Act II - Part 6: Through the Looking Glass
Rainbow Dash stood at the edge of the cloud, looking down. The sun was rising over Ponyville; swaths of long pale shadows cast Rainbow's surroundings in a shifting mosaic that seemed to reflect her inner thoughts. Everything was changing around her and moving too quickly. She could sense the cloud moving beneath her hooves, a feeling she thought she'd gotten used to long ago. All she wanted was for everything to go away and give her a moment to herself to think.
Looking at the trembling yellow pegasus next to her, Rainbow remembered that she wasn't alone. All of her friends were scared, and right now they were counting on her.
Or maybe Fluttershy was just being herself, scared of anything that moved and quite a few things that didn't. Living on the ground, she had never quite gotten used to the sensation of walking on moving clouds. Rainbow Dash had once tried to explain it to Twilight as being like seasickness, but, having felt both before, there wasn't much of a comparison. When seasick, Rainbow still had a hard surface to stand on and give her her bearings.
"I'm ready," lied Rainbow Dash, hoping it would get Fluttershy to leave. "Tell Twilight I'm ready to do this."
Rainbow Dash had gone back and forth when it came to calling "Twilight" by her name. It wasn't an alias; the pony's name really was Twilight. Besides, just using pronouns seemed dehumanizing, reducing her to an object, and if Rainbow's talk with Twilight in Redheart's sick bay had taught her anything, it was that the emotional Twilight was not an object.
Fluttershy had come to keep Rainbow Dash company and to get away from the confusing Twilight. Around Twilight, Flutteshy was thrown by an overwhelming mix of pity and fear, one urge to comfort her and another to run away as quickly as possible. Desperate to escape, Fluttershy had decided that today was the perfect day to try and overcome her fear of flying, in a sky where Twilight couldn't follow her.
Now Rainbow Dash was asking her to return. She sighed and swallowed her heart that was leaping around in her chest; the thin air had done nothing to calm her nerves. She leaped off the cloud, although Rainbow would have described it better as "fell," and she fluttered haphazardly to the ground.
Alone, Rainbow Dash reflected back on the plan. She had been excited, at first, when all she knew was that the plan involved sonic rainbooms. Now that she knew all the details, including the danger involved, she was worried.
Not that she would ever admit that. Rainbow Dash never got scared. Just like she never cried.
According to Twilight, special mirrors were the only way to cross over. That was why their last attempt to cross was at the Castle of the Pony Sisters, the same place the Twilights had traded minds. The mirror she had used before was still sitting there on the other side, waiting to be used again.
For their new plan, however, Twilight had determined that the mirror she had built was too small a target. No matter how much Rainbow Dash had insisted she could hit it, Twilight refused, insisting she could build her own, on this side. Unfortunately, building a mirror large enough to make Twilight complacent was impractical. The other option was to enchant an already-existing mirror.
Rainbow Dash looked out over the edge of the cloud at Sky Mirror Lake, miles directly below her. She couldn't believe that Twilight considered this the smallest acceptable target. If Rainbow couldn't make this mark, then she didn't even deserve to be a pegasus.
Still, hitting the target was easy enough. Surviving was going to be another whole challenge on its own, especially considering what Twilight had asked Rainbow Dash to do.
"You want me to do what?" Rainbow had nearly screamed when she had found out.
"You need to be breaking the sound barrier when you hit the water. Preferably, you perform the rainboom as close to the water's surface as possible. The closer you are, the longer the portal stays open."
Rainbow Dash had made the mistake of speeding into water before. "Let me explain something," she had told Twilight. "The faster you go when you hit water, the harder the water is. I can do it; you've come to the right pony. But at those speeds, even a pony as awesome as me will be shredded. I'm not invincible. See these wings? They're like tissue paper, and they break all the time. All the clopping time."
Twilight frowned, and Rainbow had the distinct impression she was trying to develop an excuse. "You won't actually hit the water, though, I think," she finally said. "After the rainboom, the entire surface of the lake should be weak enough to push you through to the other side. You'll be reflected, like a beam of light. There won't be any water for you to hit."
Rainbow had finally agreed, but now, as she prepared to jump, she had second thoughts. What if her fear of going too quickly prevented her from reaching the sound barrier? What if she couldn't break it, and it just pushed her away like it had done so many times before?
She tried to see if she could spot her friends, waiting patiently at the waters edge to jump through after her. A bright light flared up on the ground, the signal that Twilight had finished enchanting the lake and that they were ready for her. Even though she couldn't make out any of the others, she swore that Pinkie Pie was eating popcorn.
Feeling suddenly more powerful, Rainbow Dash smirked. She would do this for Twilight, and to put on a good show for Pinkie Pie.
She leaped. For a moment she hovered in the air, and time seemed frozen around her. Even time had slowed. The world was just Rainbow Dash floating in the expansive cloudy sky. Then Rainbow began to accelerate.
The clouds sped past her as she picked up speed. She recalled the name of each type of cloud as she encountered it; each new cloud type meant another layer was gone, another buffer expended. Some of the clouds went right through her, blinding her temporarily and soaking her coat. The temperature at the high altitude was much colder than Rainbow Dash was used to, and the strong wind chill didn't help at all. She shivered, the freezing water numbing her skin. She should have spent more time training, acclimating herself with the high-altitude weather. She had read somewhere that the Wonderbolts spent an hour warming up before every performance. She had always laughed at the fact and wondered why ponies as cool as the Wonderbolts needed to warm up in the first place, why they couldn't just pull off their stunts any time they wanted. Now, Rainbow Dash was wondering if an hour would have been enough for her.
The ground was quickly approaching, and Rainbow Dash knew she wasn't anywhere near the sound barrier. She could only see the beginnings of the cone forming around her. She wasn't going to make it.
Rainbow Dash squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to see the water racing toward her. She wondered if it wasn't too late to pull out of the dive; she'd made more ridiculous turns in the past. I'm sorry I'm letting you down, she thought. But sonic rainbooms had never been easy to pull off. She'd only done in twice in her lifetime, out of hundreds of attempts, and even then they had been in special circumstances. Both times she had been much to busy having fun or saving Rarity to think too much about her actions. Now, Rainbow worried that her self-awareness was causing her to slip up.
She felt the turbulence of the cone as it rocked her body. In a few seconds it would reject her and fling her far off into the horizon. She took comfort in the fact that at least she wouldn't hit the water. But she still knew she was letting Twilight down.
I'm sorry, Twi, she thought in her head. I wanted to save you. I really did. At the very least, she would have to get revenge against the impostor, make her pay for what she'd done, make it clear that she would never replace their lost friend. Except that the impostor really was Twilight, in a sense. It had taken Rainbow Dash a while to see it, but now she understood their similarities. Both Twilights had the same sort of shyness. They were both determined but stubborn, and they buckled under pressure. The false Twilight reminded Rainbow of her very first meeting with the real one, before they had become friends. Would it really be fair for Rainbow Dash to destroy all that was left of one of her best friends?
Twilight Sparkle. The mare that had brought them all together. Rainbow didn't care about her first sonic rainboom earning everyone their cutie marks. Twilight had said that they were all bound together, as if by a thread, and she agreed. But it was Twilight, not her, that had united them when they fought Nightmare Moon. Without Twilight, they'd all still be living in Ponyville, but they'd know each other only by name and by the brief glimpses of when they passed on the streets. Twilight was the common thread. She was a hero, a stronger pony than Rainbow ever was. As Rainbow thought this, she saw the light penetrate her closed eyelids, the same spark she'd sensed so many times before, whenever she stood up for her friends. She saw her Spark of Creation and let it guide her. And she came to a decision.
She was going to save Twilight, whatever it took. She owed the unicorn this one. Even if she failed today, she'd try again tomorrow, and the next day, and so on until she found a way to repay her debt.
Yards above the water's surface, the world exploded in every color of the rainbow.
From atop her home within the Everfree Forest, Zecora watched the display of colors that rose above the canopy. She doubted a single pony in Ponyville would miss it. She smiled, but she was unable to mask the concern in her eyes. All she could do now was hope for the best. She began rhyming quietly.
"And so begins young Twilight's path
To find herself, her better half
Who waits beneath the vengeful moon
And prays the light will reach her soon.
Across the stars, another world
Is filled with stories not yet told
There's so much nopony knows
In a world without rainbows."
She had promised to deliver the letter over a year ago, but because of her own decision, she had no means of doing so. And so she had passed it along, hoping that Twilight and her friends would succeed where she failed.
Everything depended on Fluttershy now.
In the skies above Ponyville, the mailpony stopped mid-flight to watch the rainboom as it expanded outward across the sky below her. For once her eyes were both looking in the same direction, watching the six ponies assembled at Sky Mirror Lake as they dove into the lake, one after the other. Ditzy realized that the image was probably more beautiful for her than for any other pony lucky enough to see it.
She wished she could stay and watch it longer, but she was on a tight schedule. The mail wasn't going to deliver itself, after all. Her job wasn't the most fulfilling, but it payed the bills. More importantly, it allowed her to get a good view of everything that happened in Ponyville, especially when everypony thought she was a fool and paid her no mind. She'd have to pop around later, after the route was done.
Ditzy Doo resumed her flight, trying to think about what she would be making for dinner. Probably something with muffins. Dinky loved muffins almost as much as she did.
One of her eyes shifted downward, spotting movement in the street below her. She recognized the ponies almost immediately. This was certainly something that demanded her attention.
The mailpony flew down to join them.
The history of teleportation had always fascinated Twilight, and she had written many papers on the topic during her time at the Hoofington Wizardry Academy. Or maybe it was Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. One or the other.
In the beginning of its development, teleportation magic wasn't invented but rather discovered. Various magical creatures had the skill figured out long before unicorns ever put their hoof to replicating it, and for sorcerers, ponies of innate magical skill, it was often just as easy. However, for the wizards, the learned mages who gained their powers through study, emulating what they saw in nature proved to be quite difficult. The early trials had side-effects on nearly all the unicorns who attempted it. The lucky ones would reappear with heavy foreign accents, or recolored manes. The unlucky ponies would return disfigured or not at all. Mass teleportation spells were even more error prone. In time, the spells became refined and more stable, but the process was still not completely flawless. While Twilight was better at the spell than most ponies, a feat Celestia often attributed to her double status as a student of magic and a source of great magical potential, she was still often disoriented after teleporting under stress, or across large distances.
The instability and unreliability of teleportation was probably another warning sign Twilight should have listened to before she had attempted to transfer Stone Wall to the other side.
She could feel a dull throbbing pressure in the back of her head, and her vision seemed to come and go with her heartbeat, sharpening and blurring the outlines of the angular rocky hillside around her. She squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the pain to go away. The air was thinner than it had been a moment ago, something that would have gone unnoticed had the change not been so abrupt. She was at a higher altitude, probably in the mountains somewhere. She hadn't bothered to specify a destination for the spell; she had been in such a rush to leave. She wondered what part of her subconscious had brought her here, or if her location had just been due to chance.
Also, somepony was calling her name repeatedly, but in Twilight's confusion and pain, she didn't really consider that to be a high priority. Still, it was annoying and distracting her from sleep, so she figured she might as well make it shut up.
Looking up, she saw an orange earth pony glancing down at her in confusion. She recognized the mare almost immediately as her good friend Madam Orange, although she seemed to have grown out her hair quite a bit since the last time they had seen each other; it now fell over her shoulders in a ponytail. A couple of other ponies were gathered behind her.
"Twilight?" asked Madam Orange, her voice thick with an unfamiliar accent. "You alive down there?" She was desperate, choking on her own words as she forced them out.
Twilight smiled, and she chuckled as hard as her battered and bruised body would allow. Her reverberating chest hurt as it rubbed against the hard rock. "Madam Orange?" she managed weakly.
The orange earth pony stared blankly. "Beg pardon?" she asked, taking a step back nervously.
Twilight's heart was racing in her chest, and she felt a giddiness rising up in her, despite her exhaustion. Madam Orange wasn't like Silver Shield. She was gentle, like a mother. Those under her care were safe. Twilight could never remember feeling afraid around her.
They were rivals. Twilight liked to think they might even be soulmates. She smiled and then gave up struggling against the rising tide of darkness.
Everything was going to be alright.
Applejack didn't know what to say. She had been looking forward to her reunion with Twilight, hoping they would find her alive but aware of the possibility that they wouldn't. And she did have to give the other Twilight credit; she had known exactly where to find her counterpart. Applejack had spent their climb up the mountain planning exactly what to say should they be reunited, and now that they had, none of her pre-formed words could address the situation.
The unicorn's health hadn't exactly filled her with much hope, either. She had bandages across her face that were beginning to slip, revealing the long gashes beneath them.
Still, prior experience had now given Applejack a pony to turn to when things got strange.
"Twilight?" she asked. After a pause during which the purple unicorn in front of her stirred slightly, another voice behind her spoke up as it realized Applejack was addressing her. "Applejack?"
In a dry monotone, the earth pony asked, "Who's Madam Orange?"
Behind Twilight, the four other ponies exchanged confused and worried looks.
Twilight fidgeted, feeling the other ponies' eyes on her. It was strange for her to hear those words said by Applejack, even if they had different accents.
Applejack scowled darkly. With two words, Twilight had managed to change the entire game. Applejack berated herself for being so stupid. She knew that there was a second Twilight, and that they were venturing into her world, but the true impact of that journey, the discovery that there were alternate versions of themselves, hadn't really been in the front of Applejack's mind.
Once the shock faded, she realized that she still had questions, but Rainbow Dash beat her to it.
"Wait a tick. Why would Twilight get Applejack mixed up with her? Wouldn't it be the other way around?"
"Um, excuse me," muttered Fluttershy, but nopony heard her.
Twilight felt like her mouth was glued to the roof of her mouth. Even if she wanted to tell the others her theory, she knew they wouldn't want to hear it, and a part of her was demanding she keep quiet. But the six pairs of eyes on her made her feel small and helpless. Applejack isn't your friend, Twilight reminded herself. She may look like her, but she's from another world entirely. She has her own friends, and she'll do whatever it takes to save them.
"I think," began Twilight, "I think..."
The glared became expectant stares, and Twilight couldn't tell if they were better or worse. She was on trial, and if she slipped up and said the wrong thing, if she was found guilty, she would be at the mercy of the court.
"Do you remember what I said before, about how it was possible for the memory transfer to be one-way?"
Rarity was aghast. "You didn't..." she breathed.
"Not intentionally," cried Twilight, desperate to finish her explanation before they just decided to kill her. "But that's because of the way the spell works; it's not guaranteed to stick. It doesn't overwrite the original memories; it only suppresses them. And when we're not fully conscious, say, if we're asleep, or drunk, or aroused, it's possible for the host memories to resurface. That's why I thought she might be here. Maybe she saw my lab in a dream, or some subconscious impulse brought her here. But I was right! And it's been happening to me, too. I've been seeing her in my dreams."
And another pony too, she added silently. She wasn't quite ready to share that detail before she'd had a chance to work it out for herself.
The ponies considered this new piece of information. "You're saying Twilight's drunk?" asked Rainbow Dash. She moved around Applejack to get a closer look at the Twilight from their world, but her face went pale when she saw the gashes. "No," she muttered.
"Maybe," said Twilight. "Or maybe she's lost a lot of blood, or she's exhausted. Madam Orange and I didn't exactly perform clinical trials when we designed it."
She regretted the words "Madam Orange" as soon as they left her mouth. Applejack stiffened and held her breath. Twilight could tell that she was stressed, that she was trying to find an appropriate response to handle this delicate situation.
"Um, girls?" repeated Fluttershy.
"I think I know why you call her that," said Applejack, "but she's not me. I chose to leave that life. Even if I hadn't left when I did, I would have eventually. I wasn't happy there. If she stayed, she's not me."
"Left where?" interjected Pinkie Pie, startling Applejack and Twilight as she seemed to have dropped from the nonexistant ceiling.
"Manehatten," said Applejack. "She grew up there, didn't she?"
"She's the city's largest entrepreneur," said Twilight proudly, even though she knew that pride wasn't what the situation called for.
Applejack frowned, struggling to envision herself as an entrepreneur. She was an apple farmer. Always was, always would be. That was why she had apples on her flank. "Really? What's her cutie mark, then? A bunch of bits? 'Cuz it sure as hay ain't apples."
"It's a martini," explained Twilight. "It's supposed to symbolize rhetoric. Persuasive conversation." The other ponies stared at her blankly, not seeing the connection. "You know, a drink to facilitate the negotiations? She's the drink. The fact that she likes it herself probably doesn't hurt, though."
Fluttershy tried again. "I really think we should," she began, but she was interrupted by Applejack.
"What are you going on about? I always stay away from the stuff. Stole some of Granny Smith's hard cider once, when I was a filly. Couldn't stand it and haven't touched it since."
All the ponies turned to see Fluttershy panting and snarling. "Enough! Twilight needs help. We need to get her someplace safe. So stop arguing and carry her!" Her breathing slowed as she recovered. "I mean, if you want to."
Twilight sighed, realizing Fluttershy was right. "The lab's not that far from here," she said. "I'll lead the way. Rainbow Dash and Applejack, you can carry her."
The two athletic ponies each nudged their heads beneath their Twilight's body and struggled to lift her. The other Twilight focused, using her own energy to assist them and lift the body off of the ground.
Before any of this nonsense with alternate worlds had happened, Twilight would have been able to lift her counterpart on her own, effortlessly. Yet since the mind-switching spell, she had noticed her power levels had decreased substantially. Magic power was like a muscle, she knew. Exercising magic daily allowed for increased output when the situation demanded it, and such regimens had always been a large part of Twilight's training. Other ponies may have called it inelegant or not befitting any civilized mage, but Twilight had learned at a young age that there was a certain level of force that nothing would be able to stand up to. She had spent her life trying to reach that level, and it was part of her motivation for acquiring the element of Magic.
Now, after training her body for about a decade, she had passed it on to her counterpart, who had spent the same time learning to better manipulate magic. Now her counterpart had both power and skill, and Twilight herself had been left with neither. She wondered if the other Twilight had noticed this increased magical potential.
While she was thinking, Pinkie Pie had bounded up beside her. "I was thinking," she said. "You're Twilight."
"And so is she."
"I suppose." Twilight didn't see where the pink pony was going with this.
"Well, isn't that going to get confusing? You need different names. I'm thinking we should call her Sunlight. You can be Moonlight!"
Twilight cringed at the nickname. It was a constant reminder that this world, the world without the sun, was her fault. "Can't we choose something else?" she asked as politely as she could manage. "Like, Twilight-A and Twilight-B or something?"
Pinkie Pie ignored her, having already made up her mind. "We already have a name for the other Jackie, so she doesn't have to change hers. Now Rainbow Dash, that's going to be tricky. Moonbow Dash? No, no, no. How about Maru-Dashie and Moro-Dashie? I guess we'll wait until we meet her. Two Dashies, though. I think I had a dream about that once, but it ended a lot differently." She paused and looked at the terrain around her. "This one's a real letdown."
Moonlight did her best to tune out Pinkie's ramblings. The crested a small peak and began a descent, approaching an indentation in the side of the mountain.
The Twilight being held by Applejack and Rainbow Dash stirred a little. "Applejack?" she murmured groggily.
Applejack almost started crying. "That's right!" she declared. "And don't you forget it!"
"Where are we?"
"Don't you worry about that, sugarcube. You're safe now. We're going to get you out of here."
Fluttershy, noticing Twilight was awake, trotted over and nuzzled her cheek gently. "Yay," she whispered, her nerves calming for the first time since this nightmare had begun. She felt like Twilight deserved more, to know exactly how relieved she was, but she couldn't find the words to say and settled for simply burying her face as far into Twilight's soft stomach as possible.
The group carefully maneuvered down the slope and into the cave. "Welcome home," announced Moonlight. "It's not much, but it's always been good enough for me. I'll fetch Zecora, and she can help you with other me. She's a much better doctor than I am. She's patched me up a few times, even." She then called into the cave. "Zecora?"
As the group stepped into the shadows, Fluttershy was struck by the complete lack of visibility. "It's... dark," she said, summing up neatly what everypony was thinking.
"Yeah," agreed Rainbow Dash. "How about some light?"
Some small part of the proceedings disturbed Twilight, as if some ancient memory was flaring up but fading again before she could get a firm grasp on it.
Moonlight laughed, and then she began beating her hooves on the floor. Two clops, a pause, and then three clops. The lights flickered on, and Moonlight was shocked by how much her lab had changed since she had last seen it. Her computing devices had been crushed and gouged in by massive claws. Furniture was overturn and in pieces.
"Do you normally live like this?" commented Rainbow Dash.
"Stay back," ordered Moonlight. Damage was to be expected, she realized. She had been attacked, after all. She cautiously made her way across the lab toward the tunnels in the back.
"What do you think did this?" Fluttershy asked Rainbow Dash.
"I don't know," lied Rainbow Dash, who had figured out exactly what had happened but was praying she was wrong.
"I just hope it doesn't come back," said Applejack.
From within the tunnels, Moonlight cried out Zecora's name. Fluttershy and Applejack shuddered to think about what she had found.
Twilight didn't have to imagine. She remembered. The walls weren't slick now, like oil, or sketchy or faded, but Twilight recognized the scene, and she knew exactly what was about to happen. There was no explanation for how she knew, but Twilight was seized with a sudden compulsion. She had to act now or Moonlight would die. She struggled to stand on her weak legs and charged toward the tunnel. She began shouting her own name without realizing the absurdity of it.
"Hey!" cried Rainbow Dash as she watched Twilight stumble over her own legs. "Get back here!"
Then Moonlight screamed.
Twilight, driven to do something, anything, but unable to walk properly, lifted one of the machines with her magic and launched it into the tunnel, hoping it would hit the monster that was now certainly towering above Moonlight, preparing to strike. An anguished roar informed her she had hit her target.
Within seconds, Moonlight came bounding out of the tunnel, the large creature from Twilight's dream at her heels.
It was large, taller than any of them, although not by much. Its four burly legs carried it effortlessly across the stone, its claws easily finding traction against the floor. Twilight imagined the wings would have shone like a golden mirror were they not clinging to each other in different angles with dirt and blood. She doubted the creature's blood was its own, and more of the blood was found on its talons and on the side of its large curving beak.
Twilight had seen pictures of griffins in books before, and had met one in person, but nothing had prepared her for this display of ferocious power. The griffin's large eyes looked at each pony in turn before they froze on Rainbow Dash.
Rainbow had recognized the claw marks on Twilight's face. Now, as she looked into her old griffin friend's eyes, wondering if she recognized her in return, she didn't know whether to be relieved or terrified.
"Hey!" chirped Gilda in a jovial, almost seductive tone. "Glad you decided to come back for round two. And you brought company! What perfect timing; I was just thinking about getting a bite to eat."