Chapter Twenty Five - One Last Hurrah
How ironic that this was her first experience with death. Her mentor’s body, damaged far beyond recovery while protecting her from an alchemy lesson gone horribly wrong for seemingly no reason, groaned from where it’d collapsed. It apparently hadn’t gotten the message, however. Rather than fall still forever, it repaired itself almost in an instant. After a few reassuring words, her mentor stepped outside to have a word with the guards posted at the door. They soon hurried off to do whatever it was they’d been ordered to.
It wouldn’t be until much later when she learned this wasn’t normal.
It was technically part of the O&O edition Luna used and made sense, but Twilight didn’t know if she liked the level up system in this campaign. Needing to find somepony to teach her how to be a better cleric felt more like a speed bump than an effective source of immersion. Then again, at higher levels, the process would turn into personal quests. That could be interesting. If well implemented, it could turn into an engaging character arc and possibly even integrate into the main storyline.
But that would keep for another day. For now, Twilight headed for the largest church she could find in town. She should be able to find a higher level cleric there to teach her how to more effectively pray for divine support or something. She wasn’t really sure how divine spells worked here. Theoretically, she derived power from a divine source while Ember, in contrast, used magic in a more conventional sense.
It would be an interesting question to investigate if Luna’s dreamscape could withstand such scrutiny. Twilight knew how she would go about emulating ‘divine favor’ in the waking world, but surely there had to be something more to it here. If so, what constituted divinity? Could she derive power from self-worship?
Actually, speaking of, who or what do I worship?
Twilight had a feeling her cleric training wouldn’t go over very well if she actually asked that question when she had the chance. That would just beg Luna to stealth intervene and mess with her. No, she would have to take this higher than an NPC but not as high as the GM.
Now who can provide me with actual information?
Autumn and Ember were both arcane spellcasters. Seabreeze was a fighter. That left Berry Punch, the ranger, as the most likely to know the details of divine spellcasting. On the other hoof, bards tended to know a lot about whatever world they got dropped into, and Autumn did enjoy the storytelling and roleplaying aspects of the game. Then again, Ember was older than the rest of the party combined. It’d be hard not to absorb lore after decades of exposure to it.
With a thoughtful hum, Twilight decided to just go with her first inclination and sent off a message to Berry Punch. The response came quickly and simply suggested that she ask either Luna or Ember instead as it was ‘a long story’ they told far better. Luna, she could understand. She’d created this world. But Ember? That boded. She wasn’t sure how it boded, not yet, but she knew it boded.
Twilight made it into the city’s central cathedral soon enough after that. Rather than letting her eyes pass over the embellishments, statues, and stained glass as she usually would, this time she paid them special attention.
From what Twilight could gather – Luna clearly hadn’t paid this building any special attention – the local pantheon consisted of four alicorns, some sort of hairless ape, a vampony, and a dragon the size of a mountain. They’d overthrown an older set of gods through force and then cast them off a mountain – she was fairly certain it was a mountain and not the dragon – to an unspecified fate.
Twilight had a sneaking suspicion she knew the dragon in the pantheon.
At any rate, finding an appropriate priest for cleric instruction proved easy enough. A small ‘donation’ to the church paid for the painless ‘lesson’. There was no material to study, no lecture to listen to, no anything of the sort. She didn’t even need to succeed on a skill check to get the whole thing over with. The priest went through a token blessing, probably just to show that something at all had happened, and that was that. Her new level came with a few perks, and once she’d selected them, she left without any further hassle.
Now it was time for a bit of shopping between quests. Twilight had a lot of gold weighing her down, and she’d had her eyes on a few relatively cheap but game breaking magic items.
It happened far less frequently than one might expect. Twilight usually got along just fine without proper magic in this strange O&O world. Right now, however, she wished with all her heart she had her usual abilities available to her.
At the tavern they’d agreed to burn down at midday – the party lacked the self-control necessary for any better outcome – Twilight sat alone at a table waiting for everyone else to join her. In front of her was a perfect cube with six uniquely colored faces. She’d bought it on a whim from a bin of bargain artifacts, unable to identify it, which meant it had to be more valuable than it first appeared. In the waking world, she would just analyze the infernal thing. Here? Here, she had to test it by hoof and guess at its function.
Each face was selectively permeable. She could put anything that would fit into one, including live organic matter, but not herself. When one face was in use, the others refused to accept anything.
When she’d put a copper piece into the red side, it’d made it slightly warm. When she’d put in a slice of bread, it’d come out as toast. When she’d put in toast, it’d returned to her unchanged rather than burnt.
The opposite side had the opposite effect to some extent. It made the coin slightly chilly but hadn’t downgraded her toast to bread. It’d only lowered its temperature to a little below the ambient level. It wouldn’t even freeze water.
The green face proved a greater mystery. It didn’t seem to do anything horribly consistent. It burnt her bread. It magnetized a knife. It spit out her coin no better or worse for wear. A scrap of cloth came out on fire.
The opposing brown face didn’t seem to do anything, or at least not with the test items she had at hoof.
The white end appeared to perform minor repairs. It removed the scratches from her knife, mended a rip in some fabric but refused to do anything with ashes, and the symbols of state printed on her coin stood out more sharply after a trip through the cube. On the other hoof, when she put a half-eaten slice of toast – she wouldn’t ignore such obvious mundane utility – it came out with roughly the same volume but in rectangular form as though she’d only sliced it more thinly, not bitten into it.
The black side, in contrast, seemed to have completely arbitrary effects. Her coin came out as a baby hummingbird. Putting that back in produced a deck of playing cards. She repeated the process over and over without finding even the slightest hint of rhyme or reason to the transformations.
Without warning, Ember cried out, “No! None of that!” She smacked the cube out of Twilight’s hooves onto the floor and followed it up with the most powerful fire evocation she knew. The artifact melted into slag under the assault, and, of course, the tavern caught fire.
Twilight was tempted to pull out her fancy new Decanter of Endless Water but restrained herself. Flooding the tavern would probably wind up with worse results than just letting it burn to the ground. As such, she hightailed it out of there with Ember hot on her hooves. They were, fortunately, near the door, so they made it back out onto the city streets before the background ponies providing ambiance clogged the exit in their panic.
Luna awaited them with what could only be described as a stern pout.
As the city traffic milled about in shock and confusion, desperately trying to put out the growing fire, their little bubble of calm stood by unconcerned. “So,” Twilight began, “want to explain what that was about?”
Rather than answer, Ember turned on Luna. She thrust an arm out, pointed right at Twilight, and roared, “She found a cube! You agreed never again!”
“Hmm?” The look of confusion on Luna’s face melted soon enough. “Oh, I must have forgotten to take them off the artifact list. Some magic shops would have a small chance of stocking them.”
“Explanation, please,” Twilight said. She’d just lost a perfectly infuriating puzzle through no fault of her own and deserved at least some sort of justification.
Ember breathed a puff of angry fire. “It’s a Cube of Slightly Elemental Blessings. End of story. There’s no mystery. It’s not plot relevant. That’s it.”
“No.” That firm, resolute voice was in no mood to make the slightest concession. “We once wasted an entire session trying to figure it out. Luna used to run a GMPC trickster god who made junk like that to screw with her players. We killed him. Canonically. I literally ate his heart.”
Twilight’s muzzle scrunched up at the mental image that invoked. Omnivores could be so gross. She turned to Luna for confirmation.
“As amusing as I found it, not one of my better ideas,” Luna admitted.
Right… At any rate, that did all but confirm a theory Twilight had. “So you killed a god?”
Ember barked a laugh. “I killed all the gods and took their place.”
“Ah, good times,” Luna said, chuckling. “I ran a high-powered campaign, and such was the end result. The party became the new pantheon.”
Ember smirked. “Yeah. Those ponies were great.”
Before Twilight could ponder the significance of the chosen tense too closely, Autumn broke into the conversation. From yet afar, she cried, “Hey, you started the party without me!”
It was more like they’d started and ended it, really, but Twilight opted not to split hairs.
The trio parted to make space in their growing circle for Autumn as she approached. She of course wanted to know what had happened right away.
With a shrug, Twilight said, “I set off Ember’s PTSD.”
Luna laughed with little regard for restraint. It seemed she found a strange sense of pride in her past ‘accomplishment’.
On the other hoof, Ember reacted with literal and metaphorical fire. “What I did was for the good of us all!”
“Ah. Is this one of those ‘it’s the only way to be sure’ situations?”
“No,” Twilight replied.
At the same time, Ember said, “Yes!”
“Then you acted both wisely and precipitously,” Autumn concluded with a nod.
Twilight facehoofed. “I suppose that’s not technically an oxymoron,” she muttered.
Another voice joined the conversation as Seabreeze flew into formation with the group. “Another tavern on fire,” he observed. “Riotous laughter. Luna not trying to kill you.” With a tight expression, he turned to Twilight. “Do I want to know?”
“No,” Twilight and Ember chorused. In this, at least, they were in agreement.
Time passed over the idle swapping of old campaign stories, and soon enough, Berry Punch rejoined the party after her own shopping expedition as well. Now that they were all here, they needed to decide what to do.
“Well, we can’t trawl the local tavern for plot hooks, thanks to someone,” Seabreeze said.
Ember showed no shame and suggested, “Hey, Luna, weren’t you working on a sequel questline to the whole new pantheon thing?”
“Yes,” Luna allowed slowly, suspicion clear in her voice. “I suppose you would want to reprise your old role.”
“A dragon goddess the size of a mountain?” Ember buffed her claws against her scales nonchalantly. “Yeah, I think I could manage that.”
A few moments passed as Luna gave Ember a considering look. “Very well.” Ember’s triumph was interrupted, however, when Luna added, “As an NPC only, of course.”
Ember made a gesture with her claws that Twilight supposed had to be crude in her culture. Nonetheless, when Luna called her aside to impart some necessary quest information for the role, she didn’t object.
Meanwhile, while those two were away, Twilight asked of the remaining group, “So has anypony met anyone from the old gaming group? Besides Ember, obviously.”
“Aye,” Seabreeze said. “If you’ve seen the new gods, the vampony was my gran.”
Well, wasn’t that a surprise. If Luna made friends of families, not just individuals, perhaps it wouldn’t be amiss to take a closer look at the descendants of some of the other ponies she’d associated with. Twilight knew she’d at least kept tabs on the Apple and Pear families. And weren’t the former having some sort of massive family reunion in Ponyville right about now? What an opportunity that presented. Perhaps it was time for her to take her own crack at being in two places at once after watching Sunset pull it off so well.
“Hey, she wasn’t a real vampony, was she?” Autumn asked.
Seabreeze muttered something in his own language, the meaning of which Twilight didn’t need to understand to comprehend. Then to Autumn, he replied, “Why on Equus would you even entertain such daft nonsense?”
Much to Twilight’s surprise, Autumn had an actual answer to that. “Well, Sunny was a human from another dimension.”
A moment passed in silence.
“Okay, I’ll give you that one,” Seabreeze begrudgingly allowed. “But no. As far as I know, vamponies don’t exist.”
“I’ve met a bat pony.” Given how reclusive they tended to be, that should have been surprising and notable, but Berry Punch lived in Ponyville, so it was almost expected.
Autumn correctly stated, “Not even close to the same thing,” but that was entirely too much nonsense burying something far more important.
“Hang on,” Twilight interjected. “What was that about another dimension?” She’d forgive the use of the imprecise colloquialism if she got an answer.
The group turned to look at Twilight, and it was Berry Punch who first realized the obvious. “Oh, you’ve never had the chance to meet her, have you? Well, Luna has this crystal mirror that leads to another world. Sunny stumbled through it decades ago as a foal and got stuck here for years. She went home, but she still comes to visit whenever the portal opens.”
“Huh. Very interesting.”
Twilight felt immensely proud of her acting skills at that moment as she downplayed her response. This was huge. She could barely believe Luna had an operational crystal mirror. Star Swirl wrote that the only one he’d gotten working led to a world where magic barely functioned well enough to support Equestrian life. Moreover, he’d used it as an alternative prison for creatures too powerful to contain conventionally but not worthy of Tartarus or deserving of death.
Okay, new plan B. If the Elements don’t work, I buck Luna through the mirror and send Shining after her to tranquilize her. I’m sure I can jury-rig it open for a few moments, at least, with Star Swirl’s notes at hoof. The theoretical energy requirements are…exorbitant when the universes are out of phase with each other, but I have the resources if Magic isn’t enough. I’ll have to ask Celestia if she knows where it is. If not, maybe I can get someone here to let that information slip in the waking world.
The group carried on in idle chatter about their favorite universe hopper. Twilight kept one ear on the conversation but mostly focused on developing and reworking her plans for the solstice. The last time she’d tried using the Elements had left the bearers utterly spent in the immediate aftermath. Between that and how disinclined Twilight was to trust Celestia with her own wellbeing at the moment, it’d be best to have a capable, trustworthy, and otherwise uninvolved spellcaster at hoof to wield the mirror. That meant Chrysalis, who would likely decline over political considerations, or Sunset.
Yeah, that would work. Why not put Celestia and Sunset in the same room again? What could go wrong?
Luna’s return without Ember made Twilight push her plans to the back of her mind. She’d have to give them some more thought later when she had proper downtime. For now, however, she had a campaign to focus on.
Autumn was the first to ask the obvious question. “Where’s Ember?”
“She’ll rejoin you later,” Luna replied. “Twilight, as the most godly, you should expect a divine revelation soon.”
Ah, well, that’s one way to drag a party into a quest. I’ll have to tell Shining and Spike about this one sometime.
“Until Ember and I are ready, feel free to wander around, not split the party, and entertain yourselves.”
Twilight grunted as she, the safe and tanky healer, was cast finally down. That was it. They were done. They’d never stood a chance. The dragon loomed above them triumphant. Left unchecked, he would ascend to godhood and wage a war against the remaining pantheon which would devastate the world.
Then in their hour of need, when a total party kill had seemed inevitable, the captive, true divine dragon channeled her power through them all despite her enchanted slumber. Fully restored, artificially leveled, and heavily invested in a fair rematch, they leapt to their feet for round two.
Berry Punch kept at mid-range, peppering the dragon with arrows aimed at his weak spots.
Seabreeze swept in close and did his best to harass, distract, and delay.
Ember hurled invocations from the back line for massive damage.
Autumn sang buff spells to strengthen them all, maximizing their damage output and minimizing how many hits they had to tank.
Twilight never had a spare moment to do anything but heal.
They were winning this time without a doubt. But the rapid and sadly temporary growth of their characters showed itself in how haphazardly they fought. They were unused to their new powers and needed time that they didn’t have to familiarize themselves with them. As such, the battle turned from what should have been a curb stomp into a long, brutal slog worthy of bardic poetry.
Then at long last, they smote the dragon’s ruin upon the field of battle. Their quest was at an end. They still needed to actually free the divine dragon, which would take a bit of doing, but that was a mere formality, and the hour drew late. The early risers would soon awaken, so they called it a night there.
Luna, when she joined them, had the suspicious look of a GM who’d only cracked the first few pages of a novel’s worth of notes, but Twilight politely kept that to herself.
It was then once they were all together that Autumn declared the need for a celebration. They needed to commemorate their victory over a major enemy, she claimed. As everyone else agreed, they retired to a tavern to carouse and make merry until they woke.
As was her wont at these sorts of events, Twilight let herself fade into the background and watched the party unfold, speaking only when spoken to. Autumn led not just the group but the background NPCs as well in song with skill befitting a professional prima donna. Some time later, she and Ember got into a drinking contest, which they obviously both lost. Berry Punch drew upon her own skills to mix drinks upon request but spent much of her little remaining time chatting with Seabreeze.
Twilight, in all honesty, had fun. Sometimes she didn’t know what Luna’s problem was. Sure, banishment in and of itself didn’t exactly have much going for it, but it still counted as a thousand-year-long holiday full of games, friends, and whatever else the heart desired. It was hard to see the downside.
In time, the customary way of things played out. Everyone dropped out of the dream one by one until only Twilight and Luna remained. Despite tradition, they opted to stay where they were rather than retreating to the former’s tavern within her own dream. It wasn’t worth the effort.
“Any chance I can get you sober?”
“Psch!” Luna knocked back another drink. “Sobriety is overrated, my friend.”
It really wasn’t, but Twilight let it go. Luna’s words lacked a noticeable slur, and alicorns burnt through poisons quickly anyway. In truth, she’d somehow managed to almost outdrink Ember tonight, which, considering that a dragon’s digestive system could best be described as a volcanic furnace, shouldn’t have been possible. They were in a dream, sure, but that wasn’t the point.
“Have you ever watched the stars?”
Where had that come from? “From time to time,” Twilight nonetheless replied. “My dad is an astronomer. He got me interested when I was young.” She chuckled as she admitted, “Mostly by dangling the equations of motion in front of me. I’d just learned that the stars drift over the ages, you see, and being me…”
Luna snorted in amusement as she rose to her hooves. “I don’t know what I expected.” After downing the last dregs of her drink, she cast the mug aside and conjured a swirling portal beside her. “The stars drift, Twilight, because they are no longer tended to. Let me show you my canvas as it once was.”
Now that was an opportunity Twilight would have to be a fool to refuse. Even so, as she approached the portal, she couldn’t help but tease. “A shortcut, Luna? Didn’t you forever forswear these?”
“Fie on thee!” Luna said and promptly tossed Twilight through the portal like luggage before following after.
On the other end of the portal, Twilight stumbled on her hooves as they landed on soft grass and uneven dirt. She managed to catch herself before falling, fortunately, but realized only moments later that her magic worked properly here. Knowing that three seconds ago would have made her arrival much smoother. Regardless, Luna must have taken them outside of the O&O section of her dreamscape. At a guess, they were probably in an archive of the night sky or something to that effect.
Indeed, a quick look around put them on top of a grassy knoll in the middle of nowhere at night. An endless meadow sprawled out around it in every direction in an endless sea of green with the occasional patch of color that stood out in the moonlight. With no sign of civilization in sight, it was, at least as Luna thought of it, nature entirely undisturbed. What a horrible place. It did, however, come equipped with one advantage: an utter lack of light pollution.
Twilight politely waited for Luna to join her before casting her eyes skyward. In all honesty, it wasn’t that different from the modern night. Stars were very far away and didn’t appear to move much to those standing upon Equus even over centuries.
On the other hoof, smudging an entire painting ruined it utterly. Now the constellations stood in sharp relief against their inky backdrop, forming clear lines and patterns rather than settling into vague squiggles. Some stars shone brighter. Others, dimmer. They played out in a tapestry of still motion and almost looked as though they might come alive at any moment.
“How do you move them?”
Luna stood in perfect silence for a few moments, similarly gazing up at the sky, before opting to press a hoof into Twilight’s side and shove her over to the tune of a harrumph.
Twilight, taken by surprise, emitted a high-pitched cry of distress as she flailed on her two left hooves for an instant before gravity took hold of her. Her magic would have caught her, but Luna made her reflexive spellwork fizzle and die. Instead, she fell onto her side with a heavy grunt. Jerk, she chose not to say aloud. Luna stood over her as she rolled onto her back for a better view and conversation.
“I really don’t know what I was expecting,” Luna said. Her tone came across with exasperation, but the twitching at the corners of her lips betrayed amusement. “Maybe a compliment. An observation. Feigned indifference. An insult to disguise your wonder, perhaps. But no. You’re interested in the mechanics.”
At that, Twilight couldn’t help the little chuckle that escaped her. “Okay, that’s fair,” she magnanimously conceded. As Luna laid down beside her, she said, “It’s very well done. Are the constellations commemorative?”
“They are. It was once the highest honor Equestria could bestow. To immortalize one’s story amongst the stars was to live forever.” After a moment, Luna added, “At least as mortals saw it.”
Twilight could see the appeal of that. When one had no other option but to embrace the inevitability of death, what more could be done? “Sounds comforting.” It was immortality in a sense, she supposed. Every time their story was told, they took on a semblance of life in the minds of those who continued their journey, in the minds of those who pretended to think as they thought and imagined what happened next. “Not much of a substitute, though.”
“Aye, ’tis naught but a cold comfort. Nonetheless, though their bodies have returned to the earth and though their magics have dispersed, their stories remain with me. Some, perhaps, with only me.”
“Then tell me them.” The words escaped Twilight’s lips before she’d given them much thought. She wasn’t sure if she actually cared. History had never much held her interest except where it informed her of magic. If it had, Luna’s existence wouldn’t have caught her so by surprise.
Yet were these ponies not, in some sense, kindred spirits? Twilight might not have anything new to learn from them, but upon reflection, it seemed only proper to honor those who’d come before her and sought a little piece of eternity.
Luna considered the request in quiet contemplation for some time. Neither of them spoke, both merely content to gaze up upon the stars in the night.
Then at last, Luna held a hoof up. She pointed in the general direction of a constellation that was, in the waking world, allegedly supposed to symbolize one of the most fundamental building blocks of unicorn spells. Here in the dream, Twilight could see the resemblance as clear as day.
“Have you ever heard of Magnus the Magus?”
“Magus?” Nopony had used that appellation since before the codification of Old Ponish into a single dialect. “No, I haven’t. I don’t know nearly as much as I should about the Harmonic Era.”
“Understandable. We relied primarily upon oral tradition for centuries. Magnus could be considered the grandfather of modern magic.”
Twilight’s ears perked up. Luna now had her full and undivided attention.
“Spells were jealously guarded during his time, often passed down within families. It wasn’t unusual for magic to be lost when one generation couldn’t pass it on to the next. In this culture, Magnus somehow managed to collect enough spells to notice similarities between them. His work eventually made it to my attention, and I recognized its importance. Hence…” Luna gestured up at the stars with a hoof. “One of my sister’s early students eventually took it further to become the first known unicorn to truly invent a spell since before Discord. No cutie mark magic involved. Unfortunately, credit is rarely assigned to where it’s due.”
While unpleasant, Twilight could understand that. “I don’t think you’d invented citations yet. Had you?”
Luna let out a little snort of laughter. “No, Twilight, believe it or not, but proper academic behavior wasn’t high on our list of priorities back then.”
“Savages, the lot of you.”
Only to prove the point, Luna smacked Twilight with her wing. Such violence!
“The modern story is very different,” Twilight said. She doubted Luna would want to hear it if she didn’t already know it, but it wasn’t exactly some great secret only shared within the cult of astronomy. “Supposedly, Celestia bestowed the knowledge upon Sparkler as a graduation test of sorts. When she succeeded in creating a truly basic, bare bones fire spell, Celestia congratulated her on her achievement and tasked her with continuing her research. As a reward, well…” Twilight gestured at the stars as Luna had.
Luna snorted dismissively. “Yes, truly the story has been boiled down to its essential details.” After simmering for a short while, she suddenly broke the silence. “Hmm? Sparkler? Now that I think of it, any relation?”
“Well…no, not really.” Sparkler was probably on her family tree somewhere, at least if that information had been preserved through the centuries, but Twilight considered it of little importance. That was fifty something generations back. “But for what little it’s worth, I’m the matrilineal descendant of Twilight. Twilight Twinkle, too. Who I think came after your banishment, so you wouldn’t have known her.”
“Wait, but–” Luna curled her neck up to look at Twilight’s face. She narrowed her eyes, saw something, and then collapsed back onto the ground only to facehoof. “She was serious,” she muttered. “You’re an unbroken line of Twilights, aren’t you?”
“For sixty-two generations, if I recall correctly.” She would probably be the last, which Twilight had mixed feelings about, but such was life. “It was the only way I managed to trace my lineage that far back.”
Naturally, Luna then asked, “And if Spike had been female?”
That was a very good question. “I have no idea. Probably? Maybe? It’s not really a fitting dragon name. If Mom said something, I might have listened, but she wasn’t very invested in the whole preteen mother thing and wouldn’t have wanted to encourage it.”
“Can you blame her?”
Twilight heaved a long sigh. “No.” Older now and with years of motherhood under her wing, she far better understood her own mother’s sentiments. At least as far as the age aspect of it went. She’d done just fine as a single parent with a strong support network and that certainly hadn’t changed.
“Anyway, I believe you were telling me about the constellations?”
And so their conversation returned to the stars and the ponies behind them. Luna knew all of the original stories while Twilight knew all of the modern variants that had clearly bled over into legend and myth. It was an interesting exercise to compare and contrast them and then guess at how and why the tales had drifted. Some were obvious. Luna’s absence oft left a hole in need of filling. Others, they could only scratch their heads at. Neither, for instance, had a clue how a simple story about saving a village from an ursa major had turned into an epic quest to save a mare from an unwanted marriage filled with multiple prophecies and patricide.
They stayed this way long into the morning in the waking world as time passed them by in what seemed like moments. This whole having friends thing was much better than Twilight had ever thought it would be. Then again, she hadn’t known Luna even existed, Sunset had always felt off-limits, and Rarity had caught her completely by surprise. Sure, they weren’t the friends she was supposed to be making, but what did it really matter. She liked them all well enough to…
Without warning, a thought struck Twilight, one that needed to be aired. This could be a perfectly innocent moment between friends, of course, but in hindsight, it also felt an awful lot like a date as she understood the term. “You’re not trying to romance me right now, are you? Because I’ve already embarrassed myself as such twice in as many weeks. I don’t need to make it three for three.”
It took Luna a second to process Twilight’s words. Once she had, she broke into uproarious laughter. Soon enough, her legs curled around her barrel as she wheezed and struggled for breath.
Well, ponyfeathers. Three for three, then. I’m on a roll.
“I – you – I have to – have to know,” Luna managed to get out between gasps for air. “Who and how?”
Twilight retorted, “None of your business.”
“Oh, come now, Twilight,” Luna said, now reasonably collected. “We all have embarrassing love stories. When I was in my fifth century, I grew infatuated with a handsome young poet who was known to be of a certain persuasion. I’d never experienced–”
Twilight shot her wing out and pressed her pinions up against the bottom of Luna’s jaw. “I do not need to hear about whatever wacky sexual hijinks you got into.”
When Luna limited her response to a chuckle, Twilight folded her wing back into place tucked against her side. Then to get them as far away from this conversation as they possibly could, she opted to ask about something completely different. “So you have one of Star Swirl’s crystal mirrors? A working one?”
“Hmm? Oh, I have several, actually, although most are broken. I found them all stored together ages ago, but only one ever worked. Star Swirl made them?”
Twilight hummed an affirmative. “We found his research notes on them recently. Sunset and I were so looking forward to a multiverse adventure, but it turns out there are…issues…with making more.”
“Well… How up to date on mathematics are you?”
It came as a bit of a surprise when Luna merely said, “About a decade behind the latest developments.”
Twilight could easily work with that. “All right, so destination coordinates are relative to where you start. That’s all well and good, but almost all numbers are random and thus cannot be generated, so we’re already down from an uncountable number of universes to a mere countable infinity.”
“Uh-huh.” Clearly, Luna didn’t truly appreciate the sheer scope of that limitation.
“Beyond that, the mirrors are constructed via crystal magic. I could emulate it if I knew how, but strangely enough, there aren’t any crystal ponies around.”
Luna waved a dismissive hoof in the air. “They’ll be back soon enough. I heard you tried releasing the empire early, even.”
“Yes, well…” Perhaps it was best to not address that subject in any detail lest Luna get ideas. “Anyway, each universe also has a…well, you can think of it as a wave function of sorts. When they’re out of phase with each other, crossing over has prohibitively expensive energy costs. Some sync up frequently. Some effectively never.”
“More limiting,” Luna allowed, “but surely not insurmountable.”
“Yes, but the worst part is magic is rare in the multiverse.”
Twilight couldn’t say she understood why. She’d expected a certain homogeneity across the multiverse. That was kind of an important assumption of physics, and the lack of it had troubling implications for even their local models of reality. Perhaps it was at least valid for each individual universe? That would be some comfort, at least. But such concerns were for another day.
“Magic doesn’t occur with measure zero, I’m sure,” Twilight continued, “but the vast majority of universes don’t support it at all. Star Swirl wrote that he only found one world that wouldn’t outright kill him to visit, and even there, magic doesn’t work properly.”
“Ah. That would be a problem.”
“Just a little one,” Twilight agreed wryly.
Luna made a contemplative hum.
In response, Twilight asked, “What is it?”
“Nothing, really. I have a friend living on the other side of the mirror.”
Luna nodded, something Twilight only just caught out of the corner of her eye. “She lived here for several of her foalhood years as a unicorn. Had she stayed, she would have become a sorceress to rival even you.”
Now that was interesting, both for the rarity of such talent and for the fact that Luna had let her go home. And to find it amongst a species with little to no aptitude for spellcasting? Twilight wanted to meet this…Autumn had called her a human, right?
“She’s had a little success using magic at home,” Luna carried on, heedless to Twilight’s thoughts. “Not much, but enough for some minor cantrips. In all honesty, we don’t talk about it much. Her visits are necessarily so short and so infrequent, you see. But perhaps when the mirror next opens, we could all gather round and talk shop.”
Twilight easily agreed to that plan. “Sounds fun,” she said. It’d be interesting to see how magic differed between worlds and to guess at why that was so.
“Ah, but enough of this,” Luna said. “How did you find tonight’s quest? Fun?”
Rather than answer right away, Twilight opted to take a few moments to reflect back upon the night. Between a good dungeon crawl and an epic boss battle, even with a literal deus ex machina at the end to save them, she couldn’t give any lesser review than, “Yeah. A little standard fare, I have to say, but you weren’t really playing to your strengths, so that’s not unexpected.”
Taking that as a request for elaboration, Twilight flatly replied, “Luna, you ooze drama. A oneshot villain is hardly a proper medium for your theatrics. I’m fully expecting politics, clashing armies, maybe a prophecy or two, and some meddlesome aspirant gods.”
Luna made a show of secretly summoning a notebook and writing something inside it with vigorous strokes of her quill. “I will bear in mind that you took ranks in genre savvy,” she said as she slammed it shut and then banished it.
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Don’t blame me for being well read, O master playwright. When we go back to actually complete our mission, I’ll try to act surprised when something inevitably goes wrong.”
At first, Luna merely harrumphed. A few moments passed, and then she added, “Well, maybe you will be,” in an oddly pensive tone. “You might let it slip your mind between now and then. Who knows when we’ll next play.”
That didn’t sound much like Luna. Twilight arched an eyebrow, though only the stars saw it. “What, are you planning not to sleep or something?” she asked. That was a thing they could both get away with for the most part, but now that she had the ability to be productive while resting, she doubted she’d avoid indulging nearly as much as she used to.
“Not as such,” Luna replied, “but I will have little time for games nonetheless. One of my many responsibilities is…was to shepherd the dreams of my ponies.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “We’ll see soon enough if I’m still needed. Only four days remain.”
Those last four words, though they came as naught but a whisper upon Luna’s breath, were as sobering as any magic.
Twilight closed her eyes. She took in a long, steady breath, held it, and let it out just as slowly.
Four days. Four days, and I’m just lying here stargazing with the antagonist of my own story.
They were about to reach the tipping point. This unstable equilibrium they’d found in friendship could not hold. Their lines were drawn. Whatever happened come the solstice, one of them would walk away hurt.
Twilight would miss this dearly.
Four more days. Three last nights.
And so, as she opened her eyes once more, Twilight made a decision.
“Why would you need to watch over Equestria’s dreams? I can’t imagine that scales well.”
For the next three nights, Twilight would continue this charade, this willful disregard of the mutual exclusivity of their desires.
“Hmm? Oh, part of Discord’s legacy included the nightmares, a parasitic species so named for the effect they had upon ponies. They feed off dreams similarly to how changelings feed off love. The lack of a limiting medium such as love often made their feasts deadly.”
Luna no doubt would do the same. That was the whole reason she’d sought out Twilight to begin with.
“Ah, I think I understand how that would work. In vague terms, at least. What happened to them?”
So they would be friends until they could be no longer.
“I was not merciful to those who couldn’t be reasoned with. As a species, I suspect I starved them into extinction.”
After all, what more damage could it do that they hadn’t already set themselves up for?