At the Twilight's Gleaming
Coloured lights streamed in through the stained glass windows, painting the intricately carved marble floors of the room all the different colours of the rainbow. Their shapes were distorted, elongated by the low angle of the sun relative to the horizon. The strange carvings of the throne room floor only became truly visible to the unknowing eye at this time of the day, adding to the mystique and power of the room, and the pony it was built for.
If she were still alive, that is.
Queen Eos sat upon her throne, leaning onto her side with a hoof to her lavender cheek. She was thoroughly and utterly bored after her vanquishing of Discord. At least the voice of that stupid little pony had finally and utterly been blocked from her mind. Now, if only she could shut the pony before her up in the same way, she could finally have some peace!
Prime Minister Regal Scroll stood before her, blithering on about some mundane problem that she really did not want to hear. At first, she paid him rapt attention, but by the time the phrase 'tax code' echoed through the chamber, she was out to graze. She was hoping her body language would clue him in that he was wasting both of their time, but either he had become blind, or was just insanely stupid: perhaps enough to warrant him being killed on the spot?
How would she do it? Hang him from the observatory? Maybe put her forebearer's old gallows back into use? She could set him on fire, choke him, turn him into stone and then smash him with a sledge hammer: the possibilities were endless! Before she could settle on a method for his imaginary execution, a series of panicked knocks sounded on the chamber doors. Eos looked to her honour guard and nodded slightly. The guards opened the doors.
A young, brown stallion with blonde hair trotted into the room and bowed to both the Prime Minister and the Queen, his deepest one to her, of course. He panted for breath, the sweat tickling her sensitive nostrils in a most unpleasant way. "Please, rise," she addressed the colt, to which he immediately did. "What is so urgent that you must interrupt my... 'important discussion' with the Prime Minister?"
"My queen!" he half shouted, trying to sound urgent but respectful at the same time and failing. "I come with most grave news! I have just received reports that... that the garrison in Manehatten has fallen and the city captured!" Silence filled the hall, no pony daring to move a muscle. Tales of her explosion at Shatterbuck for Shimmering Pass were well-known by then, and losing this city was one hundred times worse.
"Please, tell FORMER General Portland to report to me as soon as possible for his formal stripping of rank," Eos spoke in icy fury.
"That's... not going to happen, your majesty," the colt softly replied, trying to make himself as small as possible.
"WHY IS THAT?"
"He's dead, my queen; killed in battle. Civilian casualties were minimal, given the circumstances, and the military has retreated to Fillydelphia to hold them from advancing further." The room returned to silence for several more minutes as the gears of her mind spun. Now that they had an open route through the Northern Mountains, the enemy could pour into the country almost unabated.
"Prime Minister?" Eos spoke in a cold, even tone. "Alert the Minister of Defence and the living generals to prepare for an emergency meeting of the War Council in one hour. Whoever is highest in Portland's old chain of command is now promoted to General and expected to be in attendance, providing they can be contacted. Dismissed."
Before even giving them the chance to offer parting bows, the queen of Equestria teleported out of the room in a flash. Heat built up in her face as she appeared in her empty training room, turning into an angry blush. Her teeth clenched shut and were bared to scare a non-existent lesser pony. How could he have failed her so thoroughly, and on top of it, DIE on her!? If anypony was going to kill him for his failure, it should have been HER! SHE was the one who made the rules around here!
Now, she had an unwelcome new headache in conjunction with about three dozen different things of varying importance, not the least of which being a doppelganger gaining slow support from HER ponies! It made her furious! Outraged! Sick with anger! She did not even have a pony who deserved it that she could beat to a pulp to vent!
"Wait a minute," she spoke with a smirk. "I make the rules! If I want to take out my frustration, I can do it on anything... or any pony that I WANT! And they could say nothing about it either!" Faced with the revelation, suddenly a hundred thousand different targets became open to her. But which one had annoyed her the most over the years? Which one deserved it the most? "Trottingham!" the alicorn growled.
In a flash, she appeared on the mountains above the cursed, depraved little pile of plop that had defiled her pristine nation for as long as she could remember. The lights blinked helplessly below her, so unprepared, so unaware of their fate. Yes, fate. She had intervened once, where fate would have destroyed the sinful little burg. But, that was the beauty of being a god: mistakes could always be amended.
Summoning as much magic as she could, meteors of all sizes appeared above her head, dotting the twilit sky like tiny beads... beads hurtling towards the town at her hooves at some thousands of miles per second, but mere beads nonetheless! Applying her flank to the soft high-altitude grass, she summoned a bag of popcorn from the abyss, so she could better partake of the show that would soon unfold.
Sure, ponies would know she had done it, but SHE MADE THE RULES. In fact, if she wanted to, she could abolish ALL rules and let anarchy reign! It might be fun to watch ponies struggle and battle to the death over such petty things like food and shelter. The very idea almost made her salivate into her bag! But, it would have to wait: the first volley was already entering the atmosphere!
It had been a fairly warm and sunny day in the town of Trottingham, pleasant enough to erase all the doom and gloom felt by the populace in what had become their normal lives. The only thing keeping the sun from baking the medium-sized city was the brisk, cool breeze coming down the mountain range to the south, carrying only the occasional fluffy white cloud for the Pegasus ponies to play Cloudball.
Lazy days like that were not lost on the white unicorn. For the better part of the day, she had strung a hammock between the posts on the top of the apartment building and shaded herself with an umbrella she 'borrowed' from one of their neighbours. Her violet sunglasses dimmed the bright sun enough for her to close her weary eyes and lie there in bliss, without a care in the world.
The only reason she forced herself up during the course of the day was to trot downstairs to her apartment, have a meal, or refresh her lemonade, and then hike back up the stairs and resume her marathon napping spree. After all she had been through, she deserved to pamper herself a little bit, especially since it was not likely a legally blind disk jockey could get any work anyway.
Vinyl Scratch lay on her hammock, enjoying a dream where she stood before the monsters of the world and in a thundering rock ballad chorus, she brought out a weaponized bass speaker to rain down the justice of music upon their sorry flanks! How she loved that Bass Cannon. A smile crept upon her face as more stood to oppose the Queen of Rock and Roll, muttering in her sleep about divine justice.
She did not hear the wedged door leading down into the building open, nor the dainty steps of delicate hooves upon the gravel. Octavia stood at the threshold of the door as it quietly swung shut, stopped from closing completely due to a large, worn-out block of wood. A look of incredulity flashed against the grey mare's face for a brief pause before she remembered just who she was staring at.
The DJ had let herself drape over the side of the hammock, half of her body hanging over the side. By either sheer luck, or an incredible sense of balance, she remained on top of it. Her mouth was open wide, a small dribble of droll rolling down her white cheeks as a most horrendous (and extremely loud) noise echoed from the mare's big mouth. Occasionally, she would kick or grumble something incomprehensive in her sleep.
Unfortunately for her, Octavia had known Vinyl since they were little fillies: perhaps as far back as their first days of school? Time has erased the precise moment they had become friends from either of their memories. As such, she was quite used to her and all of her... eccentric behaviours, if that could be a term for 'insanity.' For better or worse, they were each other's oldest and best friends, even if they drove each other up the wall with their (especially Vinyl's) antics.
The proper mare gently cleared her throat as she approached the slumbering unicorn, whose back was towards the setting sun, silhouetting her against it. When that, predictably, did not work, the earth pony tried quietly calling her. "Vinyl?" she asked softly. "Vinyl," she repeated with more force, this time pushing her gently with a hoof. "Vinyl Scratch, you lazy charlatan, it is time for dinner!"
"Food!?" the white mare replied suddenly, spooking the other mare when she bolted upright, nearly knocking their faces together. "Why didn't you say so earlier, 'Tavi?" she smiled in her usual, overbearing grin. She fell out of the hammock and trotted over to the door quickly, giving pause only when it opened. "So... you comin' or what?" Looking behind her, she could see Octavia with a hoof clutched to her chest, eyes wide and breathing heavily.
"Sorry if I scared ya," the former DJ apologized, not dropping that stupid grin even for a second.
"You merely startled me," she replied, shaking herself out of it. "Of course, I can see why you would think that, since your breath is positively frightful!"
The uncouth pony let out a loud, completely un-ladylike belch onto her hoof and sniffed it analytically. "Smells like lemonade to me!" she chirped defiantly. It took all of the cellist's willpower to stop herself from expelling her lunch at the mere sight of it, simplify grimacing instead. Naturally, that smirk only widened. "Aw come on, don't be that way, Octy," she shot back.
"Do NOT call me by that name, VANILLA," she fired back, smiling in victory when the unicorn blushed.
"You... you... Ah, buck it! Let's just go get dinner, already!" She relented quickly before retreating down the stairs.
"What have I told you about being vulgar, Vinyl Scratch? I quite literally have a bar of soap with your name on it, if you keep this up!"
"Okay, okay, I'll be good," she finished with a measure of spite as her friend followed her down the stairs and back into the part of the building they were allowed to be in. They walked down the three flights to their apartment in silence with Vinyl taking the lead as her stomach grumbled and mouth watered. However, other ponies were beginning to cook their own meals, so she could not sniff out what they would be having properly.
It did not really matter anyway, so she just walked on quietly at a light trot since her nap had left her filled to the brim with energy. Maybe tonight she would go down to her favourite bar, pick up a mare or colt and have some 'unorthodox' fun with them to rile her friend up a little bit. It really annoyed Octavia to see a strange pony on the couch the morning after one of her escapades. Even more so if Vinyl was WITH them on the couch.
Memories of the last time she did that surfaced in the unicorn's brain. Somehow the mental image of Octavia standing over her with a rolling pin glinting in the morning sunlight and her mane done up in curlers made her grin even more. If it ever happened again, she would have to take a picture, if only for the blackmail material (in good fun, of course). As much as they drove each other nuts, it was wonderful to know they would stand up for each other no matter what.
Before she could really comprehend what was going on, the gentle clink of a plate hitting the table sounded in her ears. She took a couple of sniffs before her grin turned into a full-blown smile. It was a garden salad stuffed with radishes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, celery and all sorts of other goodies. Besides that, there was a bunch of freshly cooked hay fries and a wheat burger. "Hey, Tavi? What's the occasion?" she asked, looking to the grey blob.
"Oh, nothing special, Vinyl," she smiled in reply. "It is just that it has not sunk in until now that you are home to stay. I missed you not being around, as crazy as that sounds. I suppose that it is just your corrupting influence taking hold of my better judgment."
"Heh, yeah!" the white mare replied before taking a bunch of salad into her mouth. "Enjoy the ride! It's a hell of a thing!" Food spilled out of her mouth as she tried to talk with it full, doing it specifically to annoy her sophisticated friend. It did its job, as she seemed to recoil away from the horrid sight. Only now did she realize how much she missed tormenting her like this.
"Well, I just hope I NEVER become as vulgar as yo-"
A loud explosion interrupted her, shaking the ground and blowing out the windows of the apartments in a shower of glass. Both of the ponies shouted and ducked under the table to evade the thousands of razor sharp blades of shrapnel. Vinyl's ears rang uncomfortably, blurring out her friend. "Yeah! I think I'm fine," the white pony called out over another, quieter explosion.
They pulled themselves out from under the table and looked out the windows to find the apartment across the street flattened and the adjacent ones quickly going up in flames. Above them, streaks of red flew across the sky, columns of fire rising from the city skyline. Several smaller chunks left small craters in the streets, ponies disappearing in a flash. Even with her damaged eyes, Vinyl Scratch could see this was no enemy attack. "Let's get to the air raid shelter! Come on!" Octavia cried, pulling her away from the window.
Sirens blared and fire alarms went off, adding to the terrible orchestra outside as ponies screamed and ran in panic. The two mares were joined on the stairs by dozens of other families, all pushing and shoving past so they could be the first ones out of the building. Survival instinct and panic was quickly beginning to override rational thought and selflessness in the populace.
Both mares had to be careful to go with the flow of traffic and not trip down the stairs. Doing either could get them separated, or worse, trampled to death by the herd of stampeding ponies. Being shoved aside by the more panicked neighbours in their building was not helping matters either. However, the two musicians managed to get out safely and onto the less crowded streets. "This way!" the cellist called over the crowd to the blinded DJ.
Using the sound of her voice in the crowd, the old friends managed to break free as they galloped down a vacant alley to avoid the fire, the flames, and the relatively open streets where they could easily get bashed by falling space rocks. If Vinyl did not know any better, she could have sworn this was the queen's revenge on her for Twilight Sparkle escaping from the castle.
Coming to the end of the alley, the two ponies rejoined a main road and galloped towards the safety of the shelter not more than a couple of blocks away. Although used to the finer things in life, her earth pony stamina kept the classically trained musician in a comfortable gait while the DJ struggled for breath behind her. Still, she knew the limits of her sight and would slow down whenever more ponies would crop up.
Another loud bang cracked through the sky, making ponies duck their heads and scream as a small meteor shot clean through the top floor of a building ahead and into another across the street. A mass of grey stone had broken loose of the building and fell towards the street, a mangled wreck of twisted metal and cracked stone. Only as she followed its path did the unicorn realize where it was going to fall. "OCTY!" she cried in warning.
A loud thud and sickening crunch were all that the white unicorn could hear, other screams and noises completely blocked from her hearing by her focus. In those last seconds, time seemed to slow to a crawl as the claws of debris rained down upon her friend. Even if she wanted to, she could not have summoned her magical strength to shove them away in the milliseconds she had.
But that still did not stop her from trying. Less than a second after the impact, a blue aura surrounded the debris and with great mental strain, the unicorn forced it off and to the side as adrenaline pumped through her veins. A dull moan sounded from the grey (with splotches of red) pony when the pressure was taken off. "V-vinyl?" she spoke softly, her voice barely a whisper. "I... I can't see. Everything's... black."
"W-welcome to the club, Tavi," she replied with a cracking voice. "S-save your strength! I'm going to get you to the hospital, and they're going to fix you up! I don't care if I have to spend every bit I have!" A grey, bloodstained hoof wearily reached out to touch her lips, shaking as its precious life force left her.
"Thank you, Vinyl... for... everything."
"Don't talk like that, Octavia! Y-you're going to make it! Trust me!" Tears streamed down her cheeks from behind her shades, only able to see her friend's bruised and bloodied face as it smiled wistfully at her. Her eyes were locked on hers, starring at her for a long time. "Octavia?" she tried, poking her slightly. "O-Octavia!? S-say something... PLEASE!" A thousand knots curled up into her stomach, her mind going a mile per minute as sobs escaped her muzzle.
Quarters were tight and damp as the herd of ponies quickly and carefully made their way down the tunnel underneath the river. Water dripped and poured from the ceiling of the temporary burrow, hinting that the end of its life was drawing near. A small pool of water covered the floor, turning the mud and rock into a slippery quagmire that threatened to trap the ponies and leave them to their fate.
Despite the danger, it was still a better option than trying to sneak past the army when, combined, they had a price of almost five million bits on their heads. Everypony seemed to understand this, since none of them ventured to complain. The only thing to break the silence of the narrow and dark tunnel was the sloshing of many hooves in the knee-deep water.
Twilight walked with her head dipped low, almost touching the surface of the murky water. The encounter with those three dragons had, quite suddenly, reopened the wounds left by her torture at their claws. She had a chance to face her fears head-on, but froze like a little filly and let Fluttershy do the work for her. The yellow Pegasus saw her moping and whispered something into Trixie's ear when she got close.
"Why don't you ask her yourself?" the azure unicorn spoke with mild annoyance. "Just because you don't want to break the silence does NOT mean that Trixie wants to either! She is not a loudmouthed attention seeker! Well... not right now, anyway." A smirk managed to migrate its way onto the disguised pony's face. It was in times like this that she was happy her showmare sister had a sense of humour and had learned to poke fun at herself rather than just others.
Before the shy Pegasus could whisper any more, a loud bang echoed through the expanse of the tunnel, followed by a violent tremor. The word did not even need to be said, as the ponies quickly sensed that the danger had grown suddenly and exponentially. Stampeding through the tunnel and out to the other side was practically inevitable. Chunks of rock and small streams of water fell from above, threatening to knock a pony unconscious and leave them to drown.
No one dared to look back, self preservation instincts being kicked into overdrive as they were already on alert by the dark and the damp. The unicorn horns illuminating the tunnel sparkled and waved around, casting eerie shadows as they ran up the slowly increasing slope and out of the pool of water. A steady rumble shook their hooves as they went, telling them a portion of the tunnel had collapsed. Behind or ahead of the herd remained to be seen.
Light beamed ahead at the other end of the tunnel, beckoning the ponies to head towards its safety. They emerged to find themselves in an old, hollowed out hardware store, judging from the amount of saws, hammers and other building tools on the remaining walls. Pinkie seemed to shudder a little bit and drooped her head sadly as the rest of the ponies emerged from the pit.
Somehow, Twilight was not surprised by the unlikely idea that she had killed the previous owners. The store was huge, big enough to accommodate a machine needed to make a hole the size of the tunnel. Shelves and merchandise were strewn about the floor and haphazardly thrown into piles against the walls. Although the lights were off, the skylights above allowed sunshine to pour in.
Spike panted, holding onto the wall for support as he struggled to catch his breath. He had not stopped running since they fled from the Poppers' base and he was not the kind of dragon to exercise. In fact, all of their friends and members of the Poppers looked fatigued, even the durable earth ponies like Applejack needed a breather. Twilight, however, was perfectly ready to run for miles more, but she chalked it up to her freaky alicorn endurance.
"Okay, let's all rest here for a bit. We should be safe enough, but if you feel the urge to leave, do so in small groups spaced out by at least five minutes to avoid suspicion," Twilight ordered. "If you want to kill Queen Eos, head into the Everfree Forest and look for the Crusaders' camp in the castle ruins, or the Apple Clan's camp on the western fringe."
Several ponies nodded before breaking into small groups, no doubt trying to see if anypony they knew or loved survived the romp through the tunnel. Pinkie sat in the middle of the room, running through a quick count of heads. She counted ten missing from what she had when she arrived in Manehatten, nine not counting the pony that she fed to Gummy a couple of nights ago. The alligator dumbly wandered around the room, bumping into things and hissing good-naturedly when he hit a pony.
As much as it saddened her to think it, she would have to let him go sometime soon; maybe let Fluttershy house him in her nice, open fields once the war was over, and she could move back home. But where would she stay? News had reached her about the Cakes and Sugarcube Corner. Maybe she could live with Twilight or Fluttershy while she gathered the bits to build her own bakery? If they survived the upcoming fight, that is.
Something out of the corner of her eye distracted the pink mare, however. It was Applejack holding her hat in her hooves, looking at it wistfully. She walked a little closer and noticed how worn and tattered it was, with burn marks and blood stained into the fake leather. "Hey, Applejack, are you okay?" she asked curiously.
The orange farmer jumped a little where she sat, started by the sudden voice beside her. "Oh. It's you, Pinkie. Ah... Ah reckon that Ah'm just fine," she lied. The pink pony frowned, not at all convinced by her horrible acting skills.
"It's okay to talk about it. Sometimes talking about it can help dull the pain for a while. It will never go away completely, but you can remember the good times you had with her instead of the bad!" She wrapped a hoof around her neck and gave her fellow Earth pony a gentle hug and nuzzle to her cheek. "I'm your friend, and I, Twilight, Fluttershy, Rarity, and I'm sure Trixie too, if you give her a chance, will help you through this."
"Ah don't need..." she started, before looking into her sincere cerulean eyes. "... Ah guess yer right, Pinkie. Thanks." She returned her hug and sighed, looking down to the hat once more. "It's just... Ah have so many regrets. Ah treated her like dirt and... Ah never got the chance to apologize to her 'cause ah thought that she would always be around, you know? That, and mah stubborn pride refused to let me admit to mahself that ah was wrong!"
"I know what you mean," Pinkie spoke sadly, her own head dipping a little. "I got into a fight with my Granny Pie right before she died. It was so stupid, looking back, the whole argument. I'd be embarrassed to say about what, and you'd never see me the same way again. I was on my way to her house to apologize, just stepping out the door when we got the news."
"Everypony has regrets, Pinkie. The trick is learnin' how to live with them an' keep lookin' to a brighter horizon. After all, t'aint healthy fer a pony to keep her mind on them. Ah guess ah shouldn't either." She looked into her friend's face and smiled. Unknown to them, Twilight could not help but listen in to their conversation. It was funny how much their words echoed Celestia's in that letter she read on her way home. Maybe she had been dwelling on her regrets for too long?
"There you go!" Pinkie replied, her smile almost visible in the inflection of her voice. "It's okay to be sad, sometimes, and we all do stupid things, but nothing is going to get better if you get stuck in it." The orange farmer sighed and nodded her head in understanding. She replaced the hat upon her head and gave the pink pony another hug in thanks.
Slowly, other ponies began to leave the building around them, following Twilight Sparkle's suggestion of only a few every five minutes or so. The disguised alicorn, meanwhile, contemplated their next steps. The Elements of Harmony were kept in a tower of Canterlot when not in use, and it was unlikely Eos moved them. The only issue would be the lack of an Element of Loyalty, but given all she had seen, Trixie could do in a pinch, or perhaps one of the former Cutie Mark Crusaders.
Now she was thinking about those young mares again... As wrong as they were for their ambitions, they had the well-being of all at heart, the same as her other friends. They deserved a chance at salvation too, but breaking them out would not be easy. It would require a distraction: a big distraction that would throw the tight regime of the castle into chaos and confusion. If worse came to worse, there would always be the shoes.
Taking a breath, she checked to make sure her magic was back up to full strength. Aside from the cost needed to maintain her disguise, it was back up to full power. She would need it too, for what she was about to do. "Okay, girls. And Spike," she spoke to her friends. "I think it is safe for us to move on now."
"Oh good, I could use a bath. Where are we going, darling?" Rarity inquired as she and the others drew close.
"I know it's dangerous, but we're going to Ponyville. Hopefully, I can teleport us right into the Books and Branches Library, so we don't need to deal with any guards. I need to recover what I stored there for the coming battle," Twilight answered.
"Speakin' of, how exactly do you plan to kill Queen Eos? Canterlot is locked up tighter than Big Mac's lips when he's around a pretty filly! Not ta mention she has the power of TWO goddesses," the orange militia commander asked. "It sounds a mite like suicide to me, no offence."
"I'll explain when we get those shoes back, okay? You'll just have to trust me on this. If you're all ready, I would like to leave sooner rather than later." They nodded to her, if somewhat reluctantly. Ponyville was just about the last place any of them wished to go, and not just for the prices on their head. In their own way, they had all abandoned the town and left it to fend for itself against the queen's tyrannical reign.
Twilight took a deep breath, closed her eyes and started channelling her magical energies into her horn. Teleportation was never an easy feat, since she had to intertwine at least five different spells in the correct order the correct way, or else it would fail. Too little energy would burn, and too much would mean overshooting the target, or even exploding upon arrival. Maybe even twice if there was enough magical buildup!
Add a magically resistant baby dragon and five ponies into the mix, plus the distance, and you had an impossible task for any unicorn, Twilight herself included. However, stuck in the body of her inner deity with her level of power, she figured she had JUST enough magic to pull it off AND maintain her disguise. With her destination firmly planted into her mind's eye, she brought together the other elements of the spell, reaching it out to the others before she vanished into a cascade of light.
Opening her eyes, she found herself and all of her friends within the confines of the Books and Branches Library on the second floor of the building. Twilight greedily inhaled the fresh scent of the tree, putting herself at ease once more now that she was home. Without wasting a moment, she charged her magic again and felt around for the shoes. Thankfully, Ironhead was either very loyal to his queen or incredibly stupid for he had hidden the shoes behind a copy of Predictions and Prophecies on the lower shelf.
However, something was wrong. She did not hear a sound out of anyone else from the moment she had appeared in the library. Oh no! Did they not come along with me? What if they were dropped out of the spell halfway? They could be stuck in the gap between dimen- Turning on the spot, she saw all of her friends giving her blank stares of horror and fear. Twilight grimaced and applied a hoof to her face, noticing a glint of gold as she did so, just to rub the fact in.
"It's the queen!" Applejack roared. To her credit, she wasted no time in charging up to the lavender alicorn, the fires of fury blazing in her once kind, green eyes. Before she could get much farther than a couple of steps, Twilight's horn sparkled in magic, encasing them in their own individual bubbles. The orange cowpony collided into the side of hers and rolled onto her back. "It was a trap! Yew no good, deceitful BITCH! WHAT DID YOU DO WITH TWILIGHT!?"
The alicorn bit her lower lip in trepidation and scuffed the floor with her hoof. Her chest felt tight, as if a pony had taken a vice to her heart. "It... It's me, girls. Really. Trixie, Spike? Remember what I told you about me and Queen Eos? That we're... well... the same pony, but from different dimensions, or timelines, or something?" The two gasped, knowing she had spoken about such a thing. The queen was known to be manipulative, although they had never heard of her taking it to this level.
"Well, it's nice to hear some confirmation, at least," Rarity spoke, earning looks from the others. "What? I WAS her dressmaker for four years! I noticed the similarities the first time I saw her, but I did not DARE voice them. You all remember what happened to Derpy, correct?" They nodded their heads solemnly at the memories. "Now, we just have to figure out if this is TWILIGHT, or EOS. Riddle me this, alicorn: What were your EXACT words when we met in the castle?"
Twilight pursed her lips, sitting on her haunches as she tried to recall her exact first words to her unicorn friend. She needed to word herself carefully, or else lose everything she had worked for! "You... you said that I was disturbing your work, but you cut yourself off in the middle of the word 'work' when you saw me," she explained. "Then, you called out my name in disbelief, and I said 'Hey, Rarity. I came to talk to you. About what happened' after a pause."
Seeing the look of understanding and acceptance on the white unicorn's face, Applejack worked herself into another rage. "Well, I ain't buyin' yer LIES ya stupid HORSE! Ya probably read her mind so ya could get the information an' throw us off!" Fluttershy meekly nodded her head in agreement. "Ain't nothing you can say that will change mah mind, neither!"
"Perhaps, then, maybe I can convince you, Miss Applejack," spoke a smooth, calm voice from the door to the lower level of the library. Everypony gathered looked towards the figure with widened eyes, a look, he noted, that was extremely funny on the large alicorn in front of him. He trotted into the room with the clunk of clay hooves while wearing a smart obsidian coloured suit, blue tie and a well-kept mane.
Governor Ironhead casually looked upon the group with an unreadable smirk upon his face. "You see, Miss Sparkle came to town not a week ago with a curious pair of magical shoes. I knew in an instant that she was not 'her majesty' because of two important factors: her cutie mark and her eyes," he spoke, looking directly into them. "Foremost, her majesty's mark bears a sun and moon in the place of a purple star. Illusionary magic can do a lot of things, but it cannot change a cutie mark. Secondly, while they are the same colour, HER eyes have seen far more baseless brutality and scream regret. Her majesty's are cold, calculating and emotionless, much like my own."
"Wait," Twilight spoke, finally finding herself. "If you knew the whole time, then why did you follow my orders and humour me?" Her bubble spell had broken from the shock, but they all found themselves rooted to the spot anyway.
"I was made by Twilight Sparkle: a mare that had made a grave mistake, but sought to rectify it, or make the best of a bad situation. However, she slipped into 'Queen Eos' when the burdens became too much. By the time of the Cloudsdale Assault, she had lost all hope for making things right, sadly. I humoured you because I am not a stupid creature. If I had reported that you were running around impersonating her, she would have killed me: both out of anger, and for being reminded of her failures. It made logical sense for me to play along, Twilight."
"So, what happens now, Iron ASS!" Trixie fumed, stepping towards the golem with her horn charged, the others joining her. "Are you going to try and turn us in so she can kill us? Or are you just going to do it yourself?"
"I, Governor Lord Ironhead of Ponyville do swear my fealty to you, Twilight Sparkle," he spoke with a bow towards the alicorn. "Her majesty has become irresponsible with her powers and is a threat to herself and the world. I have heard rumours that she has assimilated the powers of a third god, but her recent actions are evidence enough. She destroyed the city of Trottingham in cold blood in a petty tantrum over the loss of Manehatten. The casualties were abhorrent. She MUST be stopped."
A collective silence was held by the mares standing in the room. There was no time left: the final countdown had begun. The living god had gone mad. "I appreciate the sentiment, but it doesn't change the fact that we are all wanted criminals," Twilight replied, trying to keep herself in the moment.
"I'm the Governor. My word is only superseded by the queen and everypony HATES her. At worst I am merely disliked or loathed. Please, give me a chance," he asked in calm pleading. Twilight bathed herself in a shillouette of light that nearly blinded everyone in the room and shifted her appearance to look like her normal, unicorn self before she looked to her friends.
"So, um, we seem to agree that we can trust him, because he seems to be rational. Unless I'm utterly wrong about all this, in which case I'm really sorry," Fluttershy squeaked.
"Plus, Twilight could blast him to smithereens any time if he tries anything funny! ...Funny bad, that is. Funny haha would be peachy keen!"
"Funny haha, from a GOLEM? Darling, you MUST be joking."
"Once the queen is dead, I'll DEFINITELY get a golem to smile. It'll be my legacy! Pinkamena Diane Pie... The mare who could make rock itself SMILE!"
Satisfied, Twilight walked up to the governor. "We'll trust your judgment. So, what do you suggest we do?"
The stoic governor blinked solemnly, then removed a scroll from his saddlebags. "I have written up a plan that I think would be most expedient to the furthering of your goals."
"Wut did he say?"
Twilight sighed. "He said he has a plan that he thinks can help us." She took the paper into her magical field and looked it over.
The lavender mare sat down in the centre of the floor of the library with a quill suspended with her magic and another scroll in front of her. At Ironhead's suggestion, the disguised alicorn began to draft up an edict saying that all of the top ten most wanted were no longer being pursued along with the other resistance movements, in order to focus on the war. She had her doubts, but then again, it only needed to work for a day or two at best while they drew up battle plans.
While she was trying to put the right words into place, her friends browsed the neglected books and shelves of the library to read in order to pass the time. Ironhead, meanwhile, had left to inform others likely to assist. The curtains were drawn shut over all the windows so nopony could see inside, but it also cast the room into darkness lit only by the glow of unicorn magic and several old candles that had been in a cupboard.
However, the silence was not for everypony. "Okay! I can't BELIEVE any of you!" Rarity cried out after slamming her book shut. "Am I the ONLY one burning to know just HOW a pony like Twilight Sparkle here can survive in a world like this for any longer than a couple of days and not go COMPLETELY mad!?" The lavender unicorn looked up from her scroll and gave her an inquisitive look.
"Ah was sorta wonderin' the same thing too, now that ya mention it," Applejack seconded after a pause. "Unless she IS mad as a hatter and we ain't noticin' it." Worry crept into her voice at the end of her sentence, and she could not deny it. During their travels over the past few days, the unicorn had spoken of some details of her trip into the Sorrel Hells, or mentioned in passing her internment with the dragons.
"Yeah!" Spike chirped up. "The Twilight I know would be sobbing in a corner and curled up like a filly after... Well, some things are better left unsaid," he added with a sigh. "Let's just say that I am surprised she only locked up with fear at the sight of those dragons and did not do something a little more... severe."
"Even Trixie has to admit that she is astonished by her elder sister's resilience," the azure unicorn spoke. "Of course, a magician as mighty as Trixie would have no reason to fear, even if she went through all that Twilight Sparkle has. But not every pony is Trixie, so it is nothing short of amazing to not see her doing as Spike said." Pinkie nodded along, the only one to give Trixie her full attention.
"I... uh," Fluttershy mumbled. "I... probably didn't help matters either... wh-what with the whole... not-a-pony thing. I... I'm SO sorry, Twilight!" Tears started to well up into her eyes. "I just... I don't know what happened! It just... slipped out of me and... and I hurt your feelings! It's okay if you'll never forgive me for it. I... I'll just... leave."
Twilight signed and hung her head, quill no longer scratching the surface of the parchment. Truth be told, she had no idea how she was still sane herself. By all right, she SHOULD have been a quivering mass sobbing in the corner and suffering hallucinations of dragons with sharp talons dripping of blood. She cringed a little as the mental image came to her, promptly flushing it out of her mind as soon as it had come.
Seeing her distress, the ponies and dragon congregated around her and pressed into her in a group hug. In that hug, she felt not only the warmth of their body heat sweep over her, but warmth in her heart. A smile came on her face as she lightly broke off from the group to regard them fondly. She had her answer. "Don't you know how I did it?" she spoke with her voice cracking. Tears were building up in the corner of her eyes, but she held them back for the moment.
"I... I kept sane by doing what all of you have been doing for the better part of ten years! I trusted in my friends to do the right thing. Even if they were confused... even if they had strayed from the path and forgotten themselves for a while... I hoped they would come back." She sniffed, the tears finally coming out of her eyes, no longer able to hold them in without breaking down into a sobbing mess. "...And I was right."
"Aw, come here, you," Applejack spoke as she stepped forward and wrapped her crying friend into a hug. She was soon followed by the rest of the group once more. Twilight sighed gently and rested her head on her nearest friend with her eyes closed, having not felt this safe in an embrace since Princess Celestia. "Ah know we've been right stupid, and that a lot of ponies have died needlessly because of us... but... can you ever forgive us, sugar cube?"
"Of course, AJ," the disguised alicorn whispered just loud enough for them all to hear. "I'm your friend. Of course I would forgive ALL of you," she added with a wistful glance to the baby dragon. A loud, piercing wail filled the room, literal rivers of tears streaming out of Pinkie's eyes, soaking all present. Everypony else just rolled their eyes and let her get on with it.
"Uh... speakin' of forgiveness," she continued. "Ya said that yer from another world, right?" The purple pony nodded her head, not quite sure where exactly she was going with it. "Well... if yer from another world, then that means that Queen Eos is... is OUR Twilight, right?"
"Uh... yeah," she gulped, suddenly getting a bad feeling about where this was going to head.
"If you knew about it the whole time and yer whole idea is ta KILL the queen... well... ain't that sayin' yer gonna kill YERSELF?" And so the horseshoe dropped. Twilight had been afraid of this question ever since Genesis had laid the three choices before her; two of them, as she remembered correctly, involved killing her.
"Well... IDEALLY, no," she replied to try and save face. "I mean, I have no clue what happens if EITHER of us dies, and I doubt she is more enlightened than me in that regard. Foremost, I want to DEFEAT her, success by either incapacitating her, stripping her of her powers, or containment. Of course, I doubt she would share the same sentiments, so she'll probably be out for blood." She hoped her explanation would satisfy their curiosity, but it seemed to have the opposite effect instead.
"Pardon me, darling," Rarity asked with a bat of her eyelashes and an unreadable expression on her face. "But, could you mind explaining to me how you two are so different? I mean no offence, but Eos seems like a completely different mare than you. Granted, you are not royalty, but the contrast is quite remarkable. You owe us that, at the very least."
Twilight sighed and sat on her haunches again, having been through this dog and pony show before. "Trixie and Spike already know, so they do not need to stay," she began. However, they remained by her side, silently encouraging her. A smile came on her lips, steeled by their comfort. "Well, it all started when..." So, she repeated her story, going over every little detail she could in order to benefit them.
"...I don't know how it happened, but this world's Twilight could not, or would not be stopped in her rampage and killed them both. They... they were only trying to help and she... and I hurt them. Celestia was very forgiving, and even let me reign for a few weeks while she recovered. I had never been so ashamed in my entire life," she sniffed as she wiped her eyes for the tenth time since her tale began.
"Cheer up, Twilight!" Pinkie Pie chirped after being oddly quiet. "If you can fix a grumpy mean pants like me, then you can DEFINITELY show yourself the error of your ways, and our world can begin to heal! You don't have to kill her. You just have to show her that, while she did make a gargantuan mistake, she will always have us if she lets us help her!"
"That's a nice thought, Pinkie," the purple mare smiled. "I really hope so. I'm just... I'm just afraid that she's given up on herself."
The dirt road crunched softly under her hooves as she walked, not paying any attention to where, exactly, she was going. Not that she really cared anyway; to her, the world was nothing more than an inconvenience right now, reminding her bitterly that life moved on without HER, instead of pausing to notice she was gone. She just wanted to stop, crawl into a hole and die, but pony instincts drove her forward. The only thing stopping her from blocking it out completely was a fierce, unyielding anger burning next to the sorrow in her heart.
Vinyl Scratch kicked a loose stone in the road forcibly with her hoof, making it ricochet off of a tree and land with a splash in the brook that ran parallel to the road. She knew where she wanted to go, and what would wait for her at the end of the path, but she was in no mood to hurry along as a fresh set of tears threatened to slip from behind her eyes. Her mind wandered as her body followed the road, unable to stop herself from a gauntlet of pain at the memories.
Ponies all over town joked about them, or accused them of being 'filly-foolers' for years, but they had never let it get to them. How else could such opposite personalities as theirs be close? Those ponies were just ignorant, for they had not seen that they had been that close for most of their lives. The fact of the matter was that they were the best of friends, although they did start out as enemies. It was a long and painful story that she did not want to review, lest she do something drastic.
She sighed as she passed another sign she did not bother to try reading with her damaged eyes. They had always been there for each other, and promised that, no matter what, they always would be. Octavia... she had helped her in more ways then she could possibly have known. Now, she would never get the chance to tell her that, or how much she meant to the DJ, even if she behaved obnoxious or rude to her. Oh great, she thought bitterly. I'm crying again.
I guess the song was right. 'You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone,' she sighed internally as she wiped some tears from her eyes. It was funny what a pony could remember when the pony responsible for it was gone. Summer days they spent as fillies playing on park swings faded to them rebelliously getting their ears (among other things) pierced when they were teenagers. She could see her smile when she defended her, brow furrowed in rage when she embarrassed her, and the shock and horror from that one time she caught her alone with the cello.
A grin spread on her face despite herself and her misery, but quickly dropped when she remembered those days were over, and that she would never hear her voice or see her friendly smile again. Her head drooped a little more. While her friend had died and her home was destroyed, what drove her out of town was the impersonal nature of the burials: mass graves with no words about who they were or how much they meant. Octavia deserved MUCH better.
Only then did she decide to put her blurry eyes back on the road, and was started to find herself in a small crowd funneling into a town. Although the sign they passed was indistinct, the colours and smell were enough to tell her that she was close to her final destination. "Ponyville," she sighed. "I guess I'd better find somewhere to stay. I doubt I'll get there before nightfall."
Looking around, however, she noticed the town had far more ponies than it had previously. In fact, the number of tents in the park just off of the town square nearly covered every inch of it. Curiously, a couple of ponies saw her and took flight for some reason or another. It was actually quite confusing, enough to ALMOST make her forget about her grief. She shook the odd feeling aside and trotted towards the town's inn.
Like the rest of the village, it was positively packed with ponies. There some kind of carnival here that I never knew about? she thought to herself as she approached the counter. However, before she could even get a word out, the pony working behind it spoke. "I'm so sorry," she apologized with a sympathetic expression. "But I'm afraid that we're booked solid for the next few days, ma'am." She wanted to argue with her, but she just did not have the energy. So, without a single word, she left in a quiet huff.
Naturally, with so many ponies, there were also a lot of guards on duty that day... but something was off about it. Ponyville did not have nearly as many as she could see, and some of them bore the crests of Manehatten, Trottingham, and about half a dozen other municipalities. Stranger still, they did not seem to be directing ponies so much as mingling with them. What the buck is going on here!?
"Miss Scratch?" spoke a familiar, cool voice from behind. "It is a surprise to see you here in Ponyville again." It was Ironhead; that much was clear. Walking with him, however, were several other ponies she identified as the governors of the towns the guards had come from. Apparently, Topaz Eye, Trottingham's governor, had survived the bombardment. "You have my condolences."
"Stuff it," she muttered bitterly to his comment. She did not need his pity. The almost non-existent smile that crossed his lips went unnoticed by the sombre unicorn. He nodded his head and started to trot past her, but paused right beside her.
"If you want revenge on the queen," he whispered into her ear. "Go to the library and explain yourself." Before Vinyl had the time to contemplate what he had just said, the clay stallion and his brothers had turned down a road leading towards town hall. Did he just say revenge... against the queen!? Her jaw dropped as the implications washed over her mind... he was speaking of treason... against the bitch that murdered her best friend.
Although she was uncertain at first, she asked for directions to the library and was soon underway. She had no idea what to expect, but if several of the governors were attempting a coup, she wanted in on that action! It was no stretch of the imagination to believe that the queen had been responsible for the meteor shower, since it was a poorly kept secret that she hated the city and everyone in it, if only because it was the Party Poppers' base of operations.
Ponyville Library loomed over her as she approached, although she could not say why it felt like that. Sure, it was the noted home of resident librarian and former target Twilight Sparkle, but beyond that, it had no significance to her. Remembering that made the feelings of forboding disappear completely. Without a second though, she came to the wooden door with the candle painting on it, and opened it gingerly.
Stepping beyond the threshold, she found herself alone in a room stocked to the ceiling with books on shelves. "Yo, anypony here?" she called out into the abandoned library. The sound of hooves moving around upstairs told her that someone was around. Against her better judgement, she found her way to the stairs and climbed up to a door on the second floor. Voices could be heard beyond it, and while she normally would have had more caution, she threw it to the wind and pressed inside to the gasp of various voices.
"V-Vinyl Scratch!?" spoke a bewildered Trixie. "Wh-what are YOU doing here?" She sounded nervous, which struck her as strange until she saw the other masses of colour in the room with her. The orange, white, and purple ones slowly came into more focus while the others hung back. Hazarding a guess, she would say they were Twilight, Applejack and Rarity. An uneasy smile flickered on her face as soft growls of discontent echoed through the room.
"What in tarnation is this foul filly doin' around these parts!?" the orange blob she correctly identified roared. Vinyl tried to reply, but was promptly cut off. "Ah'll tell ya why! She's here ta try and drag us all in, or kill us and claim the rewards!" If there was ever a time for the musician to facehoof, now would be the time.
"Now, now, darling," the white mass known as Rarity spoke. "Give her a chance to speak for herself. THEN, we will deal with her in whatever uncouth manner you can think of." Although she could not really see it, she could FEEL Twilight Sparkle's eye boring into her. "Well, what do you have to say for yourself, Vinyl?"
"She..." the mare started uneasily. "The queen... she... she destroyed my home and... and... and she killed my best friend!" She did her best to hold back her emotions and not let how deeply upset she was through. It was mostly successful, for although she did not cry, it was obvious she was distraught. "Octavia... why did you have to die!? Why couldn't it have been ME instead, you poor innocent mare! I don't care if you don't believe me; I don't care if you kill me. I just want that horse DEAD!"
The former bounty hunted fell onto the floor, her belly on the cool wood of the floor where she lay. She wrenched her eyes shut, expecting a coup de grace from any one of the mares present. "I'm so sorry," she croaked as her voice broke. Soft hoofsteps filled her ears as one of the ponies came closer, a hoof gently placing itself on her cheek, lifting her face up to see them better.
"It's okay," spoke Twilight Sparkle. "I, for one, forgive you. If there was one thing that struck me about you, it was your sense of honour, especially after I saved you from the Bargheists. How do the rest of you feel?" Quiet fell over the room as each of them mulled over their own thoughts on the unicorn prostrated before them.
"I don't have anything against you, Vinyl," the yellow pony spoke to break the silence.
"You did hunt down my friends like animals, but I DID hear you were courteous and reasonable," the white unicorn added.
"Ah SUPPOSE ah can forgive ya, but you'll have to pull yer weight," the farmer relented, although not fully convinced. The slightly smaller purple shape reamined silent, but Vinyl could imagine a look of loathing distrust.
"Trixie is always welcome to have a friend travel with her."
"Yay!" Pinkie cheered. "I'll go get the stuff setup for the 'Cheer up, Vinyl' party!" The party mare bounced past the ponies present and skipped down the stairs, earning a look from all of them. A smile crept upon the musicians face now that it had been proven that there was still some hope left for this world: that it would move on to the reign of a better pony, and have a bright, beautiful future. She wished that she could say the same for herself.