Act II: The Twilight Hour
Part 2 - The Homecoming Party
After a day of helping Inkalina uproot potatoes and pick pumpkins, Twilight prepared to leave the farm for Ponyville proper. It was the next morning, or at least Twilight assumed so, for she had fallen asleep, dreamed of a life that wasn't hers, and then woken up again. The light hovering in the sky above Ponyville had descended for some time, but had now risen again. She packed what precious few belongings she had, her spare bandages rattling around in what was otherwise an almost empty saddlebag. In exchange for her work on the farm, the family gave Twilight a small assortment of fruits and vegetables. Twilight felt guilty taking it, since the farmers all seemed to barely get enough to eat themselves, but Rarity insisted.
There was something odd about the way the other ponies listened to Rarity, like she was
running the show. Twilight wanted to ask for an explanation, but by the time she would find a good opportunity, she would forget. Still, it was hard to miss the other ponies being incredibly careful around her. The only other pony they treated with this much respect was Big Macintosh, whom Twilight had unfortunately only managed to get a couple of glimpses of throughout the day.
Twilight wanted to learn more about the new extended family at Sweet Apple Acres. She wanted to stay and do everything in her power to help. However, the drive for information was stronger. For all Twilight knew, Equestria's very history had changed, making half of everything she knew worthless. The past would have to be rediscovered, and the library was the perfect place to do it. Twilight doubted there would be any distractions or interruptions once she got there.
At the front gate, a small gathering of ponies were waiting for Twilight. Rarity was in the front and center, and Twilight thought she had a impressive commanding presence under the wide-brimmed hat. Pinkamena flanked her on one side with Big Macintosh on the other. A gray stallion Twilight didn't recognize seemed to tower over Pinkamena, and Twilight assumed he was her husband. Like Rarity, he also looked intimidating, but he filled Twilight with nervousness instead the feeling of security she got from Rarity. Pumpkin was circling around the four grown ponies, never staying on the ground for more than half a second.
Big Macintosh stepped forward to address Twilight. "You're leaving," he said, more a statement of fact than a request for confirmation.
Pumpkin stopped jumping and looked up at Twilight with pleading eyes. "What?" she cried. "You can't go. You're too cool."
Twilight nodded. "I need to figure some things out, and I can't stay here to do it. I hope you understand."
"We do," Rarity said sympathetically. "We won't ask you to stay. Just know that you're welcome here." Her cheeks flushed a little, embarrassed. "I mean, you really were a big help, with that spell and all."
Twilight had modified the gem-detecting spell the other Rarity had taught her to predict which potatoes were ready to be uprooted. Along with her telekinesis, she and Inkalina had managed to more than triple the work they had accomplished.
"Promise you'll come back," wailed Pumpkin.
Her father glared, silently telling her to stop talking and sit still. Pinkamena seemed to have lost her voice, as she did and said nothing.
"Okay," agreed Twilight. "I'll come back. It's not like there's anyplace else I can go."
The statement was a lie, and Twilight knew it. She had trouble sleeping the night before; the farm felt like a prison she had emerged from after twenty years, to discover that the world had continued after she had left it, evolving into something strange and new. Another night in the same bed would be unbearable.
"Good," announced Pumpkin. "Come back in time for the wedding!"
A wedding? This was news to Twilight. She looked at each of the ponies in turn, at their dreary, defeated faces, and tried to wonder what a wedding would look like. Only Rarity and Pumpkin had any energy, any fires in their hearts. They would be the only ones dancing. The others would move slowly, trying to create an illusion of livelihood that would fool nopony. Cheap mono-colored lanterns would be at the tables, as it was either the atmosphere or the food. Twilight prayed no wedding would look like that, and she hoped these ponies would prove her wrong and light up the sunless sky with the most memorable party this side of Nightmare Moon's victory. After all, they had Pinkie Pie to help them. And part of Twilight dared to believe that even the new Rarity wouldn't stand for gaudy decorations.
"A wedding, huh?" Twilight asked Rarity.
Pumpkin interrupted. "Yup! With cake and banners and tents on the lawn and everything!" she shouted, removing any doubt of her parentage.
"We've been over this, Pumpkin," addressed Rarity, frowning. "We can't afford those. Or even find them, in all likelihood. It will be a simple gathering among family. And you, Twilight, if you like."
Twilight expected this. "Why don't you make the decorations?" she suggested. "You and Pinkie Pie? I think you'd both do an amazing job."
"But," began Rarity, "I don't think..."
"Trust me on this one," asserted Twilight. "I think the two of you would do an amazing job."
The conversation didn't last for much longer. The farm was waking up around them, and Twilight saw the other ponies begin to leave their homes and head into the field to begin work. She didn't want to keep Rarity and Big Macintosh and the rest from doing the job that fed them, but also, secretly, she didn't want to see the looks on any more ponies' faces if they found out she was leaving. She didn't know if they would be upset that a pony that had to potential to save them from starvation was selfishly running away, or glad that the ill omen, the foal killer, was going to leave them alone. Twilight felt that either possibility would devastate her. The only way to stop her from breaking down was to leave the question unanswered, so she hurriedly said her goodbyes and left, walking down the dirt path toward the only light in the sky.
Traveling into town should not have taken long. Twilight could usually clear the distance in fifteen minutes, even if she walked at a slow gait. Now the journey took her thirty. It seemed that for every three steps she took toward Ponyville, she took one step back. No need to rush, she told herself. Ponyville will still be there, waiting for you, when you're good and ready.
She finally neared the town, approaching Fluttershy's cottage. Although the house clearly was no longer Fluttershy's, Twilight circled around it, separating herself by almost her entire line of sight on the off-chance that Fluttershy, wings torn, caked in dirt and worse, was somehow inside.
Once the cottage was safely behind her, Twilight was able to breathe again. The town looked almost exactly like it should, yet something she couldn't place unsettled her. Just like the lack of trees at the farm, something in the corner of her eye was bothering her, some detail she was unable to find. But her gut knew it was wrong, and no amount of cold logic would settle it.
As if cold logic had any value at this point. It had done practically nothing to help her.
Twilight navigated the streets of Ponyville, taking the most direct route to the library. As curious as she was to discover the fates of Carousel Boutique and Sugar Cube Corner, she didn't want to risk an encounter with anypony, especially a pony she knew. Fortunately, she was alone. The streets were completely deserted.
Twilight shivered again. That was the problem. Nopony was outside. She was used to seeing large crowds of ponies every day, on the way to the market, or perhaps just enjoying each other's company, but it appeared that the residents of the new Ponyville had no time for company. Or maybe there were no residents, and Ponyville had become a ghost town. Twilight pushed the thought aside as the towering branches of the library appeared in the distance.
The tree wasn't always a library, Twilight remembered. In Ponyville's early days, it was a prison. She silently prayed that the town hadn't decided to return the tree to its original purpose. However, a picture of an open book adorned the sign outside the front entrance, giving Twilight hope that her journey had not been a waste of time. As an added bonus, Twilight realized, if the ponies of Ponyville had to work so desperately to keep themselves from starving, then it seemed unlikely that any of them would be wasting time at the library to disturb her.
The thought was incredibly selfish and only a small consolation. Twilight berated herself for even thinking it. Now she stood frozen, reflecting on her surroundings and herself as the true gravity of the situation sunk in. She had been numb to the horror, not because she doubted it was real, but because the world was so far removed from the Ponyville she knew that the plight of the starving ponies felt like something out of a book she had read or an opera Celestia had taken her to as a filly. As long as the deaths occurred offstage, Twilight wouldn't have much of an emotional response. She had always had little skill relating to others, but even less experience. She had been unable to truly understand, and thus unable to grieve. Now, if she began crying, she didn't think she'd be able to stop. Instead, Twilight forced herself not to think about anything other than her own personal goals.
She hesitated at the door. She considered knocking but realized she didn't want to draw attention to herself. The library was a public facility, and she planned to use it as such. She forced open the door, which resisted briefly, and found herself in complete darkness.
At first, Twilight could see nothing. Then, as her eyes adjusted, she became able to discern shapes in the blackness. She recognized a rectangular protrusion as a bookshelf and a series of parallel lines as the staircase. In the all-enveloping dark, Twilight finally felt home.
She considered shedding some light with her horn, and for a moment the room was bathed in a wavering uncertain glow that was still too dim for seeing. After a second's thought, however, the room plunged back into the shadows, and a mischievous smile spread across Twilight's face. This was her home; she shouldn't need light to get around. Feeling slightly emboldened by her surroundings, she took a step forward and immediately tripped over a book, landing painfully on her face in another book.
Lighting suddenly seemed much more preferable, and as her horn lit up again, she found herself at the edge of a mess almost comparable to one she would have made. She supposed that without her, there was no librarian. No librarian meant no green-scaled assistant to pick up. She lifted her head out of the book and closed it. Ecological Evolution: Equestria in an Age of Darkness, the title read, a picture of an aurora adorning the front cover as it bent and rippled across the starry sky.
Twilight was shocked by the relevance of the book; it seemed to be precisely what she was looking for. She was also surprised by the book's wear. It couldn't be more than a year or so old, but it was tattered around the edges and remind Twilight of books that had been around for decades. She was so elated, however, that she didn't stop to consider what it was doing on the floor, instead opening the book to the first couple of pages.
Equestria's socialized weather management system, founded in 128 C.E. (Celestia's Era), was the first attempt by a sentient race to use magic to control the weather. It was based on older research done by well-known Equestrian polymath Neighcola Tesla, who theorized that an ecosystem, once tamed, would become significantly easier to maintain. Crop failures, by flooding or drought, could be avoided, leading to higher yields for farmers. Cloud cities would no long risk destruction every time a minor storm passed through.
The risks of such a practice were well known before its implementation, even in Tesla's time. (His work was discontinued due to the infeasability of safety procedures, and not, as many young fillies and colts are told, due to his sudden vanishing from the face of the planet. This disappearance, while true, happened more than a decade later.) The incredible amount of terraforming required would cripple any naturally occurring biomes, and would require hundreds of years before returns on the project could be generated. However, Celestia's curiously long lifespan and willingness to donate from personal funds in addition to tax dollars brought the project into the realm of reality. To combat the destruction of nature, certain regions were designated "Everfree", and would continue to develop as nature intended, without the guiding hand of the monarchy.
The weather management system had one other risk. Should, at any time, the abilities of the weather ponies to perform their job become significantly impaired, and the carefully planned procedures cease, the ecosystem would become extremely unstable. Unable to protect itself from sudden changes, small fluctuations would sweep across the country, compounding like a snowball, causing no end of natural disasters.
It is this exact scenario with which Equestria now finds itself. However, rather than admit defeat, the scientific community of Equestria decided to fight back with their most powerful weapon: knowledge. This new wilderness had overtaken the world, but it was not untameable, because of one simple truth: Everywhere in nature hide patterns. New nature meant new patterns, but this is the only difference. The discovery of these new patterns is what would lead to Equestria's salvation.
In the following pages we have compiled over two dozen studies performed by Equestrian scientists in the year and a half, the ten months since the sun disappeared from the sky. Each study is examined closely and in turn, its conclusions analyzed and its implications considered. The chapters divide the studies by scientific field, in increasing scope, beginning with the individual organisms found in nature, traversing through habitats and ecosystems, and ending with astronomy and the possibility that our beloved sun's disappearance is not as complete or as permanent as we may have at first believed.
Twilight lost track of how long she had been reading. The sky never really grew darker or lighter. She picked up the book and added it to her saddle-bag. It was everything she was looking for, almost. She still wanted to figure out what had happened on that day, two years ago, when Nightmare Moon's thousand year prison sentence ended, if anypony knew.
Twilight tried to remember the dream she had of that day. It had ended abruptly, before Nightmare Moon took the stage, and the second part, if it was buried somewhere in her subconscious, had yet to show itself. But Twilight remembered Rarity was there. So was Applejack. If she ran into one of them on the farm, she would have to remember to ask. She would look like an idiot, but it would help her get her bearings. In the mean time, she looked around the nest of books that filled the floor. Somepony had been here before her, perhaps many ponies, and if she never found out who they were, she at least wanted to figure out what they had been after, and get a bit of cleaning done in the process.
Some of the books she recognized. Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide and Predictions and Prophecies were both among the first books she picked up. Twilight rationalized that whoever was here must have been just as interested in the legend of the Mare in the Moon as she was. Other books covered a variety of topics, such as a book on the history of the Equestrian royal family, and one on protecting oneself against dark magic.
As she finished cleaning, Twilight noticed the door to the basement. In her memories, when she had moved in, the basement was mostly empty space, perhaps for storage, and she had converted it into her lab. Now she wondered what had happened to it. She pulled open the door and slunk through, following the staircase down into the earth.
Here the familiarity began to fade. Were she still at home, Twilight would have followed the wires that hung from the ceiling as she made her descent. At the bottom, she would round the corner into her lab, lit by electric lights in the ceiling, which, while expensive, were brighter than fireflies and less likely to accidentally damage her delicate instruments than oil lanterns. While the stairs had the same shape, and ended with the same bend, there were no wires on the ceiling. When she finally rounded the corner, no lights hung from the ceiling. The large room before her was not her lab.
Twilight did not immediately realize the room's purpose. A plush chair at the far end of the room was raised by a table, towering above everything else. A smaller wooden chair was at its side. Half a dozen seats formed a ring around the pedestal, for Twilight couldn't think of a better word to describe it. In the back, an assortment of mismatched benches and pews were filed in rows, some made of splintering wood, others made of red cloth. An image of the sun, its rays stretching out, filled the corners of one wall. The wall opposite, instead of one large picture, was a mural. Dozens of images ran together, scenes of a pegasus pony flying, fighting, and striking a number of poses that seemed to serve no practical purpose but looked impressive. In many of the pictures she wore the golden armor of the royal guard. Whoever had painted it had put a lot of care and effort into both the design and the execution. The fringes showed the mare as a young filly, and she aged as Twilight's eyes approached the large piece at the center, a close-up of the mare, her wings spread behind the copies of her, forming a backdrop. Twilight swore she could make out each hair in the mare's pale white coat, and the brilliance of the mare's mane was painted in a brighter color than the sun she glared at so fiercely, and perhaps the coloring choice was intentional. This mare did seem to outshine even the sun.
Twilight took a step back to take in the entire painting at once. The mare was indeed glaring; for a moment Twilight thought she had simply imagined that detail. The look was fierce, but not necessarily malevolent. Those who had done nothing wrong had nothing to fear. It was just. That was the best way to describe her. She was justice. As soon as Twilight made this observation, she realized where she was.
Her lab had become a courtroom. The pedestal-chair was where the judge sat. The scene was thrown together with whatever parts looked even half-decent, but that somehow made the overall effect even more chilling, as if it were built by a frenzied madpony. Twilight stepped away from the mural to clear her head, and as she did she saw movement near the entrance from the corner of her eye.
She turned in time to see a pale violet earth pony charge forward, driving his head into her shoulder. Fire arced across her body from the point of impact, and Twilight staggered. Her vision unfocused, she tried to back away from her attacker and prepared her counterattack. A purple lance began to materialize above her head, a rapidly solidifying mist. She had never used the spell in actual combat before, and she hoped now that the threat would pacify her opponent. Before the lance was even finished taking form, the stallion raised a forehoof and brought it crashing down on Twilight's horn.
Twilight screamed, not expecting the new pain. She felt like her horn had been driven into her skull. The lance vanished, and her legs gave way. She crashed onto the floor, her opponent standing over her triumphantly. Twilight wanted to call for help or beg for mercy, but she was too occupied gritting her teeth from the agony. Her horn had never been treated like that, not intentionally, and Twilight hadn't expected it to hurt nearly as much as it did. The face above her wavered, and then dissolved into mist as Twilight fell into darkness.
At first, all Twilight could see was the pegasus from the painting. If she had looked intimidating in the painting, the effect was even more powerful in real life. Every feature demanded attention, from her muscled frame to her outstretched wings to the way her eyes darted back and forth, taking in every fine detail of the cave. She wore the same armor Twilight had always seen her in, and it seemed to flash golden even with no light to shine on it. The mare was in command and knew it. Twilight hardly noticed the flashes of lightning from the outside storm; they were small candles compared to the light from the mare.
"Twilight Sparkle." The mare seemed wearied by their encounter, but not at all afraid. "Truth be told, I was dreading the day we would meet again, and I prayed it wouldn't be just the two of us. But I've overcome my fears in the recent months, and I've come to look forward to this. I won't go down quite as easily this time, you know."
This was another dream, Twilight knew, and as the impulses filled her head, she played along.
"I remember you," remarked Twilight, stupefied. She knew the words she wanted to say, something along the lines of I'm sorry. Instead, she hardened her face and repeated herself. "I remember."
"I should hope so," said the mare, almost bored. "Making such threats against another pony's life isn't an experience you just let die. I haven't forgotten you, either. You almost snapped my head right off, or so you claim. I personally question whether you would have gone through with it."
"Stone Wall," said Twilight, and the pegasus stirred slightly at the sound of her name. "What are you doing here?"
Stone Wall's eyes opened wide, and she stared at Twilight. "You're not a foal, Twilight," she said. "I'm here to reclaim the Element of Magic, obviously. Little good it will do us now, though. Do you know how many known bearers of the Element there are? One. Princess Celestia herself, and only she knows where she's gone to. I'm also here to bring you to justice, but that's second priority. Does that answer your question?"
"No. I mean, why haven't you killed me yet?" Twilight gestured to the crossbow strapped to Stone Wall's side. "I've seen those used before. I grew up in Canterlot. And you. Your eyes were good enough to find this cave from above, something I designed to be impossible, unless you found some other way to discover where I was hiding. You had every upper hand, and you didn't use them. You could have taken me out before I even knew you were watching. Why?"
Stone Wall grimaced, a combination of mourning and frustration. "This isn't a time for bloodshed," she answered sympathetically. "Too many ponies have died from this; I'm not about to add another body to the count. My goal isn't vengeance, Twilight; it's understanding. I know we used to be enemies, but that seems like ages ago. There is no longer a princess for me to serve or you to oppose. There is only our shared enemy, an enemy to all Equestria." A bolt of lightning struck outside, and the roar of the thunder briefly deafened Twilight. "That storm is because of her, you know. Nightmare Moon. After the Last Sunset, most of the weather ponies scattered. Some to find their loved ones, others to save their own flanks. What remained really wasn't large enough to keep much of anything under control. Please, Twilight Sparkle. I am coming in good faith, and I ask you for help. I believe that the two of us, together, can heal this broken world."
Twilight wanted to hear what Stone Wall said next, but the voice was drowned out by a sudden wind. Twilight felt herself rising back up to the surface, and the world around her melted away. Desperate, she finally found the strength to say the words she had been longing to say.
It wasn't in the original memory; Twilight chose to add it in. She knew that her dreams could not alter the past, but she hoped that, if anything, the words would help her to finally sleep soundly.
Twilight's first sensation upon her return to the world of the waking was a rude shake by her captor. Too soon, thought Twilight. She awoke too soon. Just a little bit longer, and she would have had something she could use. Instead, as she looked into the angry eyes of the stallion, she remembered where she had seen him before.
The stallion's face seemed to be uplifted at the utterance, and Twilight got her first close look at him. While Stone Wall was perpetually in a state of grace, the male guardspony seemed to have taken a fall long ago and never recovered. His pale brown mane was dirty and unruly; his fetlocks were unshorn. His eyes were wild and bloodshot, in constant motion. Twilight had never seen a pony look like this before, but she understood it well enough. Silver Shield had lost his marbles and was out for blood.
Twilight began struggling to stand but was unsuccessful. Each motion brought friction to her ankles, and she realized her hooves were tied behind a chair. Looking out, she saw both painted walls and the doorway. From her perspective she realized she was in the chair adjacent to the judge's chair.
The chair used for witnesses being questioned.
"That's right," said Silver Shield. "I'm so glad you remember me after all this. I missed you."
Twilight realized that struggling wouldn't do her any good. Trying to think, she considered using magic to escape. But the ropes were behind her, and using magic on something she couldn't see was like firing a bow into a dark alley; she would be clumsy and imprecise.
A second possibility occurred to her. She knew where part of the rope was, the part that was touching her ankles. If she lit it on fire, the flames would burn through the rest of the rope. She couldn't escape without burning herself in the process, but it was the only thing she could think of. Her horn lit up.
Silver Shield spun and bucked it as hard as he could.
Twilight gasped as her breath left her, and the horn's light winked out. Every muscle in her body locked and then released, and Twilight almost fell out of the chair in the process, the rope keeping her forelegs connected. The strain on her legs was painful, but it worsened when Twilight attempted to lift herself back up. She fell to the floor again, as much as the rope would allow, almost on her knees, and started panting for air until the pain dimmed to a dull throb. She fought the urge to vomit again. She had read before that unicorn horns were sensitive, and her own experiences could confirm this, but she had never considered its potential for abuse.
"Can you imagine my surprise to come home and find you waiting for me?" Silver Shield hissed. "It's like my birthday. Best present I could receive."
"Your home?" murmured Twilight weakly.
"Sure. The library's public property, so it belongs to the government. Which is me. When I came to Ponyville, the mayor graciously set up a little home for me in the back room. A place to sleep, and all the research material I could ever want. I figured out what you did that day, at the Summer Sun Celebration. I know about the Elements of Harmony. The one thing I didn't have, the final missing piece, was you. I made it my mission to find you. And here you are. Do you know why you're here?"
When Twilight didn't answer, he kicked her again, this time in the side.
"Celestia may be gone, but her kingdom lives on through me. She cannot be here to deliver her punishment, so I must do it for her. Look at me, Twilight. There are still laws, and I am the enforcer. I am Justice. And this is your trial."
Each line was uttered without hesitation, as if the speech had been prepared beforehand and rehearsed many times.
"The charges: one count of royal theft; grand treason; one, no, now two counts of breaking and entering; witchcraft; and two counts of murder."
Twilight's mind froze as it tried to process the last bit. Two counts of murder. That wasn't possible. It couldn't be true. Another kick brought her back to reality.
"I am your prosecutor, judge, and jury. You have now heard your charges. Twilight Sparkle, how do you plead?"
Twilight realized he was waiting for an answer. With each second he grew more furious, and Twilight feared she would be kicked again. "Not guilty," she whispered. She couldn't have done what he claimed. Theft, she remembered. She had stolen the element of magic. Breaking and entering she had just done, although the library was public property; even Silver Shield had admitted that. But treason? Murder? Twice?
Silver Shield seemed irritated at her answer but not surprised. "Well then. I suppose today is the first day of your trial. And the last day you'll ever see the sky."