysalis would try make a deal, but that sounded like you take it more personally than having him as your enemy just because Chrysalis hates him.”

“Ah, you don't know. Why would you?”

The changeling stopped, tapping its hoof. “I wonder if I should even say this... No, I might as well. Do you know what we are?”

“Changelings, of course.”

“Where did we come from?”

“What kind of question is that? Where do any of us come from?”

“Some have origins long after the beginning of recorded history. Each of us are the husks of the Devil's work. Remember that it refers to itself in the plural? Somewhere out there, the mind I used to have is part of its collective intelligence. Us changelings have no soul, no life of our own, and so we have to feed on the life force of others to sustain ourselves. The Devil's only offered sure-fire way to break a contract is your soul. Hee hee hee!” The changeling giggled darkly. “Ask any one of us. We'll all say the same thing. Even now, this personality I'm portraying to you is an unholy mix of yours and Chrysalis'. We're just an extension of her mind. I am not my own person.”

“Who were you once?”

“No idea. I could be the fabled Jealous Brother, or I could just be some poor schmuck who thought it would be a good idea to play in places he shouldn't have. Most likely, though, I was somebody who wanted to be a God. But such a desire is almost always influenced by emotions, and emotion is the quickest path to destruction where the Devil is concerned.”

“So, what, you're saying the changeling army consists almost entirely out of failed Alicorns?”

“But of course. Haven't you seen our beautiful wings and fearsome horns?” The fake Twilight suddenly sprouted majestic, lavender wings. “Most of us couldn't make it through the ascension process, and rather than have our very being destroyed for all of eternity, we were willing to give up our souls to remain alive, in the vain hope we'd be able to redeem. But now, we want a refund.”

“So Chrysalis is promising that the Metaspectre will return your souls?”

“She promises nothing of the sort. In fact, we are counting on the fact that he won't. He just want to pass on. We are half-alicorns. Immortal, yet unfulfilled. We have no individuality, no purpose, and no aspirations except destruction. Feeding only prevents the intense pain we'd feel otherwise, but it brings no joy. And so, Twilight Sparkle, thorn in our side, we have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. Just try and stop us.”

Applejack jumped in from Twilight's peripheral, hitting the changeling squarely in the head with a solid kick. Its neck snapped, and it crumpled to the floor in a sickening heap, its last breath a quiet laugh.

Applejack laughed nervously. “Good thing I guessed correctly. I figured you hadn't gone and ascended to becoming an alicorn yet, so I thought the one with the wings must be the changeling.”

“Well, you were right. Thanks, Applejack.” She looked around at the rest of the group. They had managed to fight the changelings off, it seemed. Fluttershy was bleeding heavily from a scratch all along her front leg, but she was insisting it was nothing, despite Rarity's protests. Rainbow Dash seemed to be missing, but Twilight was certain she was okay. Rainbow never went down without a fight.

Twilight ran for her saddlebag, spilling the contents. “Map, map, where's the map? Ah!” As she reached to pick it up, she heard a humming from the small pile. She brushed aside the other papers, the Alicorn book, and some food, before finally finding the source. It was the crystal from the Metaspectre's altar. It was not only whole, but full of energy once again. She picked it up carefully, far too aware of its power. With some consternation, she placed it, and everything else, back into her saddlebag. Odd. She'd have to look it over later.

She trotted back over to the others, who were gathering their things, carefully sidestepping the dead or wounded changelings. She spread the map out, looking it over carefully. “Alright, we've proven that we can't just sleep out in the open. We've been lucky thus far, but if a secluded cave didn't stop the changelings, I don't think much short of a fortified building will stop them. I don't want to wake up too late next time.

Rarity came over to look at the map. “What about that place?” She pointed out a marking on the map that read simply The Abbey. “It doesn't seem to be near any of the factions, and it's on the way to Canterlot's reflection. We only have three days you know. Three days until Luna's safety is not guaranteed.”

“And if Luna's not safe, I'm not sure any of us will be.” Fluttershy limped over, her wound staunched by one of Rarity's scarves. Fluttershy nodded her thanks once more silently, and Rarity acknowledged it without a word.

Twilight looked it over. Rarity was right. It had seemed insignificant when they first picked up the map, but The Abbey looked like it would be a nice place to rest, with the added threat of the changelings. She could only hope its inhabitants were friendly, though in this world, it was admittedly a long shot.

“It's better than nowhere. Thanks for pointing it out, Rarity.”

“Of course.”

“Pinkie, where did Rainbow go?”

Pinkie half-hopped over. It was odd, seeing her so conflicted with her personalities. Her dark personality was proper, though unstable, and Pinkie was just the opposite. If there was one thing you could count on Pinkie for, it was being unpredictable.

“One of the changelings ran, and Rainbow was chasing it down. I have expected her to be back by now.”

Twilight frowned. “That means trouble. Everybody, be ready to run. If she's not back in five minutes, we're going after her.”

As she spoke, Dash reappeared, a trail of namesake rainbow following behind, denoting that she was in a rush.

“I know you won't believe it, but I wasn't able to catch the changeling. It lost me in the forest. I could have tracked it, but it's probably getting more of its friends. We need to get out of here.”

“Then it's decided. Sorry for the early wake-up call gang, but it's time to move out.”

Chapter 43: Bonds

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Chapter 43: Bonds

“We'll rest for an hour, and then we'll be moving on.” The small group of ponies dropped in exhaustion. Lustrous Revolt surveyed the area carefully. She had been driving the reflections with an hour break for every twelve hours of walking. It was a grueling pace, but they had to catch up to the Elements of Harmony. They had lost Pinkamina, which in itself was bad, but if lost track the ponies from Reality, they'd lose everything they had worked for. Lustrous was getting desperate. All of her tactics had proven fruitless. Imprisonment and intimidation had done nothing to make the others submissive, but she could not be stopped. She might have to change her tactics, but she'd find a way.

Temperament retrieved some flint and steel from her bag, and began to build a fire, striking the tools together, sparks flying into the tinder she had brought with her.

“No, we don't want to draw attention from ourselves.”

Temperament looked up. “I'm all for no-fuss, but are we really to rest in the snow without a fire?”

Jackie, who was leaning against a tree, nodded grimly. “You think we're the only ones out here? The only ones trying to hunt down the most powerful magic to enter this world in decades?”

Shuddercry hefted her war-hammer. “Yeah, but we're also one of the best fighting groups. I say let them come. It's good experience.”

“No point in experience if we die.”

“Just what are we expecting to see?”

Lustrous Revolt stepped into the middle of the discussion. “Could be anything. There are enough natural threats around without any intelligent ones.”

Temperament put her tinder and her fire-starters back into their box. “Fine.” She hunkered down into her heavy plate armor, trying to maintain what warmth she could.

Spectral Slash melted out of the shadows, startling Jackie, who had instinctively drawn her tommy gun. “You're lucky I didn't fill you with lead just then.”

“You say luck as if it was based on chance.”

“Keep it up and you'll get the bullets anyways.”

“Save them for the enemy.”

Spectral Slash fluttered over to Lustrous Revolt. “We're about three hours behind them, as long as there isn't another group of six ponies and a dragon. Thank heavens the snow isn't falling hard.”

“Yes, but that could change at any minute. That's why we need to catch up as soon as possible.”

Spectral Slash nodded grimly. “With any luck, they'll have stopped for the night, and shouldn't wake up for a couple more hours. We might even catch them before the sun rises.”

“Good. Let the others know.”

Slash nodded softly, the disappeared quickly. A few moments later, Jackie yelped and cursed Slash once again.

Lustrous Revolt sat down. She let a brief sigh of relief escape. As hard as she pushed the others, she was pushing herself even further. She hadn't slept in three days, and had only managed to stay sane through brief meditation stints.

She got to work organizing her thoughts. They had to act quickly, when they caught up to their doubles. But even now, Lustrous was beginning to doubt her plan. Pinkamina had never fully explained how to merge personalities. And if they managed to figure out the exact method, could they really overthrow the ponies from Reality? Pinkamina had fallen so easily. Admittedly, she was the Element of Despair, which didn't exactly cultivate willpower, but if it had happened once, it just might happen again. Who else might be a weak link?

Temperament was likely the kindest out of all of them, as her name might imply, but she was vicious on the battlefield. She knew her place and she stood strong by it. Jackie did as she was told without much complaint. Shuddercry... hah. As if there was a chance the timid Reality pony could stand against Shuddercry's sheer personality. But what of Spectral Slash?

She was quiet. Reserved. A drunkard. Always hidden behind the physical and metaphorical mask of hers. She was unparalleled in her field, but maybe she was hiding something behind all that bravado. Lustrous made a mental note to watch her, before turning her thoughts to herself.

Of course she wouldn't be overpowered by Twilight Sparkle. But something made her question if she was answering too quickly. Twilight had outsmarted her once and escaped her grasp. And, as much as Lustrous hated to admit, Twilight had the support of her friends. Surely the fleeing ponies were not as strong as their battle-hardened trackers, but they could rely on the false strength created by their bonds of, dare she think it, friendship. In the Forgotten Realm, the best you could hope for was respect. Or fear.

Not that Lustrous hadn't tried to make friends. She physically jerked at the pain of the memories. No, she was better off standing alone at the top, than surrounded by others at the bottom. It set her apart, made her more worthwhile in comparison. Being the very best made her life worth living.

If she were any less, she wasn't certain she could carry on.

A rustling bush at the edge of the clearing broke her out of her trance. She jumped into a defensive position. Curses! She had been so caught up in her thoughts she hadn't remembered to put up a proximity ward before resting!

With a cry of fury, Lustrous leaped into the bushes, tackling a pony-like figure.

“Bwuh-” she stammered. No, they had left long ago. What were they doing back now?

The changeling shrieked ferociously underneath her. Reigning in her emotions, Lustrous Revolt decapitated it with a psionic blast. The shriek must have alerted its companions. If there was something she had learned as a child, it was that changelings never traveled alone.

She darted back over the bush, her travel companions at full alert, looking to her for an explanation.

“Run! Changeling ambush!”

She darted past them as they registered what she had said. The group took off at a gallop, Lustrous quickly triangulating their position.

“We'll make a break for the Abbey! They're our only hope at holding the changelings off, if it's anything larger than a scouting patrol.”

The others nodded in reply. They tore up the nearest hill to get their bearings and to see if they were being followed.

They huddled together, five pairs of eyes scanning furiously. “Over there!” exclaimed Spectral Slash. The others looked to where she was pointing. In the dim moonlight, they could see dozens– no, hundreds of dark shapes spilling out of the forest.

They began running again, with no need for a verbal cue. The odds were enough.

“Do you think we can out-pace them?” called Jackie over the moving air.

“Not forever. HOO!” Temperament huffed at the bitterly cold air. “It's a good thing I've been practicing running in my armor.”

“We only need to make it to the abbey.” Lustrous Revolt snapped.

“What of our quarry?”

“We'll find them after we've taken care of ourselves. The abbey is close enough to where they seemed to be headed.”

A dark, chilling laugh echoed out from behind them. Lustrous risked a glance backwards. Flying above the swarm was the queen of the swarm. “Chrysalis.” Lustrous Revolt looked away, not allowing anyone to see the fear in her eyes. “This is their main force, my companions. If we get caught, they'll likely just keep feasting on us every time we revive. Not exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of the winter.”

A few of the front-runners managed to catch up. They dove for the fleeing ponies, teeth bared, soulless eyes intent on their prey. Temperament shouted a battlecry, drawing her longsword telekinetically. Without slowing at all, she dispatched the first two changelings with ease, their corpses tumbling as they fell, dyeing the snow a putrid green. The last changeling managed to dodge the swinging blade, and attempted to latch onto the blacksmith. Temperament turned at the last moment, catching the changeling's teeth with her shoulder guard. The force was enough to put it out of commission, but she had lost valuable time. The main pack drawing ever nearer, she sheathed her sword once more, sprinting to catch up with the others.

“Oh, wonderful.” Shuddercry grumbled. “A hill. You mud ponies will have a bit of trouble clearing this, won't you? Sadly, the things chasing us have wings.”

Spectral Slash looked around, thinking quickly. She jumped into the air, and seemed to disappear.

“You better not be abandoning us... Betrayal.”

There wasn't an answer.

They ran up the side of the hill as quickly as possible, but it became clear that they had made a wrong turn. The changelings were getting too close. Lustrous came to a decision. “We'll fight them off here, using the hill as cover. If there's a break in the fighting, we'll run once again.”

Temperament drew her sword once again, as Jackie brought her tommy gun about face. She withdrew her extra barrel-clips, reading them for a quick reload. Shuddercry hefted her war-hammer, and Lustrous Revolt's horn flared up, illuminating the small, defiant group.

The charging changelings slowed as they neared the base of the hill, not sure how to proceed. They stood, fidgeting, before ten of the more brave individuals stepped forward. Shuddercry met them at the front of the formation. They leaped forward, and with a yell, Shuddercry swung the hammer. The two changelings were tossed aside with a sickening crunch. The moment the swing was finished, she brought it forward for another one. Three more of the changelings fell to the attack.

The remaining five tried to take advantage of the opening. Temperament had none of that. She stepped forward and slashed in a wide arc, severing several legs, and forcing the unwounded to back up or face her wrath. They hissed in anger. The rest of the changeling force swelled forward to aid their brethren. As the crowd advanced, Jackie stepped between the two melee fighters, blasting her tommy gun into the changeling ranks. Some of the changelings instinctively took to the air, dashing forwards in the hopes to take her down before more damage could be done. Each aerial challenger was struck down with cold, precise blasts from Lustrous Revolt.

The changelings began circling around the clustered group. Lustrous and Jackie found themselves turning nigh-constantly to intercept would-be flankers.

“Augh!” Shuddercry fell into the snow, sending a puff of powder into the air as she lifted her hammer to defend herself from the struggling changeling. Two more immediately leaped on her, seeing their opportunity. Shuddercry's glowing eyes flickered, as the strain was becoming too much. Her brow knitted up in consternation as she realized that if she did lose control of her levitation spell, her hammer would only add to the weight keeping her pinned.

“Uh, somebody help?”

Her voice made the others turn to look in surprise. Shuddercry had never asked for help in her life. She had always demanded it. Jackie ran over, barreling into the grappling insect-ponies, firing a few shots into each for good measure. She held out a hoof of support. Shuddercry, after a moment's hesitation, grasped it, pulling herself up. “Uh... thanks. I guess.”

Jackie tipped her hat, then quickly sidestepped as Shuddercry swung her hammer towards her. “Wha-”

CRACK

Jackie turned to see the explosion of goop that had almost managed to bite her neck.

“Now we're even.” Shuddercry turned away once again.

The fight became a blur. Every now and then a changeling would get through and draw blood, then get dispatched. But despite their efficiency, there were simply too many. Eventually they'd tire and succumb. Lustrous Revolt cursed herself once again. She was the one who had led them into this mess, and thus it was her fault. The many deaths ahead of her wouldn't be penance enough for making such a childish mistake. That's what she got for listening to her feelings.

Then, as if on command, the changelings stepped back. The ponies were still huddled together, on an island of clear snow in a sea of fallen bodies. They took advantage of the lull to recover, but their heavy breathing was cut short by what they saw. Chrysalis herself had stepped forward. “It's been a while. Did you miss me?”

“Chrysalis,” Lustrous spat, “what are you doing back here? I thought you had left these lands for good.”

“Not quite. Reality wasn't as defenseless as I thought, so I had to return here.”

“You made it into Reality?!” Lustrous Revolt was incredulous. “How'd you manage? You're just like any of us, bound by the rules of the reflections.”

“That's where you're mistaken. My changeling armies are the empty husks of a forgotten age. None of them have been split, nor did they need to. They're the result of contracts gone wrong, made before the Rift. They are neither light nor dark. I, on the other hoof, am a bit of a special case. By sacrificing my body for greater power, I took on their traits while maintaining my irresistible personality. I'm cursed to live a half-life, but it's served its purpose.”

“And what purpose is that?”

“Why, to make myself supreme ruler over all of existence, of course.”

“You haven't managed that just yet.”

“No, but I'm in the right position to take over when everything ends up going south for the weaklings currently in charge.”

“You're still a slave to the rules of the game, just like any of us. There's always somebody wiser, always somebody stronger.”

“Oh? Like who?”

“The Metaspectre, for example.”

Chrysalis hissed. “Don't you dare speak that name around me. He's a cheater and a scoundrel.”

“Oh, so you're in good company. I think you're just mad somebody outsmarted you. Don't know why you would be. It's a daily occurrence.”

“Why you impudent– minions! Attack! The first one to kill gets their choice of the blood!”

The crowd surged forward. The ponies readied their weapons, ready to go out in a blaze of glory. But just before the first changelings got in range, they halted suddenly. They turned and looked at Chrysalis, who was stammering and very flustered.

“H-hold! Don't attack yet!”

Lustrous Revolt strained her eyes. In the darkness, she could just make out a pony straddling Chrysalis' neck, blade at the ready.

“Now then, 'your highness', I think you'll be taking a little trip with me.” said Spectral Slash, stressing the point by tracing the blade up and down Chrysalis' exposed throat.

“O-oh? A-am I? Just where are we going?”

“The Abbey.”

Chrysalis tensed up. “I hate that place. So full of love and yet impossible to get a single sip.”

“Maybe if you hadn't attacked them the first time, they would have given it to you freely.”

“If I come with you, my changelings will follow. They cannot abandon their queen for long.”

“I think we're willing to deal with the consequences. Step towards my friends.”

“Friends? I didn't think you had it in you.”

“Shut up and walk.”

Chrysalis stepped forward carefully, her changelings parting as she walked through. She drew up to the other reflections, who eyed her coldly. Her eyes burned with hatred.

“Now, tell your mindless drones to stay as far back as they can.”

“Do as she says. But the moment they let down their guard, you're to attack.”

“Wow, really?”

“Don't expect me to be too compliant.”

“I guess we shouldn't have hoped for much more.”

The battle-weary ponies finally ascended the rest of the hill, hundreds of eyes following their every movement. They cleared the top and began running.

“Now, Chrysalis, you will be my ride all the way there.”

“You can't be serious. You'll cut me if I go any faster!”

“Trust me, I'm good with my knives. I don't want to lose my only bargaining chip.”

“Hmm. I suppose.” Chrysalis began trotting.

“Run.”

“If you think-”

She cried out in pain as she felt a knife enter her side. It was deep enough to hurt, but not enough to cripple. It felt hot, like touching a frying pan. Sadly, she didn't have the luxury of pulling her metaphorical hoof away.

“I said run.

Chrysalis muttered angrily, but complied, storing the pain as fuel for her hatred. When she got back at them, it wouldn't be pretty.”

After they had been running for five minutes or so over the open fields, they could see the changeling army begin to follow. Lustrous Revolt fell back until she was running side by side with Spectral Slash, or rather, Chrysalis.

“Good thinking back there. You really came through.”

“Just doing my job. No hard feelings Chrysalis?”

“I am going to literally kill you a thousand times.” Chrysalis huffed.

“Yeah, yeah.”

At the back of the Changeling army, two groups split off into different directions. As they ran, the green flames of their transformations lit up the snow for a just brief moment. If any of the reflections had been watching, they would have seen a patrol of griffons running back to report to their superiors, and another group of battle-hardened ponies storming off to the nearest town to warn the townsfolk of the army just outside their doorstep.

Chrysalis smiled coyly. “Did I tell you guys how much I dislike you yet?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Just making sure.”

Chapter 44: Declination

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Chapter 44: Declination

The Moon Pool glittered softly as the ball of crackling energy passed over it. The orb of energy was bigger than a pony, but with no notable feature to compare it to over the expanse of the water, it looked no bigger than one of the stars of the night sky. It drew itself to the center of the pool, where it hovered about a foot off of the surface. From the opposite side of the pool came another, identical orb. After traversing the waters, it merged with the first. The pool underneath bubbled with excitement.

From over the tree-line, the first rays of light from the morning sun skimmed the surface of the small lake. The waters receded begrudgingly, while the energy ball continued to spark, unchanged. It wasn't enough power. But that would soon change.

{- - -}

Far away, across the frozen landscape, through a mirror, over a misty void, and across yet another wintery, though certainly less hostile land, Princess Celestia was flitting about her chambers. She looked at a couple of papers on her desk, frowning at what they were telling her. She turned to her journal, whose recent pages were filled with a number of mathematical equations and diagrams. One line of text stood out from the jumbled mess of numbers. It was circled and underlined several times, and was surrounded by a halo of little question marks. 'Will it trap them there?'

That was just what she was trying to figure out. Many things had already happened differently than she might have expected. Some for better and some for worse. But this one she had to be sure of.

She stepped over to the window, watching the slowly rising sun. She had set it on its course for the day already, but that only emphasized her problem. She only had three days before the winter solstice, when the day would be its shortest and the night its longest. She had to decide before then. Would she continue the separation between the two worlds? Could she risk it?

Could she accept the consequences if her last resort failed?

{- - -}

Twilight led the charge. Her friends followed closely, eyes wide and ears straining for any hint of an ambush. The countryside was quiet enough, but experience had taught them to not always trust appearances. In this case, however, it seemed that their caution was unnecessary. They were unimpeded in their march towards The Abbey. After being left to their thoughts for the three hours of travel, they crested a hill and saw their destination.

The Abbey was a shining fortress, likely built of limestone. Unlike much of what they had seen in this world, it was well-kept and rather beautiful, actually. In the morning light, it gave a sense of hope and strength. Ponies and griffons alike could be seen patrolling the ramparts. They looked ready to fight, but not particularly violent. One of the guards spotted the small group and pointed it out to his fellow patrol members. They gathered at the wall, sizing up the threat they posed. A few went back to their patrols, ensuring that it wasn't just a distraction for a larger attack.

“Well, gang, let's go introduce ourselves, if we can.” They walked forward carefully, making no sudden movements. When they got about twenty feet away from the main door, Twilight sensed a magical barrier of some sort. She paused instinctively.

“What's your business?” called one of the griffon guards up top.

“We seek passage to...” Twilight took a moment to recall the name of Canterlot's reflection. “...Windark. It's still a good distance away, and we need a place to rest. We will be as unobtrusive as possible.”

“Well, that's not for me to decide. If you're willing to wait, I can get the master of The Abbey. She'll hear your plea. Where were you coming from, then?”

Twilight paused for a moment, wondering how much she should reveal. Something about this place made her calm, however, relieving her fears. The natural aura of peace, combined with the fact that this was the one place she had seen ponies and griffons working together made her decide to take a chance. “We were held captive in Moon Pool, but managed to escape. We've been running from our captors for some time now, and recently stopped in Stonehill, where we were attacked not once, but twice.”

The guard raised his brows. “Sounds like quite the adventure. Who's hunting you?”

“You wouldn't believe it if I said it.”

“I get that a lot. Go ahead, try me.”

“Well...” Twilight hesitated once more. “Our reflections. We come from a world that mirrors this one. The darkness here is alien to us, and corruptions of our core beings have made it their personal goal to make us as miserable as them.”

The guard laughed heartily. Twilight rolled her eyes. Of course he didn't believe her.

“Oh, that's perfect!” he called. “You'll be right at home then! Welcome to the land of the outcasts. We all know something's wrong with this world, that's why we banded together.”

“You... you believe me?”

“Of course! It's not the first time it's happened! Why, Static here came from Equestria four years ago after he got lost in a mirror maze. One of them had apparently been tuned to this plane. Little pockets appear between the worlds every now and then. Usually around the middle of winter and summer. Don't know why. Anyways, he ran into his reflection pretty quickly and managed to escape before it figured out just what he was. It chased him down, but by luck our leader found him before the reflection did. She brought him back here for safety.”

“Yup, and I've been loyal to The Abbey since.”

Twilight looked between the griffon and the grinning pony, happy to see true brotherhood once again. “Who's your leader?”

“Great girl. You'll meet her soon enough. Come on in, we'll open the doors for you.”

Twilight nodded, and began to walk forward once more. She was stopped in her tracks by the spell, which pushed her back gently. Not enough to hurt, but enough to let her know it didn't like her for whatever reason. “Uh, going to let the shield down?”

“It shouldn't stop you unless you're a changeling, or...”

The guard narrowed his eyes. “You said you were attacked twice at Stonehill. Neither of those attacks were by Changelings, were they?”

“Actually, yeah. We just managed to escape a patrol. That's actually why we made the detour in the first place.”

“Oh gods.”

Twilight looked up in confusion. The guard returned a look of horror and pity.

“I'm sorry. We can't let you in. You've been infected.”

“Infected? By what?”

“How many of you were hurt? Open wounds?”

Twilight looked around. All of them had some sort of scratch that had bled. She noted the guard was avoiding her question. “All of us.”

The guard looked to his pony friend, Static. All the joy of meeting new survivors had been lost. “Well, the Changelings have changed their tactics recently. They've mutated some sort of virus and they imbue it into their saliva. Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

“Give it to me straight.”

The guard nodded, impressed by Twilight's bravery.

“Good news is it's curable. Bad news? Only by death.”

Twilight stepped back in disbelief. “I... we have to die?”

“It's the only way to purge the disease from your bodies. It's a horrible thing to ask, but would you like us to kill you? After you revive, we'll give you rest and comfort. It's either this or you'll experience the full force of the disease.”

“How bad is it?”

“I can't really explain it in terms you'd understand. The ailments in Equestria are nothing compared to it. Cutie Pox? Laughable. I don't mean to frighten you, but it causes you to bleed from your eyes, which, of course, blinds you. Sores appear in your joints, you become fatigued... It's meant to slow you and make you easier to track. As far as we've gathered, it was magically created by the Changeling queen.”

“Chrysalis...”

“Ah, so you know her. It's terrible, too. She and her swarm disappeared for a while, and then we only had to deal with would-be raiders. But they've been about the countryside lately. It's terrible luck you ran into them.”

“How long until the disease takes hold?”

“Well, if you came from Stonehill, you've been traveling for at least three hours... honestly, I'm surprised it hasn't already.”

Twilight began to feel queasy, though she couldn't be sure it was because of the disease. “Maybe we're immune?” she proposed hopefully.

“The shield stopped you. Even if it doesn't harm you, you're still a carrier, and we can't risk that. I'm sorry.”

Twilight nodded. “I understand.” she turned to her friends. “I'm not willing to impose my will on you guys. Mercy killing or fight it out?”

Spike grabbed Twilight’s leg. “I’ll go with whatever you choose.” Twilight nodded her understanding. The ponies shuffled around. Surprisingly, it was Fluttershy who spoke first.

“I can't bring myself to ask another to kill, even if it is for my own good. I want to fight it out.”

Rainbow jumped on the opportunity. “She'll need moral support. I'm sticking with her.”

Rarity fidgeted, her lip quivering. “I... I don't want to go through this. But there's no other choice.” Applejack sided up next to her, placing a hoof of comfort around her neck.

“It's alright. We'll all be here for each other. And it's not like it's the end of us seein' each other.”

Pinkie was the last to speak. “Pinkamina... No, I personally recommend the mercy killing. In fact, I could perform it for you guys if you'd like. With my spatial powers, I could make your deaths swift. But either path we take, there will be pain.”

The others were quiet. Pinkamina nodded.

“There isn't weakness in being afraid of death. In fact, if you face this challenge, you will become stronger for it. Very well. I'll stand by you.” She smiled softly.

Twilight nodded as well, and then turned back to the guard pony. “We've decided to sit through the sickness.”

The guard nodded his understanding. Everybody's heads were bobbing, Twilight noted with grim humor. I suppose there wasn't much to say in a situation like this.

“This will sound harsh, but if you could go into the trees to die, it'll make things better for us. You know... not watching it, not being distracted by the noise, or anything. It's for your safety as well. If this place isn't defended when you're finished, not much point sitting through it, is there?”

“That's reasonable. We'll see you soon. Spike? I want you to go into the Abbey.”

“Huh? What do you mean? I’m going to stay with you guys!”

“You didn’t get hurt in the fight, Spike. Try walking through the barrier.” Spike, worry in his eyes, walked forward a couple feet, completely unimpeded. He turned around suddenly, and ran back to Twilight. “I don’t want to leave you alone.”

“I won’t be.” She pried him off gently. “I have my friends with me. And you’ll see us soon enough, don’t worry. I don’t want you to see this.”

“But-“

The look in Twilight’s eyes told him to back down. With reluctance, he walked to the fortress doors, where two guards ushered him inside.

“Good luck,” he called, before the doors shut.

The ponies retreated to the woods. It was a grim setting, and yet, they were in high spirits. Twilight mused quietly to herself. They were nearing the end of their journey. These were the last two Atrocities of the Forgotten Realm. Plague and Death. If they passed this last trial, they would be ready.

The group gathered in a circle in a small clearing. Rarity busied herself by making a small campfire to warm themselves at. Rainbow Dash showed off a new trick to Fluttershy that she had invented during their march over here, which involved running at a tree, then up it, doing a backflip and landing still facing the tree. She bragged about how it might be useful in a fight. Applejack was rambling about what her family must be doing back at the farm right now, noting that because it wasn't winter, they wouldn't have too many responsibilities. After everybody settled down, Pinkie gave a little performance with some puppets she retrieved from her saddlebag.

It didn't feel like a last hurrah. It felt like friends having a good time.

At one point Twilight shifted to sit more comfortable. She gasped in pain. Some of the sores had already sprung up, without her notice. She grinned, and said nothing more, holding back her fears. She didn't need to make it any worse for her friends.

Twilight heard something off in the distance. Ignoring how tired she suddenly felt, she excused herself from the festivities and walked to the edge of the forest, wincing at every step, which agitated the now omni-present irritants. Over the fields she saw six ponies crossing towards the Abbey. No... one of them wasn't quite a pony. She was tall, black, and angry looking. Chrysalis. Twilight squinted in concentration. Was... was she being ridden by Spectral Slash?

Sure enough, it looked like their reflections had caught up, and not only that, but had Chrysalis on a short leash. But their small party wasn't what had drawn her attention. The rumbling of a marching army had.

Twilight stumbled over herself as she turned around in a blind panic. If they were caught out here by the changelings, there'd be no point in going through this pain. Now she felt a bit foolish for not accepting the mercy killing, though the reasoning had been honorable. She tried to run back to warn the others, but the magically-fueled disease was taking its toll. She felt a stab of intense pain in her eyes. She looked to the ground in an attempt to stabilize herself, only to see drops of crimson fall, tainting the snow. It was the last she saw. Her vision went black, though it wasn't like she would have been able to focus much longer if her vision had remained. She considered the loss of one of her senses as a gift, as it allowed her to focus the rest of her willpower into navigating. Every step she took felt like the first knife slice she had experienced in this world. Her breath came in ragged, unsteady huffs.

She felt herself fading. She needed to focus. She fell to her knees, her saddlebag sliding off. She felt the Metaspectre's crystal calling to her. In desperation, she grasped at it. She felt the power at her hoof-tips, and willed it into her. Strength returned to her limbs, and her vision cleared just enough to let her see where she was going. The snow around her looked like a cherry snow-cone. She didn't have much time.

With a grunt, Twilight forced herself back to her legs. It took all of her strength to take another step. And then another. Somehow, she found herself with just enough strength to take that next step. She entered the clearing again, to a horrible sight. Her friends had collapsed, twitching in pain, each twitch growing weaker. The blood trails were thick and quick flowing.

“We need to go!” she called out. Her voice was raspy and barely carried, but she saw her friends' ears flick in response. They tried to rise, but their strength failed them. Twilight willed herself forward. With great effort, she pulled more power from the crystal, pouring it into each of her friends. They rose, staggering at first, but finally steadying and stepping forward.

Through the fogginess of her mind, Twilight realized that she hadn't explained why they needed to go, but her friends had trusted her so wholly they didn't need an explanation. She pushed them forward, and they burst out of the forest, her friends still blinded, each step an eternity, each breath a torture. They ran forward, and Twilight was vaguely aware of changelings running to intercept her. With a swell of will, she produced a force-field around the friends.

Even with the Metaspectre’s crystal helping her, she knew it was only a matter of time. She didn’t know how to fully access its power, and she was barely maintaining consciousness. She had lost so much blood now, she was quite certain that it was only the magic keeping her alive. She had been bitten a little bit earlier than her friends had. There was still time. They just might make it.

Twilight tripped over her own legs, barely recovering. She foggily looked around, seeing the changelings climbing the force field, trying to crush it with their weight. Through the writhing bodies, Twilight could see the fortress doors, only fifty or so feet away. If they could just make it to the barrier, then everything would be fine. The guards would rescue them. Wouldn’t they?

Twilight pushed forward once more, her friends moving mechanically, changelings being pushed aside as if she were a snowplow. Twilight’s eyes flickered. She was tired. So tired.

She heard a cry to her left. It sounded like it had come from herself. For all she knew, it could have. But no, there was Lustrous Revolt. What was she doing here?

Lustrous Revolt had been overtaken by changelings. If it was possible, Twilight thought she looked worse than Twilight herself did. Deep gashes covered her body, and several changelings were still physically imbedded in them. She stood over her fallen comrades, who looked even worse. Shuddercry was missing an arm. Jackie was still.

Lustrous Revolt saw Twilight, and swallowed deeply. She whispered a single word.

“Help.”

Twilight continued walking without a pause. Why should she? The reason her friends were about to die was because of this pony and her corrupt schemes. Then Twilight looked back once more.

No. She couldn’t leave anyone, not even Lustrous Revolt to such a terrible fate.

Twilight held the crystal in front of her. She knew what she wanted to do. Perhaps the crystal would oblige. “Na’ahm, se’thulum, pora’dis.”

The scene froze.

Twilight dropped her shield, and the crystal, which was maintaining the time-lock. She didn’t even take a moment to admire her handiwork. She staggered towards Lustrous Revolt, gave her a solemn look, then began pulling the reflections upright. With a herculean effort, the pain so intense she honestly couldn’t even feel it any more, she wriggled her way under them all, and stood once more. With four ponies on her back, she turned towards her one hope once more.

“If I die, save my friends.”

Lustrous Revolt, after a pause, nodded her understanding.

The two of them plodded forward, their blood mingling in the snow, a marker for the blinded and fading ponies behind them.

Time resumed.

Behind them, the changelings crashed into each other, wondering where their prey had disappeared to. It took them only moments to realize just where.

Twilight channeled all the sensations plaguing her body in preparation for the coming attack. They were her last source of energy. Ten feet. That was all they needed. She formed a shield around her friends.

Five.

The first Changeling landed on her. She cried out in animalistic terror and anger, blasting it to ashes. Another met the same fate. She spun around, walking backwards to get a better shot. It didn’t matter. She felt the accursed crimson liquid spilling out of her eyes once again.

She let a couple more shots fly blindly. Two feet. One.

The field began to press against her.

Zero.

She had made it.

She toppled over, the ponies on her back sliding off unceremoniously. Her breathing faded, and she became less aware of the world around her. She heard yelling and felt herself being lifted up, but by whom and what their intent was, she could not know. Now, it was time to sleep.

Sleep sounded good.

Death wasn’t cruel. It wasn’t an Atrocity. It was like a mother’s embrace.

Chapter 45: The Mirror Cracks

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Chapter 45: The Mirror Cracks

Twilight's eyes flew open. She righted herself immediately, trying to get her bearings. She seemed to be in an endless void, filled with gray mist. She had been here before. It was the Natural Plane, home to the oracle Bright Eyes. But what was she doing here?

With a start, she remembered what had happened just before she got here. She looked over herself in panic. To her relief and confusion, she was perfectly whole. Not even a droplet of blood remained to testify of her struggle. She stood for a moment, then began walking in an arbitrary direction. There wasn't much else to do.

As she walked, her thoughts turned to her friends. Where were they? Had her sacrifice meant anything? Or were they now captured by the changelings? Twilight shuddered at the thought of dying over and over again. Dying was like throwing up, she decided. The actual event was a relief, but the leading moments weren't particularly fun. If she could, she'd like to avoid experiencing it again for as long as possible.

A shape appeared in the distance. As she neared, Twilight realized it was Bright Eyes herself.

“Bright Eyes! It's only been a couple of weeks, but it feels like a year.”

“The true passage of time often goes unnoticed wen you're distracted by your work. Good to see you in person again, Twilight Sparkle.”

“If you don't mind me asking, why am I back here all of a sudden?”

“Because you've died. This is the afterlife.”

Twilight looked around slowly, taking in the featureless expanse. “Really? All this nothing?”

“It appears like nothing to the mortal eyes, but tucked away between the very gaps of reality lie endless worlds. This plane is the beginning and end of all existence. All of time, every event and life is somewhere here, if you know how to look. You do not know how to see because you've experienced a false death. Until the worlds are merged, all are doomed to this fate of, as you call it, nothing.”

Twilight frowned. “But then... how many are trapped here?”

“Millions. It's not as bad as it could be, however. The light personalities have been granted unnaturally long lives due to their living conditions, and of course, until the light personality dies, the dark personality has pseudo-immortality. Reproduction rates were slowed as one world focused on experiencing life slowly and calmly and the other had no choice but to experience it a hurried, yet just as lengthy manner. Regardless, the natural course must be restored, as terrible as it sounds.”

“It does sound pretty bad. If we merge the worlds, everybody will feel pain.”

“But how much greater the joy, because of it.”

“Pardon?”

“Twilight, have you ever felt closer to your friends than in your time here?”

Twilight chewed on the thought for a moment. “No. I haven't.”

“Your shared trials have made you far stronger than you could have ever hoped to be before, haven't they?”

“Yes, they have.”

“Why deny the opportunity to others? Without pain, your joy is muted, if not silenced entirely, because you have nothing to compare it to. Furthermore, you have no reason to strengthen yourself, because nothing is challenging you.”

“Well, if you're right, why did Celestia split the worlds?”

“Perhaps she didn't have the perspective at the time.” Bright Eyes smiled softly. “Don't get me wrong. The natural, unadulterated course of life is challenging, and at times, oppressive. She was justified in her mind. She was saving them all from the pain she was feeling. But after a certain point, you have to stop acting in other's interest, and let the act for themselves.”

She turned and beckoned with a crane of her neck. “Come, walk with me.”

Twilight complied, running the short distance to catch up quickly. “What of the dark personalities? The signs point to the fact that we'll have to merge with them.”

“Take faith, Twilight. You are not exactly splicing yourself with a different person. Lustrous Revolt is, at the core, a kind-hearted bookish unicorn with a lust for discovery. She's simply lived a life that forced her to be cruel for her own survival. Do not think of it as sharing your brain with another person. Think of it as taking on new memories, for that's essentially all that it is. We base our actions on our past, and our hope for the future. Lustrous Revolt is not inherently evil; had you been switched at birth, she likely would have grown up much as you have; wanting nothing more than to please her parents, her teacher, and her friends. If you can reconcile with her, you will have found an ally of unparalleled support. For there is no better friend than yourself.”

Out of the mist rose a familiar object. It was the mirror that had allowed Twilight and her friends to arrive in the Forgotten Realm in the first place. Something about it had changed, however.

“Tell me, Twilight. What's different about this mirror?”

“It's been cracked.” Twilight's brow knit up in consternation. The mirror looked like it had been dropped from the top of a building, yet somehow remained in its frame. She was afraid that if she touched it, it would fall apart instantly.

“Yes, indeed. Your actions in the Forgotten Realm are taking their toll on the separation between the worlds. Intentionally or not, you've already begun to merge them with your actions of compassion and understanding. At this point, you are correct. A simple push is all it would take for the pieces to come tumbling down.”

“So why show me this?”

“Simply to make you aware. You have a choice to make, Twilight. Will you allow the mirror to shatter, pick up the pieces, and make something even more beautiful, or will you repair the cracks, though it could never be as whole as it once was?”

“Which would you choose?”

“Come now, that's cheating, asking a prophet their opinion.”

“No, really.”

Bright Eyes seemed taken back. “Well... I honestly am not sure. I see how the events will turn out no matter what path is taken. That makes making choices easy. Were I in your place, I would be afraid of the future of a world of light and dark. I don't know if I would have the willpower to take that leap of faith. The brutal truth is that merging the worlds will corrupt Equestria. But simultaneously, it will uplift a world of equal weight and merit, and furthermore, unlock so many wonderful opportunities. Technologies will advance, factions will rise and fall, but most importantly, the race will progress. Some will fall by the wayside. That is the simple truth in a world that is not black and white, but many shades of gray. But so many more will live a fulfilled life, and they'll be able to pass on a legacy to their children, one that makes life worth living.”

Bright Eyes began shedding her aura of neutrality, her voice rising with excitement, her wings fluttering, her intelligent, golden eyes gleaming joyfully. “Twilight, it's the biggest opportunity I've ever seen. So many future paths lead to such wonderful things. There will be villains, yes, but so many more heroes! Anger and hatred, yes, but so much compassion and bliss! Death, yes! But life! A reason to live!

“Twilight, it's your choice, and I've already said more than I'm supposed to. But understand that good things will come from your actions. No matter how cruel the world becomes, or how pointless your efforts may appear, remember that you have changed lives. And that is never worthless.”

Bright Eyes cleared her throat. “As much as I like to pretend, Twilight, I am not the master of this dimension. I am simply a servant. As you have been killed, you must wait for the midnight rebirth. You are welcome to do as you like until then. I cannot grant you time-sight, but if you'd like to observe current events, you may do so by concentrating on the place or the person. You be will be allowed to see what you desire, but you cannot interact, and if you do not know the place or the person, you will not be able to lock on. Now, I apologize, but I fear I must leave. If nothing else, my continued presence will influence you in ways that will the decision not yours, but the foolish hopes of my heart.”

“Thank you, Bright Eyes.”

“Of course. Good luck, my friend.”

She began away into the mist. Twilight had a sudden thought, and called out before she disappeared.

“Bright Eyes!”

“Hm?”

“What will become of you if the worlds merge?”

Bright Eyes froze. She turned to Twilight slowly, carefully, trying to remain composed, but Twilight could see the fear in her eyes, and the slight tremble in her legs.

“O-oh. Don't worry about that. I... don't worry about me. I'll be fine.”

She ducked and nodded quickly, then turned and ran off. Twilight ran to stop her, but she had already been lost to the void. Twilight looked to where the oracle had been standing. There was a small puddle of water. Tears.

{- - -}

Many hours later, Twilight had exhausted her ideas for the viewport. She had checked up on all her friends, who had died as well, it seemed. Each of them was in the same misty expanse, and when Twilight had spied on Rarity, she saw her talking to Bright Eyes as well. Spike was alive and well, it seemed, but for the ten minutes she watched him, he was pacing in a bedroom of some sort. She couldn't change the angle as she didn't know the place, but it comforted her that he was alright. She had then looked at each of the reflections, who had died as well. They seemed much less fascinated by the process than Twilight was. Most looked bored or annoyed, and a couple were simply sleeping.

Pinkie was a special case. When Twilight had scryed her, she was shocked to see that it wasn't just Pinkie or Pinkamina, but both. There they were, two separate entities, chatting quietly about something. They were harder to distinguish than they had been before, Twilight realized. Pinkamina's dark coat had grown lighter, and Pinkie's, darker. Their manes had likewise creeped towards the middle-ground between curled and bouncy and straight and heavy. So too had their countenances shifted. Pinkamina actually smiled and laughed occasionally, and Pinkie could sit and listen for minutes on end without feeling the need to interrupt. They were like well synchronized twins.

Twilight smiled at thought of how twins must work in the Forgotten Realm. A reflection for each of them, of course. Two pairs of closely-bonded ponies.

Twilight had an epiphany. She could use the viewport tactically. She could technically do the same in the normal world with a scrying spell, but she had been so distracted by other things, she had never had the chance.

She focused on Luna, remembering everything she could recall about her. The viewport morphed to reflect her thoughts. Once again, the viewport was locked on the subject, as she didn't know the place where she was, but Twilight sighed in relief. Luna was okay, so the Metaspectre had been keeping his promise. It was odd, though. Luna was wearing some kind of battle armor. It was more practical for combat than Nightmare Moon's minimalistic armor had been, but that only made Twilight more confused. Was Luna getting ready to fight somebody?

Luna was talking, but Twilight couldn't see who she was talking to. Twilight quickly became bored, so she focused on the Metaspectre next. The ambiguous background didn't change much, so he must have been near Luna. Twilight couldn't tell if it was speaking, though, since its mouth didn't move.

So far, it seemed like the subjects of her spying didn't know they were being spied on. The Metaspectre, however, turned to look directly at Twilight, staring into her eyes despite the physical disconnect. She got lost in the flickering flames of his eyes for a moment, before she realized how uncomfortable she felt. She cleared the viewport to avoid his gaze.

She turned her attention to Gilda. Gilda was flying somewhere, and Twilight caught glimpses of other griffons in the air. Not too much going on.

Out of boredom, she checked up on the bartender that had introduced them to Spectral Slash, what seemed so long ago.

He was out in a snow-covered field somewhere, talking with other ponies. Most of them were armed, and it looked like the group was listening to a few fully-armored ponies. Some sort of military excursion, she surmised.

Ah, Seren. Twilight focused on the Moon Pool. The lake was as large and dark as it had always been. But something had changed. There were four hovering energy balls twinkling above the surface, in the approximate middle of the lake.

Twilight's eyes widened in wonder and horror. She remembered what he had said so long ago, when she had been pulled into his domain.

”As Revolt was able to surmise, I released the four stars that you saw in Reality. In doing so, I lost almost all of my power, but it was a sacrifice that I was willing to make. It had some unforeseen consequences, however. The four energies were tied to the four strongest Atrocities, and my abandonment of them threw them abroad. Four ideas that you're beginning to understand. Famine. War. Plague. Death. Bringing them back to me would be beneficial for all, as a matter of fact. By restraining them once more, you'll end up saving this realm from its troubles. But to have any control over them, you'll have to experience them for yourselves.”

Twilight grimaced. It seemed they had inadvertently restored Seren's power. Thankfully, he wasn't, or likely couldn't, use it just yet, but by the size of energy orbs, quite a lot of power was contained in them. Likely a good deal more than the Metaspectre's crystal. She could only hope he wasn't planning to do anything evil with them, but Twilight knew it was an empty hope. How would Celestia react to this?

Twilight blinked. She hadn't thought to look at Celestia. How foolish of her.

She focused once more, and the viewport changed to Celestia's bed chambers. Twilight had only been here once or twice during her studies under the sun goddess. There were other places to study, and if they needed something from it, a servant was only a call away.

Thankfully, seeing it only once or twice was enough to give the viewport mobility. Celestia was bent over some papers, writing furiously with a quill. Her normally awe-inspiring mane was tangled and frayed, and while it maintained its flowing quality, it seemed Celestia had been neglecting appearances for something more important. Twilight moved the viewport until it was hanging over Celestia's shoulder, so she could see the papers.

Twilight skimmed over the papers, only to sit back for a moment and then return with scrutinizing care. The papers depicted some sort of magic Twilight had only seen rudimentary versions of before. A mind-wipe spell. The effects were only temporary, length based on the energy poured into the spell. Twilight had used one herself on the parasprites, which had, of course, led to disaster. But the spell Celestia was working on was on a far grander scale, and if she was interpreting it correctly, it was meant for ponies. One word in particular caught her eye. Considering it was underlined, Twilight couldn't really miss it.

Solstice.

Celestia suddenly stopped writing. Her ears flickered as if she were listening for something. She hurriedly turned the papers over, and looked about the room. Her eyes lingered on Twilight's position for a moment, then passed on. Celestia mumbled something, and Twilight could guess the meaning well enough.

“Just to be safe.”

Celestia's horn flared up with a golden aura, and Twilight groaned. An anti-magic field. Celestia was about to cut off her video-feed.

Sure enough, moments later, the viewport blanked once again, leaving Twilight with her thoughts. Solstice. That was in three- no, wait. She had been dead for the entire day. Two days. It was also the Metaspectre's deadline.

What was Celestia planning?

With a start, Twilight felt herself being pulled away. It was a mental tug, not a physical one, but it was strong enough that it scared her. She tried to resist it, but it only made the tug stronger. She felt herself black out.

She woke up almost immediately, eyes still foggy. She was in a hospital room of some sort, in a comfortable, though sterile, bed.

“Ah, you're awake,” an extremely familiar voice called. “My name is Flare.” Twilight looked over at the pony who was speaking. She was a beautiful white unicorn with soft pink hair. “I am the master of the Abbey. It's a pleasure to meet you.”

Twilight roused herself awake. Lying in the beds next to her were her friends, who seemed to be just waking up. Twilight tried to get a better view of the friendly visitor.

Flare, seeing Twilight's scrutiny, turned so Twilight could see her cutie mark. “They're broken shackles. Without trying to sound trite or self-centered, it's because of my merciful nature.”

Twilight's eyes grew wide with recognition. She knew where she had heard the voice before. It belonged to none other than Celestia herself.

“Is something wrong?” Flare asked, tilting her head in concern.

It was something Celestia had asked many times. Twilight was certain. She didn't know how it was possible, or what it could mean, but she was looking at some sort of alternate version of Celestia.

She looked to her friends. They were just as wide-eyed as she was.

Chapter 46: Relief

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Chapter 46: Relief

Twilight's mind began working overtime. Flare had called herself merciful. The Study of Alicorns had mentioned that Celestia was the Alicorn of Mercy. Pinkamina had as well, during her interrogation.

Any of the history books that had a picture of Celestia depicted her with the same pink hair. How had Twilight not thought of it before? Celestia and Luna must have ascended at some point. And, with their knack for magic, it made sense that they would have started out as unicorns. So who was this pony, who made Twilight so sure she was looking at a refracted form of her teacher? Was she an alternate path Celestia, like Lustrous Revolt was to Twilight? Or was this another, different oddity of the Forgotten Realm?

Flare looked between the bewildered resurrected ponies. “I beg your pardon, have I offended you in some manner?”

“No, it's just that... You look like somebody we know. Somebody dear to us.”

“Well, there are certainly worse people to be compared to.” She smiled, her eyes closed in sincerity. “I'm sorry that your awakening wasn't more gradual.”

“Pardon me, miss,” Applejack began. “What exactly happened? We all blanked out at the edge of the field.”

“Ah, yes. One of the guards came and told me of your predicament. I realized their foolishness in sending you away, and was preparing a patrol to go rescue you. When the changelings attacked, those plans were called off, for obvious reasons. Had you not made it to the edge of the field, I'm afraid I might not have been able to rescue you. That was quite the impressive feat, miss...?”

“Twilight Sparkle.”

“A beautiful name. You really care about your friends, don't you?”

Twilight smiled. “I wouldn't be here without them. Speaking of which, where's Spike? The little dragon we sent in ahead of us?”

“He's off helping prepare a meal for us later. He wanted to do what he could to help you while you were out, and I managed to convince him that would be the best way to do so. I'm certain he'll be upset that he wasn't here when you woke up, and I apologize for that.”

“No, it's alright. He's a tough guy, but sometimes he needs a break from all of this doom-and-gloom speech. Excuse me, I just had a thought. If you brought us into your fortress, didn't you break quarantine?”

“Yes, but could I abandon somebody in need? I was willing to take the risk, and my followers realize they should have as well. A bit of unpleasantness on our part is worth preventing somebody else's greater pain. I do think proper precautions were taken, and with any luck, nobody will contract the changeling's virus.”

Rainbow threw off the covers, not really feeling like lying about. She sat up, stretching her neck. “So where's the changeling army now?”

“Outside our gates, trying to siege us. But as our spell is specifically made to keep them out, they're having a hard time making progress.”

Rarity, after checking her hair was reasonably tidy, asked what was on everyone’s mind. “Are we safe here?”

“As long as you are within the walls, I promise no harm will come to you.”

The door opened, and in stepped an elegant and poised zebra. Her mane was longer than most ponies’, draping around her neck softly, the blacks and whites blending to create the whole spectrum of monochrome. She nodded greetings to the six ponies before stepping to a table, where she deposited the contents of her pack. There were herbal ingredients, some Twilight had never seen before, a book, and a small grindstone.

“Good to see you, Salie.”

“Indeed, a good day to you, miss Flare. I trust the visitors have been well under your care?”

“Quite well, but I’ve done all I can do. I’ll leave the rest to you.”

She stopped speaking suddenly. “I beg your forgiveness. I haven’t even asked what your course of action is, being so caught up in my own concerns.”

“We have an appointment in Windark that we have to keep.”

“Windark? It’s been largely abandoned for about a year and a half now. How soon do you need to get there?”

“As soon as possible, within two days at the very latest.”

“Oh dear, this is grave news. We could almost certainly outlast the changelings, but you don’t have time, it seems. With an army surrounding us, it will be a challenge to get you out safely. Although, Salie, I believe you have the answer to solution?”

The zebra, Salie, quickly mixed a few ingredients and mashed them into a pulp. She placed the resulting mush into a small ceramic box, handing it over to Twilight. “The changeling’s curse has no easy cure, but foresight can make your good health sure. Should you wish to leave this place, rub the poultice I have made onto your face. The smell, while foul, disguises your team. The average soldier will not know you, but watch out for their queen.”

She retrieved another concoction she had apparently made before entering the room. “This is in case your disguise becomes unmasked. Should you get attacked, apply it fast. It will repel them and you will get past.”

Twilight took the offered medicines. “Thank you very much. You remind me of a good friend of mine. She’s another zebra who’s good with herbal medicines.”

“Ah, you speak of Zecora, my reflection. Of my other half, I could ask no greater perfection.”

Twilight raised a brow. “You’re a dark reflection and you’re reconciled with your light reflection?”

“Both of us knew something was amiss. When we found each other, it filled the abyss.”

“You’ll find Salie is not alone in this. A good number of our members are actually dark reflections who have found the light.”

Twilight jumped on the chance to learn more about this benevolent pony, Flare. “So, what are you then? Another dark reflection?”

“Well, it’s funny you should ask that question. It’s one I’ve been wondering all of my life. I feel everything the others in this world do, all the pain and anger and despair. But those are not my default emotions. I care less for myself and more for others, so instead I feel sorrow, pity, and hope. I do not think I am like most ponies here, no. I seem to be a sort of mix between dark and light.”

“So, you don’t know? You don't have a light reflection?” Twilight was disappointed.

“No, I think I might, but I can’t imagine for the life of me why I would be a special case. The more determined of this world can find leaks into Reality that usually only allow a peek at what we’re missing. Rather than wallow in self-pity, I became determined that I would lead all the poor souls here into a better world. But one day as I was viewing Equestria, I suddenly lost control over the viewport. I hadn’t done anything wrong; it simply wanted to go in a different direction. It finally came to rest on a royal blue pony. The moment I saw her, I knew she would be important in my life, though I couldn’t tell you why. What intrigued me the most was that she seemed discontent despite living in the land of beauty.”

Twilight gulped. If this was going where she thought it was… “What was her name?”

“She was reclusive, so it took me a while to find out. The pony was named Eclipse. Her merit mark was— pardon me; her cutie mark was a set of measuring scales.”

Twilight took a deep breath, wondering what it all could mean. “Interesting. Is she aware of your existence?”

“Last I knew, no, she didn't. Though I haven't had time to check up on her in quite some time.”

Flare turned to the door, indicating that the friends should follow. They jumped out of their beds, finding their saddlebags at the end of them, and followed Flare out of the door. Salie nodded to each of them as they left.

Flare spoke as she walked through the long, tannish-stone hallways, brightly lit by many torches. “I’ve often wondered if I was not meant for your world. I feel like I would empathize with the residents there so much better than the single-minded ponies here who, in general, are the vocal majority. I have found temporary solace in taking care of the others that are hopeful for the future, but talking to you has only reignited my longing. Perhaps Eclipse and I were a mistake in the system. Mercy trapped in the Forgotten Realm and Justice in Equestria, where neither belongs.”

They ascended a short flight of stairs, and found themselves on the ramparts. Peering over, they saw the changeling masses milling about aimlessly over the fields, with Chrysalis near the back. The changeling queen caught Twilight’s eye, and despite the distance, Twilight wanted to melt under the sheer annoyance focused in her glare.

“Oh,” Twilight exclaimed. “What happened to the other ponies I brought to your doors? Our reflections?”

“We gave them their own room and a servant should they need anything. While you are obviously new to the concepts of this world, they’re so used to them they’re desensitized, I’m afraid. I thought you might need support in your first moments returning to life.”

“Well, thank you, I sincerely mean it.”

“It’s no trouble at all.”

They sat viewing the scene quietly for a while. It was an odd mix of high tensions and complete calm. Every now and then a changeling would approach the nigh-invisible barrier, only to back up in either fear or disgust, Twilight couldn’t decide. One particularly brave one made it five feet into the barrier before he was shot back like a rubber band.

“Why don’t they just turn away, if they know that you can outlast them?”

“You have a fair point. On most days they would, but they seem particularly determined. The only logical conclusions are that they are particularly interested in you, your friends, or your reflections, for some reason.”

Twilight turned to Flare, staring her down seriously. “Why not turn us over to them, then? It'd save you a lot of trouble.”

“Twilight!” exclaimed Applejack. “Really? Why would you even suggest such a thing?”

Flare held up a hoof in peace. “No, no, she's got a valid point. But once again, I cannot stand to see another suffer if I could have prevented it.”

“What of the changelings? Won't they suffer if they can't feed on somebody?” Her friends were staring at her incredulously, but Twilight had to be sure of Flare's intentions.

“They will, and I will admit even their suffering pains me, but their happiness comes at the price of the happiness of others. It is not a fair trade, and furthermore, they have chosen to support their lives through fear-mongering and deception, rather than making any effort to work for the better good.”

Twilight continued searching Flare's eyes for any hint of deception, but she was telling the truth. Twilight pulled back slowly. “Alright, I trust you. I just find it hard to believe that somebody so kindhearted could live in this world.”

“It's difficult, let there be no mistake. But I make do with what I have been given.” She turned, looking over the fields for a few moments longer. “You know, Chrysalis was once a normal pony like you, or me. She was always a bit cruel, of course, but it was in self-defense. She grew up in hard circumstances, like most in this world. A long time ago, however, she struck a deal with the Savior.”

Twilight had been nodding her head, having already know much of this information, but the last part caught her off-guard. “The Savior?”

“A creature of smoke and white flame, incomparable trickery and charisma, but simultaneously, he's fair.”

“You mean, the Metaspectre?”

“Some call him that. Most think he's a myth, but his influence in this world are undeniable.”

“The Savior, though? Where I'm from, he's called the Devil.”

“Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. To a world of darkness, a creature of neither light nor dark is by comparison, light. For he acts not to harm others, but for his own purposes, and prudent silence is a virtue here.”

“What was the exact nature of Chrysalis' agreement?”

“Well, she essentially asked for nothing more than the power to stand up to those that opposed her. The price was, well, she had to sacrifice her chance at the afterlife. She lost her humanity.”

“Is that why she acts so vile?”

“That's part of it. Even before the deal was made, she was a particularly nasty dark reflection. Do you know where Alicorns come from?”

“Yeah, the person has to be so focused on an idea that they become the avatar of the concept.”

“Ah, so you've read A study of Alicorns too? Well, yes, you're right. When she ascended, she became consumed with the idea of bettering herself. She became the avatar of selfishness. A corrupted Alicorn, which, judging by the minions granted to her by the Savior, was a fairly common occurrence.”

“Wait, hold on. I've been lead to believe that you can't ascend unless you are a merged personality.”

“You're right, actually. But you can split after you've merged. You still have the memories of your other half, which are no easier to ignore than your own. At least, that's what I've heard. Chrysalis is technically a neutral personality.”

“What of her light reflection? What happened to her?”

“She's somewhere in the light realm. I believe her name was Cadence.”

Twilight drew back in disbelief. “Haha, what? You're joking, right?”

“No, why would I be?”

“I... she's my old babysitter.”

Flare looked impressed. “Well, that is an odd coincidence. How is she?”

“Well, she's an Alicorn too... though she doesn't seem at all selfish. She's selfless, actually.”

“I suppose I should clarify. It seems, since their ascension happened so shortly after merging, they were still technically separate beings that happened to be sharing the same body. Had they waited some time, the ascension would have unified them, but in this case, it pushed them further apart. Chrysalis became Selfishness, and Cadence became Selflessness, or alternatively, Love. How I wish I could meet her. Cadence, that is. I think she'd have some idea on how to run this place for the better.”

“Gee, Twilight, it seems like you just can't escape your past.” Pinkie nudged her with an elbow. “Your brother's pretty lucky, marrying the Alicorn of Love. And with you destined to ascend, it's only a matter of time before the set's complete, and your brother has a pair his own.”

“A pair of?”

“Wings, of course.”

Flare stepped forward excitedly. “Wait, you're planning on ascending?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Not necessarily planning on it, but I've been told by an ancient race of monsters that I'm destined to be their mother, or something. That, and the Metaspectre has taken an interest in me.”

Flare nodded, mulling it over. “Well, those the Metaspectre pays attention to are usually key players in world-changing events. If you were to ascend, what concept would you represent?”

Twilight shrugged. “I don't know. That's part of the reason why the idea seems a bit silly to me. I mean, friendship, maybe, but that inherently requires more than just an individual. Perhaps magic, but I still have a lot to learn, and I'm nothing compared to the princesses. I'm not sure. But, backpedaling here for a moment, why didn't Cadence ever mention this world, if she came here to ascend? I assume she did, anyways, because the Metaspectre certainly hadn't been around for a while.”

“You're aware of the memory field around Reality. Cadence remembers nothing for the same reasons you had never seen blood, nor experienced pain. She ascended and then returned to your world, none the wiser. Chrysalis was gone for a while, and I can only assume she was jealous of Cadence's happiness, and tried to secure it for herself.”

“Well, she tried to marry my brother.”

“Hah, she stooped that low? I'm sorry for laughing at your troubles.”

Twilight rested her chin on the ramparts. “No, it's fine. It is pretty funny in retrospect. She was getting jealous of her own happiness in a way, wasn't she? So, how did Chrysalis get back to this world?”

“She probably found some reflective surface when the barriers were weak. It'd be easier for her than most, certainly, as a neutral personality isn't bound by the same rules as the typical light and dark reflections. I suppose she wasn't wholly neutral, which would explain why she doesn't phase in and out of Reality quite as easily. She grew up dark, was touched by the light, and then split. So she's likely a fourth light, three fourths dark.”

Pinkie nodded. “That would make sense. I mean, I can just phase between the worlds whenever I please, so if Chrysalis is having troubles, she's not in my situation.”

“Oh, you're a merged personality?”

“Yup.”

“It'd explain why there was only one of you, then. I took a guess as to which room you would want to wake up in. You were with this group, so I'm glad I got it right.”

The talking died down, each of them happy to breathe fresh air with no ever-hanging threat of danger over their heads. After about ten minutes, however, Twilight began to feel the creeping deadline prick at her conscience. “Well, what's our course of action?”

“Salie gave you those poultices, should you wish to try to sneak your way out of here. We make no pretenses of keeping you from leaving, though it will be at your own risk.”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but one of the guards called out, interrupting her. “Someone's approaching the castle!”

Flare's countenance changed, making her seem like any of the other war-hardened denizens of the Forgotten Realm. “Another changeling?”

“As far as we can tell, no!”

The group rushed over to the side. Still a good two hundred feet away from the barrier strode a confident yet solemn figure. The changelings parted back in fear. She was just a simple unicorn, but something about her emanated power and force.

“Is that... Eclipse?”

Chrysalis saw the movement in her minions and stepped to intercept Eclipse. Twilight cast a quick amplifying spell so they could hear what she said. “You there! Who are you? What are you doing?”

Eclipse ignored her and continued walking.

Chrysalis growled. “Don't you know who's speaking? Answer me, or I'll get my changelings to strike!”

The changelings nearest to Chrysalis shook their heads vigorously.

Chrysalis hissed, and placed herself directly in Eclipse's path. Finally, Eclipse stopped.

“Well?” asked Chrysalis.

Eclipse looked down at her hooves, spying something on the ground. She levitated the small, dark shard. “My name is Eclipse, and I'm taking what's mine.”

“Excuse me?”

Eclipse looked up with fury. Despite the size difference, it was quite obvious which of the two was currently more dangerous. “You heard me fully well. Step aside or be punished for the obstruction of Justice.”

Chrysalis laughed, missing the dangerous look in Eclipse's eyes. “You're brave, I'll give you that. But I don't think you know who you're dealing with.”

“No, you're the one who's unawares.” The shard glowed brightly, the light condensing into a single beam of pure energy. The light, no thicker than a pin, ran straight through Chrysalis' body. With a look of shock, she fell to her knees, then exploded into a cloud of gore, dying the surrounding snow and air crimson. The light continued until it hit the anti-changeling barrier, which became visible upon contact. A pony-sized hole appeared, but none of the changelings dared move.

Eclipse began walking forward once again at the leisurely but determined pace.

The guards looked at each other in disbelief.

“Miss Flare, what do we do?”

“Let her come. I've been meaning to meet her.” She turned to Twilight, with a sly smile. “Apparently I was wrong about her being naïve about this world.”

Chapter 47: Challenge

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Chapter 47: Challenge

“I request entrance into this place of refuge!” called Eclipse up to the awestruck guards.

“For heaven’s sake, give it to her! Open the doors!”

The Abbey’s gates opened quickly, the heavy doors creaking on their hinges. She strode into the fortress, stopping in the foyer. Flare nodded to the others, indicating to follow. They ran down the stairs, which lead straight to where Eclipse was waiting. When she saw the group, she gave a controlled, deep bow.

“I apologize for intruding such as I have, though I expect myself to be of importance and assistance in upcoming events.”

Flare shook her head. “Not at all, thank you for handling that little threat outside of our gates, though I wish she would have left on her own accord.”

“She stood in my way. My goal is just, and I shall not be stopped. You are Flare, then?”

“Indeed. And you are Eclipse?”

“You are correct.” The two of them stood for a moment, each regarding the other. Eclipse spoke first. “You are not like the other ponies I’ve met in this land. Your heart has the warmth of Equestria.”

“And yours, the cold necessity of the Forgotten Realm.”

“What then, are we a mistake, an error? Or are we the intention product of some greater being? Either way, it was fortuitous. My sense of direction tempered by my hope for a better world, and your wholly accepting outlook strengthened by the reality of how people inherently are will make our goals more compatible.”

Eclipse noticed Twilight, nodding acknowledgment. “If I am reading the lingering magic correctly, you lost this?” She held out the black crystal from the Metaspectre’s altar.

“I dropped that when I was fighting my way through that army outside the doors! Thanks for returning it.”

“I never said it was yours.”

Twilight opened her mouth to reply, and then shut it in confusion. “What do you mean? You’re taking it for yourself?”

“Not that either. This belongs to the creature that entered Reality just under two weeks ago. I sense that you didn’t ask permission.”

“Well, I couldn’t, really. He wasn’t exactly talkative.”

“I’m sure your intentions were pure, but now that it’s served its purpose, should you not return it?”

Twilight sighed. “I suppose so. He didn’t mention it when I’ve seen him since I took it, though.”

“Salutary neglect doesn’t justify your actions. Perhaps he’s testing your merit?” She threw the crystal over to Twilight, who caught it in her magic’s net, looking up in surprise.

“I thought you were trying to confiscate it.”

“Not at all. It’s your duty to make amends. If I were to act in your place, well, I’d be the thief. I’d be stealing your opportunity to grow. You haven’t done anything particularly wrong, but to depend on another’s strength only weakens you.”

She turned back to Flare. “Now, if my information is correct, you’ll know who I am. I do not have the pleasure of knowing you fully myself, though I can feel we are kindred spirits.”

“I am Flare. I am the master of the Abbey, a healer.”

“I am Eclipse. I am the master of none, but a servant of morality.”

“Oh gag, I hope we don’t sound like that.”

All heads whipped around to the hallway that lead away from the stairs and the entrance. The Elements’ reflections stood in a motley crowd, looking over the new arrival. Shuddercry was the one who had spoken.

“We heard yelling. Is everything alright?” Jackie looked around, catching Applejack’s eye. The two of them looked at each other for a few moments before Jackie broke contact.

Flare shook her head. “We were just welcoming another visitor.”

Eclipse stepped forward, sizing up the newcomers. “So, you’re the ones who have been giving Miss Sparkle and her friends such trouble?”

Lustrous Revolt met her challenge. “As a matter of fact, yes. How are you involved?”

“You took them by surprise and subjugated them to your will. As a defender of Justice, I am involved because you have acted unfairly.”

“Unfairly? Hah! What’s unfair is the fact that we were born into this world of torment without a moment’s respite. You know nothing of it.”

“You are wrong.” Lustrous Revolt rose a brow at Eclipse’s short retort.

“Oh? How so? You’ve only just arrived in this world, if I heard correctly.”

“No, I’ve been here every night since my birth.”

Silence fell on the room.

Seeing that everybody was waiting for her explanation, she began. “I have had visions. Much as Flare has this Abbey, this small pocket of Equestria in the Forgotten Realm, my mind punctured the separation between the worlds. When I was younger, I thought my visions were nightmares, and nothing more. But as I grew, I learned that nobody around me had anything as horrifying as my night terrors. So I kept them to myself, My parents were relieved, thinking I had grown out of the phase, thinking that I would be able to live a normal life. I knew better.

“You see, these visions weren’t normal dreams. They were consistent. Each night, I would be a different pony, but the world remained the same. Constant fighting, hatred, and despair. I felt intense pain, like nothing in Equestria, as a spear skewered me through, or a well-placed blade stopped my heart. Sometimes, I wasn’t in a fight. But those nights were the worst. Instead, I would be in a cold, drafty home trying to take care of my children. I knew that no bread would come to the table that night. But I had to lie. I could not strip away that small bit of hope they had left.

“I would awake a debtor, so overcome with grief I would hang myself. But this world gives no respite. I would awaken, and the debt would still be there. I was the orphan, I was the sick, the tortured, the captive, the pained, hopeless masses. I was every single one of you. Yes, even you, Lustrous Revolt. So, I am involved because every offense to every person, every sentient being, is an offense to me.

“Now,” she said, grabbing Twilight and placing her in front of Lustrous Revolt, “you two are going to reconcile.”

Lustrous Revolt sneered, but her careful demeanor was wavering. “And if we don’t?”

“I will expound each of your weaknesses, since you have exploited hers, so she can have her revenge. Either way, she will know you intimately. One will simply cause you more pain.”

Lustrous twitched, trying to come up with an excuse. She looked like she was about to flat-out refuse, but she caught Eclipse’s eye, and shrunk back. Something about the way Eclipse carried herself made the idea that she was lying preposterous.

Lustrous Revolt looked over Twilight bitterly. Twilight did the same. It really was like she was looking in a mirror. If the mirror showed you at your angriest.

Lustrous Revolt pawed at the ground. “Hi. I uh, I guess I have to thank you for rescuing us.”

Twilight took a deep breath, and said what she had been planning to say for quite some time now.

“I challenge you to a duel.”

Everybody gave a collective “Huh?” All that is, except for Eclipse, who smiled for the first time since she entered the room.

Twilight continued without pausing for breath. “Eclipse is right. You’ve wronged us, over and over again, when we’re here for the same reasons. We want what’s best for everyone. You thought that because we came from a different world that we would inherently be enemies, that we’d be weaker. Well, you know what I see when I look at you? I see myself, if I had been blinded by my goals and forgotten that it’s other people that make life worth living. You’re not a bad person, but you’re sure as Discord trying to be. So, let’s end it once and for all. Which of us will be stronger? The light personality, or the dark?”

Lustrous Revolt stepped back, not sure what to make of this new development. Twilight clenched her teeth behind her stoic face in an attempt to calm herself. It had taken quite a bit of willpower to say that. She wouldn’t admit it now, but she was afraid of Lustrous Revolt. Not because she was this great, mysterious foe, but because Twilight could honestly see the hints of herself in her. That scared her more than any army of changelings, more than any threat of pain. She wanted Lustrous Revolt to see why she and her friends were here, why they acted the way she did. More than anything, she didn’t want to be enemies with herself.

Twilight posed her challenge once more, ignoring the mocking grins of the reflections. “Now then, Lustrous Revolt, how do you answer?”

Lustrous Revolt thought for a moment, the gears in her head working overtime. Finally she looked up. “Fine, I accept. What are the terms?”

“To the death. If I win, your friends will wait for your return here in the Abbey rather than hindering us in any way. If you win, my friends and I will do whatever the heck it is that you think will further your goals. Whatever they were.”

Lustrous Revolt narrowed her eyes. “My goal was to merge the worlds so that we may have true joy.”

“And you think the best way to go about that is to take it from others?”

“Twilight,” Applejack began, trying to remain calm, “Don't risk yourself like this. Heck, don't risk us like this. We can't afford to be held up any further.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Well, of course, but– ”

“Then please, trust my judgment.”

Rarity chimed in. “Twilight dear, consider what you're saying.”

“I've thought it through. This is what I want. If I fail, you guys have the right to never listen to my opinions again.”

Fluttershy shook her head in disappointment. Rainbow Dash, for once, was silent, though her eyes shone in concern.

Twilight avoided the gazes of her friends, turning to Flare. “I hate to impose, but is there somewhere we can go to hold the duel?”

“The courtyard should be large enough for your needs.”

The crowd shuffled their way through the halls towards the courtyard. They passed a few guards, but Twilight was surprised to see normal looking families here. There were young couples with children who looked as happy as any in Equestria, though there was a deepness to their happy, shining eyes that Twilight had come to recognize as the wisdom brought by trials.

The courtyard was in the center of the Abbey, not terribly large, but big enough to house a good ten trees around the edges. The early morning sky greeted them from up above, lightly illuminating the trampled snow.

“Now, I don’t want any stray spells endangering anybody in the Abbey. Eclipse and I will form an anti-magic field around you. Be careful; if you step through it, it will sap all of your arcane reserves and you’ll be left powerless.”

Twilight and Lustrous Revolt voiced their understanding, then took their positions on opposite sides of the field. The two unicorns of Justice and Mercy began chanting rhythmically, their eyes flaring up in white flame, their respective spells connecting above the scene. A shimmering white field descended over the two combatants, giving the area a ghostly, otherworldly feel.

Eclipse, her spell still being sustained by her horn, cleared her throat. “On the count of three, you may attack. The terms have been set. Only one of you will step out of here.”

The two purple mares stared each other down coldly. Twilight knew that Lustrous Revolt wouldn’t back down. Neither would she.

“Three.”

“Two.”

“One.”

Lustrous Revolt, more experienced in combat, responded just a moment sooner than Twilight. She ran forward, staying low the ground, beginning a spell as she ran. “Irna, lutolmis, dresdien, for’tol!” The collected energy suddenly ignited and flew towards Twilight, the red arc of flame melting the snow underneath it.

Twilight ran forwards, hoping to duck underneath it. Lustrous Revolt was not wasting her combat advantage. Spells with verbal components were more precise, and in general, more effective. In the Forgotten Realm, that meant more deadly.

The fireball was streaking towards her face. Twilight collapsed to her stomach, sliding a good distance over the wet grass. The fireball struck the ground behind her and exploded, the force throwing her even further forward. The heat singed a few hairs on her coat, the potent smell piercing even her battle-fevered mind.

Twilight recovered from her spin-out, and retaliated with a modified teleport spell. It was small, not in any way intended to teleport Lustrous Revolt entirely. Lustrous Revolt felt the teleport beginning to pull her away, and stopped her charge. She ducked down, the teleport catching her whipping tail. The partial teleport gave her an immediate and sloppy hair-cut, dropping off the shaved hairs a few feet away. If it had caught something important, she would have been missing a good chunk of her flesh.

Lustrous Revolt turned to attack. She was impressed, though she didn’t allow it to shine through her determined glare. She traced her horn in a parabola in the air, crackling light trailing her movements. With a flick of her head, she tossed the whip towards Twilight.

“Ugh!” Twilight flew back a couple of feet, feeling both the impact of the ground and the burn where she had been hit. Lustrous Revolt pressed the attack, hitting Twilight twice more before she could even begin to recover.

Twilight threw up a hasty shield, the electric whip bouncing off uselessly. She rolled out from underneath it, launching a standard blast of magic to cover her. Lustrous Revolt sidestepped it, stumbling in her haste.

Twilight ran forward, hoping that cutting the distance between the two ponies would make Lustrous Revolt more reckless. “Mirnash, tol-toom, ferena, lotis!”

Magical shackles flew forward, wrapping themselves around Lustrous’ legs, making her stumble a fall. She struggled to get up, but the shackles were slowing her movements. Twilight tackled her doppelgänger, sending them both sprawling.

Twilight focused for a moment, generating a flaming sword. She had seen the damage they could do in passing in the previous battles she had been in, and it seemed appropriate in close quarters. Lustrous formed a warhammer, which swung viciously towards Twilight as its owner tried to stand once more.

Twilight jumped to the side, knocking it away with a swing of her sword. She felt the drain on her energy reserves as she made contact. It seemed trying to avoid the weapon entirely would be much smarter than trying to block it. The good news was that Lustrous Revolt must be expending a good deal of energy to keep the hammer active if it had that much force.

Lustrous Revolt finally managed to get to her hooves. She pulled the hammer back, guarding herself carefully. Twilight did the same, and they began circling, their piercing eyes straining for an opening.

Twilight darted forward, watching for the falling hammer. There it was. She rolled underneath it and to the side, ending up at Lustrous’ flank. After but a moment’s hesitation, she jabbed forward, the flaming blade sliding easily into Lustrous’ haunches, immediately marring her shared cutie mark.

Lustrous yelled out in pain, bringing the hammer down along her side. It caught Twilight’s front shoulder, sending her flying. She heard, and boy, did she feel, the crack as her shoulder decided it wanted none of this. She tried to avoid landing on her now useless front leg, but that made her hit her head on the tree she had been thrown into.

Lustrous Revolt tried to step forward, but her hind leg gave out. Twilight’s shackling spell, combined with the new wound, ensured she would be staying put. Lustrous collapsed the hammer, reforming the thousands of sparkling orbs into some sort of bow. An arrow of light materialized and fitted itself onto the string. Twilight collapsed her sword, forming a traditional shield.

The arrow flew forward, disintegrating as it struck the defensive barrier. Twilight got up, limping forward as she hid behind the shield. No matter how many times it happened, she still really hated getting hurt. Though, she supposed, that was pain’s intent. To prevent you from feeling even worse.

Didn’t help too much when it was to the death anyways.

Another arrow bounced off the shield. Lustrous Revolt destroyed the bow, and turned it into a sword much like Twilight’s. Twilight destroyed her shield, forming a sword of her own. They clashed, wasted arcane energy sparking off. Twilight pulled back, and attempted a downwards slash, hoping to cripple Lustrous even further. Lustrous answered with an uppercut, making Twilight fall back in recoil. After a moment to catch her breath, Twilight pushed forward once again. Lustrous matched her attacks carefully. After a successful block, she jabbed forward with a masterful parry. Twilight’s already damaged shoulder and a good portion of her side were ripped up as a result. Twilight cried out in agony. Blood dripped down her side, reminding her of her newfound mortality. Twilight recovered her sword, swinging it with all of her might. It smashed against the offending blade, shattering both spells. Lustrous head-butted Twilight, her horn catching Twilight in the side, drawing yet another wound.

Twilight fell down, lashing out telekinetically in fury and fear. Lustrous’ rolled a good ten feet from the impact, all over her wounds. Twilight pulled herself up, her front leg screaming in pain. Twilight gritted her teeth, huffing powerfully to try to distract herself from her wounds. She stumbled forward, Lustrous quickly trying to undo Twilight’s restraining spell.

Twilight poured the rest of her magic reserves into her next attack. An orb of pure force materialized. Twilight applied pressure around all the entire surface, compacting it as much as possible. The end result was a baseball sized ball of energy that was igniting the air around it. Twilight flung it forward, falling from the effort.

Lustrous Revolt finished removing the restraining spell just in time to see the attack impact. With a meaty and sickening slurp-crunch, it ripped off her back legs, throwing them through the anti-magic field and into a wall, the blood spatter catching a few of the Reality ponies.

Lustrous Revolt’s scream startled the besieging changelings outside, causing most to take to the air in instinctive escape.

Twilight stepped got up once more, the battle-fever the only thing keeping her conscious. She stalked over to her bleeding-out foe, who was a mess of tears and blood. Her magic reserves gone, Twilight turned to her back legs to finish the job. As she reared up to bash her foe’s skull in, she caught sight of Lustrous’ eyes. In them, she saw reflected her own, filled with hatred and animalistic fury.

“Please…” Lustrous whispered.

Twilight drew back in horror. Her brain jolted as she realized she was essentially about to kill herself. For crying out loud, Lustrous was an identical physical copy! Terrified, agonized, and simply fighting for survival. And at that moment, she wanted nothing more than to comfort the scared, helpless filly she saw. Twilight turned and stepped forward, her useless shoulder giving way, making her collapse to the ground.

Lustrous’ face contorted in pain, her breath coming in short, rapid bursts. She was losing her fight for life, Twilight knew. Even in her short time here, she knew an attack that traumatic meant a certain end. Twilight pulled herself closer.

“I’m sorry, but this was the only way to make you see.”

“I-“ Lustrous choked, struggling to maintain consciousness long enough to form a coherent sentence. “I just want to feel the light. It’s so dark in this world.”

Twilight began crying, her heart full of regret and disgust at what she had just done. “Then please, feel the light.” She titled her head forward, touching her horn to her dying other half.

A sudden burst of light made her jerk her head up. Had it been a trap?

No, it wasn’t Lustrous’. There was no way she’d have the willpower to make a final attack anyways. But it wasn’t hers, either. It felt like it was from another source. Like it was coming from the fabric of space itself.

The surge of power grew exponentially. In a matter of nanoseconds, it exploded out, engulfing both of the ponies immediately, then slingshot back into itself, disappearing entirely.

The bystanders looked on in confusion and horror. “Where’d they go?”

Pinkamina Diane Pie was the only one who shook her head in wonder. “I never thought they’d be the first to follow me.”

With a flash of light, the purple mare returned. Singular.

She looked around in confusion. Her body was whole, her form was glowing brightly, and her magic stores were completely full. But there was only one of them.

“Where’s TwiLustlightrous?”

She clapped her hoof over her mouth.

“No way… I didn’t…”

Pinkie bounded forward. “Welcome to the exclusive club of the Merged, Twilustrous.”

The merged pony, after giving herself a moment to recover from her sudden reappearance, frowned. “That is not going to be my name.”

“Heh, at least you two can agree on something. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Twilight groaned internally.

Can you do that a little quieter? It’s already hard enough to hear myself think.

Chapter 48: Two Fronts

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Chapter 48: Two Fronts

The newly formed pony looked over herself quickly. “No wings?”

Pinkie shrugged. “I never got wings. But you do have an excess of power, which I suppose you could use to ascend. Do you know what concept you represent just yet?”

The purple mare shook her head. “It's like finding a cutie mark all over again.” She stuck out her tongue.

“Gah, merit mark is such a better term.”

Twilight probed her shared mind. It felt strange, sharing thoughts with another creature. Lustrous' stray thoughts occasionally would find their way to Twilight's 'side' of the brain. It was almost like it was just the two of them in a room, and both were speaking at the same time.

Astute observation. Even if you are a bit weak, at least you're intelligent.

Hey, I just beat you down. You're one to talk about being weak.

You hit me with a cheap shot. As I said, intelligent.

Motor skills were, thankfully, largely unchanged. Unless they actively worked against each other, movement was defaulted to the personality who initiated.

“So, uh...” all eyes were on Rainbow Dash. “Who won the fight?”

The merged pony opened her mouth to respond, then shut it as both personalities found they had no answer.

“And what do we call you?” asked Spectral Slash.

“I still vote Twilustrous.”

“Ugh, that's sounds so silly,” Lustrous said. Though Twilight agreed they should find a new name, it wasn't for the same reason. She just didn't want to taint her name by smushing it together with another.

I'm offended. Lustrous is a wonderful name. By itself, anyways.

Your actions aren't in harmony with my beliefs.

“We're the same pony now, remember that.” She craned her head for a moment, realizing she had said that out loud.

“You'll control that eventually, as well.”

We need to name ourselves. Twilight reminded. We're one pony now, and to pretend we'll stay two is just foolish.

I don't know, it's not like I was the one who initiated the merging. How did that happen anyways?

They turned their head to Pinkie. “I never asked. How did the two of you end up merging?”

“Same way you did, though minus the duel and blood everywhere. It was a desire for something more than we were, and seeing the fulfillment in the other half. Like it or not, the two of you merged because you wanted to merge.”

Looks like you did initiate the merge, at least in part. A chill ran up their spine. “We need to take care of this excess energy. If we're not going to ascend, then we need to find some way to store it.”

Lustrous retrieved Twilight's memories of the Metaspectre's crystal, then turned their head to Eclipse. Twilight felt a bit exposed, her memories getting prodded like that. “Any chance we can borrow the crystal?”

Eclipse shook her head.

“Worth a try,” Lustrous muttered. They walked out of the courtyard and into the hallway to join the others, pausing only to wait for the anti-magic field to fall.

“Oh gross! Is that mine?”

Lustrous' back half hadn't been caught up in the merging, so there it lay, discarded and oozing a pool of blood. Lustrous zapped it with a disintegrate spell, the organic mess turning to ashes in a matter of moments.

At that moment, in ran a little purple dragon. “I heard a scream that sounded like... Twilight! Are you alright?” Spike ran up and hugged her front legs. Lustrous pulled away and kicked out before Twilight could stop her. The kick wasn't enough to hurt, physically anyways.

“Twilight... ?”

“Yes and no, Spike. I uh, I just merged with Lustrous Revolt.”

“Wasn't a fair trade on my part.” Their body sniffed in disdain. Twilight mentally glared at Lustrous' half.

Spike looked at the glowing pony in confusion. It was understandable, considering the closest thing he had to a mother was now simultaneously rejecting and comforting him, speaking with two different minds.

“Wow. I missed something, didn't I?”

“Yeah, just a bit.” An epiphany struck their shared mind. It was odd, considering it didn't distinctly originate from either half.

“Ah, the Elements of Harmony!”

Flare stepped forward, lifting a leg in question. “What about them?”

“They're energy containers, much like the Metaspectre's crystals. Perhaps the only ones that challenge it for supremacy in efficiency and capability. The Element of Magic was destroyed when Lustrous–”

“–when I–“

“–blew it up back in Moon Pool.”

“And then it exploded again,” Spike added helpfully.

“Yeah, not much survived from that one, did it?” Temperament lost herself in her recollection. “What a surprise that one was. Just about to get another strike on a griffon, then suddenly I'm awake in the Forgotten Plane, with no idea how it happened. Heh, trying to watch the battlefield afterwards was an experience. I thought that maybe it had accidentally switched the coordinates and was looking someplace in the zebra wastelands.”

Well, shall we try this?

It's a longshot, but if we can fix the Elements of Harmony, it might help both of our cases.

The two of them concentrated on the spell. The glowing aura around them gradually faded as the orb in front of them grew larger. Much like Twilight's force-ball, they compressed the energy until it was as dense as possible. Twilight focused on the shape of the object, pouring her memories of the peace of Equestria into it. The process took a couple of minutes, but finally, the glowing shape faded.

“What did you do?!” Twilight yelled at Lustrous verbally. The resulting crown-thingy was not as Twilight remembered it. For one thing, it was silver instead of gold, and the embedded, star-shaped gem was white, not purple. Overall, it was much more utilitarian. Graceful, yet not superfluous. Powerful, but in no was showy. It drew its beauty from its simplicity. But a certain darkness emanated from it as well.

“The same thing you did. Poured the memories of this world into it.”

“It's supposed to be pure!”

“No, it's supposed to be useful. If it was a direct replica of your Element, I wouldn't be able to use it, and that would hardly be fair, would it? We're supposed to be working together, remember?”

“You know, you sound a bit insane when you're talking to yourself like that.”

Twilight sighed. “I know, Dash. Not too much I can do.” She turned her attention to the newly created Element. “So... what is it?”

“An Element of something, I'd assume. Whatever you get when you merge creation and destruction, interpreting magic as creation, of course.”

“And what is that?”

“I'd imagine once we discover that, we'll have a good idea of how to ascend.”

Twilight's face lit as she finally came up with a name. “How about we call our collective consciousness Gemini, after the constellation of the twins, and then refer to the individuals by their name if we want to address only one?”

Lustrous mulled it over for a moment. “I suppose that will work, if nothing else than as a temporary solution.”

“So, Gemini, what's the plan of action?”

Now that was a bombshell. Shuddercry was the one who had said it, a hint of mockery in her voice, Twilight noted. But each of the others were looking to her. It was strange, even the reflections were looking to her for direction.

Looking to me, remember.

Right, to you. Well, what do you think we should do? Trying to fight each other for control will only make us inefficient.

We could look for a way to split again, so then we don't have to agree.

No! This is the first chance we have to resolve this conflict between us, and we might as well take full advantage of it.

Well, then what do you propose?

My friends and I have a mission to complete for Celestia. We only have two days left, and I fully intend to be in Windark before the deadline.

My companions and I must merge the worlds. We know our methods are harsh, but it's nothing compared to the continued pain that we, and the rest of the reflections in this world, will feel if we're delayed. Each day takes our souls heavily. You should be thankful we're as civil as we are.

Well, I don't think our goals are mutually incompatible.

Gemini rose a brow in response to Lustrous' surprise. No? Since when? I thought you were trying to stop us from merging the worlds.

Well, we were, kind of. But regardless of our desires, it looks like things have already been set in motion that we can no longer influence. The merging would likely happen, at least on some level, regardless of what we might try to do to stop it.

What about when you return to your world?

It's as one of you said. If we return, we bring back the memories of all the Atrocities we've experienced. By merit of the fact that we're the Elements of Harmony, that will cause a leak that would eventually consume all of Reality.

Thus, turning it into what?

The true Reality, I suppose. The one we have is just an illusion of grandeur, isn't it? So its name is a bit misleading.

If I and the other reflections come with you, then, you won't intentionally prevent the merging?

No, we won't. And you promise not to hurt my friends any more? Nor will you prevent us from reaching our goal?

I suppose I can't, given the circumstances.

Very well, it sounds like we're decided.

Gemini spoke up, reporting her findings. “We've decided. We're going to continue with the Reality ponies' mission to rescue their princess of the night. The Forgotten Realm ponies will join them in their travels. It seems that banding together is the fastest route for both of our goals. By rescuing Princess Luna and returning to their own world, the Reality Ponies will only speed up the merging process. It’s in the reflected ponies' best interest to not only tolerate their presence, but to aide them in any way they can.”

After some minor objections riding along the lines of “But we can't trust them!” the two parties finally gave their uneasy consent. Gemini turned to Flare and Eclipse.

“What of you two?”

A glance passed between the reflections of Mercy and Justice. Flare spoke first. “I don't want to leave the Abbey unprotected, but I recognize that I might be able to better serve its inhabitants by speeding you along your way. A merged world will bring them greater joy than this one offers.”

“And I, of course, want what is Just, and as I have insinuated, I find the Reflection's goals Justified. We will both join you in your travels.”

“I've been meaning to ask,” began Twilight, speaking through Gemini's body, as Lustrous Revolt donned their new crown-Element, “How did you find your way into the Forgotten Realm?”

“You will recall that I am able to sense energy releases. There was none bigger than the Metaspectre's appearance in Reality. I caught up to you when you and Princess Luna were leaving the altar. I felt the energy coming from the orbs, and realized that it might be the missing link I was looking for. I stealthy followed you to your home, where I waited until it went up in flames. That's when I was sure that my intuitions were correct. I blended into the background until you left with Celestia's troupe, and after you all entered the mirror, I followed. I bent the natural plane around myself to hide until you all finished speaking to the Oracle, but I lost you in Moon Pool. I spent the next week or so gathering information and inadvertently experiencing firsthand the trials of this world. I very quickly confirmed this was the world of my nightmares, and struggled to make sense of it all. I was caught up in the fighting around and eventual destruction of Moon Pool. When we revived, I skirted around the outside of the fighting until I found the tracks leading away from the fighting. I followed them, hoping that they'd lead me to you. And, well, here I am.”

“You have been following me for almost two weeks?”

“No, it took me a good week to discover you had been imprisoned. But I didn't want to influence events unless it was necessary. Besides, I had research of my own to do.”

“So, Twili– uh, Gemini. How soon do you think we'll be heading out?” Rainbow Dash was already fluttering her wings, itching to be traveling again.

“As soon as we gather our things. Flare, if you don't mind, could we take some provisions from the Abbey? I'd like to avoid dying of hunger again, if I could.”

“Of course. We'll bring enough for five days, that should be enough for the journey there and back.”

“Everybody, meet up back here in half an hour. Use any extra time you have to rest up.”

Spike approached Gemini carefully. “Um, is it alright if I come with you?”

“Of course, I'll never reject you, Spike.” Twilight said. A moment later, Lustrous tacked on “As long as you don't annoy me, I'll allow it as well.”

Spike looked relieved. The two of them walked off to the room the reflections had stayed in. It was another bedroom of sorts, but it was less sterile than the one Twilight and her friends had woken up in. This looked more like a normal bunking room.

As they opened the door, a screech greeted them. Thorn eyed them over carefully, fully aware something had changed about his master.

“It's alright, Thorn. I'm still in here.” In response, Thorn lowered his wings slowly, still wary but willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Spike gave a quick salute.

“Hey man, what's up?”

The other reflections piled in, moving about quietly and quickly. Gemini stepped in and grabbed Lustrous Revolt's saddlebags. “Oh. Huh.”

“What's wrong?” asked Spike.

“Well, we're already carrying Twilight's bags, there isn't exactly room for another set.”

“Time to decide what's worth keeping, then,” said Spike. “Here's as good of a place as any to drop stuff off.”

Gemini set Twilight's bag on the ground next to Lustrous'. She dumped the bag, spilling the contents carefully. The Study of Alicorns, the small picture frame featuring the Reality ponies, the remnants of her rations, the map she had stolen from the library, the anti-changeling poultices from Salie, and a small bag of ritual components.

Lustrous' bag spilled next, revealing a wicked looking dagger, two small bottle of chemicals that exploded upon being thrown, a notepad and a quill with spare ink, and another bag of ritual components.

“Alright, I'm keeping the book, especially since it'll likely prove useful soon.” Twilight returned it to its place in her bag.

“I can probably leave the explosives, but I want the notepad and the quill.” Lustrous moved them to an inner pocket of the bag, where it was less likely to be crushed. “You won't need the map; I know the way.” They set it aside. “And, just saying, the picture's nice and all, but I don't think it's necessary.” Twilight sighed, and placed it next to the map.

“Ritual components? Will we need them?”

“Better safe than sorry. Let's keep both bags of them. And, keeping a physical weapon is nice, so I think we can spare the space for the dagger.”

“Now, the rations...”

Gemini looked around in confusion. The rations had disappeared. Spike coughed, a crumb of bread falling from his lip. “Well, you were getting more anyways, right?”

Gemini just shook her head in reply. “The poultices, those we'll need... and there we go. That's everything.” She slung the bag back over her back. “Come Thorn, Spike.”

The two dragons followed closely behind as they made their way to the kitchen, where most of the others were waiting. Several cooks busied about, gathering non-perishable foods and wrapping them up neatly. The packages were distributed to each of the travelers, who were quickly shuffled through the line.

“Where's Flare?” Gemini asked to no one in particular. The graceful white unicorn was missing from the procession, though Eclipse was present.

“She muttered something about saying farewell to her guards,” answered Jackie absentmindedly.

Eclipse nodded in confirmation. “Indeed. She went up to the ramparts to leave them with some final instructions.”

“Spike, Thorn, get our rations for us. Well, a ration for us. I guess we only need to feed one body.”

“Sure thing!”

“Screech!”

Gemini left the room and made her way to the staircase.

Any particular reason you want to see her? Lustrous Revolt asked.

I just have this nagging feeling...

Yes, I can feel that, but I was wondering if it had any higher purpose.

The cleared the top of the stairs, entering the cool, clean air once more. Flare caught sight of them. “Ah, good to see you. Are you finding everything you need for the journey?”

“Yes, your facilities are quite adequate. Um, is anything we can help you with?”

“No, they should be quite alright. The children of the Abbey aren't helpless without me, but I feel like a mother hen. I'm worried about leaving my chicks, so to speak.”

“It's understandable. Whenever I leave Spike alone, I worry constantly.”

Lustrous snorted. “Well, I dunno, in these memories you seem to have forgotten him pretty easily once you were actually with your friends.”

Flare laughed softly. “The two of you are getting along already, I see.”

Gemini rolled her eyes.

One of the guards caught her attention. She was leaning forward, straining her eyes in the distance. Gemini looked out over the fields. Sure enough out in the extreme distance, there was a large shape getting nearer. As they drew closer, it became apparent that it wasn't just one object, but many individuals. An army was marching towards them. Just as Gemini recognized it, the guard yelled out.

“Approaching army of unknown intent!”

The changelings in the field shivered in unison. Simultaneously, the masses transformed into a crowd of griffons and ponies, each unique and intermixed. They began charging the shield all at once. Flare ran to the side in concern. “They shouldn't be able to break through the shield, but the fact that they're doing this without Chrysalis is unusual.”

The changelings bounced off of the shield, ricocheting backwards into their own ranks. But they kept trying. Each line would fall, and the next would strike. The organic wave collected around the base of the bubble, pressing with all of their strength.

Flare knit her brow. “It should still hold...”

The armies grew even closer, and it too seemed to be a combination of griffons and ponies. The rear lines of changeling-griffons and changeling-ponies turned and waved their arms to the army. The army doubled its speed, giving a battlecry. The army was armed to the teeth, sometimes literally, and looked like they expected a full conflict.

The entire fighting force of the Abbey gathered to the ramparts. At best, they were short of a hundred able-bodied fighters. They stood no chance if the armies got through. “What are they doing?” whispered Flare.

The changeling army split as the the front-runners of the reinforcements reached the huddled mass. But instead of attacking the changelings, they plowed right through, and into the...

Well, past the shield.

Flare's eyes widened in horror. “Drop the portcullis! We're under siege!”

With a metallic clang, the metal gate slammed down in front of the entrance. The attackers slowed, but continued forward, unafraid. In the middle of the army, Gemini caught sight of sight of several lines of the army pulling back magically-generated bowstrings, like Lustrous Revolt's.

“Archers!” she yelled. The defenders retrieved their shields, waiting for impact.

The volley continued for half a minute. Gemini tried to stay as close as she could to the wall, wincing every time one the screams filled the air, confirming a hit.

When the deadly rain stopped, she peaked over the edge of the wall. The soldiers directly below had pooled their magic to make a large rod of force. “Battering ram!”

Flare turned to Gemini, face dead serious and eyes full of determination. “Gather your friends and leave. The Abbey may be lost.”

Chapter 49: Escape Clause

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Chapter 49: Escape Clause

The two unicorns ran through Abbey, passing a group of defenders who were rushing to barricade the door against the oncoming battering ram. Gemini followed their progress with concern. “I can't just abandon you, Flare!” Twilight objected.

Lustrous Revolt snorted in derision, once again emphasizing their division in perspectives despite their shared body. “Of course you can. She's offered to make the sacrifice, and delaying will only make the situation worse.”

Flare huffed as they ran. “Lustrous Revolt is right, Twilight. I am not worth the future of our race.”

Twilight wasn't finished arguing, but she decided to change the topic. “Why are they even attacking? I thought the Abbey would be in good standing with the rest of the Forgotten Realm, considering what you stand for.”

“You're right, it is a bit odd that they would attack us, but I have my suspicions. People are often jealous of happiness, especially when they are miserable, and there are some who couldn't join us, because of mental or physical barriers. But that's shouldn't be enough. This is the first time we've been attacked in earnest.”

“Perhaps the changelings have been getting smarter?” suggested Lustrous. “Notice how quickly they morphed when the army was spotted. It was like they were expecting it.”

“You're right, that does seem odd.” They hurtled around a corner, scrambling to pick up their momentum before they continued once more. “If that's the case, they must have sent for it a while ago. It's no easy feat to mobilize a militia, even in this world. It's not like them to plan ahead.”

“These are strange times. Why would the two factions join together against you? Furthermore, why would they join the changelings?”

“They probably didn't know the messengers were changelings.” Twilight began working overtime. “I'd imagine the changelings burst into town in disguise, yelling about a battle, to get everyone's attention. After everybody had gathered, they'd try to pin the Abbey as the bad guys. Maybe they made up some fake war crimes you've been committing. Maybe they told them that you were plotting to destroy their cities and take their land and their food for yourself. As hard as it is to mobilize an army, it's easy to cause fear.”

“And fear drives conflict. Astute observation, Gemini.” Once again, Twilight felt like she was being praised by Celestia herself. Lustrous, I can't shake the feeling that she'll be important in upcoming events.

Yeah, I've noticed you freaking out for the last half an hour or so.

I need you to help me convince her to come with us.

It'll be hard to convince her to leave her people. You've seen how devoted she is. She'll die before she abandons them.

Please, I have to bring her along.

No, no, I agree. I sense something about her, and Eclipse too. All I'm saying is we probably won't be able to convince her diplomatically.

You don't mean... ?

Sometimes to get the right thing done, you have to knock out a few allies.

Before Twilight could react, Lustrous leaped forward and clonked Flare on the head. Flare's momentum sent her tumbling, confirming that the precise strike had done its job.

“You just knocked out the only person who's been kind to me since I entered this world!”

“When she wakes up, you can apologize yourself, dropping our body to its knees, begging for mercy. Just be clear that it's you who's apologizing. It's for her own good. A captain that goes down with his ship is just as valuable as his sunk cargo. But if a captain lives to fight another day, he may prove himself worthwhile just yet.”

“Stop spouting metaphors and let's get out of her.”

“Ah, so you're willing to deal with the physical force I just used now?”

“It's not like I have a choice, and I'm not one to waste an opportunity.”

“Good, there may be hope for you yet.”

“You could have knocked her out closer to the exit.”

“...Fair point. But I acted when I did because I didn't want you or her guards stopping me.”

They lifted Flare up and onto their back. Despite the physical injury, she looked serene as ever, as if she had suddenly fallen asleep. Twilight giggled at the thought of a narcoleptic Celestia. There she was, giving a speech to the kingdom, then suddenly she keels over, snoring gently.

Cute, but let's go.

Twilight clamped down on that train of thought. She had forgotten she shared her mind. Personal fantasies were now public showings.

Gemini finished the sprint to the courtyard. The reflections and the Reality ponies were waiting with varying degrees of worry written on their faces. “What's the situation up there?” Jackie gestured with her tommy gun. “We heard yelling. And ponies and griffons have been rushing around .Nobody wanted to give us an answer.”

“The changelings' siege has been reinforced by griffons and ponies, and they brought siege weapons.”

“Ah.”

“So now's the time to leave?” asked Temperament.

Gemini nodded hurriedly.

Eclipse ran around the corner. “Alright, that should be everyone.” She caught sight of Flare's unconscious form. “What happened there?”

Lustrous opened her mouth to bluff her way out, but Twilight reacted faster. “Lustrous knocked her out. She wouldn't have come with us otherwise, and we couldn't afford to lose her. She'll be a better use to her people if she helps us complete our mission than if she fights to the death.”

The air grew cold and heavy. Eclipse stared at the darkly. But then, she grinned ever so slightly. “I can't say I approve of the method, but you were right in what you've done.”

“Then we're agreed. Let's get out of here.”

Pinkamina coughed. “One problem. The front door's being attacked, right? And they've likely barricaded it. The Abbey's surrounded, and that was before reinforcements showed up. We have the poultices to disguise ourselves from the changelings, but I'm not so sure it'll work against the other armies. How do you suggest we get out?”

“Thanks for being so cheerful.”

“I'm half Despair, so I don't know what you expected, exactly.”

Gemini looked around. “Any ideas?”

Shuddercry stepped forward. “The pegasi can get out if we need to. We'll have to avoid any ranged weapons they have, but it's better some of the group gets away than none of it.”

“We'll keep that in mind as our final option. I want everybody out if it's at all possible.”

Rarity raised a hoof. “Most fortifications would have a secret escape route, I'd imagine. There's not much point in building a fortress only to have it be your prison.”

Spectral Slash nodded. “Temperament's reflection is right. Most places have a hidden entrance somewhere. It's how forbidden couples get in and out. Or in my case, the assassin sent to do somebody else's dirty work.”

“Any idea on where it would be?”

“In a place like this that doesn't have any mountains or the like comprising its walls, it'll likely be in the basement somewhere. Or the throne room, but Flare doesn't seem the type.”

“Anywhere else we should check?”

Slash shook her head. “Probably not. Splitting up in this situation would likely be more trouble than it's worth.”

“Duly noted. To the basement then.”

“It's over this way!” Fluttershy called. Seeing everybody look at her, she shrunk for a moment, before standing tall. “I stairs leading down when I was getting my stuff together earlier.”

The crowd hurried to the basement. Crates and shelves filled the rooms, with enough supplies to sit out any siege. Assuming the walls weren't breached.

“What are we looking for?”

“A trap door, a wall that isn't quite flush, a breeze where there shouldn't be... anything out of the ordinary.”

Rainbow came up next to Gemini. “Did it occur to you to ask Flare before you knocked her out?”

“If only.”

The group searched the room for a few moments. Occasionally they'd hear signs of the battle above. At one point, an explosion rocked the room, loosening dust everywhere, causing a coughing fit.

“This is going nowhere!” Lustrous Revolt yelled. “We might stand a better chance blasting our way through the armies. Heck, we have enough firepower.” She hefted the replacement Element.

“No!” Twilight yelled back. “We can't jeopardize our mission or our allies.”

“Have a better idea, hotshot?”

“Anything's better than a suicide mission.”

Rainbow shook her head. “I really wish you'd stop talking to yourself.”

“Sorry, we'll keep it in our head.” Gemini shut her eyes.

Alright, I understand your frustration, because, for crying out loud, I can actually feel everything that's causing it. But we have to stick together.

Lustrous snarled. I shouldn't have agreed to anything. I should have just suffered defeat.

Well, we're here now, so you can just deal with it. We use what we've been given, and to hope for more is silly and stupid.

But to be content with what you have is to remain stagnant, and to never progress. You can only advance if you strive for more than you have. The handouts life gives you come just as often as the taxes. Since you're so sure about this course of action, tell me, what should we do?

Twilight thought for a moment. You know, it might not be that bad of an idea to try to wake Flare.

Gemini turned to look at the unconscious body in the middle of the room. Flare was breathing softly, but otherwise she was so still she might have been dead.

You sure you're willing to have me knock her out again should things go south?

I really don't want it to come to that, but I suppose I could allow you to hit her again if it's needed.

I suppose we really are becoming more alike. Twilight didn't respond.

Gemini approached Flare's body, prodding her gently. Besides being pushed slightly, Flare didn't react. Gemini grabbed her, shaking her slowly. “Hey, wake up. Come on Flare, we need you.”

Her head lolled softly.

Gemini grimaced. Looks like I hit her harder than I thought.

Twilight focused, attempting to make a telepathic connection with Flare. Perhaps she could wake her up directly.

“Whoa!”

Gemini jumped back, then dove forward to catch Flare's falling body.

Applejack was the nearest, and turned to look at the commotion. “What happened?”

“I... I don't know. Hold on.”

Both personalities were awestruck, and a bit giddy. They attempted the telepathic connection once again.

Withoutadoubtmyloveformypeopleiswhatkeepsmealive,butifIforgetmyselfwhowilltakecareofme?Fartoooftenthosethatyoulovetakeyouforgrantedwhichiswhyyoumustfindsomeoneyoucantrustwithbothyourproblemsandyoursuccesses,yourhopesandyourfears.Asoulmate,sotospeak,asecondhalf,areflection.Weareeachjustahalfofawholeandthosewhoneverfindtheirotherhalfaretheoneswhofeelthatlifeisnotworthliving.ItismydutytobetheotherhalfforasmanyasIcan,inthehopesthatI,inturn,findtheotherhalfthatI'mlookingfor.

It seemed that Flare was streaming a telepathic monologue, despite being unconscious. It didn't feel like she was trying to talk to anybody specific. Rather, it felt more like her own thoughts. If Twilight was correct, they were reading her mind.

It seems that way, yes. Lustrous' excitement was bleeding over to Twilight's half of their mind. Let's see if we can talk to her.

Gemini focused. Flare, can you hear me?

The telepathic stream stopped. Then, there was a simple answer.

Yes.

Are you conscious right now?

No. You are speaking with my subconscious.

Do you know who I am?

Yes. You are Gemini, Lustrous Revolt and Twilight Sparkle.

Are you dreaming?

The conscious mind is.

What were you doing before we interrupted?

Organizing today's thoughts. The answer explain the topic of the condensed stream. She had likely been reflecting upon, well, the reflections ever since Twilight had merged.

Do you know how we're talking to you?

No.

Can you make any guesses?

Conjecture is not my job. Please ask Flare when she's awake.

Is that why you're not speaking much longer than a sentence or two? You can only do jobs assigned to you?

Yes.

Alright. Back in the real world, Gemini was grinning. Now they were getting somewhere. What are your jobs?

I handle instincts, unspoken realizations, memories, recognition, recursion, creation of dreams, and recall.

Lustrous jumped on the chance. Can you tell us where the Abbey's secret exit is?

It is behind the oaken shelf next to the old tapestry in the back left corner of the basement.

Alright, thanks. That's all.

The subconscious didn't respond, and instead began continuing the monologue

ButIfearthatIwillneverfindmyotherhalf,thatIwillbecomeoneofthedespairingmassesthatIdomybesttocomfort.Iseeithappeningsoeasily,butIhavenowaytostopit.Fulfillmentisagiftthatcanonlybegiventoothers,notonewecankeepforourselves.

Gemini pulled out of Flare's mind, her body jerking backwards as it instinctive reacted to the 'falling'.

So... Twilight began.

Have we always been able to do that?

I don't think so, no. I've spoken telepathically before, but it's never been quite like that.

Here, let's try it on somebody else. They looked around the room for a moment, before landing on Pinkie Pie. They nodded to each other mentally, and focused quickly. It was like they entered a new room, inhabited only by Pinkie Pie and Pinkamina.

“Man, this secret entrance is good at hide and seek!” Pinkie giggled softly.

“Eugh. I don't think we'll ever find it.”

“Not with that attitude!”

“Yeah, I suppose so. We have to find it one way or the other, though I'm beginning to doubt its existence.”

“Well, Twilight's never been wrong before. We can trust her.”

“I think, actually she has, but you're just looking back at life with rose-colored glasses. Lustrous Revolt certainly has been, though I'll admit, she, and Twilight, are usually correct.”

Twilight cleared her 'throat'. She became aware of two more personalities noticing her.

“Hey! What's up?”

“Uh, not much, Pinkie. Hello, Pinkamina.”

“Hey. What are you doing in our mind?”

“That's just it, we don't know how. Well, we know how, but not necessarily how, if that makes sense.”

“You wondering how it's possible, though you know the method?”

“Precisely.”

“Hm. How long ago did you first discover this?”

“Just a couple of minutes ago,” Lustrous butted in. “We were trying to send a telepathic message to Flare while she was unconscious, to see if we could wake her up. We ended up opening a two-way channel, which hasn't happened ever before.”

“And then you contacted us, to see if it wasn't a fluke?”

“Yeah, I hope we're not bothering you.”

“Not at all!” You could practically hear the smile in Pinkie's telepathic voice.

“It's never happened before?” Pinkamina asked, much more focused on the conversation than Pinkie was.

“Never. Usually it's one-way, and it takes quite a bit of effort.”

“Hm. Well, in that case, you might have just discovered your merging's blessing.”

“Come again?”

“You know how Pinkie and I have Spatial Rendering? It seems yours is, well, reading minds. That's likely not the full extent of it either, if our powers are any indicator. How long were you standing there before you coughed?”

“Ten seconds or so.”

“I had no idea you were there. Maybe it's like a memory bubble. They'll only notice if you make yourself known?”

“I like the sound of that,” Lustrous' side lit up with ideas and plots, not too many of them kind-natured.

“So, what did you find?”

Twilight was pulled out of her snooping. “Huh? Where?”

“From Flare. Do you know where the entrance is?”

“Oh, yeah, it's behind the shelf next to the tapestry, in the back left corner.”

“And you came to us instead of telling the others why?”

“Oh.” Both Lustrous and Twilight reprimanded themselves mentally.

“Remember, we're trying to escape an army right now. Time is of the essence.”

“Right. See you later.”

“Hey, give me warning if you come visiting again. I don't have anything in particular I need to hide, but it's nice to know.”

Gemini pulled out of her trance. Across the room, Pinkie and Pinkamina's body shook its head to clear the stupor. Their eyes met, and they ran to the corner Flare had told them about. After they pushed the objects out of the way, sure enough, the wall had a rectangular cut, in the shape of a door. Pushing on it caused the entire section to retreat, and after about a foot, the door was caught by some sort of mechanism and pulled to the side.

“Alright, everybody, it's over here!”

A loud crash came from upstairs, followed by yelling. The armies had likely broken through the gates.

“And not a moment too soon. Hurry! Everybody through!” Gemini picked up Flare once again, placing her over her back.

The filed into the passageway, which was carved directly through the earth. It continued more or less straight for a few minutes, before turning sharply up. They barreled up the stairs, which lead to a dusty trap door. It took a few tries, but eventually brute force flung it open. The passageway lead to a small cave, lit by ambient natural light pouring from a shaft with a sheer set of stairs, more closely resembling a ladder. Gemini motioned for silence.

“We don't know where this comes out,” she whispered. “There are hundreds of eyes out there, and it only takes one to ruin everything.” Spectral Slash crept forward, staying as low as possible. Despite her efforts, the old ladder creaked a few times, painfully grating on the nerves of all present. In a few moments, she disappeared from sight. She quickly returned. “Looks like the coast is clear.” Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. As Gemini climbed, Flare groaned softly.

Oh boy. She's waking up. Twilight commented.

Indeed, I believe so.

This is your fault.

Your idea.

The ponies poured out of the exit, savoring the fresh air. Rainbow Dash and Spectral Slash looked the most relieved, glad to have open sky above them.

Gemini placed Flare down softly, then turned to get her bearings. The nearby forest looked much the same, so the castle must still be nearby. She ascended the nearby sloped, keeping low like Spectral Slash had. She peered over the top, then dropped back down once again. Out in the distance was the Abbey, still besieged. The army outside had diminished, but that was likely only because they had gone inside. She grimaced as she thought about all the innocents who were about to be slaughtered.

Hey, Lustrous interrupted. They have weapons, call themselves guards, death is a known risk in their job. Protectors are never quite innocent, despite their intent.

“What happened?”

Gemini turned around once more. Flare struggled to her hooves. The rest of the party suddenly found something more interesting to do.

“Oh, uh, hey. Good to see you awake and well. We, uh, we kidnapped you from the Abbey. We need you, and keeping you alive is in your best interest too you know.” The two personalities trying to speak at once made their intonation seem insincere and suspicious. Not the best for diplomacy.

“You... did... what?”

“Yeah, it's just over the rise back there. Just got overrun. Most inside have probably been killed, and it's only a matter of time before they find the secret passage.” Mentally, the two previously independent personalities were having a fistfight for control. Twilight had been trying to break it to her softly, and Lustrous Revolt wanted it to be logical and direct. In the end, it made them sound blunt and careless. Flare narrowed her eyes.

“You do understand that everyone in there counted on me to protect them? In their time of need, you ripped me from them, after my hospitality, my kindness, my whole-hearted devotion to helping others?”

“Yup. Sounds about right.” Gemini clamped a hoof over her mouth.

Flare sniffed indignantly, trying to keep herself calm. “Do you know why they call me Flare?”

Gemini didn't answer. One thing the two personalities could agree upon; speaking any further would likely make it worse.

Flare shuddered, looking down at the ground. Her pink mane grew deeper and more ethereal, until suddenly, it burst into flame. Gemini took a step back. Flare was breathing heavily, obviously still trying to control herself. She turned and looked at the cowed purple unicorn. “Because when I get mad, when the things I care for get hurt, the things that hurt them will burn.” Her mane exploded out, with enough heat the snow melted, causing a couple of the others to slip as they tried to avoid the blast.

“You must have had an interesting childhood,” Spike snarked. Gemini motioned for him to stop, but he either missed it or was deliberately ignoring her.

“Excuse me?” Flare turned to look at him, her eyes glowing red, her coat shining with divine indignation.

“Heck, Twilight yells at me any time I sneeze in the wrong place. I can only imagine how your parents must have reacted when it was time for bed, or you lost your favorite stuffed animal.”

Flare raised a brow. Then she scoffed, and then she giggled. “Oh, you don't know the half of it. Within a month of my life we had a fire-proof nursery.” Her mane cooled, then returned to its normal form. The mana around her dissipated, and once again she was collected, bright eyed, and smiling. She turned to Gemini once more, sighing deeply.

“I apologize for the outburst, but you have to understand I'm going through a lot of pain. I understand that they'll revive, but in this case, it might be worse for them. Prisoners, as I understand you know, aren't treated to well around here. But you're right. An army is too much for any one pony to handle, and the best way I can help them, if you truly need me, is to go with you. Just, give me a minute, if you will.” She stepped away gracefully, looking towards the rising sun, taking deliberate, precise breaths.

Spike grinned slyly, nodding towards Gemini. “Good thing dragons are fire-proof,” he whispered, before he and Thorn found a pile of snow to play with. Twilight had to hand it to the little guy, sometimes his big mouth paid off. Gemini retrieved their map, consulting it quickly.

“We should be about... here. Which means... haha, nice. The secret passage leads out towards Windark. We're already on the right path. And as far as we know, we haven't been seen, and we haven't been followed yet. If we hurry, we'll be able to make it by nightfall, and then we'll have a whole day to kick the Metaspectre's–”

Can you kick the rear of a creature who's body is made out of a gas? It would be quite a feat, one we'd be impressed if you could pull off.

The entire party whipped around to see the Metaspectre cresting the slope.

“It's you!” Gemini yelled.

Astute observation. We are here to make a proposal, one you might just like.

For the first time that she had seen, the Metaspectre smiled. It was a wicked smile, filled with dozens of wickedly sharp and thin teeth, far more fitting on a deep-sea predator than the equine body it had. It was just a little intimidating, to say the least.

Would you like to hear it? He blinked innocently.

Chapter 50: Uplift

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Chapter 50: Uplift

“Who are you?”

Ah, Flare, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. I am Thael, alternatively known as the Metaspectre, or to the people of Reality, the Devil. Of course you wouldn't have met us. You attract the righteous to you like a beggar to food, which might be applicable, in this case. Our dealings are with the desperate and the despairing. We’re the last resort for the people in this world.

“You sound like a liar and a cheat.”

I would be lying if I said I didn’t like confounding those who think themselves wise. But those who prove themselves worthy of praise, well, they’re rewarded greatly.

Temperament spoke up. “Why do you speak in the third person? And then switch to the first?”

Forgive me, it’s a bit of a quirk I’ve picked up. I carry with me the souls of thousands, all those who could not live with the consequences of their short-sighted desires. I speak in the third mostly out of respect, for even in the lives of the fallen are lessons to be learned and wisdom to be gained.

Flare sniffed in disdain. “So you work in one-sided deals that steal souls? I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ll get along well.”

If you choose to look at it in that way, we suppose you could, but I consider myself a force for good. Fear not, my intent is not malicious this day. We come bearing a conditional gift.

“How conditional?” Eclipse asked, eying the Metaspectre carefully.

Do you all agree to hear me out?

“Well, now that you’ve brought it up, we kind of have to know.”

A fair point, Gemini. It would be most cruel for us to leave it on such a cliffhanger, wouldn’t it?

Thael lay down in what remained of the snow, after Flare’s blast. Despite what you might think, I’m not here to impede you. Note how much we’ve stayed out of your way as you’ve journeyed across this land. Speaking to Twilight specifically, of course.

“Of course,” Lustrous answered.

I, the core personality, am quite interested in what this world has to offer. There’s some hidden quality of faith for a better world that I’ve never seen in all of my travels. I’m interested in preserving this faith until I can understand what makes it survive. And so, I give you these.

With a flash, four hovering scrolls appeared, their runes written in dark red ink. The runes seemed to shift and melt about the page, making them hard to read.

These are time-travel scrolls. Each one will transport the caster into the past, at a point of their choosing. However, they can only transfer their consciousness. Once you arrive, you will either need to rebuild your body as an infant and risk losing your memories until something can revive them, or you’ll need to possess somebody already in the timeline.

Eclipse looked from the scroll to Thael, then back again. “The concept is interesting, but what good do they do us?”

The past is not a secure foundation. Your very existence is variable. Most will never notice it, but the timeline is being destroyed and reformed constantly. Many outcomes dictate your demise. But with these scrolls, you can give yourself a second chance. If you're about to die and you have one on your person, it will activate and save you. I have essentially given you an extra life.

“But we already come back to life after dying, right?” Spectral Slash looked around at the others. “Tell me I’m not crazy here.”

You are quite correct. But that only holds true in this world, the Forgotten Realm. Once the worlds merge, things will be quite different. Death will be permanent, mistakes life-changing, relationships strained and trust almost non-existent, at least until things settle down. By returning the past, you will have the ability to influence events to ensure your future comes true once again, as well as growing powerful enough to actually make a difference when the time comes.

“Just how far back can we go?”

Theoretically, back to the beginning of time. But unless you find a way to escape mortality, it won’t do you much good.

“What's the catch? Beyond the restrictions, there must be some sort of penalty attached to using the scrolls.”

You just assume that there's some hidden penalty? Do you not trust us? Well, you're right in your assumption. If your past self who used the scroll directly interacts with your future, or rather, current form, before the current self realizes what they are to become, both past yet future and current form will cease to exist.

Temperament rose a brow. “So you're saying that the scrolls could have already been used?”

Indeed. All four have.

“So four of us are running around in history somewhere?” Shuddercry chortled heartily. “Well then, what's the point in offering the scrolls to us? If it's already been done, it's not like we have no choice in the matter.”

You're looking at this all wrong. Allow us to make an extreme example. Let's say we offer you two options. You may either be fed, sheltered, and cared for for the rest of your life and thus allowed to devote your energies into bettering yourself or your goals, or you have the option of being scalded for days on end, without rest, by hot coals wielded by your worst enemy. Which do you choose?

“Is that even a question? Who wouldn't choose the first one?” The others nodded agreement to Applejack's interjection.

Well then, was it a choice or predestination? I knew with certainty that you'd answer that. Does that mean you couldn't have chosen the other, painful option?

“Well, no, I suppose I could have.”

I give you the choice again. Which do you choose?

“The guarantee of comfort.”

Again?

“Comfort.”

Once more.

Jackie stepped forward. “Alright, we get it. How does this tie together?”

As I said, it was an extreme example. However, the lesson holds true. You as a person would make the same choice every time if you were given the same opportunity, with the same memories, in the same circumstances. The mind does not make its decisions based on chance. It chooses right and wrong based on the morals you know and what you've encountered in the past. Every wrong you did, you would do again. Every right as well. But it was still a choice. So, while I can now say you were predestined to choose the comfort option, since it has now happened, until the moment you consciously made the decision, it was still undecided. Even though I was sure you'd choose comfort over pain due to the nature of life, you still had the potential to surprise me.

When you look at the past, it seems everything was meant to be. Things could have gone another way, sure, but then the world you know now would cease to be, and that just seems inherently wrong. Yet you had to be there to make it happen. This is why I leave you the scrolls. The catch is thus; by using them, you will be thrust into a new situation, largely out of your control, where you will likely make mistakes, and cause terrible, terrible things. It will be your choice, but it is also already written in the books of fate. You will have to live with your mistakes, but the reward is thus; once you have caught up to your time, the future is once again uncertain. And then, with all the knowledge you have gained, you can make the future brighter.

With a slight flourish, the scrolls rolled up, a magical seal holding them shut. The Metaspectre handed them over to Gemini, who took them cautiously, placing them in her saddlebag.

Now then, we will be off. We shall meet you in Windark. We look forward to it.

“Wait!” Eclipse reached into her saddlebag, retrieving the confiscated black crystal.

The Metaspectre narrowed his eyes. Oh? What's this?

“Twilight Sparkle took it from your altar. I'm not fully aware of the circumstances.”

Gemini stepped forward, and Twilight began to speak. “At the time, I wasn't fully aware of what you were. It was when your soul was unresponsive, just after you appeared in Reality.”

Yes, we are aware. Had we wanted it back, we would have taken it from you. It served its purpose in getting you this far, but I don't think you should have an unfair advantage from here on out. The Metaspectre's smoky form surged forward, and grabbed the crystal. Funny that you chose this crystal, in particular.

“Why's that?”

It was the first piece of alchutine given to me. It grew next to my soul, and as such, it's both sentimental and attuned to me.

“Alchutine? Is that what the crystal is made out of?”

Yes, the most precious of materials, in the practical sense. They have limitless potential for energy storage, and due to its habit of growing next to our forming souls, it was quite important in my people's religion.

Gemini's ears perked up. Now this was interesting. “There's more than one Metaspectre?”

There were. To my knowledge, I'm the last of them all.

Gemini looked down. “Oh. I'm sorry.”

Don't be. It was so long ago, and most of them had already given up their immortality out of despair or boredom. Being a sentient non-organic creates some interesting, though different, struggles.

“If they had given up so long ago, why haven't you?”

Stubbornness, to be honest. I've found that life is ultimately pointless, but I refuse to pass from this world until I am proven otherwise. I don't want my life, nor my people's existence to be meaningless.

Flare rose an accusatory brow. “And so you entertain yourself by ruining other people's lives?”

I need not explain my actions. Thousands of years of experience has taught me not to argue with those who aren't ready to listen. With a deep, exaggerated bow, he bade farewell, and with a flash of light, was gone.

Eclipse stepped over and knocked Flare over her head. “Great job scaring him off.”

“I don't trust him one bit. I don't know how you can.”

“I don't, in particular, but as long as he isn't actively working against us, we should try to take advantage of his unpredictable ways. And the more we know about him, the better we can help ourselves and avoid yet another enemy. For somebody who's lived in the Forgotten Realm, you seem rather oblivious about basic tactics.” Eclipse stepped forward threateningly.

“Or you're overlooking the fact that keeping him around would likely cause contention in our group, which is something we don't have the time nor the resources to deal with.” Flare stood her ground resolutely. Eclipse frowned and stepped forward once more.

“Disagreements are easily dealt with. Lost opportunities are more costly than a little mutiny.”

“Well, you–”

“If you two lovebirds are finished, I'd like to get a move-on. I don't particularly want to wait for the armies to find us.” Shuddercry began walking in the general direction of Windark without waiting for a reply. The rest of the group quickly mobilized, even the reflections of Justice and Mercy recognizing the need to continue towards their goal.

“Twilight, can I see one of the scrolls?” Rarity was trotting alongside Gemini expectantly. Lustrous sighed internally, but allowed Twilight to reach into the saddlebag and hand the scroll over.

Rarity began turning it over, careful to not undo the seal. Temperament trotted up besides her. “They seem to be very well made.”

“Yes, as much of a smooth talker as the Metaspectre is, he has wonderful crafting skills.”

“Quite a bit of power in them,” Eclipse called out. “I think we can assume they will work as advertised.”

“I advise against their use, however.” Flare ran forward to join the group gathering around the scrolls. “Time travel is not a light matter, and despite what the Metaspectre says, staying in our own time is the most prudent decision.”

Jackie sighed. “Alright, we get it, you don't trust him.”

Flare was silent for a moment. “I've met some of his victims, those few who were lucky enough to make it out with their lives. That was just about all they had. No, I don't trust him, but don't pretend for a moment that it isn't reasonable.”

The party continued on for the remainder of the day. Just before dark, they came to a large cliff.

“This is what we get for staying off of the main road. The thing about roads? They usually avoid things like this.”

“It's alright, Shuddercry, we'll find a way over this.” Gemini rubbed her temple as she thought. “I mean, you and the other pegasi can fly over, it's just a matter of getting the rest of us up.”

“We could try ferrying you up, one at a time.” Spectral Slash jumped into the air, holding out her front legs in offering.

“Good plan. Two pegasi to a pony, is that reasonable?”

Fluttershy nodded. Shuddercry laughed. “Can you even get off the ground with those wings? I don't know how you're going to help carry anybody else.”

Fluttershy grit her teeth. “As a matter of fact, yes. I'm not the best flier, but I can hold my own just fine.”

The two reflections looked at each other for a few moments. Shuddercry rose a brow, but finally turned away, her temper neutralized. “Very well.”

The pegasi got to work, carrying Gemini and Jackie first. “It'd be easier if you were already an Alicorn,” Rainbow Dash commented.

Thorn flew up with them. Spike sighed. “Man, I wish I could fly.” Thorn turned to look at him, then flew down and grabbed his arm, flapping as hard as he could. It was a noble effort, but due to his smaller size, Thorn just didn't have enough lifting power. Spike laughed cheerfully. “Hey, thanks man. At least I know somebody's looking out for me.”

Thorn stopped and looked into Spike's eyes, landing on his arm. Behind his fierce animalistic looks was a spark of intelligence that seemed anxious to help.

“Heh, you know, maybe you're not so bad after all.” Spike stroked Thorn's spines. Thorn purred in delight.

With a flash of light, they disappeared. Gemini looked down. “What happened?!”

“I'm not sure, they just disappeared!”

“Oh.” Gemini knew where this was going.

With another flash of light, a single being reappeared. Great, leathery wings stretched from his back, smoke flowing from his nostrils, and his body glowed with a powerful aura. Upon realizing he had returned, he patted himself down to make sure nothing was missing, only to find several new additions.

“I... merged?” The combined personality seemed to maintain Spike's intelligence and demeanor, while gaining Thorn's wings and more adult-draconic features. Spike's formerly gentle name-sake spikes traveling down his spine had been swept back and sharpened. His wings, unlike Thorn, did not replace his arms, but instead granted him another set of limbs. Their body seemed to have age a few years as well, making him the size of a middle-aged dragon teen.

“Three down, a bunch more to go,” yelled Jackie. “How soon until the rest of us merge, I wonder?”

Gemini was set down at the top of the cliff. “Thorn! Or, uh, Spike! Can you fly up here now?”

“I'll try!” He gave an experimental flap, then began in earnest. Quickly enough, he was airborne. “Hah! Is this what I've been missing?”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “I'll have to challenge you to a race someday once you're used to flying.”

“Oh, you're on.”

After a few minutes more, the rest of the group had successfully surmounted the cliff face. They walked a short distance away before Gemini decided it was getting too dark to continue. “We'll camp here for the night.” The others nodded their understanding, and went about setting up camp.

“How worried should we be about attackers?” Pinkamina asked while the others were busy.

Gemini thought for a moment, looking the way they had come. “Not too much. Perhaps they'll discover our tracks, but it won't be until they've had their fun with the Abbey, and in any case, they won't send the combined forces after us. No, I think we should make ourselves as comfortable as we can tonight. After all, it's tomorrow that everything comes to a head.”

She looked up to the almost-full moon, just beginning to rise. “The solstice is tomorrow, and one way or the other, this comes to an end.”

Inner Glory Publishing Drive!

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Good news, everyone! Have you ever had the thought that you'd like a copy of this story on your bedside table? Or perhaps that you need a heavy book to throw at your friend when he's being annoying? Well, it looks like your daydream can become a reality! But only if we band together!

www.indiegogo.com/projects/inner-glory-publishing-drive

In short, I'll need about $500 to make a run of physical copies of Inner Glory. Of course, this is also dependent on the story getting finished. My silence these last few weeks hasn't been me being lazy. Nope, this time it's been the opposite! I have four more chapters beyond Chapter 51 already written up to help incentivize the fundraiser! For every $100 raised, I'll release another chapter immediately. If we don't reach the mark and the fundraiser ends up being a flop, then I'll still release at bare minimum one chapter every two weeks. Either way, you win!

Head on over to the campaign page. Make any donation, and you'll get the eventually completed, edited eBook for free, regardless of the amount. Instead of coming on over to fimfiction and worrying about your internet connection dying, you can have it all in one, easy .pdf to read on your laptop, phone, or eReader!

Essentially, the more money is raised, the more time I can spend on this story and the better the results. Any little bit helps! Sacrifice that extra burger you didn't really want, or that pack of gum you bought on an impulse. Bring an author's dream to life! I only have until June 5th before I've left the country for two years, so that's my hard deadline. The book will be finished by then. You have my word.

Remember also to tell anybody who might be interested. Spread it around! The more people that get in on this, the better for everyone!

We now return to your irregularly scheduled story.

Chapter 51: Endgame

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Chapter 51: Endgame

“Is everything in order for today?”

The guard nodded, bowing slightly before Celestia's presence. “All the proper preparations have been made. Unless something unexpected comes up, the Winter Solstice celebration should run flawlessly. We're only missing Princess Luna. Is there any news on her return?”

“Not yet. Twilight and her friends are doing their best, but I fear they won't make it in time.”

“If I may ask, my princess, what do you plan to do?”

Celestia sighed, rubbing her head tiredly. “I'm not sure. I might have to take direct action, but I don't want to endanger anypony if I can avoid it.”

“I trust your judgment, princess. We all do.”

“That's what keeps me going.”

The guard saluted as Celestia left the room. She slowly stalked through the halls until she came to her bedroom. The guards had perfect posture, ears perked for an order. She nodded her acknowledgment and dismissal, then passed them by and stepped inside.

She strode over to her desk, once again looking over the papers she had prepared. She was running out of options. She couldn't allow the darkness to escape, but to trap her sister, and her closest subjects, well, that simply wasn't an option.

Or was it?

She shook her head. She couldn't think such things. And yet...

She paced back and forth, mind racing. The first priority was to prevent Seren from escaping. She was the only pony alive with the memory of his rise to power. And that was the way it should be. If he escaped once more, due to the nature of his element, he'd be worse, far worse than last time. Everything centered around him. If he wasn't an issue, Celestia wouldn't oppose merging the worlds. If it wasn't for him, they wouldn't have split in the first place. If it weren't for him, Luna wouldn't have fallen, if it weren't for him, Celestia wouldn't have needed to kill her sister. She wouldn't have lost control of the Elements, and perhaps the last thousand years would have amounted to more than a waiting game.

Despite all the bad, she had to recognize the good. If she hadn't lost the Elements, if Luna hadn't fallen, Twilight would have never reached her potential, or at least, not nearly as quickly. Challenges were necessary for growth. But it was so painful until you could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

She turned back to her papers once more. It would have to be done. She couldn't allow Seren's influence to spread once more. She had to deal with the threat before it rose. She looked outside. It was about time to raise the sun.

She opened the chest at the foot of her bed. Four glowing orbs of pure energy greeted her. Every spare bit of power she had gathered over the last year had been poured into these, as she had done every year for the past thousand years.

It was time to renew the barrier between Reality and the Forgotten.

{- - -}

“Looks a bit more run down than Canterlot,” Rarity commented.

Jackie nodded curtly. “A year and a half ago... yeah, I suppose it'd be to the day, our goddess was reborn. She was to rule this land, to unify the races with an eye single to fairness, but something intervened, and she disappeared.”

“And this was Luna?” Applejack asked.

“Yes, or rather, Nightmare Moon. When she appeared in the summoning circle, four stars above the castle blasted her with their light, destroying much of the main castle itself, while the resulting chaos, power struggle, and wars caused the rest of the damage.”

“And these four stars belonged to the intelligence in the Moon Pool, Seren.” Gemini flexed her leg in anticipation. “When I spied on him while in the Natural Plane, I saw those four stars hovering above the water. It wouldn't be wrong to say we should expect him to act sometime soon, based on what I know about him.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Spectral Slash nodded towards the city gates of Windark. “We've only got five hours until noon, when the eclipse is supposed to happen. I'm no historian or astronomer, but landmarks in the heavens seem to attract big events, and I don't think we'll want to miss it.”

The group clambered over the last rise and onto the broken road. The streets were, as expected, empty. The air had a tangible spark to it, the trace of arcane warfare.

“So, uh, Eclipse. Any idea what the upcoming eclipse will do?”

Eclipse turned to look at Gemini. “Not much. I do find it ironic that my namesake will play such a pivotal role in today's proceedings, however. My only guess is that the physical blocking of the sun's light will weaken Celestia's power in both worlds. It could possibly boost Luna's power as well, as Celestia's light is absorbed by her magical reserves. Yet eclipses are not entirely uncommon, so they must have some sort of agreement, I'd imagine.”

A sudden, audible and visible pulse struck the group. It passed through their bodies harmlessly, but it filled them with dread.

“What was that?” asked Pinkamina with worry.

Gemini raised her head, looking around slowly. “I'm not sure. It was... almost restraining, more than anything. Whatever it was, it must have taken an awful lot of energy. I can't pinpoint, or even guess the origin, which means it must have come from really far away. Miles upon miles, actually.”

“Will it hurt us?” asked Shuddercry gruffly.

“It shouldn't.”

“Then let's keep moving. We'll figure it out later, and if we don't, it wasn't important in the first place.”


The sun began to peek over the mountain top, announcing that the morning had officially begun. High in the city, Luna was examining the abandoned streets pensively. “Was this all really meant to belong to me?”

While the worlds were split, but I'm afraid you'll have to share your inheritance with Celestia once the worlds merge.

Luna stretched her neck, her wings flaring out in sympathy. “She's done it, hasn't she? Sealed the worlds, I mean.”

Yes, as a matter of fact.

“Does she think that'll stop Seren?”

She's quite sure it won't. She's just trying to buy time. Which also explains why she's on her way.

Luna turned to look incredulously at Thael. “She came to the Forgotten Realm?”

Yes. She locked the world when she came inside. And, as you know, her presence means that your safety is no longer guaranteed.

The dark shadow and the princess of the night stared each other down. The light wind rustled Thael's mane, causing particles of ash to fall loose. He didn't move, seeming to settle for pondering Luna's presence and past.

“Well? Aren't you going to attack?”

Thael laughed quietly, and for once, the expression was audible. No, you have misinterpreted what we said, as I intended for your sister to. I wish you no harm. From the beginning, this has been about rebalancing the worlds. I'm the closest I've ever been to achieving my life goal of meaning, but experiments will be inapplicable unless dark and light reside in the same world.

No, you need not fear me. When we made the statement that I could not guarantee your safety should she enter this world, we meant only that her presence causes too many variable outcomes. Some are certainly more likely than others, but Mercy is a tricky thing. If applied at the right times, it can turn even the darkest heart. How she chooses to throw her weight will decide the final outcome of this hour.

“Where is she, then?”

A few hours off. She should be passing over the Moon Pool right now.

“You don't mean... ? But her proximity will inflame his Element of Vengeance!”

Oh, we do. That was the other part of us not being able to guarantee your safety.

{- - -}

Across the great distance Twilight and her friends had covered flew a single streaking blaze of glory. Celestia's wings were folded back, her horn shining with divine brilliance. Her magic-fueled flight exceeded natural capabilities, but she only expended the energy due to necessity. She knew she only had once chance. She had left him unattended for too long. The problem with banishment spells was that you could never truly defeat an immortal. When one was your sworn enemy, that lead to a lot of uncomfortable reunions.

In the distance, she saw it, rushing towards her. The lake of blackness, Seren's prison. The Moon Pool. Sure enough, there were the four stars of Atrocity. Famine, Plague, War, and Death. They hovered over the Moon Pool excitedly, waiting for the catalyst. Even if Celestia hadn't arrived now, the upcoming Solar Eclipse would have done it, and then Celestia would have been at her weakest when she needed her power the most. No, it was better to get the pain over with.

An irony, she realized, since pain would be introduced to Reality soon enough anyways. She braced herself, and streaked directly over the center of Seren's prison, her aura of light descending upon the dark waters, piercing and dispelling the gloom. At the bottom of the now crystalline pool was bowed a form she had long tried to forget. The Alicorn of Stars, and Vengeance. Her once good friend, and Luna's closest confidant.

Seren.

The male alicorn stood, breaking the weakened arcane chains tying him to the bottom of the waters. Celestia craned her neck to see what she could even as she continued to flee.

The four stars instantaneously gained terminal velocity, plummeting the few feet and smashing the surface of the water, which shattered like glass. The waters parted, and the dark creature opened his brilliantly golden eyes, looking up into the sky, directly at the sun goddess. He narrowed his eyes in dark disdain. Celestia could then see no more without slowing down. But she felt the presence haunting her trail, and now she dared not look back, not without support.

{- - -}

The ragtag collection of ponies darted between the rundown buildings, nearing the castle gates. They gathered behind an old bank, near the drawbridge. The castle itself seemed in far greater repair, and the traces of arcane warfare disappeared at its perimeter. Either it had been avoided as a target or else somebody had put in a good deal of effort repairing it.

Are we expecting an ambush? Twilight asked Lustrous.

Not particularly. But it's best to be on our guard.

Gemini motioned for the others to follow. The Spike and Thorn hybrid was still excited about his wings, and it sometimes took physical force to remind him to stay silent, which Shuddercry was happy to provide.

They remained in the shadows for a few moments to make sure the coast was clear. “It feels too easy,” Jackie hissed.

“That's because it is.”

“Maybe the Metaspectre doesn't have an army? Maybe he doesn't want us killed?” Fluttershy looked around for support.

“We can only hope. Let's go.” Gemini jumped from her cover, checking around the natural corners of the battlements. Only silence and the wind greeted her.

They reached the heavy oaken gates. Gemini gave a tentative yet hefty push. The doors swung open, creaking softly. The hallway inside was dark and ominous, and the shifting air could easily be mistaken for voices.

The moment Gemini crossed the door's threshold, the torches in the many braziers flared up with a ghostly white flame, much like the Metaspectre's eyes. The comparison gave Gemini the uncomfortable impression she was being watched. The flames, while perhaps spooky, didn't seem particularly threatening, nor did anything else greet the party, friend or foe.

They walked through the halls, which naturally flowed towards what they could only guess was the throne room. There were many rooms on the side, but the doors were shut. They opened a few out of curiosity, but they just lead to other, abandoned parts of the castle. Dust was a constant reminder that they were one of the few to tread these floors since the city's destruction.

What will happen to Equestria, should the pony race ever pass on? What would we be remembered for? Will our existence have been meaningful?

The Metaspectre's concern for the fate of his race seem a little more understandable with this sense of inevitability, doesn't it?

The torches finally ended, in front of two more doors. These were certainly smaller, but were far more ornate, aesthetics valued over simplistic practicality. In the middle of the doors, beginning on one and bleeding onto the other, was a crudely carved message: “Know yourself or be forgotten.”

The leaders eyed each other thoughtfully, and, with nothing to publicly be said on the matter, Gemini opened the second set of doors. The initial push was caught by some unseen force, gaining momentum beyond what she had given.

The doors revealed a throne room that, for all intents and purposes, matched Celestia's. But in place of her throne was one made of silver, adorned with symbolism representing the moon. Sitting in it was the mare of the moon herself, their long-sought quarry. Gemini let her shoulders relax in relief. She was still alive, and finally, her quest was coming to an end. She caught herself and stood at rapt attention. It wasn't over yet.

Luna caught Gemini's eye. “Good to see you once again, Twilight. It feels like it's been so long.”

Gemini nodded, stepping forward. “We're here to rescue you, Luna.”

Luna smiled softly. “I appreciate the effort, but I am quite alright. The Metaspectre kept his promise.”

Gemini, largely controlled by Twilight at the moment, was taken aback. “What do you mean, princess? Don't you want to come back to Equestria?”

Luna's smile fell off of her face, replaced once again by stoicism. “I'm sorry, but I can't. Not until the Great Crime is answered for.”

Gemini began closing the gap between the two parties, subconsciously hoping that her advance might convince Luna to change her mind. “The Great Crime? What are you talking about?”

“Celestia's trespass. Her missteps, her sacrifice that killed me and made us lose the power of the Elements of Harmony. She has forgotten her place, and as I have been restored to Justice, she must be restored to Mercy.”

“Hasn't she been merciful all along? In your absence, she ruled well.” Lustrous exerted her will. “Heh, not quite. Remember my people.”

Luna raised a brow. “You've merged already? Well then, you of all people should understand. Celestia's been working in forced conditions, wallowing in her crime. You see, Mercy must transcend the law, but it simultaneously be subject to it. Until she has purified herself once more, she is not at her full power, and is in no case fit to rule.”

Twilight laughed. Two weeks ago, she wouldn't have dared question what either of the princesses was saying, but she had been through too much. “Are you sure this isn't just petty revenge? I don't mean to offend, but can Justice function if it's tainted by ulterior motives?”

Luna stood suddenly, her rising causing a crack of thunder to sound. “Do not question my motive! I wish there were another way! Despite what you may think, I love her more than I love myself! I do it not for me, but for her!”

“She's right, you know.”

Gemini whipped around. Once again, Discord had held his tongue just long enough to steal the spotlight. He was hiding behind the door Gemini had opened, and she realized now that it wasn't some mysterious, dramatic force that had pulled the doors open for her, unless you counted Discord dressed as a butler as mysterious or dramatic.

Gemini didn't give him more attention than acknowledging his presence. There were more important things to take care of. “Well, if you're not coming with us, what would you have us do? We've made a promise to Celestia that we'd return you to Equestria. How would we explain it to her? And do you really expect us to go through all the trouble of finding a way out of the Forgotten Realm just to return empty hoofed?”

“Celestia's on her way now, as a matter of fact. You won't have to find her; she's coming to rescue us now.”

“Rescue us? From whom?”

“Seren, of course.”

“But if she's come into this world, then–”

“Yes, you're correct. The deal Thael made with her is off. My safety is no longer guaranteed. I prefer it this way, to be honest. It gives my actions more weight, when I don't have a shield to protect myself.”

Gemini grimaced. Everything they had worked for was crashing around her. But it didn't come as a shock. With how much both halves of her had changed in these past two weeks, it was foolish to think that Luna wouldn't have changed in some degree or another. Yet, she had blinded herself to the facts. It would have been too much to deal with on top of everything else that had happened during her travels. It was a survival mechanism, and nothing more, but she hated it. It kept her from critical knowledge, and this wasn't the first time it had happened to her. Well, to Twilight anyways. Most of her friendship problems came from her blinding herself to the truth, because it was hard to face. She sighed. It was just something she'd have to learn to deal with.

Jeez, cool it with the self-pity. I don't want any of that rubbing off on me. It only distracts you from your goals.

Gemini looked accusingly towards Luna. “What made you change your mind? Such a shift in attitude doesn't come with time alone.”

“You're right. It comes with experience. And that's exactly what happened. Thael restored my memories to me, reminding me why I had acted the way I did, so many years ago. I was foolish, and yes, I fell prey to one of his traps. But his interference has made me a better person, no matter the pain at the time. And for that I cannot blame him. It was all within the confines of Justice.”

“Thael!” Gemini yelled to the largely empty room. “Get out here! You have explaining to do!”

Gladly. The Metaspectre appeared directly in front of Gemini, between Luna and the enraged unicorn.

“I want a straight answer. Why?”

Why what?

“Why everything? Why have you lead me on a merry chase all the way out to the warped reflection of Canterlot? Why did you blow up my library? Why capture Luna? Why are you always in the middle of every event, but never the focus of it?”

We only ever acted at your command, my lady.

Gemini scowled. “Excuse me?”

You are the first in many thousands of years to have outsmarted me. You made a deal, fulfilled the debt, and I couldn't refuse my contract. All along, we have been acting under your orders, Princess Dawn, Goddess of the Earth.

Thael grinned slyly at the silence. Even Luna and Discord’s mouths were hanging in shock.

How's that for a bombshell? Boom.

Chapter 52: Servitude

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Chapter 52: Servitude

“You're kidding right?” Gemini counted in place, unsure of how to handle the situation. “I never know if I can take you seriously.”

I am many things, among them a kidder. But when we are asked a direct question, I feel it deserves a direct answer, no matter the cost to feelings or relationship. No, we are dead serious.

“If this is true, why is this the first I've heard of it?” Twilight accused.

Oh, it hasn't happened yet, of course. But you gave me very explicit instructions to not only ensure it did, but to not tell you until you had finally reached your goal in the Forgotten Realm. Much of your growth is a result of your floundering, after all.

Lustrous spoke through their shared mouth. “Well, what of me? Am I doomed to be consumed by this goody-four-horseshoes here?”

You didn't make any deals with me, so I am not obligated to answer you, nor do I think answering will benefit anyone in this room, most of all yourself. You are destined for greatness. That is enough.

Gemini began circling the Metaspectre, who stood stock still, besides his eternally floating mane, which rose and fell as if in a pool of water. Both ponies controlled Gemini's legs. Both were dying for answers, but they had to be asked in the right way, they knew.

“Tell me, what are you really? A creature from another planet, yes, but why come here? Why now? Why me? I want answers. That’s why I pushed myself all the way to this reflection of Canterlot. If you’re bound to help me, explain to me what’s happening!”

I began to explain yesterday, before I was rudely interrupted. He gave an accusatory glance towards Flare, who held his gaze. I will tell you my life story, if you'd like. I can only tell a pitiful fraction of it all, but you have earned my respect, and thus an explanation. Perhaps this will provide you insight into my actions.

Gemini eyed him coldly. “I will allow you to continue as long as I feel you’re not just stalling for time.”

I am the last of my species. We were a proud race that lived on a world much like yours. There were many sentient species, each with their own goals and tactics. Due to the nature of our long lives, we found border clashes pointless and ultimately fruitless, as no one race could triumph over another. So we stayed secluded to the volcano we were birthed from, forming an entire city around it, drawing energy from the volcano, enough to keep it under control. Our souls are formed from a crystal that we believed, for the longest time, could only be found in that volcano. Alchutine, the black crystal. Forgeable, limitless potential for energy storage, and sacred to us in every way. In its purest form, the crystal takes a golden coloring, and when molded into an orb, holds energy so flawlessly that it can house a soul. It was upon this foundation that our race lived, for without the crystals, we would simply die off. Without the material to make new Spectres, it would only be a matter of time before we would disappear. We guarded our hoard jealously, and though we avoided conflicts, every race was eyeing our energy source. After all, with that much power, they could conquer whomever they wanted. But we couldn't let them have it. A foreigner touching the very crystals that gave us life? The thought was sickening.

However, I was more open minded than most. Shortly after my birth, I came to the realization that a purer knowledge came from experience, more so than careful study. So I left my home, which, while certainly not unprecedented, was unusual. I took with me only the shard of alchutine that I had grown next to. This became my weapon, my focus, and my heart.

With a flash, the shard of alchutine Twilight had chosen from the altar materialized. As it hovered, it began to stretch and convulse, and in short time, it had morphed into a black longsword. It seemed to pulse with power, as if it was far more comfortable in this form.

I became a hired killer. An assassin, a tool sent by cowards to do their dirty work. And I loved it. I gave into animalistic instinct, falling to bloodlust. With each kill, I grew stronger, sapping my target's failing life force into my sword, which only fueled my fury.

But along the way, I found friends of other species, who saw past my darkness, who chose to ignore the differences. And for a while, I found myself worrying more about the good of the world, caught up in some foolish plan to right all the wrong I saw. For every tale of success and great heroics, there are hundreds of would-be heroes fallen by the wayside, slain for their ideals but never remembered. Well, my friends met this fate. They were killed in battle, even as I finished the last resistance to our new world. I refused to let their essence die out forever. And so, I did the impossible and the abhorrent, binding their souls to mine. They were the first of my many personalities, but even now, they're still the loudest, urging me to press on whenever I feel that perhaps it's all pointless.

This discovery of merging souls started a long path that I'm still on. As I have said, experience is a better teacher than any book. Each soul I took had some new insight to share, bringing me closer to the answer to a question I hadn't even asked yet.

One day, a terrible discovery was made. While traveling with another wandering, female Metaspectre whom I loved as much as is possible when your race doesn't reproduce sexually, we detonated shard of alchutine in a blind panic, much as you did, Twilight. The physical devastation was terrible, of course, but more importantly, it actually managed to hurt us.

“Hurt you?” Gemini asked. “Well, shouldn’t it have?”

Here, try to attack me directly, and I'll show you what I mean. I won't retaliate.

“I’ll give it a try.” Temperament ran forward, her sword swinging in wide arc. The Metaspectre didn't move, and the sword made contact with his smoky, still form. Gemini cringed instinctively, but it was needless. The sword passed through the Metaspectre's ethereal body effortlessly, the resulting wind pulling with it some of the smoke, which was quickly drawn back to make him whole. Temperament gave a couple more swings with similar results, and finally, there was a metallic CLINK.

The smoke dissipated, leaving only the seven golden orbs. Barely above them, where Temperament's sword had hit, was a physical shield of light, resisting the blade. With a small flash, the sword was pushed away. The smoke rejoined once more.

We Metaspectre are built to survive most attacks. If we're actively watching an enemy, we can move our souls around in the shroud of our bodies. And as long as we have enough energy, getting a lucky hit, as Temperament just did, is survivable. Traditional weapons are largely useless. But what we discovered is that alchutine is both our savior and our undoing. If a magically attuned creature holds of a piece of it, and causes it to explode as you did, Twilight, it strips us of all of our energy, causing our shrouds of smoke to dissipate, and our protective energy fields to flee. We drop to the ground, our soul no longer interconnected, and we become just seven golden orbs, completely defenseless. Over time, if the orbs are kept together, they'll draw in ambient energy around them and begin to repair themselves, but it's a position of ultimate terror for us.

“Why tell us your weakness?” Gemini asked, tilting her head.

Do any of you /really/ want to kill me? Do any of you have alchutine? Would I even mind a noble death at this point? No, I do not fear you. As you need not fear me.

Continuing, this discovery was dangerous for my people. After we recovered, lucky enough to not be destroyed in our weakened state, we rushed back to our home to warn the others, consequences of our misdeed be forgotten. The others agreed that this was dangerous knowledge, and we watched our hoards of alchutine more closely than ever before. We would have been safe, if one of the other kingdoms hadn't found an unprotected source of alchutine. The amounts were minimal, and low powered as they didn’t have guardians watching and maintaining the reserves, but it was enough to put a serious damper on our resistance forces. Over time, it eventually reached a point that we, as a race, were driven back to our volcano to make our last stand. As I watched my allies fall around me, I did the unspeakable. I went to the heart of the volcano, and detonated it in its entirety. It wiped out the enemy forces and everything around for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. I killed thousands of my own species, but ultimately saved the few who were left. They and the rest of the world hated me for what I had done, but what is right is seldom appreciated.

It took many years, but our race grew back to relatively normal numbers. Yet the world had advanced around us. It had changed, for the worse. There was no self-restraint, no kindness in the average man. So, I left, displeased with it all, my hard work to create a better world having proven fruitless. Most of my race stayed behind, trying to carry on in their own way. My love stayed behind, and though it pained me, I felt an insatiable need to search beyond the confines of my planet.

The world I had come from could teach me no more, but perhaps others could. I searched the cosmos for other civilizations, settling down and trying to learn as much as I could from the few that I found. I realized that while I had essentially as much time as I wanted, I hungered to know as much as I could as quickly as possible. So I began planting the seeds of creation, creating worlds that had pristine conditions for life. Using time skips, I could arrive at the peak of their civilization, trying to find the answer to the question I now knew. What was the point of it all, if our actions will one day be forgotten?

Speaking with the denizens of these worlds wasn't enough. The information they gave me was incomplete, and bound by the context of my appearance. They could only give me answers influenced by what they thought I wanted to hear. Eventually, I returned to my animal behavior, arriving not as a creature of enlightenment, but an avatar of destruction. They rallied their forces, but I withstood them all. I got the information I wanted, rending it from their minds, but it wasn't enough. It was never enough. I returned to subversive means, setting up shop in their mythologies as a corruptor, trying to claim the desperate. After all, the desperate in every civilization are those who actually have something to believe in. I finally understood emotions, every reason for every wrong decision you could think of. Every misguided dream, love, perversion and act of nobility.

After a while I realized that largely the only thing that kept people moving ahead in their short flashes of life were the relationships they built for themselves. I returned to my home world to find my lost love, armed with this new knowledge, but when I got there, I found that she had already chosen to pass on. I was so blinded in my pursuit of the ultimate answer that I had forgotten the one source of true happiness in my life. She was disillusioned, tired, and concisely, done with living. Those who informed me of her death told me that she had promised she'd find me in the great beyond, whatever that was. But I refused to continue without answering the very question you asked me, Twilight Sparkle. The new question that consumed my mind. Why? Why indeed.

I continued my search, but my heart was out of it. As I insinuated earlier, my doggedness was largely due to my stubbornness. I refused, and still do, to pass on without figuring out what the point of existence is. I have many ideas, many personalities that are completely convinced one way or the other, but as a collective, I'm still torn.

This is why I was, and am, so intrigued by your world. It was a rare civilization, one that I hadn't created myself. A world of kindness, of genuine love rather than endless war. Sure, there was still fighting, but it was with intent, and not for power, but to right a wrong. It was noble. It had the purpose of higher thought. And so I observed, waited, and pulled away those who challenged the system, to see what possible flaws it could have, and how they could be fixed. Perhaps in a utopia, if such an idea could be reasonably created, I could find the true purpose of creation.

The entire time I was in this world, however, I felt some presence pulling me to its beginning. Eventually, I relented, and that's when I met your future self, Twilight. You caught me in my words, tying me into the events of the last two weeks, and every event that’s led up to it. My main directive was to act as I normally would, and so I returned to my timeframe, corrupting who I could. Then Luna visited me. Little did I know that it was all part of grand master Sparkle's plan.

So, that's why I'm here, Twilight. Of my own accord, simultaneously bound by you. The end of this tale intrigues me, and due to my contract, I must remain. And so, I'm here for the ride. I have not told you a hundredth part of my history. I don’t have the time. Perhaps, someday, I’ll write it all down, in case I ever pass on.

I digress. I am curious to see where these events take you. This is the closest I’ve ever been to fulfilling my goal. I feel my heart rekindling, and that’s a very good sign.

“Couldn't you just jump to the future to figure out what happens?” asked Rainbow Dash.

The problem with that is that it'd only be conjecture until it actually happens on the core time stream, and I'd prefer to not spoil the surprise.

“You know, I think that's the longest I've ever heard you speak in the first person,” Gemini commented.

I was talking about my personal history, not the collective decisions of my many personalities. The decisions that affect my personal life are mine, and mine alone. I can take consideration from the examples of others, including my captured souls, but in the end, I hold no respect for them. Only their logical arguments can sway me.

Gemini was nodding, mulling it all over. “Well, thank you for sharing with us, but there are many gaps in your storytelling that are a bit irritating.”

That can be expected, when I've been commanded by you to not say too much.

“See, that's the biggest one. Am I really to believe that I'd be foolish enough to make a deal with you? And in the future-past, after I’m fully aware of your capabilities?”

You misunderstand. It wasn't foolish. It was brilliant, and we respect you for that. Though, we just realized that your confidence might have come from us explaining it to you just then. Well, time is nothing, if not self-fulfilling.

“And back to third person. I want to set up a date between you and Trixie, that'd be a sight to behold.” Gemini sat back for a moment. “Alright Tell me, what's the plan now? Luna won't come with us, Discord's doing his own thing, Celestia's on her way, and Seren will likely be close behind. What can we even do at this point?”

You could just roll over and take it.

“Absolutely not!” exclaimed several dark reflections immediately. Their light equivalents nodded their agreement.

Or... perhaps you can elevate yourselves as close as you can to their level. If you want to challenge the gods, you have either have an unbreakable will, or else the power to back up your weaker one. Having both an unbreakable will and lots of power is preferable, however.

“What do you mean?”

Follow the path that Pinkamina, Gemini and Spork have taken.

“Spork?” asked several at once.

Spike and Thorn. Spork.

It took a few moments, but before long there was a grin on everybody's face, Luna included. Spike and Thorn laughed. “Sure, why not? I guess we're Spork from now on.”

Gemini turned to Thael. “Well, if the others are going to merge, how will they do it?”

The same way you discovered. Both parties have to have a desire to merge, and you have to physically touch each other. The union in mind yet separation of body can only last so long. If you don't do it now, it'll happen soon enough. Luna and Seren will see to that.

Luna coughed. “I'm still here, you know.”

Of course. I'm just telling it as it is.

Shuddercry tapped Gemini on the shoulder. “Listen, I don't mean to complain, but I really do. I don't really want to merge with Bumblefly or whatever her name is.”

Fluttershy scoffed. “Well, if you think I have any desire to merge with you, you've got another thing coming, you big brute.”

“Oh ho ho, she's got some bite to her.”

“Only because I want you to change. You're nothing more than a bully, throwing your weight around where it doesn't belong. Element of Brutality? More like the Element of Cowardice. You resort to physical violence because you don't know how to deal with people in a softer manner. If you could only be kind to people a little more often, I think you'd find you'd have a lot more friends.”

“Friends. Hah. They hold you back, making you deal with their problems instead of your own. Why would I want any?”

“You're wrong. They lift you up when you fall, they give life a greater purpose than just looking out for yourself. Because guess what? Someday, you're going to be old and alone, and there won't be anyone to help you move on, not if you treat them like you have.”

“But if you let them walk all over you like you do, you won't have any friends either! They'll take you for granted, they'll think that your smile is ever-present, that you're always happy, that you haven't a care in the world!”

“A good friend can see past all of that. And that's why you need them!”

“If you are your own best friend, there's no need for others! You'll always be there for you!”

“Then I think we're agreed.”

“Indeed, I believe so.”

Gemini rolled her eyes. This was going to be much more difficult than she had hope–

With a flash, the two yellow pegasi disappeared, and in short order, one reappeared. She stretched her wings experimentally, craning her neck. “Alright, I can live with this.” She took off her helmet, which she had kept from Shuddercry, and set it down, her long, soft pink mane falling down like drapes. Her turquoise eyes were bright and full of determination, paradoxically caring yet unforgiving.

“Gemini, ma'am. Sergeant Flutterspry reporting for duty.” She saluted sharply, before ducking momentarily. “If you'll have me, that is.”

Chapter 53: Trial and Error

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Chapter 53: Trial and Error

“What was that?!” asked Rainbow Dash incredulously.

“We came to an agreement. The other needed to be taught a lesson, and words weren't going to cover it. So, we both took the plunge, hoping that our actions will speak louder than words.” The voice changed from the sweet yet forecul midpoint between Fluttershy's and Shuddercry's voice to a fully gruff voice as Shuddercry momentarily took full control. “If this Sergeant can't teach this pansy a thing or two, I'll turn in my helmet.” Then, after a moment, the voice returned to a kinder tone. “And if I can't show her that a kind word is more effective than her silly whip, I'll say I was sorry for being wrong.”

“Ugh,” groaned Rainbow Dash. “So, what are you going to do with all that spare power?” she said, shielding her eyes from Flutters' shining form. Flutters shrugged.

“Eh, I think I'll just do what Lustrous and Twilight did. No use turning into an Alicorn if I don't have a good reason to.” She drew the energy from the transformation off of her, crushing it until it formed a crystal bracelet of sorts. She put it around her right wing, giving a few experimental flaps to make sure it wouldn't noticably impede flight.

“Well, how about the rest of you?” Sergeant Flutters asked. “You ready to have some wonderful reflection bonding time?”

The other pairs looked at each other questioningly. Only Jackie and Applejack, Temperament and Rarity, and Spectral Slash and Rainbow Dash remained. Well, Flare and Eclipse too, Gemini realized. She turned her attention to them.

“Well? How about you two?”

It only took a quick glance between the two unicorns to confirm what both of them were thinking. “No, we don't really want to merge. Our principles are just too different. We'd rather stay separate entities.”

Gemini nodded. She couldn't quite impress her own will upon these two like she might be able to with her friends. Whatever they wanted was fine by her.

“What about you, Thael? What's your plan?”

Nothing much. It's just a waiting game for me, as much of my life has been. I'm in no rush, nor will I intervene, unless you want me to. Now, Gemini, while the rest of your friends literally pull themselves together, and Luna prepares to confront her sister, I believe you have a memory bubble you haven't looked into just yet.

“Oh?”

The other one given to you by the Beholders.

“Oh! Seren's!”

“Speaking of which, I'd like mine back, if you don't mind.” Discord held out an empty silver platter. Gemini pulled out the two condensed memory bubbles, and after figuring out which was Discord's, placed it on the platter, which Discord whipped away.

Luna sighed. She had just about had enough of Discord's antics during her stay here. Regardless, she stayed silent as she watched the proceedings thoughtfully.

“Are you sure that the memory is ready?” Gemini asked, placing the remaining golden orb on the ground. Now that the Metaspectre had kept her attention for a while, she recognized the similarities between Thael's soul and the memory bubble. Perhaps his soul was composed of many layers of memory bubbles. She wondered what it'd be like to try to expand the soul orbs.

The memory should be ready, yes. It was set to unlock upon his release. After all, he's not Forgotten anymore.

Gemini focused her attention on the memory bubble. She was startled to hear many layered conversations all at once. “Must be the mind reading,” Lustrous commented. With a tinge of curiosity, she turned to the Metaspectre, who watched her closely. She probed forward, searching through the shroud of smoke, finally latching onto the Metaspectre's soul.

The burst of information was immense. More than anything Twilight had felt before. It was loud, like a crowd shouting all at once. Thousands upon thousands of voices, all crying out at once, but surprisingly, all about the same topic. They were each weighing in on Thael's current thoughts. They all seemed to point in one direction. Towards the core personality. Gemini followed the path of thoughts, and finally the voices ceased. One voice alone remained. Quiet, solemn, and ancient.

Greetings, Gemini. You have found my inner sanctum.

I don't mean to intrude, but–

No, no. You do. But I allowed it. Sometimes it's nice to listen to just one of the voices. Well, I suppose it's actually two. You know, I've spoken to each of the souls I've taken, and that's after what was necessary to claim them. Each one has a story, a mind, a life. Hopes, desires, opinions about me, you, everything. When you have infinite time, you learn to grow close to them. I suppose, one of the reasons I take souls is because I couldn't carry on alone. Were it just me pushing through these thousands of years, I think I wouldn't have made it very far.

What are you? A creature of light or dark?

That's the question, isn't it? Are light and dark the only two options? Or is it possible to have someone who embraces both light and dark, a creature of gray? While you think on this, you should go finish your duty.

Gemini felt herself being pushed out of his mind, Thael guiding her vision so that Seren's orb immediately grabbed her attention. She cradled it in her telekinetic aura, gently pulling at it like bread dough. Slowly, the memory grew larger and less tangible, until it was nothing more than the field of energy.

Worry not. Your friends can handle themselves, and there's time yet before Celestia and Seren arrive. We shall wake you if you are needed for anything.

Gemini’s vision faded as her mind was filled by the memory bubble. Her vision recovered, and she found herself looking at a throne room much like the one she had left; this one, however, was in pristine condition and occupied. There were two thrones as well, she noted. Celestia sat in one, and an obviously younger Luna sat in the other. A cowering pony, shackled and restrained, stood before them, royal guards watching over him.

It seemed the princesses were using their throne room as a court room of some sort, with a small audience of well-dressed and grim-faced ponies. A bailiff pounded the ground twice, before clearing his throat. “The court has reached its decision. The accused has been found guilty of murder. Sentence; execution.”

The criminal pony began crying bitterly. “It wasn't malicious! I swear! We were both drunk, and he came at me something fierce. It was a matter of life and death you see! It wasn't my fault! Please, I want to live! Give me a second chance!”

The crowd was unamused, not a single face of kindness returning his hurried gaze.

“Take him away,” called Luna. “Allow him to write his last Will and Testament. The execution shall be held tomorrow. Justice is swift.”

“Justice is swift,” murmured the crowd.

The pony was dragged screaming from the room, all avoiding his gaze. “I know I am nothing, but I have so much unfulfilled! I want to live! I'll do whatever you want! Just don't let me die!”

The doors slammed shut. Twilight was a bit shocked. Courts in Equestria were far more lenient than this. She hadn't even heard of a murder case in years, and even then, the murderers were given a second chance.

Heh, we're lucky if we have only one murder each day in the Forgotten Realm.

The small crowd filed out of the room, only the princesses and their attendant guards remaining. Celestia looked distraught, while Luna looked rather pleased.

“Luna,” Celestia began carefully, “Due to the circumstances, couldn't we let him have another chance? He was truly repentant.”

“The fact remains that he committed the crime. His foolish drunkeness is an explanation, not an excuse. In fact, in condemns him more. It shows he has no self-restraint. Do we really want him running around our cities, draining our resources and corrupting our people with his animalistic behavior?”

“But if he could change, his example might save many.”

“I disagree. He was given his chance with life, and he chose to make a mockery of it.”

“Well, I feel strongly about this. I think I'll pardon him.”

Luna whipped around to face her sister. “Don't be so quick to throw away my judgments. You've already pardoned the last three defendants. If every criminal, nay, every murderer can come in here expecting to get away free for a sobstory and a few crocodile tears, our courts will have no effect on dissuading crime, and the problem will only get worse.”

Celestia got quiet, lowering her eyes to the ground as she got quiet. Luna shuffled in her seat, proud of her small victory over her older sister. Suddenly, the scene went fuzzy, the colors warping around Gemini. As quickly as it had begun, a new scene appeared. She was in the castle courtyard, in a somewhat larger crowd than the last part of the memory had shown. Up on a small wooden platform stood the two princesses, their guards, and the condemned criminal. The crowd around her was jeering at the criminal, who shrank under every accusatory word.

Luna stepped forward. “We shall now proceed with the execution.” The crowd's noise tapered off. She turned to the prisoner. “Any last words?”

He lifted his head, face emotionless. “I have none. I've said only the truth, and my pleas went unheard. Perhaps it's better to leave such an unfeeling world while I still have my dignity.”

It was now that Gemini realized that there wasn't any obvious means of execution up on the platform. No blade, no noose, nothing.

One of the guards stepped forward, placing a bag over the accused's head, then proceeded to push him to his knees.

Luna stepped forward, staring at the now faceless subject. “Justice is swift,” she muttered, her horn flaring. A great, glowing axe materialized. The sound made the blinded, doomed pony shudder, but he held still. Luna raised the axe, her face stoic and grim. The crowd held its breath.

“Hold, sister!”

Celestia stepped forward, placing herself between Luna and the prisoner. “I intercede. As the Alicorn of Mercy, I will take the burden of his crimes upon myself. I will make it my personal duty to see him reformed, and if I must, I will die in his place.”

Luna lowered the axe slowly, a dark glare overcoming her, but she answered in kind. “As the Alicorn of Justice, I accept the sacrifice. The demand of justice has been fulfilled, and the crime has been paid. He is free to go.”

The crowd whispered amongst themselves as the redeemed pony was unshackled. Gemini caught the glance of a small family of ponies who seemed the most disappointed, indeed, perhaps even angry. An impression came across her. The family of the deceased.

Once the prisoner was freed, he fell once more to the ground, thanking Celestia profusely. She accepted his praise gracefully, indicating he should stand. She placed her wing over him. “I have bought your life. And now, I give it back to you. If you serve others and turn your life around, perhaps someday you can repay me.”

“I will do all I can, my princess. I devote the rest of my life to serving you.”

“Then go, and sin no more.”

The same guards that had brought him to be killed escorted him through the crowd and out of the courtyard, their faces watching him with wonder.

Celestia stepped forward, addressing the crowd. “Let this be a lesson to all of you; the most important thing in life is making the world a better place. If we want to reach perfection as individuals and as a race, we must give others the benefit of the doubt. Do not sully yourself by wishing blood on others. I beg you, please, go home and spend time with your families. Teach them that forgiveness is paramount to revenge. Show them, through example, that hope is greater than doubt, that a soft word is stronger than an army, that redemption is more desirable than punishment.”

Celestia jumped off the stage, shooing the gathering softly. The crowd dispersed, still somewhat shocked by the events. Celestia made her way over to the family of the deceased, comforting them quietly.

“The more she does that, the less effect it will have,” Luna muttered. “She and I have to talk tonight.”

The scene shifted once again. Twilight found herself confused; where was Seren in all of this?

Gemini appeared in Celestia's chambers. The two princesses were also here, alone. “Listen, Celestia, I understand that you think each pony should be given a fair chance at life, but you don't understand. While you're here dealing with delegates and diplomats, I walk with the common pony. I know their troubles, and the truth is, we can't fix all of them. The best we can do is cut away as much of the core issue as we can.”

“But sister, my tactics are working. I've seen several murderers completely turn around, living better lives!”

“And just as many have ended up back in our court, to be executed.”

“Yes, and then, as much as it pains me, I allow you to carry out the deed.”

“It's not a lossless decision. To get back into the court, they have to commit a crime once again, and they have to be foolish enough to get caught. We're only breeding a smarter criminal in the long run.”

“Or a kinder nation.”

“Hah! Perhaps. But I wouldn't count on it.”

Celestia turned to Luna, exasperated. “Come now, don't you trust your older sister?”

“I would, were it not for the fact that you're being blind to what's happening right beneath your nose. No, wait, perhaps you're not.” Luna narrowed her eyes. “You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You're using me as a political scapegoat. Justice receives no praise. The criminals you let free hate me, as in their eyes, I was the only one who condemned them. Those affected by their crimes hate me since I'm not ensuring the wicked are brought to justice. The diplomats don't pay attention to me since I'm the younger sister, as you're always so keen to point out, and the very nature of our creations betrays the difference between our public image. Everybody loves the day your sun creates, and only forbidden lovers enjoy the peace my night brings.”

“Luna, aren't you being just a little bit vain? Isn't one of your teachings to do what is just regardless of praise? Simply because it's the right thing to do?”

“Yes, of course, but can you blame me for feeling a bit betrayed by you and my subjects?”

“No, of course not, but you're acting childish!”

“Perhaps it's because I'm still a child! In name as the younger sister, in power as you've stifled my arcane growth, and in recognition. No, apparently age means nothing, it's all dependent on what others think of you!”

“It's called maturity, Luna, something that you need to learn!” Celestia stamped her hoof, the sharp crack accenting her point.

“If maturity is not speaking your mind, especially when it pains you, if maturity is being indirect and creating a web of lies and swaying from your principles because you're afraid it'll hurt somepony else's feelings, then I want no part of it!”

“Well, you're doing a pretty good job so far! It's called restraint, Luna. You're selfish if you think your opinion is the only one that matters.”

“You're ignorant if you think other people's feelings are more important than doing what's right!” Luna began to tear up, her underlying fury becoming apparent. “You give your words of comfort after the trials to the grieving families, but then I go out there and see the aftermath! They lose a father, a mother, a brother or a sister, and how do we console them? With empty words. I can't keep what I promise because, who would have guessed, you just override it with the oh-so-wonderful mercy! The thing about mercy? Somepony's got to take the fall, and if it's not the criminal, then it's got to be somebody else. Despite your vows, is it ever you? No, it reflects right on back onto those we're supposed to be supporting, watching over!”

“Silence, Luna!” Celestia's voice was full of force and barely controlled anger. “You forget your place. There is more to be done than dealing with the criminals. I do the best I can, but there's always more to be done. We have to worry about the economy, the very building block of a good life. We have to worry about foreign threats; several countries want to conquer Equestria. Do you know how trying that is? I have to worry about research into better technologies and medicines, and where to best use our funds. If you want more responsibility, I can give it to you, but you haven't proven able to deal with what you have!”

“That's rich,” Luna sniffed. “You know nothing of what I've done. Nobody does. The only reason things seem to be going your way is because I've been correcting your mistakes. We'll see how things go without my support.” She turned to leave, Celestia immediately realizing how harsh she had been.

“Luna...”

The door slammed shut.

Just outside, Luna's composure broke down. The pressure of the world felt like it was bearing down on her. She began sobbing quietly, trying to prevent Celestia from hearing. Suddenly, Luna became aware of somebody watching her. She threw an accusing, tearful glare towards the presence. It was one of the members of her personal guard.

“I'm sorry, my princess, but I couldn't help but notice you seemed upset when you left your chambers. I know it was wrong of me, but I followed you to try to console you. I heard everything.” The guard bowed deeply, avoiding Luna’s gaze. “I know it isn't my place, but I appreciate everything you do. The reason I initially joined your guard is because I love the night, and all that you stand for. Please, take comfort.”

Luna sniffed, using her forehoof to wipe her tears. She laughed pathetically. “Thanks. I really needed that.” She stood up, trying to compose herself. “Walk with me, Quicksilver.”

Chapter 54: Seeds of Revolt

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Chapter 54: Seeds of Revolt

Luna opened the door to her chambers, stepping inside. Quicksilver paused, unsure if he should proceed.

Luna looked back and laughed quietly. “Come on in. You had the guts to act without my orders before, so why stop now?”

The other guard on duty gave a curious glance, but stayed at his post as Quicksilver, a gray pegasus with striking, golden eyes stepped inside. He removed his helmet, shaking loose his even darker gray hair, which was tinged with occasional off-white strand. Luna's guards tended to be on the blacker end of the color spectrum, Twilight noted. She wondered if helped them camouflage during night missions or something.

“Now, tell me Quicksilver,” Luna began as she circled around, before setting down on her bedroom rug, placing her head into her front hooves. “How long have you actually been paying attention to me?”

He stood at attention. “Since I joined the forces, your majesty. It's never been just a job for me; it's been a constant chance to learn from the best. I consider you a great teacher.”

“A great teacher? Of what, pray tell?”

Quicksilver grinned. “Of everything. Through your example, you've taught me resolve in the face of adversity, the value of freedom even unto sacrifice, the maturity to look far in the future for the consequences of my actions, creativity when faced with a challenge, the ability to criticize myself to better improve, and overall, the strength to face each new day.”

Luna giggled, indicating he should close the door. Quicksilver obliged without hesitation. “Just how long have you been preparing that speech?” Luna asked, bemused.

“Well,” Quicksilver chuckled nervously, “Quite a long time. I never thought I'd be able to use it though, to be honest.”

“Oh?” Luna's eyes widened, and she tilted her head. “Why's that?”

“Well, you're so busy trying to keep the kingdom together, I didn't think you'd ever have time for a lowly soldier such as myself.”

“I give attention to all who ask. All you needed to do was say something.”

“As I did, your majesty.”

Heh, this guy's good. If we ever get married, it's going to have to be to somebody like this.

Shut up and just watch the memory, Lustrous.

Luna regarded the still saluting guard carefully. “What's your angle? Trying to suck up for a promotion?”

Quicksilver drew back in shock, looking genuinely pained at the accusation. “Of course not! I was worried for the wellbeing of my princess, whom I'm assigned to watch over.”

“Oh, so it's just business then?”

Quicksilver stammered as Luna grinned coyly. “N-no, of course not. I mean, there is, well...”

“Come now, I'm only playing.” Luna indicated he could relax. Quicksilver dropped the salute, but remained standing. Seeing that he was uncomfortable sitting, Luna stood up, and stepped over to the balcony. Quicksilver followed, but was sure to keep a few paces back out of respect.

Outside, it was brisk, though not quite chilly. It was a cloudless night, and Luna's moon was already high in the air. It was a full moon, illuminating the earth below in silvery beams, but, as Gemini noted, the stars were missing. “What do you think of it?” asked Luna.

“Of what, your majesty?”

“The night sky.”

“It's beautiful, as I believe I said earlier.”

“But doesn't it feel like it's off, somehow?”

Quicksilver frowned pensively, stepping forward. “I've never considered it. But... perhaps...” He noticed Luna watching him. “I don't mean to question its value.”

“No, of course not, it's just something that's bothered me for quite some time, and I want a second opinion on it.”

“Well, perhaps your moon is a bit too... bland.” Quicksilver looked at her sheepishly.

Luna raised a brow. “What do you mean?”

Quicksilver shrugged. “Well, Celestia's sun illuminates the entire sky, and there's so much to see on the ground that you don't pay much attention to the sun itself, just its effects. But when it's dark, all attention is placed on your glorious moon. And, please don't take offense, it's too perfect. It feels like it's aspiring to be something it's not. Not a crack on its surface, and that just makes it... bland.”

Luna looked up thoughtfully. “You're saying that imperfections would make it interesting?”

“That is my humble opinion, yes.”

“Interesting.” Luna fondly regarded her moon for a few moments longer, in this new light. Finally, she shook her head, as if waking from a dream. “Thank you Quicksilver, you've cheered me up. I have work to do, but if you ever feel the need to speak with me again, don't hesitate to ask.”

Quicksilver replaced his helmet. “Of course, my lady. I'll be just outside until my shift is over. I just wanted to let you know that I, and the other night guards, care for you.”

He backed out of the room slowly, bowing the entire way. He managed to awkwardly open the door without breaking eye contact, then left the room, the door clicking softly.

Luna turned back to look at her moon once more. “Perhaps... perhaps he is right. Imperfections are what make life interesting...”

{- - -}

“Luna! What did you do to your moon?”

Luna rolled her eyes. “Don't you ever knock?”

It was the beginning of the next night. Luna had wondered how long it would take Celestia to notice the change, seeing as she almost always fell asleep immediately after her turn taking care of the kingdom.

Luna turned to face her impatient and confused sister. The midnight blue Alicorn mustered as much of an air of indifference as she could. “Somepony told me that the moon looked bland, and I agreed. So, I simply knocked a few asteriods out of orbit and crashed them into the moon.”

“A few? It looks like you crashed the entire belt into it!”

“Eh, a few dozen, a few hundred...”

“All this for a style change? Didn't you have something better to do?”

“Don't you? Like sleep?”

Celestia sighed, then took a deep breath. “I'm sorry for bursting out at you yesterday, Luna. It's been bothering me all day. It looks good, but I'm worried about you. You could have at least warned me about something like this. A couple delegates came screaming to me, worried that the world was ending.”

Luna turned away, focusing on the paper she'd been writing on. “You don't need to worry about me. I just thought a breath of change would rejuvenate my outlook on life, that's all.”

Celestia stood silently. She folded her wings after realizing she still had them flared; a defense mechanism. “Well, alright. Just... stay safe.”

“I will, Celestia. Good night.”

“Good night to you as well, Luna. Get some rest in the morning.”

Celestia stepped out of the room, the guards saluting her as she passed. Gemini felt her consciousness get pulled out after her, but surprisingly, it didn't follow her. After the door shut, and Celestia was out of sight, the two guards both noticeably relaxed. One even giggled quietly. “So, what do you think? I hear Quicksilver's got the hots for Lady Luna.”

“Shut up!” the other guard hissed, grinning wildly. “You're kidding.”

“And if my sources are correct, she might just return the affection.”

“What makes you think that? Where're you hearing this? Those town criers that will spout any bit of gossip they get their hooves on?”

“No, you heard what the princesses were talking about. Luna changed up the moon because somepony suggested it. Who do you think it was?”

“It couldn't be... hah! But isn't falling in love with the princesses totally forbidden?”

“Oh, of course. I'd have to ask him, but I'm guessing that's what makes it fun.”

“Poor sap. Even if it does end up going anywhere, it'll only end in heartbreak.”

“What, you think he'll fall for somepony else? Or that she would?”

“Eh, I dunno about the princess, but I think Quicksilver's not the type. No, I'm talking about the, uh, age difference.”

“Oh, right, that. She's how old?”

“They don't like throwing that information around, and heck, nopony's gonna ask them outright. Bad enough with a normal pony, but our princesses, the immortals?”

“Well, maybe that makes them more willing to share.”

“I wouldn't count on it. And of course, there's the other end of the spectrum. If they get together, he'll grow old, and she'll stay as she is. You can only love a guy for so long, but you've got to let go sometime. Preferably before his body turns to dust.”

“Maybe he... no.”

“What? Come on, tell me.”

“Maybe it's all political. Maybe he's trying to figure out how they did it.”

“Did what, become alicorns?”

“Yeah.”

The two sat in silence.

“It’s possible.” Quicksilver himself came around the corner, with an air of indifference. He scraped his hoof against the ground as if trying to get a smudge of dirt off his uniform’s bracers. He looked up at his coworkers with disinterest.

“Oh! Quicksilver!”

“Hey guys. I’m here for my shift.”

“Haha, right.” The two guards shuffled uncomfortably, wondering what he had heard.

“Anyways, I’ll see you guys after work. We’re still on for the camping trip, right?”

“Yeah, we’ll see you then. Hey, where’s Firebrand?”

“He called in sick. Luna said she’d be fine, seeing as we’re not at war or anything right now."

“So, it’s just you and the princess then?”

“Yup.”

The replaced guards gave each other a glance. “Alright then. Don’t the two of you get in trouble.”

Quicksilver furrowed his brow. Then his mouth dropped as he realized what his friend was insinuating. “Hush! It’s not like that! Go on break or something!”

“I think it’s exactly like that.” The guards chuckled as they left for the staff kitchens.

Quicksilver frowned after them. But even as they turned away from him, he began grinning wildly. It was exactly like that. Luna hadn’t been offended by him! It might take months, maybe even years, but he finally had a chance to get to know his personal hero. He’d always listened intently whenever the story of the princesses’ rise to power had been discussed in school. It was so wonderful to think that there were heroes like them were in the world. Furthermore, ruling the country!

Quicksilver sighed, leaning on Luna’s door. He’d always known what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to protect the nation he’d grown to love, to be a hero for the foals to look up to. To make the world a better place! And sure, the princesses had their trials, but they had both the power and the vision, and he wanted to help them in any way possible. If that meant being a faceless guard, so be it. But he could be so much more. He only needed to be given the chance.

Quicksilver’s eyes shot open in horror as the door swung open. He collapsed to the ground in a tangled, unsightly, and terribly unprofessional heap. When he looked up, red-faced and ashamed, he met Luna’s once again bemused gaze.

“Are you having trouble standing? Perhaps you should meet with the doctor.”

“N-no, my princess. I’m sorry.”

Luna grinned, and shook her head. “What am I going to do with you? I can’t have my sole guardian distracted by, no doubt, dreams of his girlfriend waiting back home. She’ll be there when you return, you know. It’s only five hours.”

“Well, princess, I don’t actually have a girlfriend.” Quicksilver stood and dusted himself off, making sure to not brush in the princess’ direction.

“What?” Luna looked genuinely surprised. “A nice stallion such as yourself?”

"I’ve never made the time to find one.”

“And what’s been a better use of your time?”

“To be honest, my lady, my career. I want to serve my country.”

“A noble task, to be sure, but you have to make time for yourself as well, or else you’ll go mad. Come with me, I was going to make a visit to the castle gardens.”

“Of course, princess.”

As they stepped outside, Quicksilver looked up in wonder. “You… you changed the moon?”

“Somepony I respect told me it needed fixing, that it needed to be different. And you know what? They were right.”

In short time, the two were patrolling the carefully manicured foliage. They stopped in front of the statue of Discord. Neither spoke as they regarded the fearsome yet comedic image. Luna sighed before speaking. “As terrible of a ruler as he was, he got a couple of things right.”

“Princess?”

“His chaotic nature, while destructive, also helped things progress in Equestria. For the past six hundred years or so especially, I’ve felt like we’ve been in a state of sluggishness. No wars, no terrible natural disasters, and no attempts at political upheaval… the ponies have grown complacent. For generations, the princesses have been there to watch over the day and the night. Nopony’s concerned with political affairs unless it’s part of their job, since nothing ever goes wrong. We have the occasional criminal, but only the stupid ones get caught. And then Celestia just goes and pardons them, making my role moot. It makes my part of the job largely thankless, and certainly unneeded. I feel like Celestia’s overshadowing me in every way possible, and that upsets me. And yet, she does such a good job, I can’t truly complain.”

“What are you asking, my lady?”

“Your opinion.” Luna stopped Quicksilver and locked him into place with her piercing, searching eyes. “Give me a straight answer. Is my job important?”

“Well…” Quicksilver sighed. “I’m sorry, Luna. Much of what you say is correct. Whenever I tell acquaintances that I’m one of the royal guards, they seem disappointed when I say I’m yours, and not Celestia’s. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it seems like, in general, the pony mind only has room for one leader.” He clenched his eyes shut, bracing for an angry retort, but it never came. He peeked one eye open carefully.

Luna’s head was downturned. “Thank you for your honesty. It’s hard to hear, but I’ve known it has been happening.”

“I’m sorry…”

“Don’t be.” She straightened up, her short, aquatic-colored mane jerking from the motion. “You’re absolutely correct. But I must ask; if the general populace doesn’t appreciate my efforts, why do you?”

“Because I’ve seen how much you care.”

Luna looked at him, her eyes smiling warmly. But Quicksilver wasn’t finished. He gestured towards the statue, a strange parody of Discord’s mocking pose. “When the two of your majesties cast down Discord, your actions always spoke stronger to me than Celestia’s. I understand you did it to avenge your parent’s death at Discord’s hand, but Celestia was too soft with her retribution. She wanted to give him a second chance, when time and time again Discord’s proven he’s unforgivable. But you, my lady, you had it right. You knew that an example had to be made out of Discord. His true and final death would have ushered in an era of progress and enlightenment. It’s a pity that you had to compromise with her, trapping him in this stone.”

Luna tilted her head questioningly. “You do realize that speaking against Celestia’s verdicts is treason, don’t you?”

“Of course. But I’m willing to put my life on the line for my beliefs, your majesty.”

Luna laughed, her voice clear and light on the night’s cool air. “I can see why you care about my opinions. You and I think much alike.”

“Indeed, my lady.”

“Please, Quicksilver, call me Luna.”

The two looked at each other for a long moment, the imperfect moon reflecting in their eyes. “I would be honored, Luna.”

Chapter 55: Invasion

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Chapter 55: Invasion

“Come quickly! I want to show you the new books we got!” Luna giggled as she ran through the hallways, servants dodging out of the way and bowing as she passed. Quicksilver ran to catch up, out of breath.

“Hold on! You’re outrunning me!”

“Hah! I thought you guards were supposed to be physically fit! It must be all those late visits to the kitchen!”

“Wait, you know?”

“I know everything that happens at night! After all, I am the princess of the night~”

“Can’t a guy get privacy?”

“Not when you’re dating a goddess!”

It had been two months since Luna had appointed Quicksilver to be her personal advisor. Celestia had been somewhat wary of Luna’s sudden and major changes to her life, but she had slowly grown warm to Quicksilver and the positive change he brought out of Luna. It had been weeks since Luna had complained about anything that Celestia had done, and she was finding it most refreshing.

The princess and her newfound friend were enjoying it as well. “What kind of book is it?” Quicksilver huffed. He looked around the library, trying to find it before Luna pointed it out. They were alone, besides a maid that was dusting the shelves a few rows away.

Luna pulled a shining, obviously freshly printed book off of the shelf she had stopped at. “It’s a book on teaching magic!”

“Oh.” Quicksilver sounded a little disappointed. “The way you were giggling, I thought it must have been a sappy romance novel.”

“Hush. No, I’m excited because, well, I was wondering if you would like to give it a shot.”

Quicksilver’s ears perked. “Wait, you want to teach me magic?”

Luna nodded enthusiastically. “You are always complaining that the unicorn guards have it easier. It would be a good excuse for us to be together, and you’ll learn something practical too.”

Quicksilver rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, sure, I’d love to, but are you sure you’re up to the task? I’m a blockhead when it comes to learning new things. My parents gave up trying to teach me pretty early on. I guess it doesn’t help that I threw a fit whenever they tried.” When he saw Luna’s smirk, he added “Come on, I was only a foal!”

“I think I can handle you,” Luna said.

“In that case, thanks. When were you thinking of starting?”

“Right now?”

“Right now right now?”

Luna raised a brow. “Unless you have better plans.”

“Well, no, but… I thought you might need some preparation or something.”

“I’m always prepared. Besides, the basics of magic are easy enough to teach without a book. I want to use it as a guide, not a crutch. Here, sit over there.”

Quicksilver did as he was told. Luna sat across from him, only a few feet away. She placed a few pebbles from a nearby potted plant between them. Quicksilver was excited, but unwilling to show it. He tried to maintain composure. After all, though they were good friends, he was still part of her staff, and he had a reputation to uphold.

“I will start you with the spells foals learn when they are first entered into school.”

Quicksilver cringed. So much for maintaining his dignity.

“Basic telekinetics. Your task today is to move the stones with your mind. Now, it’s going to be a bit difficult for you, since you’re not a unicorn, but that should only make any achievement you make all the more impressive.”

“How do I begin?”

“Focus your mind, and unfocus your eyes. At least for now, we shall focus on sheer power, not precision. As a non-unicorn, you’ll concentrate your inherent arcane energy through your eyes. They will be your horn. Much of magic follows a scientific progression, with certain procedures producing replicable effects, but it’s all founded on an understanding of the flow of magic, which has to be experienced, not lectured. Go ahead and give it a try.”

Quicksilver frowned in concentration, then widened his eyes at the stones, leaning forward. His mouth moved as he silently willed the pebbles to lift into the air. He sat like this for twenty seconds or so before he looked at Luna. “Nothing’s happening.”

“Keep at it. Eventually you’ll get it.” Luna took the book on magical instruction and began flipping through it, seeming disinterested. Quicksilver shook his head and gave it another shot. The blue alicorn watched him out of the corner of her eye.

Ten minutes later, Quicksilver gave a groan of frustration. “Nothing’s happening!”

Luna looked up from her reading. “Try something different, then. Approach from a different angle. If thinking of what’s physically in front of you doesn’t work, come up with some analogy in your head. Maybe the pebbles are actually leaves, and you’re a powerful wind, blowing them away.” She flipped the page over.

The unamused pegasus looked back to the tormenting pebbles. He knitted his brow, focusing his breathing. “Okay. Alright. You’re leaves. I am the wind. You’re nothing against me. You’re just blown aside as I pass by, hardly even noticing you.”

“Leaves don’t have ears.”

“It’s hard enough without you mocking me!”

“Sorry. I’ll be quiet.”

Quicksilver closed his eyes for a moment, saying nothing. He sat like this for almost a minute before Gemini began to grow impatient.

We could always try reading his mind, I suppose.

Twilight had to admit it was worth a shot. They combined their mental capacities, honing in on Quicksilver's mind. It was certainly more difficult than it was in the present day, but finally, like a whisper on the wind, his thoughts flowed over theirs. His thoughts were not of words, but of emotion and pictures. The feelings surged back and forth, like a wave, growing in intensity and frequency. With a final effort, the power was released from its restraints, pouring forward. And, behind the emotion came a spark of creation. The spark ignited the pent up frustration and desire, and with a flash, Quicksilver's eyes illuminated with understanding and arcane power.

The pebbles shot into the air, pelting the walls and bookcases, embedding like bullets. Luna instinctively threw up a shield, deflecting one of the projectiles back to Quicksilver, who caught it telepathically, causing the pebble to hover motionlessly. The light faded from his eyes, but a brightness remained. “I did it!”

Luna bounded over and hugged him. “That was wonderful! Oh, Quicksilver, you're wonderful! You're such a good student.”

“Well, it was only a child's spell, right?”

Luna nodded consent. “Yes, I suppose it's a bit early for celebration.”

“I don't mean to deflate you. I mean, still, that was exhilarating! Do you feel that every time you cast a spell?”

“Depending on the complexity of the spell, it can be very exciting. Try it again, see if you can get it under better control.”

Quicksilver's eyes glowed again, and the pebbles shook a little, but didn't lift. He smiled awkwardly. “Alright, so I'm not the prodigy I was hoping I might be.”

“The harder you work, the more sweet the reward. Here, now that you know what it feels like to control magic, perhaps I can give better advice.”

Alright, enough of this. It looks like somebody didn't bother to abridge this history. Lustrous' impatience was bleeding over. “Forward!” she yelled.

Images flitted past Gemini's eyes, largely many hours of magic practice during the night interspersed by rest and discussions in the day. Finally, an impression came over both minds. The main event was about to happen.

“Stop!'

Luna and Quicksilver were in a magical laboratory of some sort. It was a simple room with a table holding books and a few components. Luna and Quicksilver were staring each other down, a circle drawn around them, each standing at an opposite end.

“Three, two, one.”

Luna's horn flared, and Quicksilver's golden eyes glowed with a white light.
The air in the room stirred. With a flash, Quicksilver was engulfed with flame, which spun around him rapidly, creating a perimeter. Luna took the sight in for a moment, then swung her head forward. A bolt of shimmering, almost liquid magic shot through the air towards the flaming guard.

Quicksilver manipulated the fire to meet the attack, neutralizing it. Luna threw three more bolts in quick succession. Quicksilver split the flame in three, catching each with little effort.

Luna nodded. “Good. You're progressing well.”

The light disappeared from Quicksilver's eyes, and the flame extinguished as quickly as it had appeared. “It's been a struggle every step of the way. It's taken months to get to this point.”

“Regardless, you've made remarkable progress. I'll admit, there isn't much precedence for teaching adults, but you're in about year three of magical studies. Not bad, considering it's only been months.”

“I have wonderful teacher. And, well, it's not just for me. I'll be a far more effective guard if I actually know a thing or two about magic.”

“I'd say you know a little bit more than just one thing or two. But yes, there's always more to learn.” The two stepped over to the table. “Like this, for example. Summoning.”

“That sounds useful.”

“It can be, yes. It's not to be toyed with, however. If proper precautions are not taken, it can prove disastrous for the summoner.”

“Well, I'd like to give it a try.”

Luna nodded, pleased. “I was afraid that you'd worry that you weren't ready.”

“Well, I've come to trust your instincts.”

“You'll have to, the further we get into your studies.” Luna flipped to a specific page of the book. “Here, draw these runes on the ground with the components I've provided. When activated, they'll summon a personification of your subconscious. It should be safe, and it's always fun to come to know the most influential part of you.”

Quicksilver got to work, tracing the symbols with chalk, as instructed. Telekinetics seemed to be second nature now that he had been practicing for so long, managing to balance both the book and chemicals without a second glance.

In short time, he had made a perfect copy of the diagram. Luna looked it over before nodding her approval. “It looks good. Now, you'll want to stand there, then read the runes out loud.”

Stretched his neck, vertebrae popping as he stepped over. He planted his hooves into the ground, analyzing the drawing he had just made. “Yr wyf yn edrych i mewn i fy meddwl a darganfod fy gwirionedd. Bod yn rhwym, ac yn siarad!”

The runes shone, the white lettering turning blood red. A ghostly copy of Quicksilver was pulled out of his form, into the center of the circle. It blinked, looking around. It reached out, trying to cross the edge of the circle. As it crossed, the runes below flared up, a red wall of light holding it back.

“What do I say to it?”

Luna sided up, placing a comforting hoof over Quicksilver's shoulder. “Anything. Things you've been wanting to understand about yourself. Confusing feelings, forgotten memories... things that you know you know, but can't recall.”

Quicksilver thought for a moment, then looked to his shade. “Answer me this; what is my greatest fear?”

“You are afraid of failure more than anything else, and because of it, you present yourself as unimpressive despite your talents.”

Luna giggled. “Well, that explains why you're always telling me that your achievements are nothing.”

“Are my achievements even worth noticing? I'm nowhere near the levels of the best mages.”

“Do you think they got to where they were by questioning themselves? They made mistakes, and they started from square one, yet they pushed on through all their doubt and the scorn of others. Only by doing so were they able to excell. That's how every pursuit works.”

Quicksilver turned back to the apparition. “Tell me, what is my greatest weakness?”

“You are blind. You follow, but you do not lead. You do not think for yourself. In short, you are holding yourself back.”

“How so?”

“You are content to be a guard. You are content to be a student. You are content to be subservient. You have no drive beyond your need for approval.”

Luna stepped in between Quicksilver and his subconscious. “You jumped headlong into this, didn't you? Usually ponies start with a little less... extreme questions.”

Quicksilver scowled. “I'm sorry, but this is important to me. It's right. I've felt a bit stepped on lately.”

“Did I cause it?”

“No, of course not, but...”

“You feel like nobody cares about your contribution? That you're living in somepony else's shadow?” Luna looked at him pointedly.

“Yeah.”

“Very well.” She stepped back after a short pause.

“Alright. I have one last question. Do I love Luna?”

“Without a doubt. You love her more than yourself.”

“Very well. Dismissed.”

The apparition vanished, pulling back into Quicksilver's form.

Quicksilver turned to Luna. “The apparitions don't lie, do they?”

“Never.”

They looked into each other, seeing past their bodies and into the soul. After a moment, they moved closer. “All we want is to be appreciated. To make our lives worthwhile.” Quicksilver brushed Luna's mane out of her eyes. “Even eternity is not time enough to be with you.”

Suddenly, a burst of light came from the summoning circle. The two turned immediately. In place of the subconscious' ghostly form was a strange, wavering, and yet entirely distinct shape. It was some sort of alicorn, made out of lavender energy, its wings and horn distinguishable. It looked around, seeing the only other two inhabitants of the room.

“I heard you are having trouble being taken seriously?” it queried.

“What are you?” Luna demanded. “We didn't summon you.”

“And yet I am here. I had to escape quickly, and there wasn’t time to pinpoint a location. Quicksilver, I don't have much time. My form will dissipate unless I can join you in your body. Consider me a second subconscious. That's all I'll be. I can explain in due time, but I will be able to give you the willpower to excel. It will help both of us.”

“What reason do I have to trust you?”

“You have none. But you need not fear me. Your body is not my own, and unless you allow me control, you will always have power over me. I am, by no means, more powerful than Luna. Should she ever decide that I am out of control, she has the means to rend me from your body and kill me.”

“You show up without warning and expect us to entertain such a ludicrous idea?” Luna stepped forward, her horn flaring up in preparation. “I do not care what you think you have to offer, we’re not interested.”

“Wait, hear me out–” The creature’s plea was cut short as Luna began blasting it with rapid fire bolts. Its mass was torn apart from its body, burning up as their energy source was disconnected.

“Luna! What are you doing?” Quicksilver stepped to her side, trying to get her to hold up for a moment.”

“Whatever this creature wants, it’s not telling the whole truth. I’ve heard enough liars to know.”

The injured form threw itself against the edges of the summoning circle, the flares of red light still holding it back. “Please! You don’t understand how important this is! If I die, your future is jeopardized!”

“Speak directly, or speak no more.” Luna stood strong, despite Quicksilver’s quiet objections.

“I’ve come from the future, the shade of a pony you’ll know and trust. If you do not heed my warning, you’ll both be killed!”

“Can we deny the potential importance of such a claim? Luna, let’s hear this being out. What is your name?”

“My name? My name is Seren.” A chill came across the room. “Please, there’s little time. I will die if I am not given a body.”

Luna shook her head. “I’m sorry, but there are none available, unless you’d like a golem or something…” Quicksilver held his hoof out, making her pause.

“Seren, you said that you needed my body?”

“Yours is the only one that can house me. Your devotion to Luna will ensure that our minds remain separate. Anyone less strong willed would fall to my influence, and a golem can’t support my lifeforce.”

“Anyone? Not anypony?”

“The phrase has evolved to include all the races. But we can speak of this later!” The creature was growing impatient, smashing its ethereal form against the barriers. “I have seconds! Break the circle, let me free!”

“I’m not sure of this,” Luna said warily. “I’ve heard of no precedent.”

“I’m willing to take a chance. This could be really important. Luna, I trust you. Promise me you’ll do what must be done to remove this spirit if it proves to be lying. Anything.

“Even—”

“Especially that.”

Quicksilver stepped forward, hesitating for just a moment. Seren sparked impatiently, the luster of the energy composing its body fading slowly. Then, with conviction, Quicksilver scraped out a section of the circle. The electrical force surged forward, staring squarely into Quicksilver’s eyes.

“Thank you. By saving me, I now can save you.” The ghostly form lost its distinguishing details, flowing up into Quicksilver’s face. Quicksilver stepped back instinctively, wings flaring. Within moments, the shape had disappeared, enter Seren’s body through his mouth and nose. Quicksilver coughed and sputtered, shaking his head in confusion.

“How are you, Quicksilver?” Luna asked, stepping over to him in concern.

“I’m fine, I think.”

“What happened to this ‘Seren’?”

“It… I feel another presence in my mind. It’s separate, yet distinctive. It seems to be relaxing, like it’s relieved.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Like a memory. Distinct, yet detached.”

“Can you speak with it?”

“Jeez, so many questions.”

Luna sighed. At least she knew that Quicksilver was still Quicksilver.

“Hold on a moment, I’ll give it a try.” Quicksilver shut his golden eyes, focusing. Gemini did the same, hoping to get in on the telepathic conversation.

Can you hear me, Seren? Quicksilver thought.

I can… but my journey has exhausted me. I will regain my strength, and speak with you on the morrow. Thank you for saving me.

Very well. I’ll see you tomorrow.

“It’s still alive, just exhausted.”

“We should probably tell Celestia about this. Even if she can be snooty, it’s nice to have an outside opinion.”

“Yeah, I’d like that. If this creature’s telling the truth, we can learn a lot from it, but I’d like to know as much as possible, as long as it’s sitting in my body.” Luna stabilized Quicksilver and they stepped over to the door. They left the room as student and teacher, guard and princess, and most importantly, protectors and friends.

Gemini was just about to pull out of Quicksilver’s mind to follow them when she caught a final, subconscious thought coming from Seren.

I know you’re watching Twilight Sparkle, and I want to let you know, though it will take thousands of years, I’m coming for you.

The stream of consciousness detached itself coldly.

Chapter 56: Truth or Dare

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Chapter 56: Truth or Dare

Do you remember, Celestia? Is it all coming back now?

Celestia tried to ignore the telepathic jeers assaulting her. All that mattered was that she stayed ahead of him. If she could only get to Luna, the two of them would have the strength to overpower this mockery, this violent and unpredictable corruption of an alicorn, a relic of a forgotten time, a time better left unknown.

We went through so much together, protecting our perfect world from the dangers outside. But as hard as we tried to keep everything together, to make everything brilliant, we forgot one key aspect of the perfect society. Truth. Lies seep into every aspect, corrupting, decaying, and weakening. As much as you fear me for my physical strength, which you may overpower, you should fear me most for my knowledge, for my voice.

That will be much harder to silence.

{- - -}

The blast rocked the room, causing dust to fall from the ceiling. Luna looked up in disappointment. “Seems like the servants haven't been in here recently.”

“Can you blame them?” Quicksilver called. “It's not like Celestia ever uses it, and they had no warning from you. They're more concerned with the parts of the castle people actually see.”

The two of them were in an underground shelter made for spell testing. The entrance was a small shack tucked away in a corner of the castle grounds, providing both privacy and protection from any spells gone wrong.

“How's the book coming?” Luna asked, as she readied another shaped blast.

“Pretty well, actually, thanks to your help. And Celestia's.” Quicksilver looked up from his notebook. “I should be able to finish it up within the next week or so. I know I've said it a thousand times before, but you alicorns are absolutely fascinating.”

“Glad to be of assistance. How is Seren?”

“You know, he's been getting quieter and quieter lately. It's been like four weeks since I actually spoke with him.”

“That long?”

“He seems to be content to fade away, now.”

“Remind him we could bind him to a golem. And, just to double-check, he hasn't attempted to harm you?”

“Never.”

Luna shook her head. “I still don't trust him. Yes, he's helped us make several great advancements in magic, but I don't like that he's all clammed up about his origins.”

“You worry too much.”

“I say you don't worry enough.” Luna let her spell release. The small comet of magic flew to the end of the firing range, right between three training dummies. The magic exploded, once again shaking dust loose. The explosion swirled around two of the dummies, missing them entirely, the inferno scorching the third, intended target.

“Very well done. See, I don't think Seren's evil if he's teaching us how to avoid harming innocents with our spells.”

“Remember that he also taught how to maximize a spell's deadliness. It's a double-edge. But yes, I will admit; he's been informative.” She turned to prepare another spell. “Though not in areas I wish he were.”

{- - -}

In the Forgotten Realm, Luna was watching Gemini with interest. “How close is she?”

Thael's ears perked. She's about to experience Quicksilver's fall.

“She might need the whole picture. Can I add my own memories to the bubble?”

You know, I'm not sure. It's worth a try.

Luna closed her eyes, her breathing slowing considerably. With complete self-mastery, she extracted the memories she had recently regained, and poured the stream of consciousness into field of energy slowly rotating around Gemini's head. The memory bubble flared for a moment, but maintained its shape. It seemed that it had accepted the memories.

“And now, we wait?”

We wait. You've already waited a thousand years to confront Celestia, what's a few more minutes?

{- - -}

“Luna! I finished the book! Here it is, fresh off of the presses. A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology.” He stopped in his tracks. “What's wrong?”

“Nothing, sorry.” Luna composed herself, turning away from the mirror she’d been staring into. “Please, continue.”

Quicksilver raised a brow, knowing full well that something was off, but he continued regardless, respecting her desire for secrecy. “The information I was able to gather could be really useful for Equestria. It's all in here, and you probably already know some of it, since you helped write it, but, theoretically, we could raise an army of alicorns for the construction and protection of Equestria. Of course, they'd have to be already good at magic, and trusted by the state, but it's an idea to consider. Also, based on the experiments we conducted, I think I've found a way to make energy collection much more effective. We can take ambient energy from the otherwise wasted leftovers of a spell, recollect it, and use it for the next spell. That's the idea, anyway, the technique's a bit difficult. With far more efficient spell casting, we...” He stopped speaking. “I'm sorry, but you're not into this. Come on, what's up?”

“Celestia made a major, country-affecting decision without consulting me. You remember, of course, the recent attacks on Equestria? The farms in the south, burned by rogue dragons, and the caravans ransacked to the east, by the griffons?”

“Of course. Oh, there were meetings called about those, weren't there?” Quicksilver sobered even further. “Celestia didn't invite you?”

“No, she didn't. She spoke with the council, and decided to hold off retribution. She claims she’s waiting for the delegates from the other civilizations to arrive, but I feel there’s no need. Both events were declarations of war, no matter what the diplomats say. If Equestria backs down, they’ll take it as a sign of weakness, and the problem will only continue.”

“Have you tried talking to her?”

Luna sighed. “Yes, but she blew me off with some half-reared explanation. I'm not claiming that we need to go to war immediately, but once again, she's worried about the immediate future, not the long-term effects.”

“Maybe she is, though. Hostility is a fearful and costly situation for any nation to be in. Isn't it worth a shot to try to preserve peace?”

“You would think so.” Luna walked over to a wall, standing still for a moment. Suddenly with a terrible yell, she reared up and smashed into it with her hooves.

“By the skies, Luna, what are you doing?”

“Relieving stress!” Luna reared up once more, the second impact visibly damaging the structure. Then, she pulled back, giving a half-hearted kick in the wall's direction.

Quicksilver stayed where he was, frowning darkly. “Luna, I thought you had made an effort to overcome your outbursts.”

“I have!” Luna covered her mouth in realization. “I have,” she amended, under much more control. “Oh, Quicksilver, what am I supposed to do? Everything had been going so well, but then this happens. I was under the impression that Celestia had finally begun to trust me, but then she goes and does this!”

“Let's think about this logically. Why would she make an active effort to exclude you from the meetings, when, as we both know, she's been doing just the opposite recently?”

Luna grimaced. “I'm certain you have a few ideas.”

“I do. Perhaps she feels very strongly about giving people a second chance. Perhaps she realized that it might be factions of the respective kingdoms who made the attacks, not the whole. We can't deny that the other nations are frustratingly stubborn, but they haven't attacked us earlier, and why would they begin with such subversive means? Maybe Celestia is worried about your well being. She knows you well, as I've come to. You have a kind heart, but you can be a bit rash sometimes. Perhaps what justice needs to learn is patience?” Quicksilver stepped over to her side, watching her carefully. “Though, you know, if you feel so strongly about it, you could try to overthrow Celestia's position directly.”

Luna looked up in horror. “What? What are you even suggesting? You were just on her side!”

“I like to see both angles of a situation. Celestia got her turn, now it's time to look at yours. I think I agree with you. Taking no action, no initial aggressive stance is foolish. Celestia claims that you are her equal, but one pony making all the decisions is anything but equality. You both have a claim to the throne, but she's been hogging it all herself. If you want to be taken seriously, you're going to have to take a greater stand than just reacting every time Celestia does something you disagree with. Be proactive. Don't just do your duties; expand your powers.”

“You're saying I should betray my sister?”

“Hasn't she betrayed you?”

Luna shook her head, staring all the while directly into Quicksilver's eyes. Her face held no warmth. “I couldn't go that far. We have our odds, but Celestia is my sister, and my friend. Politics can never come between us. Honestly, Quicksilver, I'm a bit disappointed in you for even suggesting such a thing!”

Quicksilver looked shocked, and hurt. After his initial recovery, he bowed deeply. “My deepest apologies, Princess Luna. What I said was out of line. I'm sorry, I've had a terrible headache, and I'm not myself today. I care only for your well-being, and seeing as my earlier tactics weren't proving effective, I was simply trying another path.”

“As long as it doesn't happen again.” Luna shook her head softly. “I need to think. I should step away from the problem for a moment, to clear my head.” She turned to the damaged wall, which was quickly enveloped by her magical aura. The pieces pushed themselves out and bonded together, leaving no trace of the damage.

“I'm going for a walk through the woods surrounding the castle. There's no need to attend to me. Take the rest of the night off, Quicksilver. Get something done about that headache of yours.”

“Of course, my lady. Safe travels. May you find the guidance you're seeking.”

Luna stepped out of the room. After a few moments, Quicksilver stepped over to the mirror Luna had been looking at. “What's happened to us?”

“You've changed,” his reflection replied simply. “She's changed. In many ways, for the better. But if you treat people like they'll always be the same, you'll find yourself grasping at empty air.”

“All I want is for us to be happy.”

“That's all anybody wants. But the only way to reach happiness is to keep trying. Apologize to her when she returns home, and then help her make a decision that's hers, not yours.”

Quicksilver turned away from the mirror, sighing. “I suppose you're right.”

The reflection grinned. “Of course I am. I haven't led you wrong yet. Do you regret taking me in now, Quicksilver?”

“No Seren, I don't. I just wish I didn't have to lie to Luna.”

“A lie told to prevent pain is hardly a sin at all.”

“Yet it's still a sin.”

“Perhaps.”

“The headaches you cause don't help your case either.”

“I'll see what I can do about that.”

{- - -}

Luna kicked the stone in the path, watching it bounce a few feet before moving forward to kick it again. She felt trapped, she decided. It wasn't that she wasn't able to escape, but the only way to do so would be to hurt someone. Either Celestia, or herself.

It wasn't like what she was asking was wrong, was it? She just wanted her voice to be heard, for her opinions and reasoning to be taken seriously. That should be something any intelligent member of society could expect.

What to do with Celestia? Her sister's heart was in the right place, even if her mind wasn't. But that only made it harder to attack her.

And Quicksilver, what had happened with him? Luna had noticed a distinct change in his personality over the past couple of weeks. It was like he was becoming a different person. He was much more aggressive, not the meek and doting pony she had first known him as. Luna was all for taking a stand, but her beloved guard had become somewhat distant, much more interested in studying her than actually enjoying her company.

And now she had made the problem worse by telling him off. He really had stepped out of line, though.

Or had he?

Luna shook her head. No, that wasn't right. Sure, she might toy with the idea of having more influence in Equestria, but she wasn't so childish to think she could rule it by herself. Luna needed Celestia, and Celestia needed Luna, no matter how much either of them wanted to twist it.

And yet, at the same time, Luna couldn't help but begin to agree with Quicksilver's words. Her shoulders tensed up as she thought about it. Celestia's ideas worked, but only in the short term. That had proven itself as of late. It wasn't like Luna had any say in the matters that had led up to these simultaneous attacks. Why should she step in now, and save Celestia from herself?

Yes, that sounded like the proper way to go. Luna would be vocal on how bad of an idea it was to go soft on the aggressors, but she would do nothing to stop Celestia's silliness. Then, when everything came crashing down around her older sister, she'd simply swoop in, leading the charge, and claim the glory she deserved.

Luna stopped. As tantalizing as it was, the idea felt dirty. No matter how effective it might be, she hated the idea of using such backhanded methods to accomplish her goals, no matter how noble they might be.

Once again, she was back to where she had started. She either had to buckle down and let Celestia run the show, or she had to take a stand, hurting their relationship and her self-image, but for the greater good.

Or the greater good as she saw it. Luna was very aware that what she considered right could be cruel or even unspeakable for others. But that was what justice was, right? Doing what was right, no matter the consequences? She knew that her word wasn't quite law, that she might be too harsh in some cases or too lenient in others, but did that make her efforts any less valuable, when it seemed no one else cared?

All she wanted was for her existence to not be meaningless. If that meant making somebody else smile, or think, or feel that all was fair in the world, that was all that was needed. Even if it was only one other pony, it would all be worth it. But right now? Right now, she felt alone, once again.

All she wanted, she realized, was to be noticed.

In the distance, she felt a pulse of energy. Luna was pulled out of her trance-like state with a jolt. She looked around to get her bearings, but she was on a path unknown to her. She must have been wandering blindly during her musings. She could maybe fly up, but the trees were thick here. She could hardly see her moon from here, a disconcerting fact.

She focused on the pulse. She realized it wasn't just a single burst, but now a constant stream, a ripple in the fabric of reality, calling to her. It had a certain allure, as if it were actively attempting to call her to it.

She stood in place, listening intently. The forest around her was silent. Something was very off. She knew enough to not go chasing after strange explosions in the forest, and yet, she felt she needed to. She charged up a blast of magic in case she ran into something hostile, but after only a moment's deliberation, she set off towards the singularity.

As she moved, her mind worked even faster than it had before. Perhaps this was a trap, one of the other nations trying to take her out of the picture. Perhaps it was nothing, just an oddity of nature, a natural discharge of sorts.

Or maybe it was her chance. This could be the great discovery that would make her Celestia's true equal. Perhaps it was the means of protecting the kingdom indefinitely.

Or destroying it.

Or, she reminded herself, it could be absolutely nothing. Why was she getting her hopes up so much? Was she really that desperate for an answer?

Yes.

She was close, she could feel it. The trees obscured her vision. She felt cut off, without a direct line of sight to the source of her power. To say nothing of how overpowering the signal of this oddity was. It certainly wasn't nothing, but just what this something was was still undecided.

She had one last chance. She could turn back now, play it safe, never know what was around this last tree, and regret it for the rest of her life. Or, she could take a chance, perhaps pay the consequences, and have her curiosity and insatiable hunger satisfied.

She turned the corner slowly, checking the coast was clear. There wasn't anything but some stone stairs.

“You've got to be joking.”

Luna approached the stairs as if in a dream. She knew full well what these were. She had heard the stories, listened intently as her mother warned her of the dangers of the world. A fairy tale, nothing more.

And yet, here it was, staring her in the face. Not a fairy tale, but a reality.

The stairs disappeared into the canopy, preventing her from seeing the top. Just like in the stories. She knew, she knew she should go tell somebody else, perhaps run away screaming in terror, but with trepidation, she stepped forward. It was surreal, it was dangerous, it was possibly even stupid, but she couldn't pass up such a chance.

Each step was a beat of her heart. Each tap, tap, tap; a drip of sweat. Each rustle of the leaves a shaky breath, the growing hum her buzzing thoughts. She ascended the top of the stairs.

His appearance was just as she had imagined. Two uncaring and yet infinite, flaming eyes greeted her, a small yet dark smile beneath, accenting the danger of the situation.

Greetings, Princess Luna of Equestria. I have been expecting you for some time. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Devil. It paused for a moment, gesturing towards a black, crystalline altar behind it a short distance. I believe I have an offer that just might interest you.

Chapter 57: Inception

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Chapter 57: Inception

“How... no, I suppose you would just know.”

Know what, my dear?

“I was going to ask you how you knew my name, but seeing as you're the Devil, and it's your business to know these things, I thought otherwise.”

You're correct. If we didn't know one of the two rulers of Equestria, we'd hardly be worth our salt, now would we?

“Well, it doesn't seem like most of Equestria has difficulty forgetting me.”

Sounded like there's some heavy baggage behind that one. Please, come take a seat.

The Metaspectre floated down the short path that lead directly to the humming crystals and the altar. He took his place behind the altar, sitting behind it as if it were a desk. Out of the ground burst a chair made of the same crystalline material, startling Luna.

Sorry, we could have made the seat appear slowly, but we figured you would be pressed for time, being a princess and all. We didn't want to keep you waiting from your duties with unnecessary distractions.

Luna twitched at the realization that, no, there weren't any pressing duties, despite the fact that she was technically on-duty. This was part of the reason she was here, after all. She felt unneeded. “Before we begin, Devil, I want to let you know that I can leave at any moment. I don't need you.”

Of course you can, and of course you don't.

“I'm only here because I'm curious.”

Who wouldn't be?

“Well, now that we've gotten that out of the way, tell me what you're offering. I'd like to know, but if if you begin pushing me too much, I'll just leave.”

Shouldn't you report us to Celestia? We do pose a threat to Equestria.

“If you're really as powerful as you claim, you could have done that long ago. And, if you're not, then there's nothing to fear. Besides, those who easily fall to your influence deserve what they get. And most of all, I can handle anything Celestia can.

You're quite intelligent. Very well, we'll tell you why I've called you here. As you can surmise, I've taken a particular interest in you. You'd be a valuable addition to my collection of personalities. As such, we thought we'd approach you with an offer. Most of the time, I allow others to flounder, attempting to come up with their own one-sided deals, but the simple truth of the matter is, well, they haven't been around as long as I have, and as such, are easily outsmarted.

In this case, we think that most contracts that could be made would result in a stalemate. So we've chosen the one that is the fairest for both of us. We offer you the following: We will make you Celestia's equal. Your voice will be heard and respected by all, and your Element of Justice will be stifled no more. Of course, all good things, especially something so great, comes at a price.

You must allow us to possess you.

Luna scoffed. “Are you daft? Why would I allow such a thing, even for such a grand prize? And, need I remind you, I have no guarantee that you'll keep up your side of the deal? How do I know that you won't use my body to harm others, only to pin the blame on me?”

Perhaps we misspoke. We don't quite mean possession in the sense you were thinking of it, as in, our taking direct control of your body. We simply meant that we would influence your mind, just for a moment. We intend to give you the courage you don't have. We will amplify your emotions and desires, your commitments and your faults. After we are finished, you will be yourself, if you were unrestrained by your fears and your worries.

“So what's the price?”

That is the price. Your essence will be amplified. It is both the cost of and the cause that will fulfill your desire.

Luna narrowed her eyes. “And what do you get out of this? No creature I've ever met will make promises like this unless they can get something in return.”

I want change to come over Equestria. Nothing more. This is the most non-disruptive way to ensure it.

“But why do you want change?”

Consider us a scientist. I'm here to experiment, nothing more. As you said, if I wished to conquer Equestria, we already could have done so. Not a threat, simply a statement of fact.

“Before I agree to anything, let me hear the exact terms of the deal.”

Very well. I will take control of your mind, for the sole purpose of amplifying what's already there. I will not force you to make any movements nor vocalizations, nor will I introduce any ideas of my own. I will cause you to feel more confident about yourself and your ideals. You will become a paragon of your beliefs, unrestrained by previous inhibitions. The moment I enter your mind, I will immediately fulfill my contract, without delay, and exit the moment I am done.

I have tried to cover all the loopholes you might have been concerned about. Is what we've proposed fair?

“Perhaps. But you've yet to tell me why I should trust you. I've heard about you all my life, described as the prime example of evil and deceit. I thought them just stories, but here you are, in the flesh, and if they were correct about your existence, why shouldn't I believe their morals?”

Those who get the short end of the stick in my arrangements would have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it was their fault, yes. Nasty rumors spread when you're fair, because people will feel as if they have been treated unfairly, since they're used to leniency. Something you have experience with, unless we're mistaken?

Luna didn't answer for a moment. “Now I know why so many have fallen to your influence. It really is hard to resist when your greatest wish is obtainable right before your eyes.”

Do we have a deal?

“May I have time to think about it?”

We do not work that way. You would forget your emotions, convince yourself with contrived logic, and crush the burning in your heart. It's now, or not at all. But if you choose to leave, you'll be forced to live with the realization, as your life remains just as it was before you arrived. Celestia will continue to outshine you, and you'll be nothing but an afterthought, as you've always been.

“Shouldn't I speak with her about this first? To get a second opinion, I mean.”

The Metaspectre rose into the air, showing a great deal of controlled anger. Do you dare mock yourself? A wind kicked up around it, whipping its ethereal mane wildly, its flaming eyes burning brighter than ever before. You are here because you feel she has too much control in your life, and you'd surrender your chance to stand up to her only to give her even more influence? No wonder she ignores you. You whine and you spit, but you never do anything about your problems. We're beginning to wonder why we even thought you worth our time. Go, and take your pain with you. We cannot help you.

“Wait, don't make me go!”

The Metaspectre turned, slowly, deliberately. Say what you will, but do not try our patience.

“I... I'm not rejecting your offer. I just need a few moments to decide.”

Very well. You may stay on this plateau until you have decided. The moment you touch any of the stairs or begin to fly away, the deal is off, and you'll have a hard time finding me again.

The Metaspectre's body disappeared with another gust of wind, the orbs settling into the altar, and the smoke disappearing into the crystals. For all intents and purposes, Luna was alone with her thoughts.

Her initial reaction was to run. To run and to never dare turn back. She was afraid of this creature, of its power, of its influence. She knew that she was playing with fire. Even if this creature was all-powerful, it was clear from the mythos that it wasn't to be trusted. She had heard of only one account of a creature that had come from its gaze unscathed; and that was a pony who had the willpower to turn away from his heart's wish. As far as she knew, nobody had outsmarted it. Was she really so foolish to think that she would be the first?

Luna’s thoughts turned to her sister. She tried to think of all the things that she loved about Celestia, but only found longing. What had made Celestia loveable was a thing of the past. She had become too blinded by her duties to even care for her little sister, the last family she had. Though Celestia’s intentions were good, she certainly needed to be taken down a notch. That was why Luna remained; this was her chance to solve her problems. She admitted that she lacked the courage to act, but if she had it… She was certain she would soon be able to strengthen Equestria’s position, as well as fix their relationship.

What about Quicksilver, Luna wondered? He had been acting strangely lately, and she couldn’t quite read him. He had changed, somehow. He was more driven, certainly, but that most recent suggestion to overthrow Celestia’s power was unacceptable. Was it really as harmless as he had suggested? He seemed sincere, but something was off, and Luna couldn’t quite put her hoof on it.

With a sigh, she realized that she had lost some critical aspect from each of the ponies she loved. She needed to find some way to win it back. With a forlorn glance towards the altar, she knew the core of her problems. She simply wanted to be respected, to be noticed. She could suffer silently for months, or perhaps years to come, hoping that something would change, or she could take action herself. She was too passive, like her night, being chased away by the sun’s rays. She needed to act, she needed to take a stand. To draw a line and declare that she would not cross it, to make her voice heard, to make her thoughts known!

And it seemed like this was the only way to make it happen. She knew what she had to do.

She marched forward determinedly. “Devil! I accept your offer, based on the terms you gave me! You will get your wish. Equestria will change.”

The orbs glowed brightly, the Metaspectre’s body erupting from the crystals. We’re glad you were able to make up your mind. The contract is sealed. Now, hold still. You may experience some slight discomfort.

The smoky body darted forward, enveloping Luna’s head, blocking out her vision and beginning to suffocate her. She began to have second thoughts, but she then snuffed them out. For the greater good, she told herself.

Her eyes rolled to the back of her head. She began to feel a telepathic presence in her mind, filling it to the point that she could think of nothing else. She felt sharp pricks in her consciousness, followed by an expanding, warm feeling. She felt renewed, powerful, perhaps even a little bit dangerous. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, it was over. She regained her vision and control of her body, as promised. The Devil floated silently before her.

“Are you finished?”

Yes, we have done as we promised. Return home, and you’ll find yourself with the strength to confront your enemies. We do not think it will come to this, but remember; the only guarantee you have from me that we will set things back to the way they were before is at the cost of your soul. If you find the results of this transaction so unbearable that you’re willing to give up your very essence to reverse it, well, we would say to come find us, but we’ll likely find you first. Now go, and enjoy your new self.

Luna nodded curtly, then, after a moment’s consideration, trotted down the path, then the stairs, and finally, into the forest. The moon shone brighter than it had in recent months, resonating with her newfound giddiness. Whatever the Devil had done, it worked. She felt like she could take on a whole army, whether they be dragons, griffons or ponies.

As she more or less skipped through the forest, she passed by a small pool. With curiosity, she stepped over to look at herself with this new perspective on life. When she looked into the waters, she blinked her eyes in surprise. It looked like her coat had taken on a much darker hue. Almost black, she noted. Her ethereal mane remained much the same, though it was perhaps a bit more vivid than before. The changes weren’t inherently wrong, just… different. Her facial features and eyes, and –after a moment’s test, her voice– were all the same. She would still be recognizable, though those who knew her might be a bit confused at first. She smiled at the thought. At least the beginning of her new life would be universally acknowledged. Nobody would be able to mistake her as the wimp she had been before.

In short order, she had returned to the castle. The guards on duty moved to stop her before stopping misstep. “Princess Luna?”

“It’s me. Good to see you’re still awake. You don’t know how many guards I’ve had to reprimand for sleeping just because it was night.”

“Just doing our jobs, princess.”

“Doing a better job at it than others often do. Keep up the good work.”

The guards swelled with pride, standing a bit straighter, their eyes more intently focused on the road leading up to the castle. Luna continued on, looking at the castle in a new light. It wasn’t just her home, it was a center of command. One that both she and Celestia were using ineffectively. That would have to change. Why did they, and Equestria as a whole, only react to the actions of others? The Devil was right, she needed to act on her own, for once. Equestria had the potential to be the greatest power on the continent, but only if they acted quickly. The longer they allowed the other countries to prepare, the closer Equestria’s demise drew. It was a simple fact of nature that each country would protect its own interests, at any cost. If the Equestrians didn’t secure the future for themselves, it wouldn’t be guaranteed at all.

Without anywhere else to really be at the moment, Luna entered her bedchambers. She wanted to confront Celestia as soon as possible, but she was willing to wait until Celestia was awake and officially on duty. Perhaps being on the job, so to speak, would make her realize the truth of Luna’s words.

For now, she would wait.

{- - -}

Quicksilver took a deep breath, gathering his courage. It was time to face the facts, and own up to his mistake. He knocked on the door before entering. “Luna? Are you in here?”

Luna turned to see him. “Ah, Quicksilver. You’re just in time. I needed another opinion on my plans.”

Quicksilver was taken aback. “Did you get your coat dyed? Whatever for?”

“It wasn’t intentional, just a nice side effect of speaking with the Devil.” Any other day, Luna would have been ashamed to admit she had accepted help, but she realized now that it was foolish to not take assistance where you could. Assistance itself was harmless, if not beneficial. Its danger only arose when you felt indebted to those who had helped you, and the Devil had explicitly stated that the debt had been paid. She had quite the lucky break with him.

“Pardon me princess, you spoke with the Devil? You don’t mean the villain of the childhood stories meant to scare foals into not wandering strange forests?”

“That’s the very one I met. He’s not just a story, it turns out.”

“Luna, I’m confused. I thought you more careful than that.”

“I was quite careful, never fear. He promised to make me more confident, that was it. I didn’t have to pay him anything in return, he only said that he wanted to see a change come over Equestria, and I’ve decided that so do I.”

Quicksilver shook his head. “Before we speak any further on this matter, I came to apologize about yesterday. You were right, princess. It wasn’t my place to suggest such things, and I beg that you’ll forgive me. I wasn’t myself. Yes, I had a headache, but I haven’t told you the full truth. I’ve been speaking with Seren quite a bit lately. He hasn’t gotten quieter lately, he’s gotten stronger. I’m suppressing him now, so he doesn’t know what we’re saying, but I’m having a harder time discerning between my thoughts and his, and that’s beginning to scare me. At first I thought he was the one who made me suggest that, but I’ve realize now that the idea was mine.” He looked down silently. “If I may, my lady, I think it’s time we purge him from my system. He has indeed proven useful, but I’m afraid I’m beginning to weaken under his will.”

Luna laughed heartily, catching Quicksilver off-guard. “Quicksilver, I’ve already completely forgiven you! Quit your groveling for a moment. So you’ve been hiding Seren from me? Well, I suppose I should feel betrayed, but you’re still a good man. You’re apologizing when I know it must have been difficult, and that’s penance enough.”

“You… you’re not mad at me?”

“Perhaps a bit disappointed, but in the end, there’s no harm done. Now, you say you’re afraid Seren’s overpowering you?”

“I think he’s maliciously attempting to take full control of my body. But he was doing it so slowly, I didn’t see it until it was almost too late. I don’t know what plans he has, but I’m getting jittery. I would exorcise him myself, but he’d know what I was planning and he’d interrupt. Could you do it for me, as we agreed?”

“Very well. After this, we need to talk about the affairs of the nation.”

Quicksilver forced a grin. “You sound so confident that it’ll work. What if something goes wrong? What if Seren fights back?”

Luna raised a brow. “Do you doubt my abilities?”

“Well, of course not, but–”

“Neither do I, so we have nothing to fear.”

Luna calmed herself, draining her excitement and plans from her mind. As she began to focus, she could feel the omni-present magic around her, swaying, guiding life and circumstance. She looked into the collection of energy that she called Quicksilver, and plunged into it. There, at the core of the being, was a ball of lavender energy. It was agitated and lashing out at the energy around it, and Luna could feel the hatred coming off of it. It was certainly bigger than she expected it to be; it had grown since Quicksilver had taken it in, like a cancer.

The more she probed it, the more it seemed that a cancer was the correct term. It had spread subtle tendrils of influence throughout all of Quicksilver’s body. It looked like Quicksilver was right in his worry.

Luna began prying at the tendrils. The energy reacted instantly, all of it withdrawing into the center, and then traveling up through Quicksilver’s body and into his brain. Luna began attacking in earnest, trying to prevent whatever scheme Seren was trying to pull off. Each attack made the energy wither and die, but it pressed on aggressively, fighting for its survival. Quicksilver began twitch and jerk in pain. “Get it out!” he yelled, wincing once again.

Luna made a final effort, ripping the energy free from Quicksilver’s body. Only residue remained, and that was quickly overpowered by Quicksilver’s natural resistance. Luna pulled out of her trance, her natural eyes beginning to see once again. Before her stood the obscured energy alicorn, looking much as it had when it first appeared.

“Please,” it began earnestly, “Put me back! I’ve done nothing to harm him.”

Quicksilver stared the apparition down coldly. “I’ve stayed with you long enough to know when you’re lying. You were attempting to smother me, and take my body for your own. Why my body, specifically? You never did give me a straight answer.”

“You want the truth? Fine.” The being poured of annoyance in waves. “I told the truth about being from the future. I came back here to see if I could change my timeline, to prevent my own death. A lot of good it did me, it seems. I chose your body, Quicksilver, because you’re a key player in upcoming events, and you had the potential to save me. But did your importance come from the fact that I chose you or from some higher, transcendental cause? I’ll never know. Kill me know, and end it, but know I’ve already won. Though I will die, I am already immortal. My words and actions will last long after we are gone, even as the universe is consumed by fire. You’ve separated me from your body, Quicksilver, but can you pluck away the thoughts as easily? One day you will realize that, in the end, you and I are not very different. We don’t like losing.”

“We can see that.” Luna telekinetically ripped the energy in half, causing the entity to screech in pain. The two halves tried desperately to form back together, but Luna forced them apart. “Any last words, snake?”

“The night will last forever,” Seren gasped. The last of its energy was expended in a pathetic attempt to survive Luna’s cold grasp, and it finally died, shriveling like a dying flame.

Chapter 58: Realignment

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Chapter 58: Realignment

“You killed him.” Quicksilver's voice was flat. It wasn't a question, nor an accusation, simply a statement of fact.

“Yes. He'd grown too dangerous. Thank you for coming to me when you did, Quicksilver. If we had waited too much longer, I fear you would have been consumed entirely.” Luna dropped her telekinetic spell, now that there wasn't anything left to grasp.

A shudder ran down Quicksilver's spine. “I regret that we lost him before we could find out why he came here, but it's probably for the best.” He made a small exclamation as he remembered something. “You wanted to talk about what the nation is doing?”

“Yes, thank you for reminding me. I believe it's time to act independently from Celestia. She's forced our hand, and if she's not willing to work with us, we will work separately.”

“Are you talking of splitting the nation? Making your own country?” Quicksilver hurriedly objected. “I have to voice my disapproval, if that's the case.”

“Not quite. I'm thinking more about splitting the forces. We'll make it clear that we and our followers are acting independently from Celestia. We will be the defenders of Equestria, since Celestia can't find it in her heart to actually fight back when we're attacked.”

“Vigilante justice, then?”

Luna grinned wildly, the shadowy color of her new coat accenting her determination. “It's time we took matters into our own hooves.”

{- - -}

Quicksilver panted as he crouched in the ditch. “Luna, what are your orders?”

The dark princess looked at the forces huddled around her. There were a good thirty soldiers, each loyal and willing to die for the cause. If everything was going according to plan, the two other patrols, with similar numbers, would be in position by now. Luna peered over the edge of the ditch. Only a few hundred meters away was the enemy griffon encampment. A few fires burned, with sentries posted around them, but as a whole, the camp was asleep.

“We move as silently as possible until first engagement. After that, we go all out. Strike hard, strike fast, and most of all, strike viciously.”

Quicksilver paused for a moment, telepathically relaying Luna's message to the other point guards. When he finished, he turned to Luna once more. “They await your signal.”

“Now.”

Luna hurdled over the edge, leading the charge. Her soldiers followed close behind, moving as silently as a breeze. In her peripheral vision, and far behind the camp, Luna could see the other groups moving in. A three pronged attack. The enemy wouldn't know what killed them.

One of the griffon sentries peered through the darkness. He'd made an effort of avoiding the fire's comfort for the sake of night-vision, but he still couldn't quite make out what was moving out there. With realization, he gave a brief cry. “We're being–”

Luna lowered the gasping defender to the ground, sliding him off of her sharpened horn. The other sentries were alerted by the call, but before they could raise one of their own, they were snuffed out by the other patrol leaders. The soldiers moved quickly, surrounding the sleeping enemy. Luna made her way through the camp to the commander's tent. After dispatching the guards, she threw open the tent flap. The commander, who had been awoken by the sound of the tussle outside, opened his mouth in confusion and distress.

“Who... guards!”

“There's no use. We have your forces surrounded and subdued. I'm sorry, commander, but you've lost the battle. That's what happens when you sleep on the job.”

“It's a holiday! Common practice allows a ceasefire! You haven't sunk so low to attack us on a day of peace, have you?”

“Anything to win the war, commander. I'm not my sister, and my forces never agreed to those rules. You attacked our people, you do not get to choose the terms of conflict.”

“You're a horrible person, I hope you know that. Yet even I must recognize when resisting is useless.” The old griffon sighed. “We surrender.”

“I never said I was taking prisoners.”

The griffon shot out of his bed. “What? You don't mean that you're going to kill us all, do you?”

“You killed our people for a few pieces of gold. I hardly think your lives are enough to pay the debt.” Luna stepped forward menacingly. “Your crimes couldn't go unanswered for long. Consider yourself lucky to have lived as long as you did.”

“What are you talking about, you crazy horse? A few raids on supply lines shouldn't merit genocide!”

“No, it shouldn't. That's why we're only killing you and your forces. The criminal gets the punishment, after all. I'll make sure to tell your family that you died as a coward.”

“What are you?” The commander looked at Luna with fear.

“Haven't you heard? I'm the Night Mare.” Outside, the moon darkened, and the world was cast into shadow. The signal for attack. In unison, Luna's forces dispatched their helpless enemies, their avian cries echoing through the night's air.

Luna turned back to the terrified griffon. “Justice is swift, commander.” With a blindingly fast movement, he was dispatched. Luna stepped out of the tent, where Quicksilver was waiting for her. “Burn the place to the ground.”

“It will be done.”


In short time, the remains of the camp were ablaze. Luna turned to her troops. “How many did we lose?”

“Three were injured, none were lost.”

“Wonderful. I dare say that the griffons will think twice before attacking us again.”

The soldiers cheered, raising their hooves to the sky. “Mai y noson yn byw am byth! ” They yelled.

Luna's eyes shot open, her ears erect as she realized what they had said. “May the night live forever...” she whispered. “Thank you all, but who has taught you the arcane language? And why that phrase?”

One of the soldiers, obviously confused, stepped forward. “You did. Yesterday, you said that it was a good way to express our devotion to you.”

“Oh, yes, right.” Luna bit her lip for a moment. Yeah, no, she was completely bluffing. She couldn't remember saying anything of the sort, but it was not a good idea to make the soldiers question your sanity, even after a victory. “You did a wonderful job tonight. We'll retreat back to the others at our camp. Rest up, but stay alert. The enemy could try the same tactic on us. Tomorrow, we'll march to the griffon capital. May their wives be comforted if other patrols cross us.” The soldiers recovered from their concern, cheering once again. Luna nodded to them, then led the way back to their camp.

Quicksilver remained behind, staring into the inferno he had created. Corpses crackled and popped as trapped gasses escaped. The acrid smell of charred flesh, hair, and feathers filled the air, leaving an aura of revulsion and unnatural gloom. In the past, Quicksilver wouldn't have been able to stomach it. Now? He only smiled.

{- - -}

“Celestia!” The doors to the throne room flew open, Luna nada Quicksilver stepping in triumphantly. “We managed to subdue both the griffon and the dragon forces with minimal losses. They've signed a treaty with us, forcing them to pay for the damages that initiated our retribution, as well as the cost of the war itself.” Luna swayed with a bit of a swagger. “And you said it was foolish to get into a fight.” She threw the treaty at Celestia's hooves.

Celestia grimaced. “Congratulations,” she managed to muster.

Luna gave a coy and mocking smile. “Don't tell me you're jealous of my success, sister?”

“Jealous isn't the right word.”

Quicksilver, who was quite excited, missed the subtle warning. “While on the battlefield, I invented a few new spells specifically for warfare. Did you know that souls are essentially pure energy? Using this knowledge, I was able to tear through their forces with easy. Once you get the ball rolling, with a kill or two, your power grows exponentially. You can't contain the power for long, sadly, but as it is, a mage to each group should be enough to defend us in the future. The few griffons who survived are trying to figure out the nuances of the spell, but they're having difficulty. We should be able to stay ahead of them for quite some time, especially if we plant spies to misinform them.”

Luna nodded. “Quicksilver was quite the assistance in the battlefield. He proved critical on several occasions.”

“Of course, I could have done nothing without Luna.”

“It's for this reason that I'm suggesting he be promoted to the captain of the guard.”

Celestia drew back in her chair, trying to settle down comfortably. “What of Captain Apollo?”

“I don't mean to displace him—” Quicksilver began. Luna quickly interjected.

“He's about due for retirement anyway. He's good at what he does, but he's getting old. The royal guard needs fresh blood to breathe life into it.”

Luna sighed, rubbing her eyes softly. “If you think it's best. I just worry about you two. Are you sure you're not getting us into situations we can't handle? Shouldn't we be kinder to the other nations? It's better that they be indebted to us because we helped them than because we slaughtered hundreds of their people.”

“We only did it to let them know that Equestria would not just roll over and take blows.”

“As a matter of fact,” Quicksilver added, “We intercepted several messages indicating they were planning on carrying out several larger-scale raids. If we hadn't stopped them when we did, they likely would have brought us to war, regardless of how understanding we tried to be.”

Celestia nodded consent. “I suppose I have to thank you both, though I wish there had been another way.”

“Sometimes the only way to show mercy is through justice. We have prevented a greater tragedy than if we had been too kind.”

“And I must thank you for that, on behalf of the kingdom. From now on, however, please, I beg you, consult me before going to war. We need to maintain the peace that lives have paid for.”

“Consult you first? Like I tried to?”

“Luna, please, not now.”

Luna shrugged. “Fine. I just thought you might like to hear the report from our mouths, rather than just a piece of paper.”

“How many died?” The question hung heavy on the air. For a while, neither were willing to respond.

“Since you're the official report, I thought it only fair I got the whole story,” Celestia continued.

“Twenty-three of our soldiers, and four thousand, eight hundred and eighteen of the enemy, both dragon and griffon,” Quicksilver rattled off quickly.

“Four thousand...”

“You're more concerned with the deaths of the aggressors than those of our own forces? Do you mock their loss?”

“I question their need.” Celestia gave Luna a meaningful glare. “You're lucky we only lost twenty-three. However, their sacrifice will be remembered and honored. You, on the other hoof, have mocked their loss if you are not fully certain that the fight was necessary.”

“It was.” Luna returned Celestia's gaze. “I have physical evidence of their intentions to attack, written testimony that they were beginning to prepare for a greater invasion, and the foresight to not need either.”

“You're concerned with foresight, Luna, but you never take time to look at what's right in front of you. Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately?”

“A jab at my personal attire?”

“You know as well as I do that was not my intent. Look inside yourself, Luna. Do you like what you're becoming?”

“Do you like what you're stuck as?”

Quicksilver stepped forward. “Very good, both of you. Turning this momentous occasion into a petty argument. How about this; both of you try to see the way the other thinks? How about we just take a few weeks of relaxation? We've finished the war, Celestia, your foreign relation problems have been largely solved, let's step back for a moment and remember that we're all working for the same government. We're all trying to help the people of Equestria, to create peace and prosperity and to ensure our futures.”

The two princesses looked at him carefully. Luna spoke first. “Very well. I'll make an effort to be more reasonable.”

“I as well.”

Quicksilver smiled. “Alright, we'll take our leave on a good note. Take care, Celestia.”

The princess of the night and her personal guard stepped out of the room. Luna immediately accosted him. “What are you doing? That was the time to push our advantage!”

“I'm sorry, but if you want to prove yourself right, you're going to have to do it through controlled actions and thought-out words. You can't be rushed by emotion.”

“What do you know? Maybe you should follow Celestia's advice too. Go look in a mirror. Where's the bright, loving friend I once knew?”

Quicksilver looked at the ground. “He disappeared when you stopped being content with him. I’m sorry for offending you. I’m only trying to make you happy.”

Luna raised her head, sniffing. “I’m sorry too, but I can't be happy until Celestia —and by extension, the kingdom— appreciates my contribution. I've proven myself time and time again, and yet she still doesn't see. But she will, one way or another. That is when I'll be able to rest.”

Luna turned away, heading off to her room to do some thinking and planning. Quicksilver was left alone with his unspoken pleas, wanting to go after her, yet knowing it would be fruitless. Ever since she had come back from her deal with the Devil, Luna had been a changed pony. At first it seemed like a good change. She was able to better express and defend herself. She had gained a large number of followers throughout the kingdom. Quickly, however, the subtle price of the deal became apparent. The Devil had said there wasn't any cost attached, and in a way, he was correct. He hadn't lied except through omission; every action has a price that cannot be avoided. Luna's dealings in the kingdom made her feared, rather than ignored. Those who attached themselves to her were like dogs hoping for a scrap to fall from the table. Quicksilver was afraid they cared more for benefiting from her actions than they did the merit behind them.

Quicksilver sighed, and began walking to his own quarters. Where did he stand? He was still Luna's servant, in title and in heart. That didn't change the fact that her actions were becoming harder to approve of. At least when she hadn't been acting at all, it was obvious she was in the right. Now, the line became blurred. Who was righteous? Who deserved his support? Luna or Celestia, the darkness or the light? The changing moon or the constant, scorching sun?

Quicksilver shut the door behind him, flopping onto his bed. After realizing rather uncomfortably that he was still wearing his armor, he sat up, telekinetically undoing the straps, freeing himself from its protection. His eye caught his reflection in the mirror. It'd been a while since he'd taken a good look at himself, seeing as he had been so concerned with other activities.

Quicksilver stepped over to get a better look. He was physically fit, but his eyes betrayed the wear on his mind. The golden hues had lost their luster, his mane was unusually messy, and as a whole, he appeared less confident.

“What a mess...” he muttered to himself. He levitated a nearby comb, trying to make himself presentable. He continued for a while, pulling at the knots, flinching at each one, feeling a sense of helplessness building up inside of him. Each jolt of pain was a jolt to his slothful mind. Why should he stand aside as Luna allowed herself to fall? Why should he remain silent as Celestia unknowingly berated her sister? Could he look away as the kingdom tore itself apart? Could he remain a pawn, or would he rise to become a king?

“Never!” He yelled, throwing the comb at the mirror. It bounced uselessly to the ground, only making him feel more worthless. Quicksilver closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. He had some personal issues he had to address, and there wasn't anyone to talk to. He'd have to handle it himself.

Unless... Perhaps there was somebody else to talk to? Quicksilver went to work, throwing the floor rug into the corner of the room, already beginning to carve deliberate runes into the floor with the piece of chalk he had saved for his studies. Each stroke was a step closer to the truth, he told himself. Each mark, a mile towards the answer he sought.

Quicksilver sat back, looking over his handiwork. The runes were in place for the first summoning spell he had learned. “I look into my mind to find the truth. Be bound, and speak.” Perhaps his subconscious would be able to shed understanding and guidance on his current situation.

The gray pegasus stepped forward, planting his hooves and reading the runes once again, in the arcane language. As was expected, the runes shone with red light, their power reaching out and into Quicksilver's mind. When the process was complete, Quicksilver opened his eyes, only to blink in confusion.

“I thought the spell was supposed to access my subconscious.”

“It has.” The apparition stared him in the eye. “Rituals are different from standard spells in that they will predictably achieve the same result no matter who casts them.”

“Then who are you? You don't look anything like me.”

The lavender, female alicorn spun around slowly. “Don't you recognize me? I'm Seren, your new subconscious. I told you that you'd have a harder time removing my influence. This shouldn't come as a surprise.”

“STOP!” yelled both halves of Gemini in sync. The memory's playback halted. With an exertion of will and a display of aversion, Twilight and Lustrous' minds were detached, splitting them into separate bodies. They faced each other with confusion and distrust.

“Alright, how do you explain this?” Twilight threw an accusatory hoof towards their third bodily clone, still trapped in the summoning circle.

“I was about to ask the same of you!” Lustrous yelled back. The two unicorns looked at each other darkly before simultaneously looking back at the frozen memory.

“It's impossible...” They whispered. And yet, there it was. One of them stood before Quicksilver, far in the past, as an alicorn. Lustrous simply shook her head.

“Why?” she asked, looking to Twilight. Why would either of us want to be part of this? What could we cause to gain?”

“This is a memory of the past. I think this is the beginning of a paradox that has no beginning.”

“You don't mean...”

“We now know that Seren is, at least in part, one of us.”

“Or both of us.”

They looked back once more. Lustrous posed her question once again. “Why?”

Twilight thought for a moment. Her eyes widened with understanding, the very moment Lustrous' did. “Whoever takes this path is not only guaranteed to become an alicorn, but to become a god. Immortality is quite attractive to both of us.”

“But then... everything was a setup? All we've gone through was caused by... us?”

“It would seem that way. The beholders claimed that I'm destined to become the creator of the world. If that's true, I'd have enough time to set things in motion, and preserving my fate seems like something I would try to do.”

Lustrous took a deep breath of air. “But, if you're the creator, then you can't be Seren. Does that mean...”

“Yes. I think you'll become Seren, the destroyer.”

The two looked at each other with a new curiosity. Finally, Lustrous spoke up. “Well? Aren't you going to try to kill me? I've been a thorn in your side this entire time, but now I'm suddenly dangerous. You should save yourself the trouble you'll have later.”

Twilight shook her head. “Why bother trying? I'll either cause the event in the first place, or else I'll change the future, dooming our timeline. Besides, can I kill a part of myself, no matter how annoying I find it to be? Without you, I wouldn't be me.”

Lustrous looked down. “We're never going to truly merge, are we?”

Twilight shook her head. “How could we? No offense, but I hate you.”

Lustrous gave Twilight a friendly punch. “I hate you too, you goody-four-shoes.”

“I'll be glad to be rid of you, you little punk.”

“Just try to be rid of me,” Lustrous smirked.

The two were silent for a moment, before they began laughing uproariously. All the animosity between them melted away. They were in direct opposition, but did that mean they had to fight? An opponent wasn't necessarily an enemy.

“Well, that just happened.”

“So it did.” The sat, taking in the moment. All their worries seemed far away. They knew that they would soon dive back into the conflict, but at the moment, they could rest in the sudden clarity and purpose they had just felt. Finally, the future could wait no longer.

Twilight cleared her throat. “Want to continue watching?”

Lustrous shrugged. “Sure, why not. You have room for another?”

Twilight nodded, and the two of them touched hooves, their bodies merging once more. So, we're playing a game of chess now? Lustrous questioned.

It seems that way. I wonder what the others will think.

Why tell them? It would cheapen the experience.

Twilight nodded consent. “Continue!” she yelled. The memory began moving once more, the tension gone, with only curiosity and concealed plotting filling their shared mind.

Chapter 59: Defiance

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Chapter 59: Defiance

Quicksilver stepped forward accusingly. “Did you kill my old mind to make way for yours?”

“Not quite,” the spectral alicorn said. “I impressed myself upon it, and the two of us became one. I am everything you once were, with a bit of myself added in.”

“You lie.”

“Remember, the entities summoned through the ritual are physically unable to lie.”

“Very well then! Do you mean to harm me?”

“I do not.”

“Do you mean to take control of me?”

“I do not.”

“Do you have the ability to?”

“I do not.”

Quicksilver eyed his subconscious carefully. “Are you even conscious?”

“I exist in complete subjugation to you now. I am an artifact of Seren’s presence.”

“Where is Seren now?”

“Killed, by Luna’s intervention. And alive, through me, through you.”

“Explain yourself.”

“As a fraction of her subconscious, the result of her whisperings, you will now have different impulses, while keeping your old memories and bits of your old habits.”

“You’re saying that I am still myself, just inclined a little differently than I was before?”

“That is another way to put it, yes.”

“Do I still love Luna?” Quicksilver held his breath in anticipation for the answer. For a moment there was no answer, as if it were thinking.

“Though your rose-colored glasses have shattered, you do. You have seen her faults while recognizing your own, and are thus willing to give her a second chance. This may be to your detriment.”

“I’ll make my own judgments, thank you.”

The so-called Seren remained silent.

I will die at lot sooner than I had hoped, it seems, Lustrous quipped, looking over her supposed future form. Though I guess it’s true that our influence is life enough, and if my influence more-or-less has control over somebody so important, I can’t really complain.

Twilight was surprised. You’re fine with dying?

Of course not! I’ll do all I can to prevent it, but you know how causality loops are. I’ll make myself a key player in events to come even if I do pass on, don’t you fret. Or, well, maybe you should.

Quicksilver looked up one more time. “You said you came back here to prevent your death. Why now, specifically? Was your destination chosen arbitrarily, or was there some reason you came at such a pivotal time in my life?”

“I came to this time intentionally. Your future was dependent on critical decisions you only could have made with my help.”

“So your advice wasn't as innocent as you purported it to be?”

“It wasn't, no. From now on, however, we are part of the same body, and as such, I will do everything in my power to protect us.”

“I'm rather distressed to learn that my thoughts aren't entirely my own.”

“You didn't realize there was a difference before you asked, so why should it concern you?”

“I dunno, it just feels wrong, to know there's a different person living in my head.”

“Only my influence lives in your head. Admittedly, my influence was more direct and stronger than most, but I am nothing more than an echo of the intelligence that once coexisted with you. If you'd like, I could materialize as Luna, or Celestia, or one of your friends. Each of them have had a similar, though lesser influence on your mind. Our minds are a collection of conversations, relationships, regrets, hopes, and people. At the core is something entirely our own, but so often it is drowned out by the louder and more aggressive thoughts that were forcibly attached by more proactive beings. Remember, however, that the spark of being that you call yourself has complete control over the seemingly indomitable influences that come over the outside. If you wanted to, with a bit of effort, you could completely eradicate me from your system. It would take time, and it would involve a complete restructuring of your mind, but it is possible to tear down everything but the core personality. It comes with a price, however. Every decision will cause you to second-guess yourself. The outside influences are absolutes, telling you that you must act one way or the other. The core personality is composed of tendencies with very few absolutes, which makes the decisions with no dividing line between black and white rather harrowing.”

“I could become myself entirely? No influence from you, or anyone else?” Quicksilver's eyes were bright, and he leaned forward with an honest yearning.

“You could. You would still be influenced by the effects of actions; that is inescapable. But it is possible to rip out the seeds of influence formed of words and conjecture that we plant in others unknowingly.”

“I might like that.”

“You would, I think. And as your subconscious, I think I have a pretty healthy understanding of your inner workings.”

“How do I begin?”

“Think about what you want more than anything else. Then realize why you haven't grabbed it just yet. What is holding you back? Are you truly willing to be restrained, or have you just been taught to be?”

Quicksilver closed his eyes. As he did so, Seren began changing forms, the spectral image revealing vast expanses, flitting persons, paragraphs of dogma, colors, and eventually, an orb of light.

“I want... power. The ability to enact my own will, instead of being a servant or slave.”

“And what is holding you back?” The orb asked. As Quicksilver thought, it momentarily became Luna, then Celestia, Quicksilver's smiling parents, then...

“Myself.” Quicksilver opened his eyes, looking into a perfect clone of his own image, as he had expected when he cast the spell.

“Correct,” the subconscious replied. “You are holding yourself back. None of the others are forcibly holding you back, though they might if they begin to fear you. They place up rules and restrictions, but what is stopping you from overcoming them?”

“Myself!” Quicksilver yelled.

“Power is within your grasp.” The reflected Quicksilver gestured towards the book on the shelf nearby. “Why haven't you taken it?”

The true Quicksilver stepped over to the book. “A Study of Alicorns...” he whispered. He looked back to his subconscious. “I haven't taken it because... I'm afraid.”

“What is your fear born from?”

Quicksilver stood for a moment, his eyes tracking unseen images before him. “An uncertainty of the future. I'm afraid of failure.”

With his answer, the subconscious smiled, morphing into the self-proclaimed Seren once again. “You know, I'm from the future. I could tell you a thing or two about it.”

Quicksilver began to grin. “Oh, you could, could you?”

“I could. But where's the fun in that? Somebody as insightful as yourself should be able to make logical predictions. If you attack somebody or their position, they'll fight back. As long as they think you're on their side, they'll allow you to stick around. Most interaction boils down to that.”

“So you're saying I'm successful?”

“The only guarantee is that you will fail if you don't try.” Seren, looking surprised, began to change. When the morphing was complete, the subconscious had become Quicksilver again, but there was one key difference. The pegasus now had a horn. The apparition looked up. “So, you want to become an alicorn, do you?”

“I do.” Quicksilver smiled at the thought, finally giving voice to a desire that had remained hidden for so long.

“What's keeping you?”

Quicksilver frowned. “Well, myself, I suppose. But it's because I care for Luna, and I respect Celestia. I don't want to get on their bad side.”

“To take a stand for yourself will often result in making enemies out of a few friends. You have to decide if the gain is worth the anguish.”

Quicksilver chewed on the thought, before finally nodding. “I've spoken with you long enough, for now. I think I need some rest.” Before the ghostly image could speak again, he dismissed it with a flare of his eyes. The runes in the summoning circle lost their illumination, and Quicksilver's room was cast into near darkness. Outside, the solitary moon shone on a cloudless. Quicksilver stepped to the window, looking over the vast expanse of sky. It felt empty, incomplete, Quicksilver decided. After a few moments more, Quicksilver shut the shades and went to bed. “Perhaps the moon could use some company...” He whispered. In short time, sleep overtook him, and the world faded away into nothingness.

{- - -}

“No! NO!” Luna screamed, throwing the covers off of her as she jumped out of her bed. She was shaking and sweating, her heart still pounding. Her eyes darted around her room. Everything was still in place. Just a dream, then. She rubbed her shoulder in an attempt to comfort herself. She shuddered as she remembered the more vivid details of her nightmare.

She had been attacking Celestia viciously, for some reason. She hadn't felt any remorse either; she had been attacking to kill. With each blow, Celestia magic was failing, being less able to heal herself each time. Blood was everywhere, and the sounds of breaking bone echoed in her mind. The worst part was that Luna had found herself enjoying it. She had heard laughter, and now that she was awake, she realized it had been her own.

Luna ran to the trashcan in the corner of the room, dry-heaving into it. She felt weak. Such a horrible dream. She stumbled over to her window, throwing open the heavy drapes. The sun was setting, meaning that it was almost time for her shift as attending ruler of Equestria. She sighed, then made her way over to the sink, splashing her face with cold water. As she dripped, she looked into her mirror, her washcloth framing her face and covering her mouth.

“What have I become?” she whispered. “I've never had such thoughts before. Is this the Devil's work? Or worse, is it mine?” She tossed the washcloth aside, getting a better look at herself. Her dark coat shone in the pale light, her mane glowed softly. Her body was healthy, but she had been feeling her mind slip. She had attributed it to the necessary stress of war. But after a few days of taking it easy, it seemed that wasn't the case.

She composed herself, forcing her fear inside. It didn't matter what she thought of Celestia. She had to put her best face forward for the good of the kingdom. Before she could change her mind, she rushed out of her room and down the hallways to the throne room.

The guards nodded as she passed. Seeing them made her think of Quicksilver. With a jolt, she realized how much she had been stifling him lately. She'd hardly given him the time since they had decided to take revenge on the other kingdoms. She'd have to apologize to him, after she presided for the day.

Luna threw open the doors to throne room with a bang. She strode in confidently, only to stop in her tracks. The Devil was standing before Celestia, who stared back at Luna in fear and shock. “Luna? You're early.”

“I wanted to give a show of faith, Celestia. Is it wrong to be ten minutes early to my duties?”

“Of course not, it's just...”

“You're having a secret meeting that I'm not supposed to hear. There's nothing wrong with that, oh no.”

Perhaps I should leave.

“Hold on, I want to hear your side of this.” Luna stood face to face with her sister. “Why is he here?”

I came to give her a proposition.

“Oh, and what would that be?”

The same that I gave you. To remove her inhibitions.

Celestia jerked towards the Metaspectre. “Wait, you offered it to her as well?”

I did.

“Did she take you up on it?”

“I did, sister. What of it?”

“That explains it! You've been acting differently for quite some time now, Luna.”

“And now you know the truth. It's only how I wish I had been able to act. I love you, sister, but I have to stand up for myself.”

“But you made a deal with the Devil, Luna? And then you kept it from me?”

“You didn't need to know.”

“Of course I did! You're my closest ally, and if you're being influenced by outside sources, that's my business. Especially if the influence is a creature like the Devil!”

“You're making a big deal over nothing.”

“I'm not making a big enough deal over it, Luna! You're saying you tried to outsmart the literal trickster of legend. What did you trade for this boost to your self-esteem?”

“Nothing.”

“It can't be nothing.” Celestia turned to the Metaspectre again. “Was it?”

It wasn't quite nothing, per say. I told her that it helped me just as much as her to make her confident. Before we were interrupted, I was going to offer the same to you, with the same non-cost.

“See? Nothing to worry about!”

Celestia shook her head. “I disagree. Our inhibitions are what allow us to excel. We might think that taking everything for ourselves makes us happier, but it only hurts others. We can't always have everything we want.”

“We can, if only we don't hold ourselves back.”

“What of the people you hurt, Luna?”

“If they took care of themselves, it wouldn't hurt them very much. Survival of the fittest is a law of nature, and it should be a law of society.”

“I disagree. We need people to take care of. Kindness and sacrifice make for a better society.”

“They make for a weaker society.”

Celestia rolled her eyes. Luna's demeanor darkened. “Don't ignore the issue, Celestia.”

“I don't want us to explode over nothing.”

“Keeping silent will only make the matter worse. This day has been coming for quite a while. If you keep running, we'll soon be so far apart we won't recognize each other. I'm already forgetting what I ever saw in you.”

“That was low and unnecessary!” Celestia snapped. “What is there to talk about? At the end of the day, we still have to worry about the kingdom. Our personal feelings on the matter are irrelevant.”

“That's where you're wrong. It's hardly fair that we suffer so our kingdom can grow fat.”

“No, it isn't fair. That's kind of the point of being in a position of power, Luna. You do it to help others, not yourself.”

We have another visitor, The Devil commented.

Quicksilver was standing in the doorway, looking over the scene with interest and caution. “What's going on here?”

“Luna's being childish.”

Luna laughed. “I came in here, prepared to put everything aside so I could rule with a straight head, but I guess it was kind of pointless. You only think of me as a child, don't you?”

“Of course I do. You don't leave much to the imagination.” Celestia turned to the Metaspectre. “You may leave, Devil. I believe I can say what I need to without your help. Please, don't come near any of my subjects again. I don't want to make you my enemy.”

Nor I you. I shall take my leave.

The two alicorns watched the Devil walk down the red carpet, before disappearing with a crack once he reached the door.

“So.”

“So.”

Quicksilver looked between the two sisters, but he didn't speak.

Luna craned her neck. “Let's put everything on the floor. It's better to get it all out.”

“Very well.” Celestia's voice was measured and precise, the very nature of her emotionless tone revealing how much emotion she was holding back. “You're blind, foolish, rash, emotional, silly, trite, a drain on myself and the kingdom's resources, indirect, frustrating, unreasonable, and largely, aggravating.”

Luna swallowed, taking it in. “Alright. I think that you're blind, uptight, too cautious, unloving, bigoted, cruel, stifling, egotistical, false, set in your old ways, and pessimistic.”

Celestia nodded tritely. “And what are we going to do, now that we've laid this out?”

“I don't think we can overcome it. Not today, at least.”

“No. You're right, something has to change.”

“Indeed. Which is why I've decided that I can't live here anymore.”

Celestia was taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“I'm going to begin my own nation. I'll take the followers I have and occupy the lands we defended from the griffon and dragon populations. Equestria wouldn't have them if it weren't for me anyways.”

Celestia fumbled over her words for a moment before she managed to start a coherent sentence. “Luna, we can't split the kingdom! It'll weaken Equestria too much! Any of the other nations could step in and destroy us.”

“I don't see any other way, unless, no, wait...” Luna looked directly into Celestia's eyes. “I challenge you for the authority of the throne, as sole ruler of Equestria.”

Celestia looked like she had been slapped. “You can't be serious.”

“Look at me and tell me I'm joking. I dare you.”

Celestia's eyes narrowed in disdain. “Fine. Let's not delay, if you're going to be rushing blindly like you always do.”

“Very well.” Luna walked to the opposite end of the throne room, while Celestia stayed where she stood.

Quicksilver looked between the two despondent sisters. “Please, let's be reasonable!”

“Do you see any other way?” Surprisingly, it was Celestia who had asked.

“Well, no, but I can't stand to see the two of you fighting like this.”

“Then be glad this will be the last time.” Luna gave him a pointed glance. “Stand down.” She turned to the other guards. “Step out. Do not allow anyone into the room.” The guards hesitated, but Celestia nodded and they stepped out. Quicksilver didn't move. Luna pretended to not notice.

“On the count of three,” Celestia proposed. “One, two... three.”

From opposite ends of the room, horns flared simultaneously. With a loud crack, the two sisters teleported to the middle of the room, forgoing artillery and diving directly into close combat. Celestia dropped to the ground, smashing her forelegs against the ground. The stones underneath Luna launched into the air, ripping up the carpet above them. Luna pushed them aside, firing a blast of heat towards Celestia as she rose. Celestia rolled out of the way, rolling to a stand. With a flourish of her horn, she generated a bow of radiant light, firing off arrows in rapid fire. Luna, having finished her ascent, began falling, shielding herself in darkness. The arrows flew through, ripping holes in the magical fabric, which repaired after a second or two. Celestia threw the bow, discharging it as it came to rest on the ground near Luna. It exploded with celestial light, ripping away Luna's shield and throwing the alicorn a few feet.

Luna got up, generating magic armor for herself. It fit her form gracefully, her already present royal adornments morphing to match the set. Luna deliberately stomped with each hoof, four swords of energy rising out of the ground. She rushed Celestia, who threw up a shield of light just in time. Luna continued her four-way barrage as Celestia was backed closer and closer to the throne.

Celestia looked around wildly for a way out. With a grunt of effort, she pushed the shield forward, letting it loose as she rolled out of the way. With the momentary advantage, she dove forward, attacking Luna viciously with her horn itself.

Luna turned to catch the attack, but she still got hit by a couple of jabs. She winced in pain, realizing rather quickly that despite Celestia tendency to avoid combat, she was quite the opponent. As good as she was, however, Celestia had left herself open. Luna feinted with two swords before switching the attack to the other side, managing to catch Celestia with a direct hit.

Celestia yelled out in pain, drawing back to survey the damage. Luna's blade had gone deep, but it wasn't anyplace vital. Celestia sealed the wound, then turned to face Luna again. Her eyes went wide with shock as she was tackled into the ground, two blades already jabbing into her sides.

“Luna! The rules of honorable combat say that your opponent is allowed time to heal!”

“You forget, sister, that I'm playing to win!” Luna dug another blade into Celestia's side.

“So, that's how it's going to be, is it?” Celestia pushed Luna off with a physical kick, retrieving Luna's still-embedded blades. She hastily tried to heal again while Luna recovered.

Luna charged forward again, only to jump back as an unseen ethereal hammer fell to the ground, shattering the stairs. Celestia turned around, her healing having been a lure. She telekinetically hefted the summoned hammer. “The time for words is over. Let's finish this.”

Chapter 60: Leveling

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Chapter 60: Leveling

Luna hastily threw her remaining blade as she stepped back, trying desperately to think of how to counter the sheer force Celestia was swinging at her. Celestia advanced slowly, easily knocking the blade aside. Luna looked around the room for help, catching Quicksilver's eye. She frowned. No, she was going to do this herself. She had called this fight, and she was going to see it through. The princess of the night looked up to the roof, eyes widening as her plan began to form. It was a long shot, but it might just work.

She stomped the ground once more, the force traveling up the nearby pillars, guided by her magic. It collected at the center of the hall, beginning to crumble the stone around the point. Celestia looked up in surprise, having expected a more direct attack. Luna ran around her, pushing Celestia into the epicenter. The ceiling fell, forcing Celestia to drop her hammer as she tried to fling the rocks away from herself.

As she was distracted, Luna ripped the hammer away, swinging it at Celestia's legs. It was only a glancing blow, as Celestia tried to dodge, but it was enough to throw off the sun sister's concentration. She lost control of the falling masonry, which pinned her with a gut-wrenching crunch. Even Luna winced, but she continued forward, unwilling to let her advantage go to waste. She climbed onto the pile of stones, staring intently at Celestia, who looked up helplessly. Luna licked her teeth in anticipation. She lifted the hammer, a fury rising up from her chest. Her sister would pay for everything she had done— and everything she had been barely prevented from doing.

The hammer fell, the telekinetic weight adding a sense of finality to Luna's attack. She laughed quietly at Celestia’s pleading look.

“Luna!” Quicksilver yelled.

Luna paused, looking at him with fury. “What, you bumbling fool? I have to kill her!”

Quicksilver looked frightened. “That’s the problem! That's what you were about to do! This isn't a fight to the death, this was supposed to be honorable, just combat!”

Luna looked down at Celestia in horror. She had... she had been just about to kill Celestia. Luna tossed the hammer to the side like a poisonous snake. “What... what am I doing?”

Celestia weakly rose up from the pile, her wounds healing rapidly. “Luna, something's wrong, and I don't think it's just normal sisterly annoyance.”

“I... I can't help myself.” Luna looked up at her wildly. “Each of my attacks is like an injection of pleasure. I feel like I want to hurt you. Like, really want to. What's wrong with me?”

“Luna, I'm afraid your inhibitions are completely gone. The slightest frustration is worse than murder now.”

Luna began giggling desperately. “What are you talking about?”

“It's exactly why I turned down the Devil. I could see where that modification could take me. I thought he had only offered it to me, so I was negotiating a deal to have him never approach an Equestrian again, but it looks like he got to you first. I only accepted your challenge because I was hoping I'd be able to knock some sense into you. Maybe while you were unconscious, I would be able to put you back the way you were.” Celestia began making her way towards the throne.

Luna looked over herself. “You're right, I’ve gone too far. I was foolish. Help me, sister.” Her wide eyes begged for mercy. And yet they still carried a hint of malice that Celestia couldn't help but notice.

“I can only help you if you let me,” Celestia began, choosing her words carefully. “You need to renounce your duties until we can take care of this. We can't allow the kingdom to see what you've become, it'll only cause mass unrest.”

Luna's demeanor shifted, and she hissed ferally. “You're just trying to cement your position on the throne!” She stopped, then began weeping bitterly. “It's just like my nightmare! I've become the nightmare!”

Celestia nodded. “I'm afraid you have. I'm sorry, but this is for your own good.”

Luna looked up from her despair. “What do you mean?”

Hovering around Celestia were the Elements of Harmony, which she had retrieved from their hiding place beneath the throne. Luna shook her head. “No. No. You can't.”

“Luna, it might be the only way. If you get out of this room, you'll hurt yourself, or worse, others.”

Luna broke down, sweat forming on her brow as she panicked, losing what little control she had left. “No! You're lying! I'm fine!” she seethed. “You're evil. You're trying to enslave the people of Equestria.”

“Listen to yourself!” Celestia pressed the star-shaped element to her chest, where it held and began to glow. The other elements began a careful orbit as Celestia prepared her spell. “You’re being completely illogical!”

“You're going to kill me!”

“No! I'm trying to surgically remove the Devil's influence! If you resist, things might go wrong. Hold still.”

“And be led like a lamb to slaughter? Never!” Luna rushed towards Celestia, the moon far above glowing brighter as she prepared her spell.

Celestia groaned. “Luna, don't, I'm trying to help you! Besides, we don't even raise meat, the griffons do that. That metaphor hardly applies.” Celestia was forced to abandon the spell as she braced to meet Luna's attack.

Luna lashed out with a wall of fiery energy. Celestia threw up a shield, her mind racing for a way to end this as quickly and painlessly as possible.

“You're an oppressive monster!” Luna yelled, throwing a second wave of flame. “Only one of us will leave this room!”

Quicksilver had enough. He ran up to Luna and attempted to physically pull her back. “Luna, listen to reason!”

With an movement almost too fast to see, Luna whipped around and struck Quicksilver squarely in the face, her eyes full of fury. “Never try to hold me back,” she seethed.

Quicksilver stumbled back a few feet, stunned. “You... you hit me.”

“I'll do it again if you don't stay out of my— AUGH” As Luna was distracted, Celestia had tackled her, sending the two of them sprawling to the floor.

“Quicksilver! Get everyone out of the castle!” Celestia yelled. “I don't want to endanger the others!”

Quicksilver stopped rubbing his cheek. “Of course, my liege. It will be done,” he answered automatically.

“Traitor!” Luna yelled from underneath her sister. “You're siding with her, after everything we've done?”

“I... I can't side with you, Luna. You're no longer yourself. You're not what you stood for. I'm sorry.” He turned and ran, calling out for the other guards.

Luna darkened considerably. “So. I stand alone.”

“Just ride it out Luna, we can get you through this.”

Luna, still pinned by Celestia, stopped resisting for a moment. “The Devil only removed my inhibitions, didn't he? He hasn't taken ahold of my mind or anything like that. What you're seeing now is only what I wished I had the guts to show. This... this is what I really am.”

“You're wrong, Luna. You're being blown around by the slightest whim. An intelligent being has the occasional thought that they wouldn't dare entertain, but you're becoming a slave to them. This isn't freedom, it's a slavery worse than any you perceive me to be imposing on you. I'm sorry, but I've only done what I thought was good for the country! We are charged with protecting those weaker than us, Luna, and sometimes that takes sacrifice. I'm sorry if I've slighted you, and I'm willing to work this out, but you're not giving me a chance to help!”

“You've had your chance.” Luna finally managed to get a proper footing, and kicked Celestia away. The two quickly stood up, facing each other off.

“Luna, stand down. I don't want to hurt you.”

“It's too late for that.”

The air was still, though heavy with anticipation. Celestia deliberately chose to not move; she had to buy as much time as possible so the others in the castle could escape. They had prepared for every threat except an internal one such as this; she only hoped they were able to figure it out quickly.

Luna was stock-still as well. The light had gone from her eyes, giving her an aura of disconcerting calmness. Quicksilver was right; she was no longer the pony both he and Celestia knew and loved. And as such, Celestia could hold nothing back in this fight. She knew this nightmare wouldn't.

The Elements followed their careful orbit, their humming the only sound in the room besides the soft, controlled breathing from each side, and the wind from the revealed sky above. The sun was setting, and the moon was rising; if Celestia didn't act soon, she'd get weaker with each passing second. After all, the sun was the source of her main power, and with the earth interrupting the direct line of sight, she'd have to rely on her personal reserves, and perhaps the Elements. She couldn't toy with the strange magic they offered, however. They felt like caged animals, trying to escape, and despite their usefulness in the past, she feared their power. She could turn the sun back, but that would throw off the careful balance of life, and Luna would only try to stop her. She had to end his quickly. In an extended fight, Luna would certainly be able to beat her. Celestia's spells always had been less combat oriented anyways.

Neither side dared to move. Then, finally, Luna dashed forward as Celestia was taking a particularly deep breath.

Shoot. Celestia attempted to throw up a shield, but Luna had apparently boosted her speed with her magic. She was lightning fast, striking Celestia four, five times with her armored hoof. Celestia recoiled, trying to find a sure footing, but Luna kept up the attack. Another three strikes landed solidly, each hit dazing Celestia. If this kept up, the fight would be over before it even began.

Celestia let loose a shockwave, knocking Luna away. It was a powerful attack, and likely a waste of Celestia's stores of magic, but at least it gave her some breathing room. Celestia conjured four warding discs, which circled her body, ready to intercept any incoming physical attacks. She watched Luna carefully. The sun goddess was still holding onto the hope that Luna might be redeemed, and as such, she could not attack her younger sister as wildly as might be wise.

Celestia took a deep breath, and with careful movements, generated a snaking arc of light. She flung it towards Luna, the tail trailing behind the head like a comet. Luna rolled to the side to dodge the attack. With a subtle nod of Celestia's head, the spell's trajectory immediately changed. Luna began running as Celestia continued to guide the attack after her. It was an incapacitating bolt; easily avoided, but wonderfully effective if it actually hit.

Luna began firing a barrage of far less refined attacks. Each seared through the air, blinding Celestia's vision. Celestia closed her eyes and reached out with her arcane eye, striking down each attack with a counter missile. After a moment she opened her eyes once more, and gritted her teeth. Luna was standing in the center of the room, chanting frantically. Runes were appearing around her, and the moon began pulsing in time to her rhythm.

Celestia ran forward, attempting to interrupt the ritual. It was already too late, she knew, even as Luna finished her incantation. “...ac yn achosi tân garthu'r eni o gyfiawnder i arwain fi.”

A beam of light blasted from the moon, enveloping Luna instantaneously. Celestia was thrown back as a dark laughter began to fill her ears. The room fell into darkness, the light in the center failing to illuminate anything but itself and the creature inside. Each step it took shook the room, and its wings seemed to blanket the horizon, like the night's sky.

“You waited too long, Celestia. I'm at my very most powerful now. I have harnessed the full power of my creation, and I dare you to try and stop me.”

“Luna! Stop this madness!”

The creature drew ever closer, its draconic eyes glinting with malice. “Why Celestia, this is just the beginning. I've had a change of heart. I don't want to rule Equestria. I want to destroy it.”

Celestia shook her head, refusing to hear what her sister was saying. “You wouldn't.”

“Oh, wouldn't I? I have the power to. I have the motive. I've realized that it wasn't just you that was holding me back; it was everyone else as well. This world isn't worthy of our protection, so we'll begin anew. Hand over the Elements, and we'll recreate the pony race in a more glorious form.They will be perfect, like us. No more inequality. And then, we shall march across the rest of the world, and claim it for our own. One war to end the rest. No more strife. No more petty politics.”

“Luna, this is my last warning. Restrain yourself, or I will be forced to put you down.”

“I am no longer Luna. That name is tied to the weakling I've left behind. Yes, I've become her nightmare, her deepest worries about herself come true. But it's liberating! I can do anything I want to now, and there's no one to stop me! All shall know the name of Nightmare Moon, and each will bow before me. Beginning with you. Kneel before your superior, and I will allow you to serve me, as I was once forced to serve you.”

“Nightmare Moon?” It was all that Celestia could think to say. “That’s what you’re calling yourself? A bit tacky, don’t you think?”

“Don’t patronize me, Celestia.”

“I'm sorry, I just can't take you seriously.”

Nightmare Moon snarled. “You never could. If you're trying to talk me down, you're doing a poor job.”

Celestia held her head high. “I've realized that Luna is lost to me, at least for now. I owe you nothing that I owe her. And as such, I will defend myself without restraint.” Celesita's shields blazed, and she stepped forward, radiating glory.

Nightmare Moon laughed. “You can try to defend yourself, but you'll find you have a hard time doing it.”

Nightmare Moon tapped her armor-clad hoof lightly against the stone, the sound echoing across the hall. The wet smell of rain began to fill the air, as she traced her hoof around in sweeping motions. Celesita watched her carefully, waiting for Nightmare Moon to strike first. The scraping sound continued as she finished her pattern, drawing her hoof in next to her body. A thunder clap filled the air, and Celestia's eyes widened as the lights continued above, obscuring the early night sky.

Celestia swung all four shield above her as the lightning began to strike. Each bolt was blinding, the echoing sound vibrating the walls and jarring Celestia. The effect was like a strobe light; each blast seemed to make the world move in slow motion. With surprising and disorienting speed, Nightmare Moon dashed forward, and Celestia backed up in a panic.

“Gah!” Celestia yelled, her cry drowned out by another thunder clap. Nightmare Moon's eyes were glowing with a sinister light, blades of energy slashing at every opening Celestia allowed, only to taper off and die out as the Nightmare conjured yet another blade, striking down and releasing, over and over again, in fluid motions.

“Had enough yet? We've only just begun!” Nightmare Moon held her attack for a moment, making Celestia's steps stutter. With two telekinetic blasts, Celestia was thrown against the wall. Nightmare never let up, continuing her cutting strikes viciously. The Elements did what they could to heal Celestia, but the attacks were coming in faster than they could be handled by Celestia’s unfocused mind.

“You like that? The thing is, this isn’t anything compared to the pain I’ve been feeling for all these years! It’ll take quite a bit more of this to get to the point where you can say you understand what I've gone through. Then perhaps you will have the moral ground.” A beam of concentrated light slammed into Celestia's last defenses, ripping them away. Celestia yelled out, her eyes falling out of focus.

Is this how it ends? Celestia wondered. My sister, corrupted? Me, alone? Without putting up a fight? She scowled. No, never.

Celestia began to rise, the energy still blasting at her. Nightmare Moon gave a quick shake of her head in confusion. “What? That's not possible.”

Celestia just closed her eyes, shutting out the pain, smiling softly. “You underestimate the power of will.” She turned to face the Nightmare, her scarred and burned flesh beginning to heal as she secured control over the Elements. “No words. Let our actions speak.”

“Very well.” With a heavy flap of her wings, Nightmare Moon was in the air, her umbilical cord of lunar energy trailing behind her. Celestia opened her mind, feeling the nigh infinite expanse of the Elements. Each second was drawn out as she removed all distractions. There was now only her, and the threat to the kingdom before her. The threat wasn't Luna any longer; she was an idea, a corrupting cancer. She couldn't be a sapient being anymore. That would make it too painful. She was a blight, an open sore, a mockery, a plague. And she would be removed.

Celestia let the energy flow. Once it had begun, it was easy to let it all out. With determined flicks of her horn, she threw blast after blast towards her airborne opponent. Nightmare Moon made an active effort to dodge, managing to avoid most of the attacks, which crashed unhelpfully through the walls. However this turned out, the castle would need some renovation.

Nightmare Moon was obviously only stalling for time, hoping that Celestia would run out of power. With a flap of her wings, Celestia took to the air as well, her horn glowing with the same glory as the Elements. She now fired a constant, incredible beam, which slammed into Nightmare Moon, who gave a cry of pain. The dark alicorn gritted her teeth and dove down from her higher vantage point, straight through the attack, tackling the older alicorn. They spiraled to the ground in a tangle of limbs and feathers, neither willing to break first. At the last moment, they pushed off of each other, rolling to minimize damage.

As soon as they had stopped rolling, the two were at each other once again. They forgot their ranged tactics and went straight at each other’s throats. The two of them jousted with their horns, kicked with their armored hooves, and butted each other for all they were worth. Finally, Celestia managed to land a solid blow on Nightmare’s knee, a loud crack filling the air.

“AH!” She yelled. Celestia landed another blow on the wounded knee, quickly following up with a third to her enemy’s side, throwing her to the ground. Before she could react, Celestia quickly cast thin beams that severed Nightmare Moon’s limbs. It was gruesome, it was barbaric, but it was the only way to keep her down long enough for this to have a chance. Celestia shut out the cries of anguish beneath her as she readied the Elements.

“Tynnwch y gwenwyn sydd wedi dod o'r ffynhonnell ffiaidd. Dychwelwch y meddwl oedd yn berchen arni unwaith. Rhowch ei heddwch a chariad.”

“What have you done?!”

Celestia was pulled out of her spell by a familiar voice. “Quicksilver! Get out of here!”

The look on his face spoke of untold horror. “You’ve hurt her! Your own sister!”

“It’s the only way. Go!”

Nightmare Moon raised her head weakly, her face dripping in her tears and the blood that had begun to pool around her. “Quicksilver, help. She’s trying to kill me!”

The look of horror suddenly twisted into rage. “She won’t be able to.” He rushed forward, yelling incoherently.

Celestia jumped up, turning to face him. “Quicksilver! If you interrupt me, you’ll kill her, you’ll kill me, you’ll kill the kingdom!”

“Your words are empty, just like your heart! You care for what’s ‘proper’, but you never take into consideration anybody’s feelings!” He lunged forward viciously, but Celestia side-stepped him. “My liege, I’m sorry, but you’ve lost the once unshakable faith I had in you! I know Luna’s not acting herself, but if she were, she’d be no better off! You’ve smothered her with your rule!”

Celestia gave a primal scream. “I’M ONLY DOING MY BEST! I AM NOT ALL-POWERFUL. I AM NOT ALL-KNOWING. BUT I WILL NOT STEP ASIDE AS I WATCH THIS KINGDOM FALL!”

With a final exertion, she grasped Quicksilver telekinetically, and before he could react, she threw him across the room with abandon. She ran over to Nightmare Moon, who was struggling to get up, her limbs having reformed due to her lunar aura. Celestia stepped on her neck, pinning her to the ground. “Just hold still,” she whispered frantically. “Please, for once in your life, just let me help you.” Celestia powered up the Elements once more, probing the Nightmare’s mind. It was tumultuous and hostile, but at the very center was a spark she recognized. It was the core of Luna’s personality: her love of discovery, of peace, of thought.

Celestia began tunneling through Nightmare’s system, dispelling the darkness within. The light of the Elements burned away the darkness like the rising sun, leaving the resplendent and yet modest light of the moon. Celestia began to let herself breathe easily. She would be able to restore her sister, and then perhaps they could put this ordeal behind them.

Without warning, Celestia lost control of the spell. It surged throughout Luna’s– no, Nightmare’s– system, neither dispelling the darkness nor reclaiming the gloom. Celestia looked up in confusion. Quicksilver was glaring at her from across the room, his eyes dimming as they recovered from the spell he had just cast. Celestia looked down at the Element of Magic. It was spotted, as if it had begun to grow black mold. The energy flowing from it was disrupted as well. Celestia began to panic.

“Quicksilver! Do you know what you’ve done?!”

“Yes,” he said calmly, walking closer. I’ve prevented you from harming her any further.”

Nightmare Moon sputtered, then finally stood. Celestia tried to pull back the energy that was being sucked from the Elements, but whatever Quicksilver had done had forced the channel open. The Element had become a one-way stream.

“This is impossible...”

Nightmare Moon stood up, her mocking smile gone. “You... you were trying to save me.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Celestia seethed. She hated that she was losing control of her emotions, but if this wasn’t solved now, correctly, everything she had worked for her entire life would be no more than garbage.

“You failed, though.”

“Only because HE stopped me!” Celestia shot an accusatory glare at Quicksilver, who met her with a level gaze.

“No, it wasn’t just that.” Nightmare Moon slowly rubbed her still-healing wounds. “Celestia, I’m afraid I’m too far gone–”

“That’s not true!”

“–Too far gone for your power. The Elements are not meant for a single creature; their power is drawn from the strength of relationships. Heh,” she scoffed softly, “I don’t think we’ve been taking good maintenance of the Elements, so to speak.”

“No, we haven’t. Luna, are you–”

“I haven’t changed as much as you’d think, Celestia. I’ve already told you; The Devil only made me unafraid. I’m not going to blindly fight you now, but I still can’t let you remain on the throne.”

Celestia began shaking. “Don’t do this.”

“I’m sorry. Ready yourself, sister. We’ll fight again.”

Celestia just closed her eyes, shaking her head. “I can’t go on like this. I can’t keep fighting you.”

Nightmare Moon raised a brow. “Then you forfeit?”

Celestia laughed bitterly. “I only wish it was that easy. I’m sorry, Luna. Perhaps someday you’ll be able to forgive me. I never will.” With a surge of will, Celestia grabbed hold of the Element’s flow, pouring everything she had into it, and urging the orbital Elements to do the same. The result was a pulse of energy so great the room shook. Nightmare’s eyes widened in terror.

“No... no... don’t...”

Quicksilver looked at Nightmare Moon in worried confusion. “Luna, what’s wrong?”

“She’s... killed me.”

The energy reached its critical point. With nowhere else to go, the pressure escaped in the only way it could. With a flash of light, each fiber of Nightmare Moon’s body was torn apart, the aura of glory filling the room immediately. With an echoing cry of agony, the lunar umbilical cord shot back to its origin, carrying an almost indistinguishable small, golden sphere.

The light cleared, and darkness fell on the now ruined throne room. Celestia dropped to the ground, weeping bitterly. Quicksilver only stood dumbfounded.

“You killed her.”

“Yes.”

“You killed her.”

“Yes. Yes, I did! It was the only thing I could do!”

Quicksilver turned and bared his teeth at the source of his pain. “No. You could have stepped aside, as she had for so long. You could have let the stronger of the two of you take power. For once in your life, you could have listened to her! She’s a brilliant lady, the best I’ve ever met, and you’ve killed her!”

“I was only doing what was best!”

“Best for who? For her? Unlikely. For the country? I doubt it. You’ve called her selfish, childish, and perhaps a bit stubborn, but you know what I think, Celestia? I think what we hate most in others is just what we hate the most about ourselves.”

Quicksilver’s words were like daggers in Celestia’s already dying heart. “Remember your place,” she sniffed. “You have sworn your life to this country and to me.”

Quicksilver could only return the most incredulous look ever conceived. “You... have got... to be joking.” He stepped away for a moment. “No. You couldn’t have just said that.” He began to chuckle. “To think I ever looked up to you. You’re just a little girl with a bit too many toys to choose from. I think that’s what you’re most afraid of getting out, Celestia. The fact that anybody could do your job, and likely a better job of doing it too.”

Celestia tearing uncontrollably. Any other day she’d give him a lecture, but now, she didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. She had killed her sister, and as much as she had tried to rationalize it earlier, she would do anything she could to undo the last few minutes. She yelled at Quicksilver, the pain in her voice clear and heartfelt. “I’ve done everything I could. I’m sorry that wasn’t enough! Perhaps you’d like to try taking the throne! Everybody else thinks they can do a better job, but nobody knows what it’s like to have thousands of families dependent on your every decision.”

Quicksilver just kept laughing. “You know what? That’s a wonderful idea. I think I’ll try to take the throne next. Who would stop me, you? Certainly not. Look at you. Your Elements are worthless now. You’ve broken the rules, Celestia. You were selfish, and selfishness is not an element of harmony. It is an element of discord. You have sown your own destruction, Celestia. I’ll finish what Luna started.” With a madness that was soon overcome by the glowing light of his eyes, Quicksilver planted his hooves into the broken ground, drawing in all the energy that had just been released into the room upon Luna’s death. He breathed deeply, an oddly calm smile overcoming his face. Out of his saddlebag flew the book that he had helped write, the one that spelled the downfall of Celestia’s reign.

“The Ascension Process,” Quicksilver began to recite manically. “Becoming an alicorn seems largely caused by the whims of fate, though proper preparation will increase the likelihood of survival. There are three key aspects of the ascension process. First and foremost, the alicorn-to-be must be so fixated on a single concept, idea, or feeling that they embody it more than any other being. Our wise ruler Princess Celestia represents Mercy, for example, while Princess Luna represents Justice. This fixation can only come, it seems, from a traumatic event that rebirths the pony in the aftermath.” He paused for a moment. “I wonder what that will be?” He giggled before continuing. Celestia only sat and watched; she had lost her will.

“Secondly, after the fixation is acquired, an influx of power or arcane energy must engulf the candidate. Recorded examples are from otherwise deadly lightning strikes, chemical and crystalline explosions, concentrated attacks from other alicorns and in the case of our Princesses, the mysterious Elements of Harmony.

“After the power surge is acquired, it triggers a hallucinogenic dream that from an outside perspective seems almost instantaneous, but some have reported spending the mental equivalent of weeks in the dream. The dream puts the rising alicorn through a series of trials and visions that force them to fully recognize who they are. Faults and strengths, the truths they've refused to believe rise to acknowledgment and the lies they have told themselves are cast aside. In the culmination of this dream, the candidate must announce to themselves and the world the fixation they are to represent. If they cannot admit it to themselves or they simply are not fixated, their body will lose control of the potent energy and it will destroy them. If however, they manage to harness the energy correctly, the physiological change occurs.” Quicksilver stretched his neck experimentally. “Well, Celestia? Shall we try it? Ironic, when I wrote the book, I never thought I might use its knowledge myself. But then, I also never could have fathomed that I could lose the light of my life. How foolish I was.”

The air in the room was a void, all available energy sapped. Quicksilver only shook his head. “Luna, if I die, I just want you to know… I loved you. We used to laugh at how cliché those words sounded, but they survive through the ages because there just isn’t another way to express it.” The tears on his face were obscured as the transformation began. Two great wings of pure arcane energy stretched from his body, enveloping him with an almost mocking hug, before the room, and the world, went silent.

And Celestia could only watch.

AUTHOR UPDATE

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Alright, everyone! You probably thought I ran away with your money, didn't you? Well, I'm happy to announce that wasn't the case. However, as I'm certain you've noticed, there's been a distinct lack of chapters being published. That's because of college finals, a mandatory family vacation that was more work than play, and my brother's wedding. That, and getting ready for my two year excursion out of the country. As I say somewhere in my story, "That explains it, but doesn't excuse it."

So here's the deal. I'm promising a chapter a day, BARE MINIMUM and if I don't hold to it, I'll commit seppuku or something because the very last thing I want to do is scam you out of your money. I will return it all if it comes to it. But I'll do all I can to get this done. Here's a list of what needs to happen:

1 ] Finish actually writing the story.
2 ] Edit all 495 (current) pages of the story (as listed in OpenOffice)
3 ] Compile it all into an eBook, with a cover, table of contents, the works
4 ] Compile it into a separate eBook to send to CreateSpace for publishing, with different margins and whatever else is needed for the physical creation
5 ] Order a trial copy (I'll probably have to skip this since I've painted myself into a corner. Guess I'll just have to get it right the first time.)
6 ] Mass order the rest of the copies I'll be sending out
7 ] Sign them all (comment with suggestions on how I should handle this. Do you want them signed with my real name, or my pen name, Erindor? Actually, the same issue goes for the author's spot on the cover. Real name or pen name?)
8 ] Ship them out to all my wonderful and ludicrously patient readers
9 ] Do steps 6 and 8 but with the t-shirts
10] Get my silly tablet driver working and do the author-drawn art, or else switch to a different computer for that
11] Consider my place in the universe
12] Laugh at how close it was and cheer that I managed to make it, or else hold my head in shame and become a hermit. By the way, anybody have good survival tips for living in the woods?

All of this needs to happen by June 5th. Realistically, by May 31st. It's possible. It's going to be close. I will never cut it this close again.

IF YOU'D LIKE TO HELP:
Please claim a chapter, read it over, and suggest edits. This will allow me to focus on finishing the story and getting everything else prepared. More information, and a sign up sheet, at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1L7_4_L8oa-KysFtU85MHsN_D5jYZ2IQcqBzD6mY6ELQ/edit

Thank you very much for your love and support! Let's wrap this story up.

Chapter 61: Reprieve

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Chapter 61: Reprieve

“Get up, Celestia.” Quicksilver stood over her menacingly, his body still glowing from his recent transformation.

Celestia didn't move.

“I said, get up,” he hissed.

Celestia raised her head slowly. “Are you going to kill me?”

Quicksilver shook his head. “No. Not yet. You'd only return, without having learned anything. I'm going to let you live with your decision, while I tear down everything you've worked for. We'll start anew, create a civilization that is truly born of justice. Mercy is a wonderful ideal, but where does it end? If somebody's lived only a tenth of their life committing crimes, are they to be spared? What of the person who spent a tenth and one percent? One hundredth of a percent? It wouldn't be right. You have to go all the way, one way or the other. Either everyone is guilty or nobody is. Well, I have you and the crime you've just committed. With one counter-example, we see that the world is broken. It's time we fixed that.”

“What have you become?” Celestia asked, her voice wavering. “You managed to survive the ascension, but what ideal could you cling to, what was so strong you were willing to sacrifice everything else for it?”

“Vengeance, Celestia. I am here to avenge my beloved's death, and everyone who has ever been wronged by a man declared innocent.”

Celestia shook her head, looking at her new enemy. “And what's to become of me?”

“That's the question, isn't it? I've harmed you a little, but in the end it's fruitless, isn't it? Even if I could manage to overpower you, you'd only return having learned nothing. I have to ruin your mind.”

“And you expect me to let you?”

“Of course not. But it's not like it matters. You're predictable. Soon enough you'll overcome your grief and try to justify your action as for the greater good. And when you've convinced yourself that everything's fine and that the kingdom can continue, you'll recognize that I'm a greater threat than sheer force of power could be. Because I know the truth.” Quicksilver looked her over for a moment. “You'll need to call me by a different name. After all, the idea that one of the princesses' personal guards might have turned against you, well, that's just unthinkable.” His voice was mockingly steady. “I'm a foreign entity that rose up to ruin your world because I was jealous, or something to that effect. You'll figure it out. You're good at making people believe whatever garbage you present them.”

Celestia frowned. She couldn't deny she had already been thinking of ways she might be able to spin this. “Why tell me all of this?”

“To let you know that what I am doing is not because I've been blinded by emotion. I know fully well the consequences of my actions. I'm doing this because, even if I lose, I'm right. And that, Celestia, is how I will break you. Vengeance itself is a force to be reckoned with, but when Justice and Vengeance work together, the very forces of the universe will see to it that I will win. Maybe not now. Maybe not for a very long time. But as long as I live, I will see to the downfall of your kingdom. Pursue me if you dare.”

Quicksilver jumped into the air, and took off through the broken ceiling. Celestia watched him until he was out of sight, thinking about the future and what it meant for her. She couldn't stand by, could she? It would be an insult to Luna's memory. She had to forge a world for Luna to return to, one better than the one she had left. It wouldn't ever make what Celestia had done right, but perhaps it would allow Luna to forgive her, and that's all that she wanted. Celestia frowned. She had let Quicksilver get away, for now. But he couldn't get away with his corrupt plan. He claimed to be free from emotion, but the very nature of the ascension ensured that the alicorn would be inseparable bound to their most powerful desire. Their emotion was what made them strong. And Celestia finally found herself begin to feel something other than despair. Hope, and anger.

She jumped to her hooves, still a little wobbly from her healing wounds. She stalked through her halls until she was outside the castle, in the carefully trimmed fields where her staff were waiting worriedly. Upon seeing her, there was a sigh of relief, but their breath caught again as she began to speak.

“Luna's been killed by a monster that rose against us. It's run away, for now, but I fear the entire kingdom is in danger. The castle is no longer safe.”

“Princess Celestia,” the guard nearest to her asked, “What is it?”

“A fallen alicorn, by the name of...” Celestia paused to consider. Up in the sky above, a new celestial body burst into being, only about a third as big as the sun. Its light cast away the darkness of the night, causing all to shield their eyes. Celestia considered it emotionlessly.

“His name is Seren.” Celestia gritted her teeth behind her lips, annoyed that she was forced to do as Quicksilver had predicted. She couldn't tell the truth; to make Luna the bad guy would ruin any chance at redemption when she returned. Quicksilver had to take the blame, and he was eager to do so, but it couldn't be Quicksilver the devoted, loyal defender. It had to be Quicksilver the cruel, unforgiving, and malicious.

“Seren? The fallen sun?” asked one of her advisors, translating the archaic word.

“Indeed.” Celestia raised her voice for the next part, making sure she was heard by all. “This new alicorn is in direct conflict with me. He's promised to destroy this kingdom and all that we hold dear. Why? For the sake of Vengeance. He wants to make a world where every crime is repaid in full. He believes that to show Mercy is to be weak, but we know it is what makes us strong. But he is wrong! The path of Vengeance is the path to destruction. Mercy creates, enlightens, and allows for the forgiveness each and every one of us seek. For the sake of our lives, of our homes, and of our families, I declare Seren the greatest threat to the safety of Equestria. Any means that must be taken to eliminate him can and will be used. His very presence will throw the world out of balance; with the light of his bastard sun, all life will die, unless we can find and destroy him. I offered him Mercy, and he refused. So now the vengeance he holds so dear is the only course of action. We will show him that Equestria can stand strong in the face of any foe.”

The crowd cheered. Celestia looked at them incredulously, behind her practiced mask of determined leadership. She now saw herself as she really was. She saw how easily she told lies, how quickly she was getting tangled up in a web whose only escape was death of one of the two last alicorns. But it was necessary. For the greater good.

For the greater good, she kept telling herself. It was a shame it taken her sister's death to convince herself of it.

{- - -}

The heavy wind stirred up a gust of leaves, their rustling breaking Celestia's concentration. After a year and a half of constant struggle, she had managed to corner Seren. She had learned far too quickly that he was completely serious about his threat to destroy her society. He had absolutely no qualms. When she thought he would attack a position, she would fortify it, only to find him slaughtering an entire, insignificant village as nothing more than a metaphorical middle finger to her attempts to capture him. But finally, after he had managed to escape her grasp for so long, he would be put down.

She was alone. It was suicide for anybody else to try to help her in these fights; Seren had always targeted her allies, laughing all the while. She only knew of three of her guards who were part of the original group before that fateful night of death and ascension. All the others had either been honorably discharged to attend to their families or they were killed. Guards were no longer there to fight the threats to the kingdom; they were only there to see him coming and let Celestia know as quickly as possible. It was a constant game of cat and mouse, but Celestia couldn't decide whether or not she was the harried cat or the mistakenly brave mouse trying to sneak past the seemingly asleep enemy.

Likely the mouse, she thought. Seren seemed to enjoy toying with her, which was apparent enough with the form of his creation, a spiteful parody of hers. Even when he wasn't in person to taunt her, he was a constant burden on her mind. He refused to move his creation, despite the potentially life-annihilating consequences of a day-day cycle. So, Celestia, for the good of the entire earth, was forced to keep both creations moving. The sky had two suns now; the days were long and hot, the nights lonely and cold. It was better than the alternative, she supposed. But it was an inconvenience at best, and a deadly advantage for Seren at worst. Each time Celestia moved his sun, she was expending her own energy, and Seren could just use what power he had saved to cause more destruction.

This could go on no longer. This mouse had some bite.

The only good thing about Seren's grasp for power was the fact that he had entirely halted all other threats to Equestria. When news came of Luna's death, the griffon and dragon nations took the opportunity, only to find themselves unexpectedly halted by two alicorns instead of one. It had pained her to work with her vowed enemy, but it seemed that Seren was determined to end Equestria himself, without the aide of foreign powers.

The two alicorn's ceasefire hadn't lasted too long. As soon as the armies were blatantly retreating, Seren had immediately turned to attacking Celestia and her forces. And in ever similar instance after that, the same thing happened. Begrudging alliance to deal with the threat to Equestria, then immediately back into the feud. It was absolutely infuriating.

Celestia tried to control her breathing as she stood by the cave entrance. It wasn't like Seren to hide like this. Sure, she'd finally had the upper hoof in the last few battles, but it felt wrong for him to be licking his wounds. He had been relentlessly striking, never giving her a chance to rest, and yet, here he was, waiting for her to make the first strike.

She stepped inside, ducking to get past the overhang. The cave opened up quickly, its uneven surfaces slick with moisture and moss. After allowing a moment for her eyes to adjust, she surveyed the area. No torches like the stories of old, no stone gate, no treasure, no signs... only the tugging on her mind by another powerful presence. Celestia lit her horn and began exploring deeper into the recesses of the cave.

After ten minutes of searching, she was beginning to get wary. Seren wasn't making himself easily found. For a brief moment of panic, she wondered if he was even here at all; what if he was off somewhere else, destroying a village? But after a moment's focus, she realized that couldn't be the case. There was a powerful energy signature in here, and you couldn't fake those. It had to be him.

Finally, after a few minutes more searching, Celestia found the room the aura had been coming from, but something was wrong. It wasn't just one energy signature, it was several. Their combined output seemed like only one from a distance, but now she knew something was off. She brightened her horn to illuminate the area she'd just stepped into.

The cavern was tall here, with stalactites and stalagmites alike present. There was a small pool of water in one of the corners, and the air was damp. None of this really registered with Celestia. She was more concerned with the giants, waking bears.

Celestia looked at each of the many creatures in quick succession. She'd never seen anything like it. Their bodies looked everything like a normal animals, but their 'skins' were ethereal reds, blues and purples, pulsing with energy, reminiscent of the night sky. On the brow of each of the beasts was a large, burning orb printed on the fur, in the case of the bear-like ones, and on the exoskeleton, in the case of the scorpion and the crab. This seemed to be the source, or at least the focus, of their power.

After she came to her senses, Celestia turned and began running for the entrance, not even bothering to identify the other creatures. No use wasting her energy fighting these monsters while Seren was still out there.

As she ran, she began making a new plan. If Seren wasn't here, where would he be? All the most recent reports pointed towards him being in this area, and those creatures weren't natural.

With a start, Celestia skidded to a halt. Now that she thought about it, those creatures must represent the... what were they? Constellations, that was right. A couple of the creatures sounded familiar. She thought back to the time Luna had begun talking about them, about how proud she was for coming up with an idea that would give the citizens of Equestria another reason to enjoy the night. Celestia kicked herself for not listening closer. If she had, maybe Luna wouldn't have been as mislead. If she had, maybe Celestia would have a better idea of what was happening now. Luna's plan was to introduce smaller, dimmer celestial bodies as a sort of ornament to the night, to make the sky as a whole more interesting and the darkness less oppressive. Celestia had shut it down with some excuse about pragmatism, but now that she actually gave it a few seconds thought, it sounded nice. Of course, Luna had grown closer to Seren –Or rather, Quicksilver, Celestia reminded herself,– so it stood to reason that Luna might have spoken about the matter to him.

Was Seren trying to honor Luna's memory? Could it be that he genuinely thought himself the good guy in this conflict?

Celestia shook her head. It didn't matter what he thought. Every fool thought they were correct, but only time would separate the wheat from the tares.

A sound like a step echoed across the cave. Celestia froze, listening closer, but nothing more came. Like a startled rabbit, she waited longer than she felt was necessary just to make sure.

“My imagination,” she muttered, shaking her head. She'd been so much jumpier since Quicksilver's betrayal. Once upon a time she had been able to get a good night's rest, but now, she was lucky if she managed to sleep at all.

She focused, blocking out the signals of the creatures behind her, which didn't seem to be pursuing her. They were Seren's creations, which explained why she had mistaken them for their creator. They were both emanating the same energy, distinctively flavored like Seren's false sun. The creatures' presence was overpowering, almost like it was meant to mask something...

Her eyes flew open in realization, just as her silent foe landed in front of her. She leaped back instinctively, but no attack came. Seren simply stood menacingly, his golden eyes piercing the darkness. Once again, Celestia waited, but he didn't move, nor speak. Finally, she swallowed her anger and fear, and spoke up.

“Not going to attack me?”

“There's no need.”

“Why? Are those beasts going to kill me for you? Have you given up doing everything yourself?”

“As I believe you'll have surmised, I used them as a distraction. They aren't meant for anything more.”

“Well, you have me where you want me, obviously. How do I die?”

“Remember, Celestia. I am the alicorn of Vengeance, not Justice. Justice demands you death, but Vengeance is willing to wait for the end to be as excruciating as possible. It's even willing to make sacrifices, to allow more crimes to be committed if it means the punishment will be that much more satisfying.”

“Be clear, or be ready to fight.”

“I'm done fighting, Celestia. For now at least. Do what you will, for I have already won.”

Celestia calmly glared at him, waiting for him to continue. She wouldn't give any credibility to his words until he proved them.

Seren caught the hint and picked up where he had left off. “It's never been about destroying the entire kingdom. Well, at least not in the way you've been thinking of it. Remember, what I'm doing is for Luna's sake. She worked to make this kingdom as beautiful and prosperous as she could. As did I. Do you really think I'd just go and throw that all away in a blind rage? No. Of course not. Celestia, the wells of my disdain for you are unending, but my desire for the progression of our race is greater. I understand that just slaughtering you wouldn't do any good. It'd throw the kingdom into a panic, and nobody would trust me. But if I can undermine your position, if I can make others see the way I do...”

“Then you'd be the more honorable ruler.”

Seren gave a slight, slow bow. “Correct.”

“And you don't even need to tell any false stories to slander me.” Celestia sighed heavily.

Seren nodded. “At least you don't lie to yourself, even if you're perfectly fine with lying to the public.”

“A political campaign, then? That's your plan?”

“A revolution, a rebellion, a revolt. It's already in motion, Celestia. Thousands now heed my call. You've been so flustered trying to deal with me that you've missed the big picture. Every time you've failed to catch me, your public image has taken a hit. And while I've destroyed a few cities, you've let this whole country burn. The people are beginning to realize it.”

“If what you say is true, and I have little reason to believe it, what are you going to do with these followers of yours? Lead an army against the castle gates? Need I remind you they're already broken? If you're trying to claim the throne, if you legitimately believe that you're the most capable ruler, remember that you'll have to rebuild everything you destroy. The people's trust, first and foremost. Even if the entire nation wanted to get at my throat, leading a bloody war is not the best way to endear yourself to a peace-loving nation.”

“I don't know if we can call them peace-loving, seeing as they've never known it. The rumors of war have hung over their heads for many generations. If it weren't for the careful counter-balance Luna supplied, the borders would have been truly overrun long ago. The pony race is strong, yes, but it's our guile that makes us the dominant race. It was the guile that taught us how to hide from our predators, that taught us how to bend magic to our wills, that taught us architecture, farming, and everything else the other races are only now picking up on. So, if such a race is being led by a leader who's forgotten that past experience does not mean correctness about future events, it's time for a changing of the guard.”

“Speaking of guard,” Celestia snapped, suddenly fed up with Seren's haughty monologue, “Where did you get all these ideas? You were loyal to the crown! You had so much potential!”

“That's just it. I was never loyal to the crown; I was loyal to the country. And the reason I turned against you is because of my potential.”

“And because of Luna's lying tongue. I regret what I've done, but I stand by the fact that it was necessary. It seems none of us alicorns are worthy to rule. We're all just a bunch of fools given enough power that we think we're worth listening to.”

“Speak for yourself. I think I'd make a fine leader, and these people agree.”

Celestia felt a shudder in the dormant energy around her. With a blip of light and a crack of sound, she found herself facing twelve rather stern-looking ponies.

“Each one of my captains represents a hundred warriors ready to fight for my cause. How many do you think you have, Celestia? And how many will surprise you with their true colors?”

Celestia was just about ready to charge Seren and gorge him with her horn. After a deep breath of air, she calmed, and looked at each of them sternly. “I will not tell any of you that you may not think differently than what I've proposed, but know this; as the alicorn of Mercy, I can promise none should we come to combat.”

The captains said nothing, each one trying to avoid Celestia's glare. Seren stepped forward once more. “You're nothing without your Elements, Celestia. Without a shield to hide behind, you're uncomposed and frankly, embarrassing. Thank goodness this didn't happen until after Luna and I had fought back the invading forces.”

Celestia's horn grew brighter, making Seren raise a brow. “Is it time to fight, then? I thought you'd gotten past that silliness, since it obviously doesn't work.”

Celestia laughed cheerlessly. “You think you're the only one with plans, Seren? The only one who can think ahead?”

Seren frowned at the thought. “Not quite like that, but yeah. You've been nothing but a fool this far.”

“Then I'll tell you one thing my experience does give me over you. Tactical knowledge. Never underestimate your opponent, and you'd better come prepared for everything.”

With a flash, an arcane circle inscribed itself instantaneously into the floor of the cavern, with Seren at its center. A wall of force rippled out, knocking away the captains, who were then sucked back into their teleports, vanishing without a sound. From each of the six points around the circle, a line connected the smaller circle that was trapping Seren. “What is this?!” He yelled, spitting profanity as he smashed against the invisible walls of his arcane prison.

“A reversal ritual. Everything you've done will be wiped from the face of the earth. I'm sorry, Quicksilver, but if you won't listen to reason, it's time for you to be put down.”

“How can you live with yourself?” he seethed. “You're willing to go to any lengths to keep your 'perfect' world safe. If everybody's fighting against it, that should be enough to tell you that it's not the perfect world you're hoping for.”

“I don't pretend that it is. I'm just doing my best.” Celestia stepped forward, ready to activate the last part of the ritual.

“It's not nearly enough.”

“I've been trying to warn you, Seren. I gave you a year to rethink yourself. Every moment somebody was hurt by your actions hurt me, but it would have been worth it if you had decided to stand with me and rebuild the kingdom for Luna's return. I'm sorry it has to end like this.”

With a thought, the circuit completed. With a rumbling, and then a loud crash, a perfect hole was punched through the roof of the cavern, enveloping the defiant alicorn. He yelled in agony and pure denial as his energy flow was reversed, all his dormant power being sucked back into his mockery of a sun.

And Celestia could only watch.

Chapter 62: Repulsion

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Chapter 62: Repulsion

Seren grit his teeth and looked directly into Celestia's eyes. “This isn't the end,” he hissed. He flinched as his entire back portion was ripped apart and regenerated in a single moment. “Yr wyf yn ymwrthod fy rheolaeth ar gyfer dianc.” The rest of his energy was expunged in a glorious burst of light, the pulse traveling up the beam and slamming into the false sun. The creation buckled and heaved, letting off waves of light as its careful orbit was lost. Celestia released her forced connection, and with nothing keeping the power source in check, it exploded, high in the sky, in a wave of white flame.

After her eyes recovered, Celestia looked to the smoldering ritual circle. Seren had escaped, as she expected he would. But it didn't matter anymore. He was absolutely powerless. He could run, but it was only a matter of time before she caught up again. Then she, and the world, could rest.

“Equestria prevails,” she murmured.

She turned to leave, but paused as she heard heavy breathing behind herself. Seren's creatures had been awoken from their slumber, their towering forms filling the room both physically and with a soft light. The glowing orbs upon their brow had exploded like the false sun which gave them light, spreading specks of light around their bodies. Despite their gruesome figures, Celestia had to admit their glistening coats looked pretty.

“Your creator has abandoned you. I have no quarrel, but I will defend myself if you attack.”

The creatures looked the comparatively small equine over. In a language with no words, the leading creature, a bear-like beast, asked what they were to do. Without a master, they were lost. Without a source of power, they were cold. They had been given intelligence without an aim, a life without a place to live.

Celestia considered the fact. It had been childish of Seren to abuse his creative powers as he had, but she couldn't leave the mess to sort itself out. Whether or not they were aware of it, these creatures were dangerous. Their size alone was reason to give her pause.

The creature continued. The recently born beings knew that Celestia was very powerful, and they were willing to serve her, if she wished. It was better to have a directive than to wander aimlessly, especially now that their previous master had abandoned them.

Celestia found the proposition agreeable. “I will be your new master. I give you this directive; guard the forests around the old castle.” She projected a telepathic map, showing the area she wanted protected. “Dissuade travelers from wandering too far. Allow the plants to overgrow. Encourage the presence of other magical creatures, which you in turn will claim as your servants. Protect the land, but keep yourself unseen as much as possible.”

The creatures agreed. How long should they protect the forests, they wondered?

“Until your master’s star reforms. And, the name of the forest must change, to reflect your new stewardship. They shall be called the Everfree, representing both your newfound purpose and the freedoms you will help provide to the residents of the land. Your job will be largely thankless, but I will remember your contributions, and will honor you when I can.”

The creatures bowed, apparently having some sense of diplomacy instilled in them. Celestia bowed in return. “I will leave you to it, then.” She continued out of the cave unmolested. Perhaps it would be more wise to just kill the creatures then and there. But she had sworn to kill only once more. One more death, and then it would be over.

{- - -}

“So. You’ve managed to hunt me down.”

“Are you going to run?”

“No. I’m done running.”

It’d been six months since Seren had fallen into Celestia’s trap, making it a year and a half since Luna’s death. He had taken up refuge in the princess’ old castle in the already frightening Everfree, of all places. When Celestia finally found him, there weren’t any elaborate traps, nor were there any grand threats or defiance. Just a hunched form in the circular, arcane energy-reflecting room that had served as the castle’s magical laboratory, the chill of the winter outside lingering heavily.

Seren turned to face Celestia his golden eyes still burned with hatred, but the spark of life had left. “End me, Celestia. I have lived long enough being worthless. You have bested me, and I can’t bear being without Luna.”

Celestia looked him over. “What went wrong?”

“Patronizing as always.”

“No, I don’t just mean your betrayal... What happened to each of us? Why did Luna change so suddenly? Why could I find no way to console her?”

“Because we’re mortals pretending to be Gods, Celestia. It’s as simple as that. We have shaken the bands of our otherwise short lives, we have the very fabrics of reality at our disposal, but in the end, I’m a simple guard with plans too large for me to handle. You’re a good-intentioned unicorn who was once charged with protect her sister, and having failed that, is now charged to enlighten the kingdom alone.”

“Quicksilver, I’m genuinely sorry. Sorry that it had to be this way.”

“As am I. But we’ve chosen our paths.”

Celestia came closer, and Seren tensed, causing her to pause. He realized what he was doing and relaxed. “Heh. Despite all my bravado, I’m still subject to the weaknesses of the flesh.”

With a flash, Celestia materialized an arcane sword. She held it her sullen enemy’s neck, who shuddered in anticipation. “See you in a thousand years.”

Celestia hesitated. Could she really pretend to be beginning a new era of peaceful ruling with another death? His bowing form was reminiscent of a prayer, and it reminded her of just how young he was.

Suddenly, Celestia became aware that Seren was facing her. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.

With a surge of emotion, Celestia lashed out with her weapon. It was over.

And yet, it had only just begun.

She tossed the weapon away, where it shattered upon impact, its pieces disappearing like the embers of a dying flame. Celestia curled up on herself, comforting her racing heart. At last, everything could be fixed. She had the time to make everything right.

After sitting there for a few minutes, she peeked out of her comforting position. Seren’s body was soaking in a sanguine pool, the leaking fluid echoing around the small room. Celestia decided to leave the grisly sight to decay with the castle. She might have given him a burial, except she suspected he would object if he were able to.

Celestia stepped out of the castle and into the cold night air. She looked up into the sky, taken aback by what she saw. The lights had been organized. Luna's vision of the 'stars' as she had called them had been realized. Celestia regarded it for a moment, her mouth agape. She had no idea it would have looked anything like this. It was awe-inspiring. And yet, she hadn't done it. Seren's creatures shouldn't have had any real control over the remnants of his sun, so that only meant...

Celestia sat down in the snow, considering what this meant. Seren had used the very last of his power reserves to rearrange the shattered remains of his sun to honor Luna's memory. He genuinely cared, then. There was no other convenient explanation. It didn't change the demonic actions he had taken, but it made the necessity of his death weigh more heavily on her mind. She had taken two promising —though blinded— friends from this world. Their return would be difficult for them at best, and deadly for all at worst. She was invested now, and she had to go all in. To give up now would only make all the effort spent a waste.

But how to go about it? That cursed Seren had spread his tendrils of influence far enough that even without his power, even without a body, he was still being troublesome. Only a few weeks before she had found Seren, she had been accosted by a group of ponies who claimed to be freedom fighters, denouncing her tyranny. Celestia had each of them captured, questioned, then released after a quick amnesiac spell. But sadly, the same couldn't be done for the rest of the precarious country.

Celestia's eyes flew open, her mind alight with ideas and possibilities. “Or can't it?”

She got up, shaking the snow from her coat before running back into the room where she'd left Seren's corpse. She made some quick mental calculations. It would take almost everything she had, and there was no sure way to keep it stable, but the benefits might just outweigh the risks. She'd be given a clean slate. And without any enemies, she could spend as much time recovering as she needed to.

No, that wouldn't work. Eventually, the ponies would turn to their old ways. Unless she were to refresh the amnesiac every year, but even then, it was the nature of mortals to seek out trouble for themselves. The problem was deeper than any policy, any law, any threat of an army or any promise of a reward. The problem lay in the hearts of the people. As long as they could be hurt, they would allow the hurt to fester, and eventually lash out at somebody else, perpetuating the pain.

Celestia considered the dilemma. What if there simply wasn't any pain? What if, instead of pain, there was numbness? Instead of injury, confusion? Death, a gentle passing? The more she thought about it, the more she began to allow hope back into her heart. She was the sole ruler of Equestria now; she controlled the heavens. She could utilize their power for such a task. It would be dangerous, but the results would finally justify her. A world of equality, of prosperity, of true, unfettered happiness.

Whatever the cost.

{- - -}

I'm sorry for interrupting, but I believe you've seen what you needed to, and Celestia has just arrived.

Gemini shook her head, clearing her mind from the vision. Thael stood next to her, watching the entrance to the throne room. Celestia filled the doorway, her form still glowing from her magically-enhanced flight. Celestia looked around at each of the ponies, out of breath. Upon seeing Luna, she stepped forward quickly. “Luna, are you alright?”

“I am... well.”

“Luna, Twilight, we've got to leave. A powerful alicorn is on his way, and he intends to destroy—”

“Celestia, I think you'll find us both well acquainted with Seren. Or perhaps I should say, Quicksilver?”

Celestia froze in place. “You've recovered your memories, then?”

“I have. And Twilight was just indoctrinated to the same personal history.”

Celestia looked between the two of them. When she spoke, she spoke slowly. “I can't pretend that I deserve your forgiveness, nor your support. But please, everything I've fought for will be ruined if he's allowed to escape.”

Luna stepped forward, placing a hoof on Celestia's trembling body. “Sister, I know you mean well. But it's time to stop running. I've relearned why I sided with him in the first place, and I can promise you that my malicious intent is gone. I am not here to make an enemy out of you. But we can't allow things to continue as they have.”

Celestia stepped back, hanging her head. “What am I to do, then? Can I really just let everything fall apart?”

The Metaspectre hovered over. Peace, Celestia. Seren does not come here to destroy indiscriminately. You will be given a chance to explain yourself, and the same opportunity will be given to him. It's no longer just between you and him. Everyone in this room will have to make a choice. We will let reason, not might, rule.

Celestia withdrew, making her way over to the entrance of the throne room. She started a careful watch, waiting for her deepest fear to finally show its face.

When Seren got near, there was no doubt in Gemini's mind. He was making no attempt to mask his presence, and the ambient energy exuding from him was much like the Metaspectre's altar. Celestia tensed up, but she held her ground, until finally, the hallway was filled with echoing hoofsteps.

“I'm glad I was able to catch up to you, Celestia. I've been meaning to have a chat.” The alicorn brushed past her and into the room. In person, his form was even more intimidating. It seemed a thousand years had caused his body to change, slightly. The air of desperate fervor that used to define him was gone. It was instead replaced by cold determinism. His golden eyes, rather than drawing you in, seemed to repulse forcibly, making it a challenge to hold his gaze.

Upon seeing Luna, he brightened considerably, though he still had an aura of danger about him. “Luna! Are you alright?”

“I'm fine, Quicksilver.”

“Quicksilver... yes, it's been so long since I've been known by that name.” He smiled a warm, genuine smile. He made his way over to his long-lost princess. “How are you?”

“Where I was once confused, I am disappointed. I, personally, am fine, as I have said. But there are matters we must attend to.”

Seren nodded, pausing to take in Luna's beauty for a moment longer. “Yes, the matter of the throne, of these two worlds.” From his position at the top of the steps, he looked down to Celestia, who was still waiting by the door. “What are we to do? Celestia, as long as one of us lives, we will be in a constant state of war. I want, just as much as you do, to be done with our petty past, but neither of us seem able to forget it.”

“Neither of us want to,” Celestia replied.

“And I think that's the truth.” Seren finished. “Celestia, even I must commend your tenacity. But it's been a thousand years. Has it been worth it?”

“No, I can't say that it has.”

“Then why press on? Why not pass the torch to another, more willing bearer?”

“I want what is best for the people. I realize now that one ruler is not enough, unless the ruler is perfect. As all of us are flawed, to give the throne of Equestria to any one would be to condemn it to eventual decay.”

“Then what is your proposal?”

“We return to the joint ruling that was established before your ascension.”

“Put aside our differences? Just like that?” Seren gave a short laugh. “Celestia, the trouble is, we'll never be able to agree. The joint ruling failed in the past because it was inherently flawed. The moment you and Luna disagreed on anything, the rift between you grew bigger. Add me into the equation, and you'll be even less happy than you were before. With nobody above us to make the final ruling, well, that system would eventually lead us back to where we are now, although likely with a few more deaths along the way. We simply can't forgive each other.”

The conversation was dropped. Neither party had anything more to say, for the moment. Discord was floating lazily above on an inflatable tube, and the rest of the ponies were deep in thought. It was now that Twilight realized each of the others had merged, though none had attempted to use their energy to ascend to alicorn-hood. Perhaps that was better. There was enough of a power struggle already. The only exceptions to the merging were Flare and Eclipse, who, though standing side by side, demanded their individuality. It was strange, she thought; each of the other reflections shared many more characteristics. These two didn't have the same cutie mark, the same coat, or anything. They had a passing physical resemblance, more like sisters than clones, though. Then it hit her. How had she been so blind?

“Everyone's here,” she whispered. She looked from Luna to Eclipse, then from Flare to Celestia. Of course. And if she was correct, and Seren came from Lustrous Revolt, then...

What about her? She frowned, causing Lustrous' half to ask what was wrong. Twilight gave some off-handed response, before shutting down that train of thought. Now wasn't the time to discuss it.

Finally, after about a five minute pause, Seren spoke up once more. “Celestia, you have to recognize now that your plan was flawed. Sure, everything seemed nice from the world of paradise, but how much time did you actually spend in the Forgotten Realm? A world of joy is not worth an equivalent world of misery. Speaking of which, that was a nice touch, burning my body to fuel the creation of the portal.”

“Yes, I realize now that I was short-sighted, and that I was foolish. But I was only trying to make everybody as happy as possible! I didn't realize that the spell would create equivalent beings in the world of darkness.”

“Once again, I ask, why do you attempt to carry on, when you've proven you're unfit to rule?”

“Quicksilver—”

“I'm sorry, Luna, but I think everybody in this room deserves a proper answer.”

Celestia stood resolutely. She took a deep breath. “Because I cannot accept a world where good is forgotten and evil is rewarded. And I will fight to my last breath for the sake of others.”

“Interesting choice of words,” Discord commented. “I wouldn't provoke him if I were you.”

“Discord, as you were so keen to prove when Luna and I overthrew you, you aren't me. So please, stay quiet.”

“Hey, hey, I'm just trying to help.” He dropped to the ground. “Listen, both of you bickering like this. How about a compromise? We return the world to its old state, a world of mixed morality. Light and dark are not separate, but inseparable, creating all the many shades of gray that make life fun. You have to admit, Celestia, Equestria was pretty boring without people like me around. And,” he said, turning to Seren, “You have to admit that vengeance isn't any fun unless the person is legitimately at fault. In a world of darkness, you can hardly expect anybody to act kindly, and so making them pay for their crimes is both unjustified and, well, boring.”

Celestia was trembling, trying to stay composed. She wasn't afraid, Twilight realized, so what was it? She reached out with her mind and touched her teacher's for just a moment. Celestia wasn't trying to stay brave; she was trying to keep herself from hurting Seren. She was trying to stand strong, to prevent herself from getting sucked back into the eternal circle of violence she had unwittingly set up.

Twilight withdrew as Celestia began speaking once again. “I would be willing to merge the worlds, but once again, as you've proven, Seren, we cannot work together. You're right, it's time for the world to return to the complex balance it was before, but I cannot allow you to be a part of it.”

Seren chuckled incredulously. “And just how do you intend to do that?”

“As I did before. By keeping your corrupting influence under lock and key.”

Before anyone had a chance to react, there was a flash of light, and an echoing phrase lingered on the air. When Gemini's eyes returned to normal, she found that she had been transported somewhere else. A familiar room. The circular chamber that housed the mirror that served as a portal between the worlds. The mirror was fractured throughout, the weblike tendrils reaching all across the surface, leaving many smaller reflections of a shocked Gemini staring back in disbelief. The mirror looked like a single tap of the hoof would be enough to let everything come crashing down.

Gemini turned around in confusion. The only other person here was Celestia, who held her head low, in shame or apology, Gemini couldn't decide.

“What did you just do?!” she demanded.

“I'm sorry, Twilight. I set a way-point here, in case I needed a quick escape. It could only serve two people, and I didn't think Luna would be willing to help me, at least not yet. The two of us have to prepare Equestria for the merging.”

Twilight sputtered furiously. “You left all of my friends there! With him!”

“I'm sorry, but it was what had to be done.”

Twilight growled. She had just about had enough of this. “Celestia!” she exclaimed. “You're good intentioned. I know that. But you've gone too far! I will not help you, nor can I stand by you, if you are willing to make yet another sacrifice for this unachievable goal of 'the greater good'.” She let out a puff of heated air before continuing. “In light of the recent events and your history which I've come to learn, I cannot forgive you for your actions. I renounce my servitude to you and my status as a citizen of Equestria.”

She turned around, preparing to reverse the teleportation spell while she still had time. “I'm sorry, Celestia, but if you are willing to turn on your sister and my friends, you do not deserve my worship, nor my friendship.”

With a flash, the spell reversed, and Celestia was left alone.

Chapter 63: Tides

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Gemini reappeared in the room she had just left. Nobody had moved much, though it looked like she had interrupted an argument of some sort. Applejack was leaning aggressively towards Seren, who had been staring her down.

“Back so soon?” Seren asked mockingly.

“We had a bit of a disagreement.”

“Funny, we did as well.” He stalked towards Gemini. “Tell me, where did Celestia go?”

Before Twilight could respond evasively, Lustrous took control of their shared mouth. “She transported us to the gate between this world and Reality.”

“Did she now? Interesting...”

Applejack frustratedly groaned and ran over. “Twilight, we have to get out of here now. Seren won't listen to logic.”

“Matter of perspective. You won't listen to my logic.”

“What's going on?”

Applejack jerked her head towards the arrogant alicorn. “He's talkin' about blowin' up this whole place.”

“What, the palace?”

“No, the entire Forgotten Realm!” Seren crowed. “It'll be nice to see my prison crumble around me.”

Twilight shook her head in surprise. “What? Why? There's no need for wanton violence.”

“It's hardly wanton. A bit... extreme, perhaps, but it'll be the fastest solution to our problems.”

“Our problems being...?”

“The separation between the worlds. If Celestia hasn't already, she's likely to repair the distinction between the two. She's still trying to run from her problems. Can't say it's not warranted, seeing as I intended to slaughter her, but...”

“Is this why Celestia was so eager to tear me away? How is destroying everything going to help us at all?!”

Luna stepped forward quickly. “If I may explain? We've been speaking telepathically, and I think I might be able to explain it more clearly than he can. The Forgotten Realm exists as a counter-weight, so to speak, of Reality. For every good in Equestria, there is an agony in here. As Celestia allowed some minute darkness to remain in Equestria, just enough that free will could still exist, there was some good in the Forgotten Realm, like the concept of Respect. Even amongst thieves and murderers, you'll find it. Quicksilver's plan, while I don't fully agree with it, is to destroy everything in a path to the mirror, effectively tipping the scale the worlds reside on towards the side of the darkness. In an attempt to re-balance, Reality will begin drawing in more of the natural darkness from this world, and before we know it, the Forgotten Realm and Reality will be one and the same, and the distinction will cease to exist.”

“Who's Quicksilver?”

Twilight realized her friends hadn't had the chance to see what she had seen in the memory bubble, she opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Quicksilver himself.

“That would be me. I was once Celestia's guard, but I was awarded a new name for my radical ideas. I've come to prefer it, actually. My old self was foolish, and still somewhat blinded by the sun, so to speak.”

“Names aside, the problem still comes,” Applejack huffed, “from the fact that merging the worlds like you plan would be too sudden of a change. Once the worlds merge, death will become real, and permanent. Until the personalities can all find each other and merge, the sadly ignorant ponies of Equestria will be gettin' themselves eaten by hydras and nagas and who knows what else. Then they'll be dead, forever, and the dark personality will eventually just wither away. Neither of our societies is ready for such a quick merging.”

“Do I care of the societies when I intend to tear them down anyways?”

“And there's the problem! You don't care about the common folk! How do you think you'll be a better ruler than Celestia if you don't see that what's best for the people is best for the kingdom?”

“But I do! Obviously, the people can't handle themselves; another tyrant will always rise up, no matter how good the system is. That was proven with Discord, and it was proven with Celestia. It's better to have a benevolent tyrant who knows what's best and doesn't have any qualms about enacting the law. Casualties will happen, yes, and it's a shame it has to be like that. But the only other option is to allow the system to become corrupt in its infancy, and that will only lead to greater pain and more blood in the long run. Best to nip it in the bud.”

Applejack stood resolutely. “I can't let you do this.”

“Standing in my way is ill advised.”

Luna stepped forward. “Quicksilver, consider for a moment---”

“Luna, dearest, you and I have waited a thousand years for this. We can't back out now.”

“If you think I intended to back down, you're mistaken, but antagonizing those who have the potential to be our greatest allies is probably not wise.”

“Potential allies? I don't care what kind of world you see at the end of the tunnel, it's not worth even a single life!”

Ah, the battle between Omnia Valore and Finem Poenitet. Every world has champions for each.

“Pardon?” asked Rarity.

Omnia Valore is the belief that every life has distinct and great value, so much so that a single loss, whether it be through death or through undeserved misery, is a crime of terrible measure.

“Exactly,” Applejack affirmed. “Nothing's worth more than happiness. Even if you claim that that's your end goal, it's better to stick with the tried and true methods.”

“And Finem... Poenitet, yes? What does that mean?” asked Rarity, trying to keep the two sides from butting heads any further.

Finem Poenitet is the idea that, essentially, the ends justify the means. 'The End Repents', translated directly. Those who hold to it claim that the masses are, as a general rule, ignorant of their own state, and so a knowledgeable, all-powerful leader must keep them in line. I've seen both philosophies work, in the right circumstances, but it comes down to what the people are made out of.

Seren turned to Gemini. “Well, you obviously thought Celestia's plan was silly, if you came back so quickly.”

“Well, it wasn't quite that... It was more...”

“You didn't like getting bossed around?” Sergeant Flutterspry guessed, strangely looking both concerned and condescending. Twilight had yet to become used to her merging.

Seren barked with laughter. “Well, you and I share that, er... Gemini, was that your combined name?”

Lustrous answered. “We're rather distinct beings, still. Our merging didn't go too smoothly.”

“Just further proof we can't force this on people before they've even had the chance to hear about it,” Applejack interjected.

“Well, for one so opposed to the idea, your merging seemed to go rather well,” Seren chided.

“We had similar motivations. When our minds touched, we saw that it wouldn't be too much of a change from our old lives. Now, Twilight and Lustrous, however, just can't work together.”

“They're doing a spectacular job despite their differences.”

“Let them speak for themselves.”

The arguing parties looked towards Gemini, who nodded in reply. “Our goals are a bit too different to facilitate a proper merging.”

“There, you see?”

“One counter-example doesn't prove anything.”

“It proves a lot more than the hypothetical you're providing.”

The two stared each other down, and despite the size difference, Applejack seemed to be holding her own.

“You really will defy me so openly?”

“I fight for what I believe.”

Seren leaned in closely. “That does not make you honorable. A lost cause is not one worth fighting for. You're an idiot, a blind follower.”

“Say that again.”

Seren sneered. “You're a fool, and your blind courage will only get you killed. I'm going to merge the worlds through mass destruction, and I don't particularly care if your pretty little family is affected.”

It took Twilight a moment to register that the short, airy sound was Applejack, or rather, the combined personality, spitting in Seren's face. A collective gasp filled the room. For once, Seren was at a loss for words. He stood shocked, before finally managing to sputter his response. “You... you degenerate little harpy!” He lunged forward, teeth bared, horn shining, and wings flared.

“Sit down.” Applejack's voice was laden with malice. Her presence dominated the room, and her dark glare exuded danger. “Sit down, or so help me, you will not breathe another minute.”

Every rear in the room hit the floor.

“Get out.”

Seren held her gaze, but his head began to shake from the effort. Finally, he couldn't take it any longer, and dove out one of the open windows, his wings catching him as he fell. Luna, free of the spell, went after him as well.

After it was clear that Seren had actually left, the orange pony fell to her haunches, breathing heavily.

“What was that?!” laughed the merged Rainbow Dash.

Applejack chuckled quietly. “I'm not entirely sure, but I have a guess. Pinkamina was talking about how merged personalities get special powers, right? It looks like mine's intimidation. I don't think I could do it again, though. Not so soon, not against him. Twilight, if we're going to have a plan, we need to make and act on it pretty much right now.”

Twilight nodded, Lustrous reluctantly taking a back seat in the conversation. “It looks like Seren can't be swayed. We need to work on the assumption that he'll go through with his plan. If the Forgotten Realm is going to be destroyed for the sake of merging, we need to do all we can to make sure Equestria's ready for the change, and more importantly, that none of the destruction will meet them.”

“So what do we do?” asked Spike, flapping his wings excitedly.

“We'll have to bottleneck the entire realm. If we can control the gate between the worlds in the Natural Plane, we'll be able to let things through slowly. I'm not sure if it'll work, but it's the only thing I can think of.”

“Then let's get to it!”

“Hold on, I don't think it's that easy,” Rainbow Dash began. “I mean, if nothing else, it took us two weeks to get to this castle, and we have armies behind us. We won't be able to get through.”

“What about the waypoint Celestia made?” Applejack asked. “Could you go back through?”

“Let me try.” Twilight closed her eyes, trying to focus on the signal she had felt earlier, but to no avail. “It looks like Celestia destroyed it. I guess she didn't want Seren to follow after her.”

“Or she didn't want you to come back, now that you've abandoned her.”

All eyes fell on Pinkie. She just shook her head slowly. “There aren't clear sides anymore, Twilight. The trouble is, without blacks and whites, the world's full of grays. It makes everything much more pretty, but so much more confusing. You can't really be mad if somebody sees things differently than you do.”

Twilight frowned, eyes narrowing. “What are you saying?”

Pinkie stood up. “Thank you, Twilight and Gemini, for all that you've done for me. But the truth is, well, I can't support you any longer. Not because you're wrong, but because you're not the most right.”

“So who are you going to support?” Twilight asked, struggling to keep her voice steady.

“Seren.” The word came like a blow, and Twilight staggered a few feet.

“Is this Pinkie or Pinkamina speaking?” Applejack demanded.

“Neither, and both. There's no longer a distinction. We're a single being. Were this the right circumstance, you'd see me as cheerful as ever, laughing and throwing confetti around. But I now know when it's time to be serious. By delaying the merging, you'll only be making it harder for the people of Equestria. You underestimate them, Twilight. While you were in libraries and dusty basements, I lived their lives each and every day. And you know what? Even in the 'perfect' world Celestia set up, there's plenty of hardship. And guess what? The race lives on. It's like removing an old bandage. You can do it all at once, or you can peel it off agonizingly slowly. I say we make it happen in one go.”

Applejack looked absolutely horrified, and Twilight wasn't certain what to make of her own feelings. The only one that was clear was the pain of betrayal. Speaking of Betrayal, she turned to Rainbow Dash.

“And what about you? What does Spectral Slash have to say about all of this?”

“She... I want to cause the least pain possible. But we've also come to the realization that the worlds have to be merged. Things can't go on as they have. Should we do it quickly or slowly? Heh,” she laughed, keeping her eyes on the ground, “You know how I am. Can't stand to do things slowly, once I've begun.” But then she looked up, capturing Twilight's gaze. “But my opinion doesn't matter. I'll stick with you to the end.”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. “Rarity? Temperament?” Now that Twilight looked her over, she saw how much the beauty queen had let herself go. Her mane was messy, her coat was covered in grime, sweat, and dirt, and yet, she seemed genuinely happy. “What about you?”

“Temperament taught me something when we first arrived in the Forgotten Realm. Metals have to be burned of their impurities before they can withstand their intended purpose. We came in here, unwittingly thinking that we could stop progression. I think we all know that the worlds have to be merged, but we're reluctant to let go of our past lives. That's okay, that's natural. But progression isn't a friend of nostalgia. To continue forward, we have to look to the future, not the past. The truth of the matter is, Twilight, while I don't fully agree with his methods, Seren's plan makes the most sense. You don't put the ore in a cold oven and slowly heat it up, you throw it into roaring flames that you've already prepared. I think to say that everyone will go around killing each other is just foolish. The people of Equestria will avoid causing harm, and the people of the Forgotten Realm will be so ecstatic to be free of this world that they won't ruin their chances. There will be fighting later, but that will be because of selfishness and trying to elevate oneself in the new order, whatever it may be. That can't be avoided. But how did we come so far, Twilight? By meeting our darkness, or as the case may be, our light, head on. Like a hammer to the anvil, we are strengthened by the blows we withstand, and like the needle and thread, it's the pricks that keep us together.”

“But what about the people who die in the ensuing chaos?”

Rarity bit her lip, but then continued slowly. “People will die every day from this day forward. It's not ideal, but neither is the alternative. If everybody was guaranteed a good life, there'd be no progression, no creativity, nothing that makes life worth living. Our struggles to survive keep us strong. Whether they die today or die tomorrow is unfortunate, but, in the end, only the strong will remain. And I think you'll find the people of Equestria as a whole much stronger than you're making them out to be.”

Twilight shook her head, trying to digest what Rarity was saying. “And you, Fluttershy? Shuddercry?”

The yellow pony looked up from the stone she had been tracing with her hoof. “I'll be honest. Half of me would be willing to take all the pain of the world if she could, and the other half is a bit of a sadist. The truth is, we have to merge as quickly as possible. It will be a greater amount of pain, but for a shorter amount of time. That's the only compromise I can find in myself, and I think it's the best you'll find out of us as whole. I hate Seren. If for no other reason that he thinks he's better than me. But he's a means to an end. Rather than treat the symptoms, let's treat the cause of the disease, yeah? Focus on a way to defeat him assuming he will win, because truth be told, Celestia's been caught without a towel on, Luna's on his side, at least for the moment, and the worlds are already beginning to collapse. As any good caretaker or military commander would tell you, you need to be a few steps ahead of what you're fighting. If you really want to stop him, be ready for when he arrives.”

Twilight couldn't believe it. Three of her friends were staying behind to assist the very monster they had been trying to fight!

Remember, Lustrous began, I'm that monster. You are rather literally trying to stop yourself from winning, Twilight. Accept it or not, Seren is an off-shoot of you. He has all your knowledge, all of your skills, but he's a thousand years older, and has quite a bit more experience. When all your friends are turning against you, that means only one of two things. Either you're wrong, and you're the one that needs to change, or you picked the wrong friends. You're me, I'm you, and there's nothing you can do to change it. You should just give up, join Seren.

“Never... EVER doubt my friends," Twilight hissed.

With a flash, the unicorn separated herself into her two halves. Lustrous fell to the ground, having not expected such a sudden answer. She looked up at Twilight, who was towering over her. “You'll never be me," Twilight continued angrily. "If you can insult my friends, don't even try.”

The body slumped to the ground, where it bled out momentarily before being drawn back into the natural plane until it would be reborn.

The room sat silent, shocked. Twilight turned to face her companions. “If you choose to stand against me, so be it. But I will fight to my dying breath to protect Equestria. Is the merging inevitable? Certainly. But don't you dare tell me that one life is worth more than another.” She turned to Applejack and Rainbow Dash. “Come on, we've got a world to protect.” Her friends nodded, while the others stood dumbfounded.

Flare and Eclipse ran up to Twilight. “We'll be coming with you.”

Twilight looked up in surprise and gratitude. “You agree with me?”

“Not entirely, but your heart's in the right place.”

Eclipse nodded at Flare's answer. “What Seren's doing isn't just. It'll only be a matter of time before Luna realizes it. But we'll have to be careful. As dangerous as Vengeance paired with Justice is, at least it's restrained. If she abandons him, he'll hold nothing back.”

Twilight nodded. “Let's move, then. I have a couple ideas of how to make it back in time.”

As they ran, Thael's gaze trailed after them. The day of judgment has arrived, Twilight Sparkle. Who will you become?

I will become me, she answered shortly. That's all I ever should've wanted

For once, Thael smiled. At last, you've realized.

Chapter 64: Regression

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The sound of the snow crunching beneath her hooves slowly drew Twilight into a trance. She was happy to have the silence; to have Lustrous out of her head. Those who had joined her were quiet, thinking to themselves while Twilight planned their next move. There were too many variables; who knew how the fabric of existence would react to being destroyed? Besides, even if the laws of the universe were untouched, there was still the great distance between the reflected Canterlot and the mirror. But where there was one opening, there was likely to be another. Celestia's magic was obviously failing, and with Seren chasing behind, perhaps they could be caught up in the leaking Atrocities. She wasn't entirely sure how it might work, but it was certainly worth a thought. She hated to admit it, but she'd need to see the leak in action before she could figure out how to exploit it.

The alternatives were possible, such as a mass teleport, but that would be very draining, and if she could avoid it, she wanted to be at her very best for the upcoming events. If only she hadn't been so brash and had instead set a waypoint of her own!

“He's moving,” Flare stated flatly. The group looked back at the shrinking castle. A shining form flew through the window it had previously left, followed quickly by a more silvery, glowing alicorn. Luna and Seren had been discussing something, but had largely ignored the traveling party when they passed under them. They had been too far away to hear, to Twilight's disappointment, and it seemed like she lost her mind-reading powers when Lustrous wasn't with her.

“He'll likely talk to the others for a little bit before attacking, but we don't have much time.” Eclipse looked to Twilight. “Are we to walk the whole way to Moon Pool?”

“No, I have an idea. It's going to be dangerous, and we'll have to let the minor Atrocities through first.”

“That won't give us much of a window.”

“No, but it's the best we've got, given the circumstances.”

They kept walking, each following the unspoken drive to get as far away as possible before things got bad.

They didn't have to wait long. Not more than five minutes later, there was a blinding flash of light, followed shortly by a massive, tree-shaking boom. The light didn't stop, nor did the sound. But it did begin moving closer, edging its way towards the effectively stranded group.

“So, that plan of yours, Twilight?” Rainbow began nervously. “Probably a good idea to use it now.”

She opened her mouth to object, but was stopped as she felt a subtle movement in the world around her. “Do you feel that?” she asked, the others pausing to consider. It felt like retreating water, like somebody had opened a floodgate ever so slightly. A wash of memories, the very essence of ideas being sucked towards the glorious pillar of light.

“Yeah, I feel it!” Applejack called. “What do you reckon it is?”

“I think it's the first of the atrocities leaving. Celestia's spells will probably hold back the worst of it for a while, so now's our chance!”

“What do we need to do?” asked Flare.

“I think we need to run towards it!”

Flare returned a look of disbelief, but Twilight reafirmmed what she had just said. “I mean it!” she called over the humming. “We'll be destroyed, of course, but our minds will remain intact!”

“You better be right, Twilight!” Rainbow Dash took the lead back the way they had just come, towards the beam of destruction. Twilight and the others followed quickly, the light quickly becoming too much to bear even with their eyes shut. The heat around them grew, until finally, there was nothingness. Twilight was alone, with nothing but her thoughts.

“Welcome back, Twilight.”

Well, there was Derpy. There was always Derpy.

“Hey Bright Eyes, how are you?”

“Good as ever, I must say. And how are you?” Twilight knew it was a formality, more than anything, but she took the offer.

“Well, let me tell you about my day...”



“Big Mac! Big Mac!”

The powerfully built stallion lifted his head from his work to look towards the three charging fillies. The Cutie Mark Crusaders seemed to be in a panic of some sort, even more hyperactive than usual. The red stallion furrowed his brow and stepped over towards them. “What's wrong?” he asked. He found that being to the point had a tendency to be much more effective than waiting for others to get around to it.

“I'm not sure!” Applebloom was dancing back and forth nervously. “We were running along the road, and I didn't see a rock–”

“–It was like it popped out of nowhere!” Scootaloo added helpfully.

“–and so I tripped, and hurt myself, which is normal–”

“–But then she began yelling and oozing some weird red stuff!” Sweetie Belle quipped.

“–except it hurt way more than usual! I've never felt anything so intense! It's a lot better now, but I'm scared! Big Mac, what happened? Is this that growing up thing you adults always talk about?”

Big Mac shook his head slowly. “Now, hold on and calm down. Let me see where you got hurt.”

Applebloom stuck out her front leg. Sure enough, there was a long scratch, which was caked with some sort of solidified, deep red fluid. “Am I going to be okay?” Applebloom asked worriedly.

“I'll say probably, but I've never seen anything like it.”

“Never?”

“Never. Sorry sis. I'd tell you to go see Twilight Sparkle, since she's knowledgable 'bout just 'bout everything, but she and Applejack and the others are still gone on their trip.”

“Where are they anyways? It's so boring at mom and dad's,” Sweetie Belle complained. “At least Rarity had customers coming in to keep things interesting.”

“Now, I reckon I don't know. Applejack said they'd be okay, and best to my knowledge, they're off helping Princess Celestia, so they're probably just fine.”

“You sure I'm alright?”

“Does it hurt anymore?”

“Well, kinda, but not too badly...”

“Then you're probably fine. I'm sorry it didn't feel too good, but hurtin's about keeping you safe. Just remember to watch your hooves next time.”

“You don't understand, brother! It was worse than anything I've ever felt, even worse than that one time I broke my hoof! Just for falling on a dirt road? Don't you think that's a little weird?”

Big Mac pondered it for a moment. “Eeyup. Well, if you're still concerned about it, we could go visit the repaired library, see if any of the books there have anything on it.”

“It'd make me feel better.”

“Alright then, I'll come with you. I'm ahead of schedule with today's chores, so I can take a break for my little sister.”

Applebloom grinned. “You're the best, Big Mac!”

“We'll head out in just a moment. I just need a drink, I'm feeling mighty thirsty.”

As he walked off, Scootaloo sided up to Applebloom. “He doesn't talk that much normally, does he?”

“He's been making an effort to be more conversational ever since Applejack left. It's just too quiet around here. 'Sides, he's comfortable with you guys. He doesn't have to worry about you making fun of him for his slow manner of speaking.”

“What's wrong with speaking slowly?”

“Exactly. But apparently, people accuse him of being stupid just because he takes time to think about what he's going to say.”

“That's dumb.” Sweetie Belle frowned. “Sometimes I wish my sister took a moment to think about what she's saying. There's nothing wrong with making your words count.”

“Well, you know how ponies can be.”

“I guess. Sometimes I feel like this world's a bit too silly, though.”

The bouncing fillies finally arrived at the library. It had been a town effort to rebuild it. They had even bothered to ask a couple of Canterlot University's top professors to help regrow the actual biological tree that had once made up the majority of the library. All of Ponyville was chittering, wondering how Twilight would react to her repaired home. Sadly, until she came back, the ponies would have to wait.

Scootaloo burst in the front door, playfully mocking Sweetie's slowness. Not looking where she was going, as children are prone to do, she quickly bumped into another pony. “Oh, sorry miss, I just... Twilight?”

The pony looked down at the filly. Her hair was a little scragglier than the librarian tended to keep it, and she seemed tired. Or old, maybe. Nevertheless, the purple-coated pony smiled softly. “Yeah, that's right. Twilight's back.”

Big Mac came into the room. “Howdy Twilight. Didn't know you'd come back.”

“I, uh, tried to keep my arrival quiet,” she said casually, looking around the room as if she were seeing it for the first time. “Didn't want to spoil the surprise for everyone.”

“Ooo! A surprise?” Applebloom bounded forward. “What kind of surprise?”

“That'd ruin it, don't you think?”

“Heh heh, I guess.”

Big Mac looked around the library. “Where's Applejack and the others?”

Twilight seemed to pale for a moment, before replying quickly, “Oh, they're fine. Setting up the surprise. She couldn't stop talking about how much she wanted to see you guys again, but she has a duty to the princess she has to take care of first.”

“I hope I have duties to the princess when I grow up!” Scootaloo interjected. “I want to be a soldier, or maybe a scout, or something cool like that.”

“No way, it'd be too scary for you.”

Scootaloo frowned. “How many times do I have to prove I'm not a chicken to you guys?”

“Alright, now, settle down,” Twilight held out a hoof for quiet. “You came here for something, didn't you? I need to get back to work, but...”

“But you can help us quickly, right?” asked Sweetie Belle innocently.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I guess.”

Big Mac looked her over. Something was off, but he couldn't quite place it. Her mannerisms were different than usual, like she was preoccupied by something. There were quite a few things you could pick up if you took a moment to listen and watch instead of speaking. “Well, these three youngin's came running about some sort of strange scrape they got.”

“Oh yeah!” Applebloom held out her leg proudly. “I got it doing a cool trick Scootaloo showed me.”

“Hey, I'm still sorry you got hurt.”

“Naw, it feels just fine now, though I must admit I was pretty scared when it first started happening.”

Twilight looked the wound over, her eyes lighting up in surprise and... something else. “Is this blood?” she asked.

“Dunno, that's why we came to you, of course.”

“Oh, of course. Well, uh...” Twilight looked around the room quickly, as if listening for something. “Well, you shouldn't concern yourself. It's not as uncommon as you might think. Just wash it out with some water or something, and you should be fine.”

“See, I told you guys I wasn't going to Blink!” The three fillies began to run out, before quickly turning around. “Thanks Twilight!” they called in unison.

Big Mac chuckled as they ran by him, but he became serious and stepped over to the distracted unicorn. “Is something the matter, Twilight?”

She didn't seem to have heard him, so he repeated the question.

“What? Oh, no, everything's fine. Don't worry, everything is going to be fine.”

Big Mac wasn't convinced. “You know that there are people here who love and support you, right? Don't be making any of the mistakes my sister did. If you need help, you come talk to us right away, ya' hear?”

Twilight seemed shocked, but she responded with a quiet “of course.”

“Then I'll ask again. Is everything okay?”

She looked at him for a moment. “Yeah. Everything's okay.”

He looked at her for a few more moments, before finally beginning to draw away. “If you say so, Twilight. Just keep yourself out of trouble. And tell Applejack to get on home sometime soon. Granny Smith's dying to hear what she's been up to.”

Twilight nodded politely, watching him until the door finally shut. She immediately began pacing. “So blood's already been released, huh? And pain. It's only a matter of time, then.” She stalked up the staircase to her bedroom, looking out the window over the pristine fields and laughing ponies. “I'm going to need one of those scrolls,” she decided. “Curse Twilight for killing me at the most inopportune time. I should have kept my mouth shut.”

Her lip quivered slightly as she regarded the world outside. “I can't give all of this up. I have to stop him. I have to stop me. The worlds can't merge.” She sniffled a little bit, then composed herself. “I guess I'll have to go meet the others as the welcome party. Let's just hope Twilight can keep herself from killing me again.” She paused for a moment, then laughed. “I guess for all she argues, I rubbed off onto her a little bit. I would have done the same.”

She looked around the room, then finally back outside once more. She watched the fillies finally gather around Big Mac again as they began their journey back to Sweet Apple Acres. “Then again, maybe she's begun to rub off on me...”

{- - -}

“So, you're in a race against the clock now?”

“It certainly seems that way.”

“Then I won't hold you here any longer, though I'd